Watts in 2015: A View from Above

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Flying home from New York this winter, I was seated next to a loquacious lawyer who had been visiting family. We chatted about careers, our UC alumni status (he said he was among the first African American graduates of Santa Cruz), and where we went to high school. He’d gone to Jordan in Watts. Looking at his gray temples, I couldn’t help wondering.

“The class of ’65?” I asked.

Yes, he said. “And you would be surprised,” he added. “A lot of good came out of what happened then.”

What happened then,  50 years ago this month, were the Watts riots—six days of arson and looting that left 34 people dead, a thousand injured, and large swaths of South L.A. in ashes. Sparked by the arrest of black motorist Marquette Frye, the riots made a neighborhood previously synonymous with famous folk art towers a rallying cry for both law-and-order types and progressives advocating social justice.

My seatmate talked about the beneficial outcomes of that long-ago summer: Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital was born of the riots, as was the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, which works to improve vital services like shelter, food, and employment. While a lot of the injustice and hardship that helped fuel the riots—the “general despair,” as Martin Luther King Jr. described it when he visited Watts days after the upheaval—would continue to haunt the area, the positives that emerged from those six fiery days are often overlooked. Decades after the ashes have blown away, Watts is often still reduced in the public imagination to snapshots of mayhem and misery from that summer of ’65.

I’d already known that I wanted to cover the anniversary in our August issue, before the actions of police on Staten Island and in Ferguson and Baltimore spurred mass protests of their own, and before an LAPD officer’s shooting of Ezell Ford was censured by the Los Angeles Police Commission. As proud as I was of our special issue devoted to the 20th anniversary of the 1992 uprising, I didn’t want to see the Watts riots through the lens of yesterday. It became clear to me 30,000 feet in the sky that instead of publishing a retrospective of a place in flames, we should tell the story of Watts today through photos: elementary school students at graduation, old-timers playing dominoes in a garden. Now 60 percent Latino, Watts is a neighborhood in transition, like so much of L.A. But it is a neighborhood, with corner markets and storefront churches, with ice cream trucks and theater troupes.

Watts is more than a set of towers you may have once seen on your kids’ field trip, more than secondhand memories of urban destruction and heartbreak. It’s as L.A. as Brentwood or Sherman Oaks or Boyle Heights. Give it a second look.