In Watts, a Mayoral Race Suggests a Mutual Myopia

March 24, 1985|BILL BOYARSKY | Bill Boyarsky is chief of The Times' City-County Bureau

There is a new Boys Market just a few doors down from Mayor Tom Bradley's South-Central Los Angeles campaign headquarters, in the Martin Luther King Jr. Shopping Center. On a recent Saturday, when Bradley formally opened his office, the market was busy and almost everything looked good, especially the meat section.

At first thought, there is not much connection between politics and a supermarket manager's skill at tasteful display.

But the history of urban America since the riots of the mid-1960s explains the connection and why a shopping center in Watts has a relation to the mayoral campaign between Bradley and his main challenger, Councilman John Ferraro.

The subject came up briefly in the recent debate between Ferraro and Bradley. Bradley said the shopping center was evidence of how Watts had been rebuilt during his Administration. Ferraro contended that the completion of just one shopping center showed how little had been done.

Their discussion left out something important: the future of such inner-city revitalization projects now that the Reagan Administration is pushing for elimination of the financial-aid programs that support such enterprises. What was lacking in the debate--and in the entire campaign between the two--were solid ideas about the future.

Shopping centers are an important benchmark in measuring the economic health of inner-city neighborhoods, a sign of whether they have been abandoned to poverty or retain the basic amenities vital to urban life. They are also symbols of a city's commitment to its poorer sections.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Shopping Center at Compton Avenue and 103rd Street, an intersection of the 1965 Watts riots, is a particularly important symbol. The Boys Market meat counter is a dramatic sign of progress, however limited, for 103rd Street since it was called "Charcoal Alley," the place where businesses burned during the riots. Residents have waited 20 years for commercial life to be restored on that urban desert.

The fact that businesses were burned, and took so long to rebuild, has been studied by academic experts, journalists, residents and others looking for a key to explaining why the riots occurred in the first place. Academics and black community leaders always knew something was wrong. But the first clues for mainstream white America came from reporters, all but a few of them white, covering the Watts riots. Their notebooks were full of resident complaints about no nearby medical facilities, inadequate transportation, police brutality, joblessness--and merchants selling shoddy, high-priced goods.

Post-riot visits to some of the stores in the South-Central area illustrated the shoppers' complaints. The meat counters were particularly convincing. Displayed, often unappetizingly, were the cheapest cuts. No matter how much a resident could afford, this was all that was available. It was a message, sent out every day, warning people to limit their expectations, reinforcing similar messages then sent by school counselors, personnel offices and others.

The counter at the new market, with goods ranging from cheap hamburger to the most expensive steaks and roasts, displays a different message: Expectations can be filled. The shopping center, along with a small number of new housing units and a nearby health center, shows that even the poorest urban neighborhoods can begin to revive and rebuild.

Other shopping centers make the same point elsewhere in South-Central and in Southwestern Los Angeles, an area of unofficial but real segregation where blacks live in dwellings ranging from the dismal poverty of Watts to the wealth of Windsor Hills.

When Sears, for example, abandoned a shopping center in the Slauson-Vermont area, it was a sign of an older neighborhood going downhill. That was why the Bradley Administration worked so hard to find replacement stores and revive the marketplace. Now the Administration is working to put together public and private financing to save the Crenshaw Shopping Center, located in a more affluent neighborhood to the west. Collapse of that center would tilt downward the delicate balance of community prosperity.

The complexities of all this were not part of the simplistic Bradley-Ferraro debate. The two men looked mainly at the small picture, interspersing their comments with personal insults in the debating style they had learned on the floor of the City Council. Neither could provide the breadth of vision needed to answer one reporter's question about the social and economic future of their changing city.

If Ferraro and Bradley had looked to the future, they would not have disagreed much. For both believe in the kind of urban policy that promotes inner-city shopping centers. Both believe the way to improve the inner city is through a stimulation of business, letting prosperity seep down to everybody.

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