The selection of Watts as the site of the biggest redevelopment project in the history of the city was supposed to be a cause for celebration this summer, the 25th anniversary of the rioting that made Watts a national symbol of inner-city distress.
Instead, the proposed $200-million revitalization project has hit the community like a brick thrown through a storefront window. It has sparked widespread fears of eminent domain, displacement and gentrification; many survivors of the riots are worried that their homes and businesses once again are on the firing line.
After a series of tumultuous meetings over the last two weeks, the first phase of redevelopment was postponed. Officials hastily offered a compromise while critics vowed to halt the project until they are given a guarantee that not a single house will be touched or a resident forced to move.
"We wait 25 years for officials to fulfill their promise to do something about Watts, and we find out what they want to do is build a residential annex for downtown office workers," said the Rev. Louis Brown of the Friendly Friendship Baptist Church on 101st Street in Watts. "What's going to happen to the people who live here now? The old, the poor, the unskilled. It's not hard to see them getting swept aside in a project like this."
Extending over 15 years, the Watts project as now designed would direct private and public capital toward development of offices and industry as well as to the building of several hundred new homes and apartments. It also calls for establishment of a cultural corridor of theaters and art centers.
Actually an expansion of an earlier, much smaller redevelopment effort, the project was undertaken at the behest of the Los Angeles City Council. A continuing backlash would be an embarrassment for the project's political backers, including Mayor Tom Bradley, who grew up nearby and pledged 20 years ago to make Watts a better place to live.
Today, city officials insist that displacing community residents is the furthest thing from their minds, but a variety of factors have impaired their credibility on this matter. Specifically, they have stopped short of issuing the requested guarantee against tearing anyone's house down.
Officials and community leaders have been laying the foundation for the massive redevelopment plan for the past 18 months, but little effort was made to inform residents until June--just days before the City Council voted to let the project get under way.
What most unsettles anxious residents is the possibility that Watts may now represent much too good a thing to the investors and developers who have long dismissed the place as an urban dead end. The community is a stop on the city's new light-rail line, and within a few years it will be at the center of a network of new rail, bus and freeway lines that will link the Los Angeles International Airport, the region's two harbors, Long Beach and downtown Los Angeles.
"Watts is an area of the city that has been rediscovered," said John Tuite, the administrator of the city Community Redevelopment Agency, the arm of government in charge of Watts redevelopment. The network of new transportation systems "puts Watts on the map again," Tuite said.
Yet, CRA officials argue that, given the community's history of poverty and crime, the transportation improvements alone will not make Watts a magnet for social and economic change.
The 2,000-acre section of Watts targeted by the CRA is home to about 50,000 people, 40% of whom live below the poverty line. A study commissioned by the CRA found that the unemployment rate is close to 20% and that the number of college graduates less is than 5%.
With the resources that the CRA could bring to bear, however, Tuite and others believe that Watts can overcome its handicaps. According to Tuite, the CRA--in addition to creating cultural institutions and encouraging commercial and residential building--would provide money for desperately needed social services such as drug and alcohol counseling and child care.
As with other CRA projects, the agency's most controversial role in Watts grows out of its unique power to condemn property for private development. Through eminent domain, the agency would be able to assemble large tracts for new offices, apartments, stores, restaurants and theaters. With vacant land at a premium, developers said, the CRA could be hard pressed to lay the groundwork for a new Watts without tearing down some portion of the old.
Complicating the situation in Watts is the CRA's stormy past in several other neighborhoods. It has been accused in lawsuits and on the floor of the City Council of championing big development at the expense of tenants, homeowners and small business owners.
"Beware of redevelopment. It is brutal and deadly," Norton Halper, an opponent of the CRA's Hollywood project, told a gathering in Watts last week. "The CRA is the only agency that can take your property and give it to a developer."