CITY TIMES COVER STORY : Watts : It Has Been a Battleground for Gutter Politics, an Easy Source for Exploitable Labor and Ground Zero for a Racial Explosion. Today, Watts Remains in the Grip of its Troubled Past, the Place That Has ‘Always Been Left Behind.’
The name is synonymous with urban despair. As a result of six rage-filled days in 1965, it became a lasting symbol for much of what is wrong in America’s inner cities.
All the major problems that exploded into violence on that hot summer evening nearly 29 years ago and plague Watts to this day had been simmering from its earliest days. For much of its history--first as an incorporated city, then as part of Los Angeles--Watts has suffered from poverty, racism and squalid living conditions.
“Watts has always been left behind. It’s always had to fight for everything it’s gotten,” says longtime community leader Davis Rodgers, 72, president of the Watts branch of the NAACP.
From 1907 to 1926, Watts was a freewheeling city known for incessant political infighting among the predominantly white community that ran local affairs. Its politics became increasingly troubled by the 1920s, when the community was split by recall campaigns and the Ku Klux Klan sought to exploit that breach and control city government.
For the most part, Watts’ Mexican American and African American residents lived apart from their white neighbors. Mexican Americans were largely confined to the southeast end of the city, where they had moved at the turn of the century to provide cheap labor to build rail lines. Blacks, whose port of entry to Los Angeles was Watts, lived south of 103rd Street in an area known as “Mudtown” because of its shabby homes and muddy streets.
Becoming part of the city of Los Angeles did nothing to improve the livelihood of most black and Latino residents. Their living conditions continued to deteriorate as whites moved out of Watts. Time and again, from the 1930s to the 1950s, reports by government and private agencies called attention to many of the economic and social conditions that would lead to the 1965 riots.
Yet no urban planning was conducted for Watts until after the unrest because city officials said they had focused their planning efforts on newer subdivisions elsewhere, documents show. Even now, change has come slowly.
It took 19 years to build a shopping center. A proposed greenbelt near the landmark Watts Towers has been 28 years in the planning, and the community is still among the most impoverished in Los Angeles County.
The area that now comprises Watts was in the 19th Century part of a large Mexican land grant called El Rancho Tajuata. Like the rest of California’s ranchos, Tajuata was subdivided and sold to white developers in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The Pacific Electric railroad, seeking to lay tracks for its Los Angeles to Long Beach route, acquired ranch property from several landowners. Among them was Julia A. Watts, who owned the parcel where the railroad built its station in 1904 at what is now 103rd Street and Grandee Avenue. The original depot was restored with the help of a Community Redevelopment Agency grant and is now the 103rd Street station for the Blue Line.
The railroad workers called the area Watts Junction, and the town that sprouted up became unofficially known as Watts.
With the construction of the railroads came a Mexican immigrant labor force. “They first lived in boxcars with their families, later in tents, and finally in four-room houses called the ‘Latin Camp,’ furnished by the P.E. railroad,” historian MaryEllen Ray Bell wrote in her 1985 book, “City of Watts.” That area came to be known as “La Colonia” and is still heavily Latino.
When Watts incorporated as a city in 1907, stores, a restaurant, a post office, a pool hall and a bar had branched out from the station along Main Street, which is now 103rd Street.
As in other cities near rail lines, such as Oakland and Chicago, Southern blacks moved to Watts seeking jobs as train porters and dining car waiters. They either remained in Watts or moved north to another burgeoning African American community along the Central Avenue corridor.
By the 1920s, a substantial black community was developing in the Mudtown area of south Watts. “Mudtown was like a section of the Deep South literally transplanted,” said distinguished African American writer Arna Bontemps in “God Sends Sunday,” a 1931 novel tracing black life in early Los Angeles. “The streets of Mudtown were three or four dusty wagon paths. . . . Ducks were sleeping on the weeds, and there was on the air a suggestion of pigs and slime holes.”
As Watts grew, political disputes erupted. Two factions battled over whether saloons should be allowed within city limits, documents show. Recall campaigns and initiatives were mounted by “drys,” or those who favored banning the drinking establishments, against City Council members who supported the saloons. The drys ultimately won when Prohibition went into effect in 1920.
Meanwhile, a troubling pattern that would remain throughout the years emerged: alleged police brutality. In a 1923 letter to the council, 66 black and Latino residents living on Watts’ south side called for the dismissal of the white police chief “due to his ceaseless harassment.” He remained on the job.
But perhaps most ominous was the Ku Klux Klan.
“A great treat is in store for those who would like to hear what Klanscraft means,” said a Feb. 6, 1925, article in the Watts Advertiser. “At the Old Fellows Hall, there is to be an open meeting by the Ku Klux Klan of the State, when one of their most able speakers, Rev. Berger of Pasadena, will address the audience on what the K.K.K. means to the world.”
Two months later, the secret organization--seeking to expand its power base from then-white Compton--tried to split Watts’ black vote and engineer a recall of Catholic City Council members by using black and Catholic operatives to create dissent in those communities. The plot was exposed by The California Eagle, a newspaper that served the black community.
“The white people of Watts are tired of being run by people who are not 100% Americans. So it will be necessary to corral the Negro vote,” wrote a high-level Klan official in a letter that was obtained and published by the Eagle on April 10, 1925.
The plot failed, but the political squabbling continued.
Finally, tired of the infighting and unable to raise money for infrastructure improvements, Watts residents held an election and voted overwhelmingly to become part of Los Angeles on April 2, 1926.
Lured by the prospect of economic opportunity, African Americans continued to flock to Watts in the 1930s.
“Everybody from everywhere wanted to come to Los Angeles,” said Ollie La More, 68, whose father was a porter on the Santa Fe Railway’s Chicago-to-Los Angeles line. He brought his family to Watts in the mid-1930s.
In those days, 103rd Street was thriving. For 25 cents, adults could see Tom Mix or Hoot Gibson cowboy movies at the Largo, Yeager or Palace theaters. There were grocery stores, a car dealer and banks that were used by all residents.
There also was a sense of community. Rodgers, who came to Watts from Texas in 1939, recalls how neighbors looked out for one another. “We didn’t have to lock our doors,” he said.
Yet serious problems persisted.
For Latino and black residents--surrounded by white communities in Lynwood, Compton and South Gate--an unwritten rule prevailed: Do not travel east of the railroad tracks on Alameda Street or south of El Segundo Boulevard.
“You just didn’t do that. . . . You’d get your behind kicked,” said Ignacio Baiz.
Baiz, 72, who was born and raised in Watts, said African Americans and Latinos were expected to stay in their own neighborhoods. Residents of color feared the police in the southeast cities, he and others recalled, and it was not uncommon for youths to be pulled over for seemingly no reason--a complaint that persists to this day.
And living conditions in Watts’ poorest neighborhoods festered.
A 1937 county government report on housing and juvenile delinquency in Los Angeles warned that a study area that included Watts would, “if allowed to continue in its present degenerative course, be the future slums of the city.”
At the start of the 1940s, Watts’ population was about equally divided among whites, blacks and Latinos. But it changed quickly with “the impact of World War II finally transforming it from a multiracial community to a black ghetto,” wrote UCLA Prof. Paul Bullock in his 1969 book, “Watts: The Aftermath.”
During the war, the population of Los Angeles boomed as new arrivals came to work in war-industry factories. Many of them were blacks who settled in Watts. Whites, meanwhile, moved out.
By 1950, African Americans would make up 71.2% of Watts’ 36,744 residents and Latinos 19.1%, according to a 1955 report by the private Welfare Planning Council, a think tank. Figures for other groups are not in the report.
In the 1940s and ‘50s, black families who had decent jobs purchased tidy homes, many of which are still there. La More and her husband, Mitchel, bought their Spanish-tiled stucco home near Will Rogers Memorial Park for $3,000 in 1946 and still live there. Mitchel La More is a retired postal worker.
“It was a very, very nice neighborhood,” said La More, who complains that the area has gone downhill because of crime and a change from a homeowner to renter base.
But even then, Watts suffered from low property values and high disease and delinquency rates. A 1947 report by the city Planning Commission said Watts was an “an obsolescent area in which all the social and physical weaknesses of urban living were to be found.”
It also noted increasing tensions between blacks and whites, saying that “some of the worst interracial conflicts occurring in the past decade were in this area.”
Social and economic problems continued to be documented. In 1959, the Welfare Planning Council noted that there was still no urban planning for parks, public transportation and schools in Watts. And racial tensions and police brutality became more common, Davis said.
The years of pent-up frustrations exploded on a hot evening on Aug. 11, 1965.
A scuffle broke out after a white Highway Patrol officer tried to arrest a black man for speeding and reckless driving near Avalon Boulevard and 116th Street. The spark had been lit, and the riot raged for six days.
Rodgers remembers driving down Central Avenue that first evening and seeing a black boy heave a rock through a store window. La More recalls standing on a wall in her back yard. In the distance, 103rd Street--the infamous “charcoal alley”--was nothing but giant billows of smoke.
When it was over, 34 people were dead, 1,036 injured, and $200 million worth of property was damaged or destroyed.
“When I drove down the street, I just cried,” said Ernestine Wilson, 60, a Watts resident who had to drive several miles north to Slauson Avenue to find a store to buy a loaf of bread. “I couldn’t believe that everything was gone.”
The McCone Commission, assembled eight days after the riots by then-Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, later issued a 101-page report recommending remedies for Watts’ ills: job-training projects, literacy programs, improved transportation, better health-care facilities.
City officials formed a resident committee to help bureaucrats develop an urban plan for Watts. That effort led to a 44-page plan in 1966 that called for a shopping mall on 103rd Street, a county hospital facility in the area and a greenbelt linking the historic train station with the Watts Towers, among other improvements.
Until then, no planning had been done in Watts because city planners, strapped for resources, had decided to focus their efforts on newer subdivisions that sprouted up after World War II, said a May 23, 1967, letter to a council committee from then-Planning Commission Director Calvin Hamilton. “As a result,” Hamilton wrote, “older areas, including the southeast section of the city, were neglected so far as planning was concerned.”
That legacy of neglect has borne bitter fruit.
“We’re reaping the harvest of political decisions made years ago,” said Leonard L. Robinette, chairman and executive director of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, a service organization that formed several months before the 1965 riots.
Of Watts’ 33,918 residents, 66% are on welfare. The per capita income is $4,469--about one-fourth the countywide average of $16,149. And 66.2% of the 19,086 residents 18 and over have less than three years of high school.
There are other challenges: 43.3% of the residents are Latinos, many of them recent immigrants whose limited English skills make it difficult to assimilate.
On a hot afternoon, an angry Bobby Thomas reflected on Watts’ current state as he stood with several unemployed men at Del’s Hamburger Haven on Compton Avenue.
“Look around you,” said Thomas, 23, a high school dropout who lives with a single mother and five brothers and sisters in a small home on Zamora Avenue. “People here have been forgotten. . . . We only get attention (from officials and the media) when something negative happens.”
After the riots, more than a decade passed before many major improvements were made in the Watts area. Among them were the Martin Luther King Jr. Shopping Center, additional bus lines and several low-income housing developments.
The shopping center and housing developments are part of the Community Redevelopment Agency’s plan known as the Watts redevelopment project, which replaced the 1966 plan and is scheduled for completion on Jan. 1, 2009.
The agency, which so far has spent about $50 million in the area, is helping to finance a new civic center complex across from the King shopping center and a new library as part of its master plan.
The agency also expects to start building a cultural marketplace in about three months near the towers that will employ local artists and entrepreneurs. It will be the first phase of the long-awaited greenbelt, officials said.
“We are working as hard as we can to get things done for the community,” said Roy Willis, director of operations for the agency.
He and other city officials cite various reasons for the projects taking so long to develop in the area: battles among community factions in reaching a consensus on plans; developers unwilling to invest in the area; plans stalled in normal bureaucracy.
Councilman Rudy Svorinich Jr., whose 15th District includes Watts, said he will form a community nonprofit organization over the next several months that will devise strategies to attract new businesses and help those in the area.
Still, community leaders are skeptical about economic renewal in such an impoverished area. Parker Anderson, general manager of the city’s Community Development Department, says Watts will always have a certain level of poverty because it is home to four housing projects and has always been a community many residents leave if they can afford to.
“I don’t see it changing in the short term,” Robinette said.
“We have not gone that far since 1965. . . . It’s going to take some time before real results occur.”
* RELATED STORY: Page 3
Watts: By the Numbers
First as a city, then as part of Los Angeles, Watts suffered from the poverty, squalid living conditions and racism that exploded into six days of rage in 1965. Since then, the community has seen the construction of a shopping center and housing developments in riot-torn areas and an influx of Latino immigrants. But many in the area point to rampant poverty as evidence that little has changed in the overall quality of life for Watts residents.
Ethnic breakdown of Watts population:
1990 Total Population: 33,918
Residents receiving welfare:
Residents 18 and older who have completed less than three years of high school:
Households headed by single women:
Source: 1990 U.S. Census, L.A. County Department of Public and Social Services
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.