Block party unites Watts community

Times Staff Writer

Damu Barnes, 32, bounced his 1-year-old daughter on his knee Saturday while keeping one eye on his son playing in the courtyard of Nickerson Gardens.

Nearby, hundreds of hot dogs grilled on oversized barbecues, a gospel choir prepared to sing and about 200 of Barnes’ neighbors gathered amid colorful balloons for the first Nickerson Gardens Community Family Block Party at the largest public housing project west of the Mississippi.

For Barnes, who grew up in the sprawling Watts complex, the day reminded him of the neighborhood of his youth.

“Everything is different now,” he said. “When I was younger, everybody knew everybody. If you were out playing over there, your mama could just pick up the phone and call over there to check on you.”


Now, Barnes said, many neighbors don’t know each other, and events like the block party are needed to bring people together.

The event was planned by the Nickerson Gardens Resident Management Corp., a tenant leadership council, said Katherine Williams, who has lived in the project for 24 years. It grew out of frustrations she and other residents have with the public perception that the area is only a dangerous and violent place.

“We are some hardworking people up in here,” Williams said. “We have problems, yes, but it’s nothing compared to who we are.”

Watts community activists said the block party is one of two celebrations this summer showing residents bonding in ways that Williams said “would have been unheard of even five years ago.”


A weekend street festival was held in May on Central Avenue, where hundreds turned out for carnival-type rides.

“A lot of first stuff going on,” Williams, 57, said Saturday. “I hope there’s a second and third.”

Donny Joubert, a member of the Watts Gang Task Force and 40-year Nickerson Gardens resident, said activists also hope the celebrations offer black and Latino families an opportunity to come together in a festive atmosphere.

“This is big, this is what we work for every day,” he said. The events signify that “it’s time for change.”


The street festival “was great,” Joubert said. “The black and brown out there with their kids and families, it was just good.”

Dozens of children bounced on inflatable gyms and grabbed sticks of cotton candy and munched popcorn.

Residents were asked to bring a dish and a dollar to help with costs.

A few hundred yards away, the more than 50-member sanctuary choir of the Glory Bound Missionary Baptist Church prepared to entertain with songs including “How Excellent” and “Matthew 28.”


Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn said last week that the block party was an extension of work done by the Watts Gang Task Force, which has sponsored many new programs in recent years.

She pointed to the street festival, the Moonlight basketball league and an improved relationship between residents and police as other examples of change.

“I think this is the next step,” Hahn said. “An old-fashioned community block party.”