Re:Imagining Watts 50 Years after the Unrest that Made it a Symbol

Watts is often seen as the historical ground zero for racial unrest in America, but there's much more to its story -- especially for the future.

Long before Ferguson and Baltimore -- 50 years ago this Aug. 11, in fact -- the South Central Los Angeles neighborhood was burned in a revolt in which 34 people died, more than 1,000 were injured and more than 600 buildings were damaged.

It was a horrific four days of confrontation between residents and police, and it wasn't the end of bad times for Watts. But many of the fundamental concerns among Watts residents that triggered the 1965 uprising are substantially better, and now people are talking about a rebirth in the historic 2-square-mile neighborhood 10 miles southeast of downtown L.A.

Such talk is hard-won, especially with the demise four years ago of California's Community Redevelopment Agency, which had been responsible for a lot of the reinvestment and infrastructure improvement in local areas since 1945.

Now, in the post-CRA era -- as planners in California call it -- Watts has a chance to build on momentum it has begun on its own in the wake of decades of plans that have not come to fruition.

Take a stroll through Watts today and you find aging but charming bungalows with gardens and trees, a new food market, an attractive new apartment building, bustling sidewalks and a lushly green 28-acre Ted Watkins Memorial Park filled with parents and kids. There is easy access to public transportation at the 103rd Street station, and small groups of tourists photograph the historic Watts Towers, the folk art installment built over 40 years by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia that is now a National Historic Landmark.

Reimagining Watts

A next step for the community of more than 40,000 mostly young men and women, workers and parents is not another plan. Plenty of smart, talented people, including a lot of Watts residents, have spent substantial amounts of money and time finding out what redevelopment is needed and wanted.

Part of the future of Watts lies with a grassroots coalition to build on those plans, bringing 21st century technology and ideas - including those around environmental sustainability and green infrastructure -- to complete and actually develop the best of them. And, it has already begun with a project called Watts Re:Imagined led by Grant Housing & Economic Development Corp and the Natural Resources Defense Council's Urban Solutions program, and including many other partnerships with local organizations, agencies, and business interests. It sets forth practical, forward-looking solutions on issues from jobs and social equity to public health and natural resource conservation.

At the center of the project is "Main Street Watts," which turns 103rd Street -- a once-bustling commercial district that still bears the scars of the riots -- into a community-gathering place with mixed-use buildings, transit-oriented development, sustainable architecture, and plenty of green alleys and shade trees. It would include a Watts Park gateway at 103rd Street and Central Avenue, connecting to the park, housing, businesses, and eventually the Metro Blue Line light rail station at Graham Avenue.

It's an ambitious vision but with all eyes on Watts this summer, the moment is right to turn the stigma into inspiration -- a beacon for urban development in places that can no longer wait.

It Can Be Done

It won't be easy. Jobs are more scarce in Watts than they were in 1965, higher education is lacking, and Watts has the worst life expectancy rates of any community in California. But, it can be done -- and without displacing those who have stuck it out and worked hard in Watts. In fact, a focus on action from the many plans will bring more opportunity for residents, who have identified connectivity, mobility, and access to jobs, schools, healthy food, parks and essential services as among the most important issues they want addressed in their neighborhood.

Watts is already a vibrant home to its people, who are working hard and are invested in Watts' future.

The time to act is now. Enough talking. Enough planning. Implementation is what is needed, and that is exactly what Watts Re:Imagined is designed to do.

About the Authors

Catherine Cox Blair

Senior Policy Advocate, Urban Solutions

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