The word “Watts” reverberates in Los Angeles history due to the struggles that have taken place on the neighborhood’s ground dating back a century and a half. The story of its settlement begins in the Mexican colonial period, when Governor Manuel Micheltorena gave future alcalde Anastasio Abila (or Avila, according to some sources) a 3,560-acre land grant in 1843. The parcel took the name Rancho Tajauta; it was a place where cattle grazed and scrub grew on the relative flatlands far away from the old pueblo. When the Mexican-American war ended, the Abila family was lucky enough to hold onto its property after statehood. Filing in 1852 to the Public Land Commission and having the famed Henry Hancock survey the land, young Henrique Abila was given title after two decades in 1873. Eventually, the huge chunk of land was subdivided, and much of Rancho Tajauta was purchased by William Pinkney Ramseur—with a 220-acre parcel being sold to one Charles H. Watts.
As hopeful immigrants arrived to the county on the newly connected railroads, some headed southeast, where inexpensive land and street-rail accessibility made connections to the “big city” possible at low prices. Germans bought up land on the former Rancho Tajauta to try their hands at agriculture, including vegetable and dairy farming. As the Pacific Electric railroad began to connect the dots of Southern California real estate, Julia A. Watts donated land for a train station, which can be seen on early PE maps. The 1904 tract map seen here shows the Pacific Electric Long Beach line on property deeded to the Abila family, along with a street labeled Abila Avenue (which became Long Beach Boulevard).
Despite being a sort of poor relation to downtown L.A., Watts was incorporated in 1906 in the midst of a building boom that lasted into World War I. It became one of the few areas in the county where black people, many migrating west from the southern states, could find housing. Along the southern portion of the town a black community grew that, predictably, was met with negativity, including full-fledged harassment by the KKK formed in nearby Compton. Even so, Watts remained fairly bucolic but economically disadvantaged; black, Mexican, and immigrant workers formed its early multicultural populace.
By the time prohibition dampened the fun around the basin, Watts became infamous for roadhouses, where a drop of something wet could be had for a small fee. On the other hand, the area had the distinction of being the headquarters of the Franciscan order of the Catholic Church—including the main American rectory of the Capuchin friars—and had more churches per capita than any neighborhood in Los Angeles. Jordan High School opened in 1925, and factories in nearby Huntington Park and Vernon offered employment.
After the Los Angeles Aqueduct brought water to Southern California, Watts petitioned and was annexed into the city of Los Angeles in 1926. Like many poor communities, it was mostly overlooked. The area was further strained by the great influx of labor during World War II, when real estate restrictions left Watts and the newly vacated Little Tokyo as possible destinations for black and Latino war workers. The government finally found a solution of sorts by creating public housing for “defense workers” in what are now called projects. The 184-unit Hacienda Village was finished in 1942, with a very distinguished crew of architects designing the project including Richard Neutra, Paul Williams, and Welton Beckett. Others followed in South Central L.A. (now South Los Angeles): Jordan Downs in 1944 (it opened in 1955), Imperial Courts at the same time, with Nickerson Gardens coming later in 1954.
By 1946, Watts was about two thirds black and a sad model for civic neglect and racial discrimination, both of which simmered on a low-boil until the riots in the summer of 1965.
Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason shares a map from the Central Library’s collection at CityThink each week.