California Fool's Gold -- Exploring Watts

Posted by Eric Brightwell, February 13, 2014 11:07pm | Post a Comment

It seems to me that reputation of Los Angeles's Watts neighborhood is based almost entirely on two things – the Watts Rebellion and the Watts Towers. Results of a Google search for “watts” can be divided into three categories: photos of the towers, black and white images of burning buildings, and people with the family name of Watts (i.e. Naomi, Charlie, and Reggie). Pop culture and the media almost never present Watts in a positive light – usually they don't mention it at all. 

Metro Blue Line heading to Los Angeles

Watts is, however, a community of 37,000 Angelenos – most of whom probably don't sell drugs, aren't in gangs, and probably spend many days not dwelling on half century-old riots or neighborhood folk art – impressive and important as both are. With that in mind, my friend Bruce and I met at 7th Street/Metro Center in the Financial District and headed down the Blue Line to Watts. 

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography's map of Watts


Detail of a map showing Watts's location from a piece about the Green Line for KCET

Although Watts is often talked about as if it's its own city, it's technically a neighborhood of Los Angeles. It's located on the Eastside of South Los Angeles – neighbored by unincorporated Graham to the north; the cities of South Gate and Lynwood to the east; unincorporated Willowbrook to the south; and the Los Angeles neighborhoods of Century Cove, Harbor Gateway North, and Green Meadows to the west.


What's now the Southland was largely inhabited at least 13,000 years ago by a people who are theorized to have been the ancestors to the modern Chumash people. Some 3,5000 years ago, the Tongva arrived from the Sonoran Desert and became the dominant nation, establishing numerous villages (such as the nearby Huutngna) throughout the area. The Tongva supposedly referred to the area in which modern Watts is located as Tajáuta.


Spaniard Gaspar de Portolá led an overland expedition through the area in 1769 that set the stage for the subsequent Spanish Conquest. The Spanish first established a mission in the Whittier Narrows region in 1771 and in 1776 moved their mission to its present location in San Gabriel, about 23 kilometers to Watts's northeast. In 1781 the Spanish founded El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Añgeles, the town which evolved into Los Angeles, about fourteen kilometers to Watts's north.


Detail of Gerald Eddy's Spanish and Mexican ranchos of Los Angeles (1937) (source: Big Maps Blog)

Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821. The land on which Watts is situated was granted as Rancho La Tajauta to Anastasio Avila in 1843. The 3,560 acre (14 km2) cattle ranch remained in the possession of the Avilas after the US defeated Mexico in 1848. A claim for Rancho La Tajauta was filed with the Public Land Commission in 1852, and the grant was patented to Anastasio's son Enrique Avila in 1873.


Detail of Map of the Pacific Electric Railway in Los Angeles, California (1920) (source: Big Maps Blog)

Shortly thereafter the land began to be sold to settlers including Charles H. Watts, a Pasadena resident who purchased a 220 acre (.89 km2) parcel in 1886 and began using it to raise alfalfa and cattle. Hoping to spur development of the area, Watts donated ten acres of his property to the Pacific Electric Railway (PE), founded in 1901 by Henry Huntington and Isais W. Hellman. As the map above shows, Southern Pacific Railroad also passed through the area and today it's successor, Union Pacific, continues to.


Watts Pacific Electric depot ca. 1942

PE's first major project was a line to Long Beach, which was constructed in 1902. The Victorian Watts Station was constructed in 1904 and was one it subsequently served as a model for similar train stations in Covina, Glendora, and La Habra. Other lines that branched off at Watts traveled to Santa Ana, San Pedroand Redondo Beach

The old Watts Train Station today

Watts Station remained in use as a train station until PE's Red Cars stopped running in 1961 (the shorter Watts Line ended service in 1958). The station was one of the few structures on 103rd Street to survive the Watts Riots in 1965 and four months later was designated Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #36. In 1980 it was re-opened by the LADWP as a customer service office who seem to be occupying it still. 

Willowbrook - Rosa Park Station

In 1990, the old Long Beach Line right-of-way was re-purposed by the Metro's Blue Line, the Watts Station of which is located very near the old one. There's also a Blue Line and Green Line stop a little further south, Willowbrook – Rosa Parks Station – which is where Bruce and I got off of the train. I'd intended to check out Nickerson Gardens and Imperial Courts before further exploring but they're located beneath the Imperial Highway which isn't exactly pedestrian friendly. (The can also be approached by East 115th Street, it turns out).

In addition to the Green and Blue Line, Watts is currently served by Metro bus lines 55, 117120, 202, 254, 355, and 612 as well as LADOT's DASH Watts line. It's worth mentioning that in 1967, the black owned Blue and White Bus Company was established in Watts to serve its people and surrounding areas. The successful company was acquired by SCRTD (the precursor to the modern LACMTA) in 1971. 


Looking east down Main Street (later 103rd) in 1912

The land in Watts was low-lying, prone to flooding, sandy, and therefore cheap. Unlike 95% of Los Angeles, it also wasn't off limits to non-whites and so-called “not-quite-whites.” Many of Watts's early residents were connected to the rail. Many of the traqueros were Mexican-American and most of Southern Pacific's Pullman porters and waiters were black. Other early residents were largely of German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Jewish, or Scottish backgrounds and engaged in raising sugar beets. Watts was nicknamed “Mudtown,” a nickname which stuck well into the 20th Century when many of the dirt roads were still yet to be paved. Officially, however, it incorporated as Watts in 1907.


Although the first Great Migration primarily involved southern blacks moving to the Northeast and Midwest, some families headed west – including that of Arna Bontemps. Bontemps's mother, Maria Carolina Pembroke, was a school teacher and his father, Paul Bismark Bontemps, was a bricklayer. The migrated to Watts from Louisiana. Arna later became a prominent poem associated with the Harlem Renaissance.


Advertisement for performance at Leak's Lake (also spelled Leake's Lake) (image source: Doctor Jazz)

Located beyond the city limits of Los Angeles, Watts was exempt from that city's midnight curfew on dance clubs. That, in addition to its diverse, working-class population (and during Prohibition, its bootlegging), helped foster a thriving night life by the mid-1910s. South Central Avenue extended south from Los Angles's South Central neighborhood to Willowbrook and in that era, numerous venues sprang up in Watts including Baron Long's Tavern (later renamed Jazzland and finally, The Plantation Club), the Watts Country Club, Leak's Lake (later renamed Wayside Park), and at least by the 1920s, The Chateau, The Little Harlem, and Villa Venice.


The most recognizable icon of Watts are the Watts Towers, built between 1921 and 1954. Their architect was Simon “Sam” Rodia, born Sabato Rodia in Serino, Italy in 1879. Rodia and his brother moved to the US in 1895. He moved to Watts in 1920 and work on his folk art masterpiece the following year. The tallest tower reaches 99 and a half feet (30 meters) into the air, just under Los Angeles's then-100 foot height limit. After he moved to Martinez, it's believed that he never returned to revisit his handiwork but by then they were already celebrated and Rodia participated in a 1957 documentary about them, The Towers – which Bruce and I watched at the Watts Towers Arts Center.

In 1963 the towers were designated Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #15 (the only folk art LAHCM is the Hermon Car Wall in Hermon). The Watts Towers Arts Center opened in 1961. In 1990 the towers were designated both a National Historic Landmark and a California Historical Landmark

The Watts Towers Jazz Festival was instigated in 1976. The Watts Towers Day of the Drum Festival followed in 1981 and the Day of the Drum and Jazz Festivals still takes place the last week of every September. Past performers have included Alaadun, Clayton Cameron Old School Swing, Cuauhtemoc Mexica Dance Group, Futa Toro, Get Lit Players, Greg Wright, Jalaludin Nuriddin (Last Poets), JMP All StarsKevin Richard & Creole Journey from Santiago Cuba to New OrleansKishin Daiko, La Palabra y Calle 6, Ron Powell's LA Samba, Ultra Sound, and Wadada Cultural Soul World Beat.

Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center

In 2008, next door to the Arts Center, the Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center opened and offers piano lessons and animation classes in collaboration with CalArts and Sony

Watts Towers Art Center 

We visited the Watts Towers Art Center and met the center's director (and documentarian/actress/singer) Rosie Lee Hooks. We also met Compton-based artist Charles Dickson and after checking out his one man show, checked out the garden and turtle pond -- part of the community garden created in 2009 referred to as the Garden Studio. One of the women (I believe that her name was Norma) working in the garden gave me a packet of Peaches & Cream Hybrid Corn kernels which I planted today.

Watts turtle pond

Other documentaries about the towers or arts center and available on DVD include: I Build the Towers (2006), A Tribute To Charles Mingus: Past, Present, and Future (2009), Fertile Ground: Stories from the Watts Towers Arts Center, and Trading Dirt with Simon Rodia and Allan Kaprow.


David Starr Jordan High School (image source: Adrian Scott Fine/L.A. Conservancy)

David Starr Jordan High School was established in 1925 and named after a naturalist and president of Stanford University. Five of the campus's structures were built between 1925 and 1927. After the 1933 Long Beach Earthquake, the buildings were renovated with a unifying Streamline Moderne-style, designed by Sumner P. Hunt.


In 1926, Watts seemed to be on the verge of electing a black mayor and city council and the Ku Klux Klan clandestinely attempted to infiltrate the town's politics at every level. Watts was consolidated with Los Angeles in 1926, in part to ensure that a black municipality didn't neighbor Los Angeles. 


Watts experienced significant growth in the 1940s, when many more Southern blacks – especially from Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas – headed to Western cities. The US entered the World War II in 1941 and many war industry jobs were to be found in places like Oakland, Long Beach and Los Angeles. In Watts, four housing projects were constructed to provide housing for the booming population of both immigrants and returning vets – Hacienda Village, Imperial Courts, Jordan Downs, and Nickerson Gardens.


The chief architect of Hacienda Village was Paul Revere Williams, the first black member of the American Institute of Architects. Williams collaborated with Richard J. Neutra, Walter Wurdeman, and Welton Becket on 184 units, which were completed in 1942. The landscape architect was Ralph D. Cornell and, for projects, there's quite a lot of landscape surrounding the units. Priority on the units was originally granted to defense workers. In December 2000, the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) renamed the project Gonzaque Village to honor neighborhood advocate Ozie B. Gonzaque.


700-unit Jordan Downs was named for David Starr Jordan and Samuel Elliot Downs. Completed in 1944, it was the US' first Veterans Housing Project. In 1955, HACLA converted it to public housing, shortly after mayor Norris Poulson put a stop to all new public housing in the city due to pressure from right wingers who suggested that public assistance to anyone – even veterans – was Communist and anti-American. The lead architect on the renovation was James R. Friend and the landscape architect was Hammond Sadler. The most famous former resident of the project was track and field athlete, Florence “Flo-Jo” Griffith-Joyner. Just a couple of blocks west is Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School. Jordan Downs has been the home of rappers including Aktiv, Bad Lucc, Blacowt, Dre Vishiss, G Boy, G Tah, Gutta L, Ice Breezy, Kanary Diamonds, Lil Money, Pipe Da Snipe, RiQ G, Sumu, T-Dogg, Twist Downz, V0$k!, Watts Guerillaz, Wolfcat, and Yung Jay R.


The 498-unit Imperial Courts housing projects were completed in 1944. They were renovated in 1955 under the guidance of architect John L. Rex. A memorable scene in the hugely-entertaining but frankly over-the-top film Training Day was shot there.


Paul Williams also designed the Imperial Compton housing project, competed in 1955. It was renamed Nickerson Gardens in honor of William Nickerson, Jr., the founder of Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company. The landscape architect was again Ralph D. Cornell. The 1054-unit housing project is the largest project west of the Mississippi River. It was the home of rappers Jay Rock and the 1990s group, O.F.T.B.


In 1948, the US Supreme Court ruled that the enforcement of racist housing covenants was unconstitutional. After that, blacks and other minorities were free (on paper at least) to live wherever they could afford to buy or rent a home. Almost immediately the black population (theretofore mostly confined to South Central proper, South Park, and Central-Alameda in the north and Watts in the south) grew together and spread to South Los Angeles's Westside and the Mid-City area of Midtown to form one, large, contiguous, black majority region and as a result, “South Central” began to be applied to a much larger region and is still done so by many today.


On 11 August, 1965, a young man named Marquette Frye was pulled over on the suspicion of drinking and driving by California Highway Patrol. That seemingly quotidien occurrence proved to be the catalyst for the five days of civil unrest which left 34 Angelenos dead, 1,032 injured, and 3,438 arrested.

Even thought the arrest took place in Harbor Gateway North, the $40 million dollars of damage was spread across eleven square miles (more than four times the size of Watts), and the estimated 50,000 Angelenos involved in the chaos was about twice the number of the entire population of Watts, it was labeled the Watts Riots (or Watts Rebellion) and to be sure, Watts was hit particularly hard. 103rd Street, Watts's main thoroughfare, was nicknamed “Charcoal Alley” because nearly every structure along it was burned to the ground. 49 years have passed since that event and yet Watts is a place still seemingly more associated with a particular conflict than a geographic space... like Vietnam. In City of Quartz, Mike Davis even called Watts-Willowbrook “the Mekong Delta.” However, even though it's less acknowledged, just as the riots were seen as the end of an era, they also marked a new beginning. 


The Watts Writers Workshop (image source: the LA Times)

Screenwriter Budd Schulberg organized the Watts Writers Workshop, which was composed primarily of black authors from Watts and neighboring communities. Early writers in the program included Eric Priestley, Herbert Simmons, Johnie Scott, Ojenke, Quincy Troupe, and Wanda Coleman. Unfortunately, it was burned down by an FBI operative, Darthard Perry, in 1975.


Another graduate of the Watts Writers Workshop was the proto-rap group, The Watts Prophets. The Watts Prophets were formed as Watts Fire by Richard Dedeaux, Father Amde Hamilton (born Anthony Hamilton), and Otis O'Solomon in 1967 (notably, before Harlem's better-known Last Poets). As The Black Voices they released On the Streets in Watts in 1969. Two years later they returned with 1971's Rappin' Black in a White World (recorded in 1970). It wasn’t until 1997 that they released their third album, When the 90's Came.


Ted Watkins and four other volunteers co-founded the Watts Labor Community Action Committee in 1964 to provide jobs and social services in the aftermath of the rebellion. Watkins was born in Mississippi and passed away in 1993, aged 71. From the outside, WLCAC looks inconspicuous -- a bit like a strip mall, a collection of warehouses, or maybe a SNF.

WLCAC and an old train car

I saw the WLCAC logo on a building and Bruce and I began to explore and take pictures of the statutes and what looked like an old train car. At that point, a guy on a bike (EJ, I believe he introduced himself as) rode up and asked us what we were up to. After introducing us to someone in charge and shortly after giving us a tour. I also got filled in a bit on WLCAC's mission by Ronald Preyer -- member of soul act The Young Hearts (a fact which he didn't mention).

Nijel's bronze Mother of Humanity sculpture

Touring WLCAC's campus was moving and mind-blowing. It's a bit like a museum, sculpture park, event space, cultural center, bazaar, school, atelier, and theme park all rolled into one incomparable space. Although it's currently on hiatus, until recently there was a monthly event with food and music called "Bones and Blues." There's really too much to mention here so just check out their website,

A Hopi katsina with glasses

Phoenix Hall

The Blues stage at WLCAC's Delta Row 


The Watts Skill Center, since renamed the Maxine Waters Employment Preparation Center, opened in 1966. It was renamed after the congresswoman, Maxine Waters, in 1989.


Watts Health Center was founded in 1967 as one of the first Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) neighborhood health centers. 


A few years after the uprising, the Wattstax concert was organized by Stax Records and the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company. It was held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Exposition Park on 20 August, 1972 and has often been described as the black Woodstock.

It featured performances from the likes of Albert King, The Bar-Kays, Isaac Hayes, Johnnie Taylor, Kim Weston, Rufus Thomas, and The Staple Singers. Mel Stuart filmed a documentary of the event and later injected pointed social commentary from Richard Pryor and The Love Boat's Ted Lange, scenes filmed around Watts, and footage pertaining to the Civil Rights Movement. In 2004, a restored version of this amazing film was rereleased in theaters and I watched it a couple of times.



Perhaps even more critically-acclaimed than Wattstax and more closely associated with Watts is Charles Burnett's poetic, neo-realist film, Killer of Sheep. Burnett wrote, directed, produced, and shot the film primarily over the course of 1972 and '73. After shooting additional footage in 1975 he submitted the film as his Master of Fine Arts thesis at the School of Film at UCLA in 1977. The film concerns the existence of a man named Stan who works at a slaughterhouse and his family. For many years it wasn't widely seen because the rights to the music used in the film had not been secured... until 2007, when a restored print was shown in movie theaters and released on DVD. You can find it in Amoeba's Black Cinema section. 


The MLK Shopping Center opened in 1984. In 1992, the MLK Jr Monument was dedicated by Mayor Tom Bradley. The MLK Jr. Monument was designed and created by Charles Dickson – the same artist whom we met at the towers and whom we were asked if we'd heard of at WLCAC. Dickson really pushed for us to check out the monument, adding that he was really proud of it, but we forgot. Hopefully next time I'm in Watts.


Like most of what was historically the Black Eastside, Watts today is primarily Latino. After the Los Angeles Riots of 1992, many more black residents of the area relocated to more distant communities including in particular those in the Antelope Valley, the Inland Empire, the San Gabriel Valley, Orange County, the San Joaquin Valley, and beyond. At the same time, Latinos, primarily with origins in Mexico and Central America, filled much of the void created by the departure of the previous population. Shortly before the riots, in 1988, Watts was 86% black and 13% Latino. By the mid-1990s the populations were roughly equal. In 2000, the population of Watts was roughly 62% Latino and 37% black. Nowadays it's closer to 72% Latino and 27% black. 34% of current Watts residents were born in another county – in most cases either Mexico or El Salvador.

Maya Obelisk on Santa Ana Boulevard


Unfortunately, the perception of Watts as a dangerous place still sadly frightens off many would-be visitors. The violent crime rate in Watts is lamentably high – but then all violent crime is lamentable in my opinion. Watts currently has the tenth highest violent crime rate of Los Angles's neighborhoods but those more violent (Chesterfield Square, Green Meadows, Vermont Knolls, Athens, Gramercy Park, Vermont Vista, Harvard Park, Manchester Square, and West Compton) seem to benefit from their obscurity whereas the Watts name continues to strike fear into the hearts of many.

In 2012, Los Angeles had the 56th highest violent crime rate of cities in the US with populations of over 100,000 -- beneath places like Portland, San FranciscoMinneapolis, and Omaha. In other words, it is extremely unlikely that a visitor to Watts (or any Los Angeles neighborhood) is going to become the victim of a violent crime. In fact, I'd rank Watts as one of the friendliest places that I've visited -- and the only one where someone gave me a seed packet.


Comfort Inn in Watts

There are several motels in Watts, including the Hills Villa Motel, the Mirror Hotel, and the Crown Hotel. The Mirror Motel, built in 1964, has the most appealingly 1960s exterior and sign but any traveller knows that such superficialities are rarely accurate indicators of room conditions. My suspicion is that all three are budget motels -- the sort that charge both hourly and weekly rates, depending on a lodger's need. An online review of Hills Villa simply states “It was firme.” Probably more appealing to most tourists is the Comfort Inn, comfortably situated on the WLCAC campus and fairly modern looking. There's also Airbnb.


In Watts, it seemed as if there was almost always music playing wherever we went. Although Bruce had something with him called a Jammy Pack, he left it unused. Many other folks were less shy about playing their music on phones, and even radios hanging from their wearers necks. No one seems to bother with headphones and it reminded me of the 1980s, when people traded in their inward-oriented Walkmans for outward-projecting boom boxes. In other parts of Los Angeles I routinely see death-wish-having cyclists deafly racing through traffic with their ears blocked by earbuds but in Watts, even the lowrider bicycles have speakers. The musical highpoint of the day came when a car crept by us bumping B.G.'s "Don't Talk to Me" off of his best post-Cash Money album, Life After Cash Money.

Music-making has had a huge place in Watts for at least a century too. Back in the day local acts included The Woodman Brothers' Biggest Little Band in the World, Big Jay McNeely, Buddy Collette, Bumps Myers, Dootsie Williams, the Irving Brothers, Joe Comfort. In contemporary times, rap is seemingly the chosen genre for most Watts musicians and rappers born or raised in Watts (in addition to the aforementioned) include Cashola, Choc Nitty, D Ray, Glasses Malone, Jahccy, Kam, Lil' Rocc, Lorenzo Straight, and Run Russ.

The most famous jazz musician associated with Watts is almost certainly Charles Mingus, who was born in Nogalez, Arizona but raised in the neighborhood. 

Perhaps only slightly less is Sylvester, the Hi-NRG disco star who was born in the neighborhood. Watts the birthplace of another disco diva too -- Viola Wills.

Soul singer Brenda Holloway was born in Atascadero but raised in Watts. Watts-born musicians in other genres include Devan Vyasa (electronic) and Blind Boy Paxton (blues).


Despite its large, long-established black population, Watts seems to have only been home to two so-called “negro theaters,” the Linda Theatre and the Largo Theatre. The former formerly stood at 1635 E. 103rd Street. It was a 669-seat, single screen, independent theater that existed at least between 1946 and 1953. The latter stood at 1827 E. 103rd Street. The 904-seat, single screen theater was designed by Carl Boller for his firm, Boller Brothers, and opened in 1923. Both were demolished long ago. 

Watts was a film location for several films, including He Walked By Night (1948), Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), My Brother's Wedding (1983), To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), Daniel and the Towers (1987), Colors (1988), White Men Can't Jump (1992), Atomic Samurai (1993), Menace II Society (1993), Real Ghosts (1995), Dark Blue (2002), and Family (2008). 

In the Blaxploitation era alone Watts was featured in Hit Man (1972), Melinda (1972), The Bad Bunch (aka Tom) (1973), Dynamite Brothers (1974), and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976). 

Watts has shown up in episodes of the television series Robbery Homicide Division and Southland as well. Although filmed in a studio in Burbank, Sanford and Son (1972-1977) was a remake of the BBC's Steptoe and Son which relocated the action from Shepherd's Bush to Watts.

Watts has also been the subject of several documentaries including an episode of CBS Reports titled"Watts: Riot or Revolt?"(1965), and episode of ABC Scope titled “The Face of Watts” (1965), and more recently, American Drug War: The Last White Hope (2007).

The only actors that I know of who are Watts natives are Aaron Meeks and Tyrese (Tyrese Gibson). If there are others (or filmmakers), please let me know in the comments.


Jordan's Cafe 

Although admittedly my desire to eat at Jordan's Café was primarily due to the building's signage (utilizing as it did both arrows and at one point, incandescent bulbs) I lost my chance when it closed in 2010, 68 years after it opened in 1942. I guess my point it -- if you see somewhere you want to check out, don't put it off!

Still open eateries include Caveman Kitchen, Chapo's Tacos, China Bowl Express, China Express, El Burrito Loco, El Pollo MachoM & T Donuts, Puro Oaxaca Nieves y Antojitos, Sandy's Food Service, Seafood Express, Tacos La Potranka, and Tamales Elena

Watts Coffee House -- through the door on the left

One of the best-loved places to eat is Watts Coffee House, the roots of which lie in the Watts Happening Coffee House, which opened shortly after the rebellion. Bruce and I first walked right past the restaurant because it's practically hidden inside a building shared with a school. We did notice the mural, which is a holdover from the building's past as the home of the Mafundi Institute in the early 1970s. 

Wattstax and my Wattstax-inspired "font" and map

It's not even primarily a coffee house (despite the name), and secondarily a museum/shrine to Watts. The kitchen specializes in southern/soul food. We did both get coffee with our lunches, however, and it was good. After filling our waitress in on our mission, she played a DVD of Wattstax for our entertainment.


Mural at Geraldo's Meat Market Carniceria

Lee's Market -- the reason that the chicken crossed the road apparently

There are almost as many markets as restaurants in Watts as there are restaurants although many are little more than convenience or liquor stores. They include C & C Mimi Market, Chapala Market, Easy Market, El Ranchito Market, El Osito Nutritional Products, El Pavo Mini Market, El Rinconcito Water, El Torito Market, Family Mini Market, Geraldos Meat Market, Hammer's Market, Harris Grocery Marketa, Jay's Market, Jordan Market, Lee's Market, Lims Market, Local Market, Randy's Mini Market, Tala Market, Tommy's Liquor Market, and Watts HP Meat Market.

C & J Market -- with Mary in a case that Houdini would have trouble with


St. John's United Methodist Church (source: their Facebook page)

St. Lawrence of Brindisi

Grant AME

Not unexpectedly, there are a lot of churches in Watts. Some of them are rather interesting architecturally. The Macedonia Baptist Church was founded in 1908. St John’s United Methodist Church was constructed in 1923. St. Lawrence of Brindisi was built in 1924. Bethel Baptist Church was built in 1941. Grant AME's current hangar-like home was constructed in 1954. 

There's also Beulah Baptist ChurchBible Revival ChurchChurch In God In ChristCompton Ave Church of ChristDeliverance Church of God In ChristFaith Temple Church of Christ Holiness USAThe First Saint John Missionary Baptist ChurchFirst Unity Missionary Baptist ChurchGood Faith Missionary Baptist ChurchGreat Antioch M B ChurchGreater Wayside Church of God In ChristJesus Is Delight Missionary Baptist ChurchLighthouse Church & Community OutreachMarshall M Rev Union Missionary Baptist ChurchMorning Star Missionary Baptist ChurchMt Beulah Baptist Church, New Light Missionary Baptist ChurchNew Way Missionary Baptist ChurchOlive Branch Baptist ChurchPotter's House ChurchRevival Center Triedston Church of God In Christ, San Miguel ChurchSt Peter Aoh Church of GodSweet Pilgrim Missionary Baptist ChurchTree of Life Missionary Baptist ChurchTrue Mount Zion Missionary Baptist ChurchUnion Missionary Baptist Church, and Village Baptist Church.


Ted Watkins Memorial Park

Watts Senior Center and Rose Garden

Unfortunately South Los Angeles is a rather park-poor region. Jordan Downs, Imperial Courts, and Nickerson Gardens both have their own recreation centers. There's the 109th Street Recreation Center and Park and tiny Grape Street Pocket Park. The Watts Senior Center is home to the Watts Senior Center Rose Garden although the roses weren't doing much at the time of our visit. Located just outside of Watts is the aforementioned Ted Watkins Park (fka Will Rogers Memorial Park), where the Watts Healthy Farmers' Market - SEE LA is held on Saturdays. That park is also home to the Promenade of Prominence, aka the Watts Walk of Fame. The nearest park of any real size is lovely Magic Johnson Park (fka Willowbrook Park) in neighboring Willowbrook.


The Watts Village Theater Company was founded in 1996 by Lynn Manning and Quentin Drew. The organization produces original theater works and educational programming for South Los Angeles.

Alma Reaves Woods - Los Angeles Public Library - Watts Branch

Watts is also home to the Alma Reaves Woods – Los Angeles Public Library – Watts Branch -- which was closed because Lincoln's Birthday.

Watts House Project

YO! Watts - Youth Opportunity Center -- an old firehouse.

Local organizations trying to make a difference include East Side Riders Bike ClubFriends of St. Lawrence - Watts Youth CenterNeighborhood Youth Achievers, Operation Progress, Watts Century Latino Organization, the Watts Gang Task Force, Watts Girl Scout Troop #19785, the Watts House Project, the Watts Neighborhood Council, the Watts/Willowbrook Boys & Girls Club, and YO! Watts.

If you're aware of any other resources or civic organizations that should be included (and linked to) here, please let me know in the comments.


If you'd like to read more about Watts there are several books and short pieces worth a look including Spencer Crump's Black Riot in Los Angeles: The story of the Watts tragedy (1966), Thomas Pynchon's A Journey Into The Mind of Watts (1966), Colin Marshall's A Los Angeles Primer: WattsBud Goldstone and Arloa Paquin Goldstone's The Los Angeles Watts Towers (1997), The Dapper Rebels of Los Angeles, and especially, Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles (1999).

My Neighborhood: Watts from Intersections South LA

The couple at Esotouric delved into Watts with their podcast episode, “Secrets of the Watts Towers” and the late, great Huell Howser explored a bit of Watts (and people's fear in going there) on Visiting...With Huell Howser, Episode #109.

A brief (and by no means complete) history of Black Los Angeles. Happy Black History Month!

Posted by Eric Brightwell, January 30, 2012 07:19pm | Post a Comment
Los Angeles' black population is relatively small compared to the city's other major racial and ethnic minorities. The LA metro area is only 8.7% black as compared to 47% Latino (of any race), 28.7% non-Latino white, and 14% Asian/Pacific Islander. However, since its inception, black Angelenos have always played a major role in LA's history and culture. Los Angeles is one of the only major US cities founded largely by people of black African ancestry. When it was still a Spanish colony, Los Angeles began life as El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles on 4 September, 1781 (well, sort of). Of the 44 pobladores who ventured over from nearby San Gabriel, a majority of 26 were identified as having African ancestry.


Pio Pico ca. 1890

During the period that Los Angeles was part of Mexico (1821-1840), blacks were fairly integrated into society at all levels. Mexico abolished slavery much earlier than the US, in 1820. In 1831, Emanuel Victoria served as California's first black governor. Alta California's last governor, Pío de Jesus Pico, was also of mixed black ancestry. The US won the Mexican-American War and in 1850, California was admitted to the United States. Although one of America's so-called "free states," discriminatory legislation was quickly enacted to restrict and remove the civil rights of blacks, Chinese, and Native Americans. For example, blacks (and other minorities) couldn't testify in court against white people. 


Bridget "Biddy" Mason (left) and her grandson, wealthy businessman Robert Curry Owens (right)

Los Angeles's black population remained small through the latter half of the 19th Century. By 1900, only 2,100 lived in LA, mostly in an area known as "Brick Block," a downtown area around former slave Biddy Mason's several Spring Street properties. In1888, Frank Blackburn opened his Coffee and Chop House. Furniture stores, a barbershop, a restaurant, and a hotel followed developing southward until hitting 5th Street, which was notorious as "The Nickel" or "Skid Row" even then.

In 1903, almost 2,000 more blacks were brought to LA by the Southern Pacific Railroad to break a Mexican-American strike. In the process, the black population of LA almost doubled and the seeds of black and Latino tension were sowed. However, whites' and Latinos' long-standing, violent, mutual hostility went further back, as did white and Asian tensions. Black Angelenos, though hardly welcomed into mainstream Angeleno society with open arms, were largely left alone while racist hatred was focused elsewhere.

Photo taken at the California Eagle's offices

With black Angelenos relatively ignored, the community flourished. By 1910, more than 36% of black Angelenos owned their own homes -- the highest percentage of black home ownership in the nation at the time. In 1913, the first California branch of NAACP was established in Los Angeles. That same year W. E. B. Du Bois described it as a "wonderful place." The black population leapfrogged south past Skid Row and established itself along South Central Avenue. By 1915, the black-owned California Eagle publication was referring to South Central as the city's "Black Belt." In 1917, famed ragtime and jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton moved to LA. Two years later, fellow Louisianan jazz musician Kid Ory followed.

This short age of relative peace and prosperity was soon challenged. DW Griffith's white supremacist film epic Birth of a Nation was filmed in and around Los Angeles and premiered at downtown's Clune's Auditorium in 1915 (as The Clansman). That year, the Ku Klux Klan was revived in Georgia and a black teen was murdered by an enraged, white filmgoer after a screening in Indiana.

Black Women in Los Angeles ca. 1929

By 1920 there were 15,579 blacks who called LA home. No longer could they easily be ignored and racist, restrictive covenants became widespread, effectively ghettoizing not just them but also Asians, Catholics, Eastern Europeans, Jews, Latinos, Southpaws (just kidding), Muslims and other groups. For their part, blacks were primarily limited to the South Central neighborhood, part of South LA's Eastside (watch The Eastsiders for first hand recollections).

Young Oakwood residents photographed by Charles Brittin

There were a few other far-flung and even smaller black enclaves in the San Fernando Valley's Pacoima and the Westside's Oakwood (a neighborhood in Venice, annexed by Los Angeles in 1925). In the face of worsening discrimination across not just LA, but the entire nation, black historian Carter G. Woodson established Negro History Week, which later developed into Black History Month.

Shoeshine boys in the old Plaza, 1930s. (Photo: Los Angeles Times)

In the 1930s, the character of black migration to Los Angeles changed. From 1890 - 1915, most  were aspiring members of the black middle class, arriving from Atlanta, New Orleans, Shreveport, and Texas. However, the Great Migration that had seen many blacks leave the South for northern cities largely bypassed Los Angeles. In the 1930s, about 25,000 blacks -- usually from much poorer backgrounds -- arrived largely from Dallas, Houston, and New Orleans. There were inevitable class tensions among established and newly-arrived blacks, though fairly minor, and both groups soon united by-and-large to pursue the many of the same goals and together, establishing many black institutions like black churches.

In the silent film era, most movies made for black audiences (known as Race Films) were made by small studios, mostly based in the Midwest. With the rise of Hollywood's dominance during the sound era, Hollywood studios began to make few, but bigger budget black films like MGM's Hallelujah (1929) and Warner Bros' Green Pastures (1936). Though blackface remained popular, seen in such Hollywood films as The Phantom, Amos 'n' Andy in Check and Double Check, Babes in Arms, Swingtime, and Wonder Bar, Hollywood also began employing black actors like Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Butterfly McQueen, Dorothy Dandridge, Etta McDaniel, Jackie "Moms" Mabley, Lena Horne, Lincoln "Stepin Fetchit" Perry -- albeit not generally in what most today would consider especially desirable roles.

An audience at Club Alabam in 1945

In the music world, even jazz superstars like Duke Ellington couldn't stay in white hotels while playing in Los Angeles and they usually lodged in South Central. Beginning in the 1930s, South Central became the premier center of West Coast jazz, fostering local and touring musicians and as a result acquired the nickname of "the Harlem of the West." In 1934, black musician Herb Jeffries left the Earl Hines Orchestra and moved to Los Angeles where he became a popular MC and singer at the famed Club Alabam, then the hottest local hot spot on the jazz and blues scene. In Hollywood, Jeffries encountered Jed Buell, a poverty row producer with a background in B-westerns, and soon began starring in a series of black Westerns.

In 1940, Los Angeles had a black population of 63,774; more than all fellow-western cities like Oakland, Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle combined. In 1941, the US entered World War II. The same year, Reverend Clayton Russell formed the Negro Victory Committee with the aim of creating jobs for blacks in war industry. Further south, Watts had also been open to blacks at least since the 1920s, originally developed as a labor camp for workers on the Pacific Electric Railway. During the 1940s, its population became mostly black.

A family in Bronzeville in 1943

With roughly 140,000 blacks arriving from the South and Midwest to fill the newly opened factories during the decade, the few areas where blacks could live grew increasingly crowded. With the Japanese-American population of nearby Little Tokyo having been relocated to concentration camps, the exploding black population moved in and the area became known as "Bronzeville." Though designed for 30,000, it became home to 70,000. More black enclaves opened up on the Eastside, including the Furlong Tract between 50th and 55th Streets. As early as the late 1930s, West Adams and Jefferson Park, part of South LA's Westside, had first selectively opened up to LA's few truly wealthy blacks. One of the first, businessman Norman Houston, bought a home in what the area in 1938. Previously nicknamed "Little New Orleans" for its population of newly-arrived Creoles, it was soon nicknamed "Sugar Hill" for its wealthy blacks. However, Houston waited almost three years to move in, justifiably afraid of white hostility. Famous black actresses like Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers followed, as did more successful black businessmen.

In addition to the wartime industries, Hollywood began to attract more black actors and entertainers. Among many others, Eartha Kitt, Hadda Brooks, Harry Belafonte, and Sidney Poitier made their film debuts during the '40s. MGM released lavish, black cinema spectacles like Cabin in the Sky (1943). Independent black cinema, largely as a result of the talent and audience drain, died.

Meanwhile, enraged by the rise of the black "Sugar Hill," suits began to come to court in Los Angeles and elsewhere over the legality of segregation. The case of Shelley v. Kraemer, based on an incident in Missouriwas brought to the Supreme Court, who ended the legal enforcement of racist covenants in 1948. As a result, the black population of Los Angeles began to finally overflow its long cramped confines. Some whites formed anti-black gangs like The Spook Hunters with the intention of terrorizing blacks into staying out of till-then white enclaves of Compton, Downey, Huntington Park, and Lynwood.

On the other Side of the San Gabriel Mountains in the Antelope Valley, Sun Village was established to lure would-be black homeowners to the distant Mojave Desert. In 1947, Pasadena resident Jackie Robinson crossed baseball's color barrier and Sun Village even established a Jackie Robinson Park. Sun Village would prove a somewhat successful experiment for a time, reaching a peak of around 2,000 black residents in the 1960s. Today its black population is still a larger percentage than LA's. 

In the 1950s, Los Angles was a manufacturing and industrial powerhouse that rivaled the great Midwestern cities of the Rust Belt and the East Coast. The black population had grown to around 170,000 and parts of Midtown like Country Club Park, Harvard Heights, Mid-City, and Pico del Mar saw their black populations grow significantly. A steady influx of blacks, mostly from Louisiana and Texas, moved to Pasadena and in the process shifting its demographics so that then (and even today) it became more black than Los Angeles.

With the rising medium of television, the film industry began to feel its first serious competition. In the 1950s, there were only two black TV shows, The Beulah Show and Amos & Andy. Hollywood responded with more big, black-themed films like United Artists' The Joe Louis Story (1953), 20th Century Fox's Carmen Jones (1954), and Columbia Pictures' Porgy & Bess (1959). Black actors like Billy Dee Williams and Ossie Davis among others began their film acting careers during the decade.

It was also during the 1950s, 1953 to be exact, that Santa Monica-born Ike Jones graduated from UCLA's film school, the first black filmmaker to do so.

The Slausons

The Spook Hunters remained an active force and, in response, black protectionist gangs including The Devil Hunters, The Slausons, The Businessmen, The Farmers, and The Gladiators formed to oppose them. Gang violence between black Eastside gangs (those east of Main) and black Westside gangs (those west of Main) arose too but was still primarily territorial and rarely resulted in deaths. There were only six gang-related deaths in the city in 1960, which at the time caused considerable alarm. The Spook Hunters were nothing but a bad memory by 1960 and significant numbers of blacks moved to suburbs, notably Altadena, Monrovia, Pomona, and Santa Monica.

By 1960, Los Angeles had the fifth largest black population in the US, and one larger than any city in the South. Hollywood made well-meaning, more sensitive black films like Columbia Pictures' A Raisin in the Sun (1961) and actors including Fred Williamson, Greg Morris, Jackée Harry, Paul Winfield, Redd Fox, and Yaphet Koto began appearing on screen. On TV, shows like I, Spy, Julia, and The Bill Cosby Show offered very different portrayals of blacks than their predecessors in the 1950s.

In 1963, Vantile Whitfield and Frank Silvera co-founded the American Theatre of Being. Silvera, through his work on James Baldwin's Amen Corner, was the first black production designer to work on Broadway. The following year Whitfield formed the Performing Arts Society of Los Angeles (PASLA) to promote performing arts among for "inner city" children.

All was not well, however. On August 11, 1965, 21-year-old Marquette Frye was pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving. The situation intensified as more and more people became involved and the Watts Riots erupted. Four days later, 34 people were dead, 1,034 were injured and $40 million dollars of property damage had resulted. 103rd Street was particularly affected and the smoking rubble became widely known as "Charcoal Alley."

After the riots ended, most of South LA's factories began to close or move away. Many blacks that could afford to left the Eastside for more affluent and/or apparently stable Westside neighborhoods like Baldwin Hills, Crenshaw, Ingelwood, Ladera Heights, Leimert Park, and View Park-Windsor Hills. As the black population spread, "South Central," which had previously and accurately been used to describe the largely black neighborhood along South Central Avenue, became shorthand for "any and all black neighborhoods south of the 10 Freeway section separating Midtown from South LA (completed in 1964).

At the same time, a New Great Migration began, with many blacks leaving the rusting and crumbling industrial sectors of northern, western and midwestern cities and returning to the traditionally black deep South.

In the wake of the riots, Maulana Karenga and Hakim Jamal formed the black nationalist US Organization, or Organization Us. An emerging black nationalism across the ocean began to be evidenced in Africa with the beginning of post-colonial black African Cinema. Senegalese author-cum-director Ousmane Sembene made the first black African film, 1964's La Noire de... In 1967, Mauritanian director Med Hondo made Soleil O. In 1969, an African film festival, FESPACO, would be established in Burkina Faso. In the US, the US Organization drew much of their philosophy and inspiration from the rising Afrocentric movement occurring in African motherland.


In 1966, down in Oakland, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale formed the Communist-inspired Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, felt tremendously threatened by the rise of black nationalism, which he felt was a threat to the "internal security of the country." He supervised the creation and operation of a program called COINTELPRO which, among other things, sought to undermine black nationalism, especially by creating and exploiting rivalries between different movements through a variety of deeply disturbing means. Things reached a head between the Marx-and-Mao loving Panthers and the Afrocentric US on January 17, 1969, when Los Angeles Panther captain Bunchy Carter and deputy minister John Huggins were killed in Campbell Hall at UCLA in a gunfight with US members.

In LA, both organizations had associations with local street gangs. The Panthers were loosely aligned with The Slausons of the Eastside whereas US were on friendlier terms with the Westside's Gladiators. Both black nationalist organizations began to decline in strength and numbers following the deadly shoot-out. As a result, new, less-disciplined groups like The Baby Cribs (later The Crips) were formed on the Eastside by a teenager named Raymond Washington and his friends. The teen gang never approached the organization or purpose of the Panthers but were clearly inspired by their glamor and power.

There were more positive developments too. 1969, Compton elected California's first black mayor, Douglas Dollarhide. The same year, Gordon Parks made The Learning Tree at Warner Bros studios in Burbank, the first Hollywood film directed by a black filmmaker. 1970, Melvin van Peebles made Watermelon Man in Toluca Lake for Columbia. The two basically kicked off the Blaxploitation movement alongside Ossie Davis, who filmed Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) in New York. Parks' follow-up was Shaft (1971), and Van Peebles's was Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971).

By 1970, there were 763,000 black Angelenos. Following LA's de-industrialization, black unemployment was high, especially as jobs held by unionized-blacks began to be taken increasingly by newly-arrived, non-unionized Latinos from Mexico and Central-America. In 1972, the Crips had moved from assault and robberies to murder when a non-gang affiliated 16-year-old named Robert Ballou Jr. was beaten to death for his leather jacket by twenty Crips after a Curtis Mayfield and Wilson Pickett concert at the Hollywood Palladium. As their numbers and violence spread, so too did their influence, which by then stretched south to Compton and west to Inglewood. By the end of the year, there were 29 gang-related deaths. In part to counter their influence and following the murder of an LA Brim (17-year-old Frederick "Lil Country" Garrett) by a Crip, the Pirus, the Lueders Park Hustlers, the LA Brims, the Denver Lanes and the Bishops joined forces as the Bloods in late '72. That year there were eighteen documented gangs in LA. Within six years, that number would jump to 60 -- 45 of which were Crip or Blood sets.

The seminal, independent Killer of Sheep was filmed in Watts in by Charles Burnett over the weekend from 1972 to 1973 with additional shooting in 1975. Its style elicited comparisons to the Italian Neo-Realist movement. In 1977, Burnett submitted the film as his MFA thesis at UCLA. Along with Ben Caldwell, Haile Gerima, Jamaa Fanaka, Larry Clark, and Julie Dash, he was part of the so-called LA Rebellion film movement, also known as the Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers.

In 1973, LA elected Tom Bradley as mayor, the first black mayor of a major western American city. He went on to serve for 20 years, the longest tenure of any mayor in the city's history. During his tenure he oversaw LA host the Olympics in 1984, LA pass Chicago as the second largest city in the country, and unfortunately, the Los Angeles Riots, shortly after which his popularity declined and he retired.

In 1974, Soviet and Cuban-backed Marxists ended Emperor Haile Selassie I's near 44 year rule of Ethiopia and ignited a civil war. At the same time, Eritrea continued its violent war of independence and in 1977 Somalia invaded the disputed Ogaden region. Significant numbers of Ethiopians fled to the US as a result, primarily to Washington DC and Los Angeles. Although the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 finally raised the cap on the number of Asians that could move to the US, African limits remained low. One of them, Fekere Gebre-Mariam, left Ethiopia in 1971. After she opened Rosalind's on Fairfax, more Ethiopian businesses began establishing themselves in the area. The area was officially designated Little Ethiopia in 2002. Of all of the Southland's many ethnic neighborhoods (including Cambodia Town, Chinatown, Historic Filipinotown, Little Seoul, Koreatown, Little Arabia, Little Armenia, Little Bangladesh, Little Central AmericaLittle India, Little Osaka, Little Saigon, Little Taipei, Little Tegucigalpa, Little Tokyo, Tehrangeles, and Thai Town), Little Ethiopia is the only recognized African one.

In 1976, Negro History Week was extended and re-christened Black History Month, a result of years of effort by the Carter G. Woodson-founded Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. That same year, the US increased immigration limits to 20,000 for any country in the Western Hemisphere. Large numbers of Jamaicans and Belizeans made their way to Los Angeles, -- largely to Compton, Gramercy Park, View Park-Windsor Hills in the case of Jamaicans, and Athens and Vermont Square in the case of Belizeans.

The California African American Museum opened in 1981 in Exposition Park. It was first located within the California Museum of Science and Industry until the 1984 completion of a building built specifically for it and designed by black architects Jack Haywood and Vince Proby. Its free and open to the public Tuesdays-Saturdays from 10am-5pm and Sundays from 11am-5pm, and has both a permanent collection and special exhibitions.

After the 1982 release of New York's Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force's "Planet Rock," electro took hold from New York to Miami to LA. On the West Coast, Compton became the center of the electro scene. Compton was then home to Arabian Prince, World Class Wreckin' Cru (comprised of Shakespeare, Dr. Dre, Cli-N-Tel, Michel'le, and DJ Yella) and Detroit native The Unknown DJ. Just outside of Compton was Alonzo Williams's club, Eve After Dark, which hosted all of them as well as local rap and electro acts like LA Dream Team and Egyptian Lover.

Although the '80s tend to be remembered for colorful Valley Girl fashions, whimsical New Romantics, and glamorous hedomism, it was often a pretty dark time for many who actually lived through it. AIDS proliferated and President Reagan cut federal expenditures for low-cost housing from $32 billion in 1981 to a paltry $7 billion in 1987, radically increasing the country's homeless population by dumping mentally ill Americans onto the streets. Refugees fled civil wars in Central America whose flames were fanned by the Regan administration, which funded right wing death squads in the name of combating Communism. Crack hit LA in 1983, hitting black communities especially hard and making bad situation worse.

Gang violence in South LA exploded and as a result, many Eastside black families continued to decamp to the Westside, the Harbor, and other destinations. With crime rates soaring, serial killers like Lonnie David Franklin, Jr. (the so-called Grim Sleeper), Louis Craine, Michael Hughes, and at least two other serial killers terrorized South LA, mainly targeting young black women in their killing sprees.

Against the backdrop of this dystopian nightmare, electro was soon displaced by another, much harder edged black musical form -- gangsta rap. Like electro, its roots were in the East Coast with artists like LA transplant/New Jersey-native and former electro artist Ice T, Philadelphia's Schoolly D, and New York's Toddy Tee pioneering the genre. However, it was in LA that it resonated most loudly. In 1986, Dr. Dre, DJ Yella, Arabian Prince, and Ice Cube joined forces with the small-time drug dealer and Kelly Park Compton Crip Eazy-E to form gangsta rap's most famous group, N.W.A. Priority Records' first release was 1987's N.W.A. and the Posse, a compilation of tracks from N.W.A, Eazy-E, Rappinstine, and a group that had relocated from Dallas, the Fila Fresh Crew. Shortly after N.W.A. and Eazy-E achieved notoriety, Compton's Most Wanted and 2nd II None began making music with a similar bent and attitude. A Tree Top Piru, DJ Quik, pioneered a truly West Coast gangsta variant, G-Funk.

From 1985 to 1990, 61,773 blacks moved out of Los Angeles County to other counties of the Southland. Many more blacks left California altogether, most often for Southern states like Florida, Texas, Georgia, and other areas of America's so-called Black Belt.

In the East Coast, notes of black positivity were sounded by the Native Tongues, Five Percenters, and the Afrocentric rappers of the Blackwatch movement. On the West Coast, in December of 1989, the owner (and her son) of the Good Life Cafe health center in Leimert Park began fostering and promoting a conscious rap scene in LA. Their open mic nights evolved into Project Blowed, which in 1994 released their first compilation, produced by Aceyalone and Abstract Rude. Today the workshop is the longest continuously-running open-mic in the Hip-Hop scene.

Images of light-hearted black positivity and thoughtful expression began to appear on screen around the same time, with shows like In Living Color (filmed in Hollywood) and the films of Spike Lee scoring mainstream hits. After many years in Hollywood with almost no films with black casts, things changed for a brief moment. New Line filmed 1990's House Party in Monrovia and Culver City. 1991's Boyz N the Hood was filmed in Inglewood.

A few months before it was released in theaters, the beating Rodney King at the hands of five LAPD officers in the Lake View Terrace neighborhood was caught on video tape by an unseen private citizen, George Holliday. After 56 baton blows and six kicks, King was admitted to a hospital where he was found to have a fractured facial bone, a broken right ankle, and numerous bruises and lacerations. The footage was first shown on KTLA and then thousands of times more across the globe.

Not two weeks later, on March 16, 1991, 15-year-old Latasha Harlins was shot and killed on tape by a Korean-American store owner named Soon Ja Du after a scuffle between the two at Empire Liquor in Vermont Vista. On November 15, Du was sentenced to community service, probation, and a fine. Again, the footage was broadcast repeatedly by the news media. On April 29, 1992, all five of the cops in the Rodney King trial were acquitted of assault and two were given with the lesser charge of excessive force. The following night, the LA Riots exploded, starting in South LA's Westside.

White truck driver Reginald Denny was pulled from his truck and beaten by four black men while news helicopters filmed it. Later, at the same intersection, Guatemalan-American Fidel Lopez was pulled from his truck, robbed, beaten unconscious and defiled with black paint by the mob. One black man, Reverend Bennie Newton, threw himself on Lopez to protect him, famously yelling "Kill him and you have to kill me too!" Although the Rodney King verdict was the immediate catalyst, more than 2,000 Korean-owned businesses were destroyed. Asian-American journalist K.W. Lee described it as "America’s first media-fanned urban pogrom." 53 people died (ten at the hands of LAPD officers) and property damages approached the $1 billion mark. Half of those arrested and a third of those killed were Latino.

In what was a positive turn after one of LA's ugliest chapters, hopeful expressions of black LA appeared with the 1992 establishment of the Pan-African Film Festival by Ayuko Babo, designed to further cultural and racial tolerance through film, art, and other expressions. Originally screened at the no-longer existent Laemmle Sunset 5 Theatres in West Hollywood, they moved to Crenshaw's Magic Johnson 15 in 1996 and flourished there for more than ten years before relocating again.

Also in 1992, Thomas "Tommy the Clown" Johnson formed the Hip Hop Clowns in Compton, in which dancers would dress as clowns and perform at children's birthday parties and other entertainment functions. Clowning would evolve into Krumping at the hands of Ceasare "Tight Eyez" Willis and Jo'Artis "Big Mijo" Ratti, documented in the 2005 film Rize.

In Hollywood, Stephen Milburn Anderson's South Central and the Hughes Brothers' Menace II Society, primarily filmed in Watts, were continuations of the "hood movie" subgenre, but film's like F. Gary Gray's Friday (1995), filmed largely in Athens, seemed to reflect a lightening mood in black Los Angeles that continued with black middle class comedies like 1999's The Wood (filmed in Inglewood) and 2000's UPN series Girlfriends, and the reality show Baldwin Hills, which depicted the lives of black teenagers in LA's affluent Baldwin Hills neighborhood.

In the 2000s, the Eighth District Empowerment Congress began the Naming Neighborhoods project with the goal of fostering pride and community by giving new neighborhood names to communities that had previously existed within the large and largely black Crenshaw district and South LA areas hat were previously lumped together colloquially as "South Central" or "The 'Hood." As a result, Angeles Mesa, Arlington Park, Baldwin Vista, Cameo Plaza, Canterbury KnollsCentury Cove, Century Palms, Crenshaw Manor, Broadway Square, King Estates, Magnolia Square, Manchester Square, Morningside Circle, Vermont Vista, and Westpark Terrace were born.

By 2010, LA's black population had dropped to under 10% as blacks continued to leave the city. Only the communities of Athens, Baldwin Hills, Chesterfield Square, Crenshaw Manor, Gramercy Park, Hyde Park, Jefferson Park, Leimert Park, Manchester Square, View Park-Windsor Hills, and West Compton retain black majorities today as black and other Angelenos began to more fully integrate.

Although racist skinheads had terrorized largely black and Latino Section 8 housing residents in the Antelope Valley, by the 21st century an LA Times analysis found that Lancaster has more blocks with a "substantial" mix (meaning that at least a quarter of the residents are white and a quarter are black) than any community in LA, or any other city in the county for that matter.

Although Hollywood currently exhibits no interest in making black films for black audiences, a thriving independent Black Cinema persists beneath the mainstream radar. In newer black music, the Jerkin' scene appeared around 2009, suggesting more cultural integration with black and mainstream culture, with fashions obviously drawn from the rave and skater scenes. In general, Black LA continues to overcome setbacks and move forward.

In conclusion, although I sometimes feel like Black History Month has been co-opted by corporations like Coke and McDonald's or reduced to an academic exercise, it goes without saying that history is being written constantly and that the future of black history is no different. There are ongoing, healthy debates about the importance and significance of Black History Month. Los Angeles and America still struggle with racial and class inequalities and tension, but I'm no pessimist. Believe it or not, to me it seems like we're mostly moving down the right path - celebrating our differences and erasing the imagined ones. Only time will tell. Happy Black History Month!  

As a side note, if I have time this month I'd like to visit and blog about the most-voted-for black majority communities or those with significance to black history. In the former category, Baldwin Hills, Leimert Park, and Manchester Square are currently in the lead. In the latter, Lancaster, Manchester Square, and Watts lead. So if you'd like to vote for any communities of Los Angeles Countyvote here. I've you'd like to vote for any communities in Orange Countyclick here. And finally, if you'd like to vote for any neighborhoods of Los Angelesvote here.

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California Fool's Gold -- A South Los Angeles Eastside Primer

Posted by Eric Brightwell, August 5, 2011 09:15pm | Post a Comment

In Los Angeles, usage of the term "Eastside" varies depending on the speaker. To most Angelenos -- especially Latinos -- "The Eastside" refers to a group of neighborhoods immediately east of the Los Angeles River: Boyle Heights, Brooklyn Heights, City Terrace, East Los Angeles, El Sereno, Happy Valley, Hillside Village, Lincoln Heights, Rose Hills, and University Hills


Pendersleigh & Sons' Official Map of South LA's Eastside

The other Eastside is in South LA. This Eastside was historically the main area that LA's black residents were required to live until the middle of the 20th century. It should be noted that when people speak of this region -- though they're implicitly referring to the East Side of South Los Angeles -- that reference to this area as "the Eastside" likely pre-dates the modern version of communties east of the river. Check out The Eastsiders, a documentary about South LA's Eastside between 1920 and 1965.

South LA's Eastside is neighbored by South LA's Westside to the west; The Mideast Side, Downtown and the Eastside to the north; Southeast Los Angeles to the east and The Harbor to the south. In South Los Angeles, the dividing line between Eastside and Westside was traditionally Main Street, which is still the dividing line between east and west street addresses. After the construction of the 110, which runs parallel a few blocks west of Main, this more dramatic physical distinction became the dividing line between east and west.


For much of the early part of the Los Angeles history, The Eastside (along with Southeast Los Angeles and The Harbor) were lumped together as "The Gateway Cities." The region was a huge industrial region dominated by the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles in the southern end and many of the neighborhoods were built to house those involved in the warehouses and factories that popped up between the harbor and downtown.


Gray areas showing black majority areas of Los Angeles in 1940

South LA's Eastside was home to two of the oldest black neighborhoods, South Central in the north and Watts in the south. Under racially restrictive covenants, blacks were allowed to own property only within the area hemmed in by Main, Slauson, Alameda and Washington, in Watts and a few other smaller areas like Oakwood in Venice.


In the 1940s, South Central gave rise to the West Coast's main jazz center. Numerous jazz and blues clubs and other black cultural institutions gave rise to people referring to it and neighboring Bronzeville to the north as "The Harlem of the West." Every year to this day, during the last weekend in July, The Central Avenue Jazz Festival is still held in South Central. 

Five miles south, around the same time, Watts became predominantly black, largely as a result of the Second Great Migration from the South during the same decade. Thousands of people came -- largely from from Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas -- to work in war-related industries. The large Nickerson Gardens, Jordan Downs and Imperial Courts housing projects were all built largely to house the newly arrived, working class immigrants as well as returning war veterans. 


As a result of 1948's Shelley v. Kraemer, the Supreme Court banned the enforcement of racist restrictive covenants. As a result, in Los Angeles, the black population of and surrounding both areas began to pour out of their overcrowded confines. Resentful racist white gangs like The Spook Hunters formed to terrorize blacks with the hope of keeping them out of Compton, Lynwood, Huntington Park and Downey.

Gray areas showing black majority areas of Los Angeles in 1960

South Central was already home to several street gangs, including The MagnificentsThe Purple Hearts, 31st Street and 28th Street, who were engaged primarily in turf battles, pimping, theft and small time robbery. However, to counter the violence of the Spook Hunters, new black protectionist gangs like The Devil Hunters, The Slausons, The Businessmen, The Farmers and The Gladiators formed and combat their racist rivals. By 1960 the Spook Hunters were defeated and the black populations of South Central and Watts overflowed and met in the middle before began spreading into till-then-white Compton far to the south (as well as Midtown).


In 1965, tensions, many racial, exploded into the Watts Riots. As a result, many of South Los Angeles' white residents moved away, most often to either Artesia, Bellfower, Norwalk or Paramount. In 1969, The Crips formed (as the Baby Cribs) in South Los Angeles' Eastside. Though initially inspired by black empowerment organizations like the Black Panthers and US, they quickly devolved into a violent street gang that mostly prayed on innocent black residents.

In 1972, a group of gangs including the Pirus, Lueders Park Hustlers, LA Brims, the Denver Lanes and the Bishops met and joined forces as The Bloods to counter the Crips' power. Gang violence escalated in the 1970s but reached a new level of violence when crack hit the streets in 1983. Violence explodedt and as a result, many long-established black families began to move to areas they perceived as more desirable.


Compton, which had till-then recently dominated South LA's music scene with a vibrant homegrown electro soon became known for gangsta rap in the 1980s, involving some of the same players (e.g. Arabian Prince and Dr. Dre). South LA's eastside produced Compton's Most Wanted, 2nd II None, DJ Quik and NWA. Together they painted a nightmare vision of South Los Angeles as a Crack War battleground contested by well-armed and sociopathic Bloods and Crips.


Meanwhile, as much of the better off black population continued to move away, poor, newly arrived immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador began to fill the newly created void. By then, the South Central neighborhood was predominantly Latino although people were then accustomed to employing the name "South Central" as a racially-loaded catch-all for any black neighborhood south of the 10. Today, this mental colonialism is still evinced in the words of self-appointed hood experts who don't even live in South Central yet nonetheless claim it, denying their own neighborhood's equally unique and interesting histories in the process.

By the time of the Los Angeles Riots of 1992, which began in South LA's Westside, the Eastside was mostly dominated by LA's Latino majority, with only Compton and Watts still having predominantly black populations. After the riots of 1992, another wave of black families moved to more stable neighborhoods and today even Compton and Watts are mostly Latino cities.


In 2000s, the Eighth District Empowerment Congress began the "Naming Neighborhoods Project" to identify and celebrate South Los Angeles neighborhoods with new designations, hoping to foster pride and community as a result. Three (Broadway Square, Century Cove and Century Palms) were newly-established Eastside communities. 

Today South Los Angeles is one of LA's least ethnically and racially diverse regions but I still think it's an interesting place. Except for West Compton, every neighborhood is dominated by the Latino majority (primarily of Mexican and Salvadoran origin) of 76% overall. The minorities are 20% are black, 2.8% are white and .7% are Asian.

Physically the region is a large, flat alluvial plane. The architecture, for the most part, is rather low-profile -- dominated by bungalows and lowrise apartment buildings. From the elevated sections of the Metro Blue Line one can see for miles a skyline that is only occasionally punctuated by structures like the Watts Towers and the taller, but less iconic, Mount ZionTowers, the Compton Courthouse, and near the edge of Downtown: the LA Mart, Bob Hope Patriotic Hall, and 155 West Washington Boulevard.

and now onto the neighborhoods:


First up, its position determined by the alphabet, is Broadway Square. Broadway Square was established by the the Eighth District Empowerment Congress's Naming Neighborhoods Project in 2008 but at least as many people know it by the more boring street-combo name, "Broadway-Manchester." It is unrecognized by the Los Angeles Times, Wikipedia, Nabewise and Wikimapia. The bedroom community is home to several fast food chains and the population is 59% Latino (mostly Mexican and Salvadoran), and 39% black. 


Century Cove
is another neighborhood established by the the Eighth District Empowerment Congress's Naming Neighborhoods Project in 2008. The Watts-adjacent neighborhood's residents are roughly 54% Latino (mostly Mexican and Salvadoran) and 44% Black. Presumably, the "Century" of the name refers to Century Boulevard.


The last of the three neighborhoods established by the the Eighth District Empowerment Congress's Naming Neighborhoods Project is Century Palms. Though mostly residential, there are a large number of auto shops, churches and small markets. The population is roughly 59% Latino (mostly Mexican and Salvadoran) and 39% black.


Compton is an infamous city that is practically synonymous around the world with the South Los Angeles region of which it is part. Due largely to the mythologizing NWA and their gangsta rap followers, Compton has also become a byword for urban squalor and gang violence even though (not to make anyone feel old) nearly a quarter of a century has passed since the release of Straight Outta Compton. Naturally the city has changed a great deal in the time that saw Ice Cube go from rapping about rape and murder to starring in children's movies. To read more about Compton, click here.


East Compton, also known as East Rancho Dominguez, is an unincorporated community surrounded by the city of Compton. In fact, Compton, which has in the past tried to annex East Compton but business and property owners in the area have successfully opposed their efforts. Today the population is 73% Latino (mostly Mexican and Salvadoran), 23% black. 


OK, rather confusingly (and not that atypical in a region where neighborhoods are so often nebulously) there are seemingly two adjacent neighborhoods which together form Florence. The Los Angeles one is a rather industrial area that's home to many Mexican restaurants, metal works, furniture factories, mini-markets. The population is 70% Latino (mostly Mexican and Salvadoran) and 28% black.

Florence is famous for its Crip history. Raymond Washington founded the gang (as the Baby Avenues) at Fremont High. When he was two years old, his family moved into their home near Wadsworth and E 76th Street. Florence is also where Washington was murdered in 1979, in front of an apartment building at 6326 S. San Pedro St.


The other half of Florence is an unincorporated community in Los Angeles County. Along with Graham to the south, the two are sometimes referred to as Florence-Firestone, after the intersection.


Signs for The Furniture & Decorative Arts District seem to include the entire neighborhoods of South Central, South Park, Florence, and Central-Alameda. I got my couch there at a place off Slauson so I can personally vouch for furniture being made there. There's also a huge chair, pictured above.


To the south of unincorporated Florence, sometimes lumped together as Florence-Firestone or Florence-Graham is the titular Graham. It's also sometimes referred to as Firestone Park for a tiny park in its northeast. Larger parks include Colonel Leo H Washington Park and Will Rogers Memorial Park


Although the Los Angeles Times once published an article, "Asphalt Jungle or Green Meadows" which gently mocked the 8th District Empowerment Congress's Neighborhood Naming Project, from what I've read, it seems Green Meadows is a pre-existing moniker that possibly dates back to the area's pastoral past. Today it's full of meat-dominated restaurants and baptist churches. The population is 54% Latino (mostly Mexican and Salvadoran) and 44% black. Despite it's bucolic name, Green Meadows is the second most violent neighborhood in the Eastside after Watts.  


Eastside's Huntington Park was incorporated in 1906 as a streetcar suburb for workers in the rapidly expanding industries to the southeast of downtown Los Angeles. To this day, about 30% of its residents work at factories in nearby Vernon and Commerce. After the decline of American manufacturing in the area, many of the residents moved elsewhere too. The vacuum was filled almost entirely by two groups of Latinos: upwardly mobile families eager to leave the barrios of East Los Angeles, and recent Mexican and Salvadoran immigrants. Today the population is 95% Latino (mostly Mexican and Salvadoran) and 3% white.


Though all of South Los Angeles has a reputation for crime, Lynwood is the second safest community in the region after sparsely-populated West Compton. Incorporated in 1921, the city is named for Mrs. Lynn Wood Sessions, wife of a local dairyman, Charles Sessions. It's the birthplace of actor/director Kevin Costner as well as "Weird Al" Yankovic, who released an album titled Straight Outta Lynwood. The population is 82% Latino (mostly Mexican and Salvadoran), 13% black and 3% white. It's home to the picturesque Plaza Mexico, a celebrated cultural and shopping center.


In the 1930s and especially the '40s, South Central Avenue was the center of West Coast Jazz. At the time, even superstars like Duke Ellington who played around Los Angeles still had to stay in South Central. Although the most famous, the Dunbar, was located in South Park, there were numerous other jazz and blues clubs on South Central. After the restrictive housing codes were abolished, this Harlem of the West dissipated as the population dispersed, jazz declined in popularity, and the neighborhood fell into disrepair.

Nowadays South Central is 87% Latino (mostly Mexican and Salvadoran), 10% black, 1% white and 1% Asian. It's one of the more urbanized areas of the Eastside and, depending on where one draws the dividing line between Downtown and South Central (e.g. the 10 Freeway or W Washington Boulevard), its home to most of the iconic buildings in the region including Allied Architects Association's Bob Hope Patriotic Hall, the 13-story LA Mart, and the 14-story Art Deco 155 West Washington Boulevard building, built in 1927. To read more about it, click here.


South Park
is a neighborhood that lies directly south of South Central and is centered around a park of the same name. Before 1948 it was as far south as blacks were allowed to live (aside from Watts) with Slauson forming its southern border. Around 1952, the neighborhood saw the formation of The Slausons, a black gang which organized to protect blacks from attacks by racist whites hoping to keep them from moving south of Slauson. Most of the black population eventually moved elsewhere and today South Park is 79% Latino (mostly Mexican and Salvadoran), 19% black and 1% white.

South Park is also fairly devoted to small-scale industries such as machine shops, auto shops, upholsterers, medical suppliers, etc, much like the Furniture and Decorative Arts District to the east. Notably, it is home to the tallest structure in the region, the 12-story Mount Zion Towers, built in 1971. It's most famous building, however, is the famed Dunbar Hotel.


The Villa Basque (image source: jericl)

Vernon has the smallest population of any incorporated city in California (although that might soon change). It's motto is "Exclusively Industrial" (take that City of Industry!). The motto isn't entirely true, Vernon has, after all, some 112 residents. It became industrial around 1919, when two slaughterhouses opened. Eventually it was home to 27 such on a blood-soaked strip of Vernon between Soto and Downey. Vernon is also home to La Villa Basque, a restaurant and beautiful relic of the 1960s (historically, aesthetically and culinarily) that has been used in Mad Men. Iniside it has an amazing Googie coffee shop, a martini lounge and a large dining room. Unfortunately, misguided efforts have been underway to "improve" it with disastrous consequences: loud, horrible music; a cheesy new name (Vivere) -- courtesy owner and disgraced former Vernon mayor, Leonis Malberg


In 1907, Watts was incorporated a its own city, named after Watts Station, then a major stop for the Pacific Electric Railway's Red Car line between Los Angeles and Long Beach. Most of the residents were white and Mexican traqueros who worked on the line.

Watts became mostly black in the 1940s, when southern blacks settled there in search of industrial jobs. In 1965, it was the epicenter of the Watts Riots which saw part of the city burnt to the ground and nicknamed "Charcoal Alley." It was plagued by gangs like the Watts Cirkle City Piru Bloods, Grape Street Watts Crips, Bounty Hunter Watts Bloods and PJ Watts Crips during the 1970s and '80s which contributed to black flight. Today Watts is 62% Latino (mostly Mexican and Salvadoran) and 37% black. Although there have been attempts to turn around the neighborhood's decline, it still suffers from the highest crime rate in the region.

It's famously home to the Watts Towers, built by Italian immigrant construction worker Sabato Rodia between 1921 and 1954, probably one of LA's five most recognized landmarks. Rodia himself named the structure "Nuestro Pueblo."  To read more about Watts, click here


West Compton is an unincorporated community west of Compton. Today, probably in part due to the negative popular associations with the Compton name, many refer to it as West Rancho Dominguez (a reference to Rancho Dominguez… a community which, unlike Compton, it does not lie directly west of). At the time of writing it's the only remaining black majority neighborhood in South LA's Eastside. The population is roughly 58% black, 36% Latino (mostly Mexican and Salvadoran), 2% Asian and 2% white. It also has the lowest crime rate. 


's name comes from the willow-lined shallow brooks and springs that covered the area up through the 19th century. It was still largely rural until the 1980s. Today it is mostly developed although less than most of the region. The population is 53% Latino (mostly Mexican and Salvadoran), 44% black and 1% white. Willowbrook is locally notorious as the home of the troubled Martin Luther King Jr Harbor Hospital. It's also home to the well-known Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science.

And so Eastsidaz, to vote for any communities in the Eastside or any other Los Angeles County communities to be covered on the blog, vote here. To vote for Eastside neighborhoods or any other Los Angeles neighborhoods, click here. To vote for Orange County neighborhoods, vote here. Till next time, y'all know how we get down... 7 dizzles a wizzle, Bigg Bow Wiggle's, up in the hizzle, Fo' shizzle bizzle!


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