I live in Watts.
It's as simple as that.
I've lived here since October.
No, I'm not a crusader who is championing the cause of the downtrodden by living "in the community." The fact is that I bought a house here, a nice little two-bedroom stucco place with front and back yards, a fireplace and a two-car garage. The street seemed OK and the price was right.
The idea was to fix it up and sell it quickly for a tidy piece of change. So far, I haven't quite completed the former, which has vastly hindered my ability to make good on the latter.
Consequently, I still live in Watts.
My house is on Alvaro Street, a two-block stretch between 112th Street and 114th Street, one block east of Central Avenue and just north of Imperial Highway.
Alvaro dead-ends on the north at 112th Street Elementary School. Smack up against that school is Verbum Dei High School, a private Catholic boys school noted for a championship basketball program whose players powered UCLA's program in the early 1980s. One even made it to the pros. People where I live also know it for its stiff academic standards. A Verbum Dei graduate was a Rhodes Scholar.
On each side of Alvaro are little stucco homes. Some lawns feature what I call the California cut; the grass that looks like somebody trimmed it with a pair of scissors. Many are bordered by tidy white fences and, inside, sculptured shrubs hug the fronts. A few, like mine, don't look so good from the outside. They could use some paint, and the lawns are not quite up to community standards.
The people are an eclectic mix. On my block live two nurses, a teacher's aide, a U.S. government purchasing agent, a doctor's receptionist, a security guard, a truck driver-warehouseman and a gaggle of retired people, like Mr. Carter, who worked for 30 years at McDonnell Douglas Corp.
Next door to me, at the corner of 114th Street, is Tabernacle of Faith, a Baptist church that bustles almost incessantly. Seems like every night they are doing something, though I've never ventured in to find out just what.
In the summer, the church runs a free lunch program, and during the school year, it operates an elementary school. Mrs. Milligan's grandson, dressed neatly in his pressed white shirt, black bow tie and black trousers, strolls by my house like clockwork every morning on his way to class.
On Saturdays, I'm sometimes awakened, too early to my liking, as the church-sponsored Boy Scout troop runs through marching drills. It's a pain, but how can you complain?
That's the neighborhood I saw when I \o7 first\f7 looked at my house.
It was a while before I began to see what was right across the street from the church.
There sits Nickerson Gardens, a low-income housing project built in 1951.
Dismal, Foreboding Place
Nickerson, an easy rock throw from my front yard, has the dubious distinction of being referred to by the media as "the most notorious housing project in Los Angeles."
At first glance, Nickerson is a dismal, foreboding place, a sprawling collection of worn, dingy structures teeming with the jobless, the underemployed and retirees. Families of eight, nine or 10 squeeze into two-story units, many with plywood where glass windows used to be.
Children are everywhere. Their mothers, mostly unwed teen-agers or those just past 20, huddle inside their homes, waiting patiently for the county to send their welfare checks.
There are gangs, though I never really see them. And winos, who pass my house every morning on their 7 a.m. run for a breakfast of beer or cheap wine at the corner liquor store. And drug peddlers, mostly from somewhere else but who slip into the neighborhood and mark off their turf along the winding streets or parking lots that dot the area.
Unemployed black men look ominous as they while away the day on corners and outside doorways.
But if you cast aside your middle-class perceptions, and the fears that go with them, you see that Nickerson is a diverse community of people--poor people struggling against the odds, trying to maintain some kind of dignity.
You begin to notice the people in Nickerson with well-tended lawns in front of their doors and brightly colored, carefully tended flowers growing under their windows. The sprinklers and water hoses come out early in the morning and late at night. You see the pets, and doormats, the little amenities that say, "This is my home, and I'm gonna do the best I can with it."
You see neighbors waving friendly hellos, people smiling and chatting quietly, and playful children reverently referring to adults as "Mr. this" and "Mrs. that."
I walk through Nickerson often, at all times of the day and night. I am cautious, but not petrified.
There Is Reality
Still, Nickerson is not where anybody really wants to live, including the people who are there. There \o7 is\f7 crime, there \o7 is\f7 tension, there \o7 is\f7 neglect.