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From Watts Riot Ashes: Bright Hopes, Heartaches

May 10, 1992|DAVID COLKER and MARC LACEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

After the Watts riots came the celebrities.

And the philanthropists, sculptors, industrialists, government officials, bankers, choreographers, social workers, union officials and even one man who gave dimes to youths who promised to be "good guys."

It was 1965 and Los Angeles had just suffered the worst urban disturbances in U.S. history.

The well-meaning people who came to Watts made it the social services laboratory for the "Great Society" 1960s, the ultimate experiment in resurrecting a poverty-stricken, strife-torn neighborhood to prevent the fire next time. Each program came with the promise of a better life.

Although a handful of the programs still exist, by the time the fire did come again, the vast majority had died. The celebrities and other notables had stopped coming around, the donations had dried up and some of the economic schemes had proved unworkable.

While it lasted, however, it had been a golden age for Watts. There had been programs for job training, economic development, social reform and artistic expression. Television camera operators were trained, black dolls manufactured, plays were produced, a shopping center and hospital built, a movie theater opened, and a small factory produced big-league "Watts Walloper" baseball bats.

Celebrities such as Karl Malden, Diahann Carroll, Robert Vaughn and Vicki Carr dropped in on the cultural classes. Dodgers Lou Johnson and John Roseboro lent their signatures to the inner-city baseball bats. Marge Champion taught dance, Raymond St. Jacques tutored actors and several business magnates sat on the boards of quickly formed nonprofit organizations.

"You just cannot imagine how exciting it was," said James Taylor, a Watts resident who was director of a performing arts group called the Mafundi Institute. "Everyone was coming down here, holding classes, helping, checking it out. We built our own building with our own stage. Instead of being out on the streets, kids would come here after school to take part in what we were doing or just hang out."

Not all the programs disappeared. The Watts Labor Community Action Committee still oversees several jobs programs, the Inner City Cultural Center produces plays, and the Watts Towers Arts Center conducts a variety of classes.

A few evolved into other concerns--the baseball bat effort became a furniture company, and the Studio Watts Workshop, which once offered a variety of arts classes, spawned a housing project.

Now, after the recent riots, new programs to create jobs and enrich lives are being proposed. The President visits South Los Angeles to declare that new programs are on the way. Peter V. Ueberroth is calling for new partnerships between the public and private sectors. Adolfo Nodal, general manager of the city's Cultural Affairs Department, has begun planning an Arts Recovery Program.

Those in the black community old enough to remember the aftermath of the Watts riots have heard much of this before. They remember the excitement the programs temporarily brought and the despair that returned.

Each effort left its own legacy. Here is a look at a few.

The idea came to Norm Hodges with all the wallop of a home run.

An avid baseball fan and aggressive professional seeking change, Hodges decided to put young men to work making baseball bats in post-riot Watts. He would get funding, endorsements, equipment and take on the established East Coast bat manufacturers from a leaky old building in Watts.

"We hired guys from the streets, guys from the jails, guys that couldn't be employed anywhere else," recalled Hodges, 58, who heads a housing program for the poor in Kansas City, Kan. "The joke was you had to have 30 arrests to start."

Soon, the Green Power Foundation was set up with private donations and the first Watts Wallopers began coming off the lathe.

They were sold for $2.74 each and were given away as a promotion to Little Leagues, neighborhood associations and even the Dodgers training camp. But soon word got out that the rickety bats cracked in half with even the lightest impact. Even the employees joked that a heavy swing would damage a Walloper. Ever resourceful, they got rid of the inventory by mounting the bats on plaques and selling them as souvenirs for $10 a pop.

"We didn't last long," Hodges said, "but in the short time we were around we got young men off the streets."

And when the bat company dissolved, numerous other efforts followed. One, Golden Oak Furniture, still sells its wares on 48th Street, not far from the old bat factory.

That many post-riot groups did not make it did not surprise Grace Payne, a longtime resident of Watts who heads a group that predates 1965, the Westminster Neighborhood Assn.

"There was a lot of attention in Watts but it was a lot of verbal attention and paper attention and not real attention," she said. "Everybody was so concerned about Watts. They were going to do so much. They drew up all these plans. And then life went on."

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