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CITY TIMES COVER STORY : Watts : It Has Been a Battleground for Gutter Politics, an Easy Source for Exploitable Labor and Ground Zero for a Racial Explosion. Today, Watts Remains in the Grip of its Troubled Past, the Place That Has 'Always Been Left Behind.'

July 17, 1994|Robert J. Lopez

Watts.

The name is synonymous with urban despair. As a result of six rage-filled days in 1965, it became a lasting symbol for much of what is wrong in America's inner cities.

All the major problems that exploded into violence on that hot summer evening nearly 29 years ago and plague Watts to this day had been simmering from its earliest days. For much of its history--first as an incorporated city, then as part of Los Angeles--Watts has suffered from poverty, racism and squalid living conditions.

"Watts has always been left behind. It's always had to fight for everything it's gotten," says longtime community leader Davis Rodgers, 72, president of the Watts branch of the NAACP.

From 1907 to 1926, Watts was a freewheeling city known for incessant political infighting among the predominantly white community that ran local affairs. Its politics became increasingly troubled by the 1920s, when the community was split by recall campaigns and the Ku Klux Klan sought to exploit that breach and control city government.

For the most part, Watts' Mexican American and African American residents lived apart from their white neighbors. Mexican Americans were largely confined to the southeast end of the city, where they had moved at the turn of the century to provide cheap labor to build rail lines. Blacks, whose port of entry to Los Angeles was Watts, lived south of 103rd Street in an area known as "Mudtown" because of its shabby homes and muddy streets.

Becoming part of the city of Los Angeles did nothing to improve the livelihood of most black and Latino residents. Their living conditions continued to deteriorate as whites moved out of Watts. Time and again, from the 1930s to the 1950s, reports by government and private agencies called attention to many of the economic and social conditions that would lead to the 1965 riots.

Yet no urban planning was conducted for Watts until after the unrest because city officials said they had focused their planning efforts on newer subdivisions elsewhere, documents show. Even now, change has come slowly.

It took 19 years to build a shopping center. A proposed greenbelt near the landmark Watts Towers has been 28 years in the planning, and the community is still among the most impoverished in Los Angeles County.

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The area that now comprises Watts was in the 19th Century part of a large Mexican land grant called El Rancho Tajuata. Like the rest of California's ranchos, Tajuata was subdivided and sold to white developers in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The Pacific Electric railroad, seeking to lay tracks for its Los Angeles to Long Beach route, acquired ranch property from several landowners. Among them was Julia A. Watts, who owned the parcel where the railroad built its station in 1904 at what is now 103rd Street and Grandee Avenue. The original depot was restored with the help of a Community Redevelopment Agency grant and is now the 103rd Street station for the Blue Line.

The railroad workers called the area Watts Junction, and the town that sprouted up became unofficially known as Watts.

With the construction of the railroads came a Mexican immigrant labor force. "They first lived in boxcars with their families, later in tents, and finally in four-room houses called the 'Latin Camp,' furnished by the P.E. railroad," historian MaryEllen Ray Bell wrote in her 1985 book, "City of Watts." That area came to be known as "La Colonia" and is still heavily Latino.

When Watts incorporated as a city in 1907, stores, a restaurant, a post office, a pool hall and a bar had branched out from the station along Main Street, which is now 103rd Street.

As in other cities near rail lines, such as Oakland and Chicago, Southern blacks moved to Watts seeking jobs as train porters and dining car waiters. They either remained in Watts or moved north to another burgeoning African American community along the Central Avenue corridor.

By the 1920s, a substantial black community was developing in the Mudtown area of south Watts. "Mudtown was like a section of the Deep South literally transplanted," said distinguished African American writer Arna Bontemps in "God Sends Sunday," a 1931 novel tracing black life in early Los Angeles. "The streets of Mudtown were three or four dusty wagon paths. . . . Ducks were sleeping on the weeds, and there was on the air a suggestion of pigs and slime holes."

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As Watts grew, political disputes erupted. Two factions battled over whether saloons should be allowed within city limits, documents show. Recall campaigns and initiatives were mounted by "drys," or those who favored banning the drinking establishments, against City Council members who supported the saloons. The drys ultimately won when Prohibition went into effect in 1920.

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