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A poet's corner of Watts

May 07, 2008|Erin Aubry Kaplan | Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing editor to Opinion.

Eric Priestley is out of his place.

It's odd to think of him being out. Eric's a poet and writer who until recently lived in the heart of Watts, arguably the most troubled part of town. He's been there since 1982. I used to puzzle over an idealist like him living there, but it made sense because Watts created him. A survivor (barely) of the Watts riots and an original member of the Watts Writers Workshop, Eric found his calling in the heated aftermath of 1965. I first encountered him on the page almost 15 years ago, reading a book of his collected poetry called "Abracadabra."

I was immediately startled by his work -- images and observations of L.A. that were sharp and unsparing but at the same time grand and affectionate, an impassioned counter-narrative to all the literary cliches about L.A. that play up detachment and the pursuit of glamour. Eric's poems about love and his Louisiana-born family, promise and social injustice, felt like the blood in the city's veins, the coal-fired engine of a civic imagination that's rarely acknowledged. Here are some sample lines from "Lament on 103rd Street":

homeless lay I high in the weeds

a seed in scorched soil

a bud in flames

amongst the other children

beneath the trees of night.

"Abracadabra" was magic, indeed. But the magic, or whatever kept Eric close to Watts, has run its course. The city that he rendered so vividly in his work has put him out of his place, which is not technically a residence but a warehouse adjacent to the Watts Towers Arts Center. The reasons why and how Eric lived there at all are complicated, but suffice it to say it was partly out of loyalty and partly out of fiscal necessity.

It looks like the city, which has owned the warehouse for the last 20 years, had every right to put him out. Eric embodies a key piece of Watts' history, but he was also a squatter, a representative of City Hall told me. And the warehouse is unsafe. Of course, the fact that the city built a new arts center next door and needs to raze the warehouse to build a parking lot made Eric's departure more urgent than it otherwise would have been. Eric had gone to court to argue for his right to stay, but so far, the court has sided with the city. Last month, he was served with an "unlawful detainer" notice, and after more or less ignoring it, he was arrested and jailed for trespassing.

Instead of despairing, Eric is furious. He is still waging a court battle, though he has no lawyer and is learning legal procedures on the fly. His many arguments for staying are not purely legal. He says he's not a tenant (he never paid rent, after all) and therefore should not be subject to eviction. He says the city never informed him that it owned the warehouse. He says he's kept up the property (he's a bricklayer and handyman when he's not a writer). For the last eight years, he's been a neighborhood watch captain with the LAPD's Southeast Division, surely the most thankless volunteer gig in town. He's the unofficial flame-keeper of the Watts Writers Workshop, the one member who stuck around Watts while other alumni -- Quincy Troupe, Stanley Crouch -- made their fortunes elsewhere.

The thrust of Eric's arguments is that he's a community asset worth better treatment than he's gotten so far. Naturally, Eric sees the situation in pretty dramatic terms. "I'm just little old David," he says. "Instead of a sword to fight Goliath, all I got is a pen."

I appreciate Eric's fervor and his view of Watts as a great, difficult, unfinished story about black people that must be told. I often try to tell that story myself. But Eric also hates Watts. He hates the proliferation of gangs and drugs that he's seen, the black flight that followed, the stalled moment of racial promise, the hollowed-out air of it. He knows Watts intimately, but he often feels besieged and betrayed by it.

When he declares that he's the only member of the Writers Guild who lives in Watts (yes, he walked those picket lines), he says it with as much pride as exasperation. His ambivalence about living in a once-predominantly black community that is a shadow of its former self, demographically and in other ways, is shared by blacks across L.A., including me. Not that Watts was ever a paradise, even in the good times. But still.

"The way you get your street back," he told me, "is never to give it up in the first place."

Eric has his own idea for renovating the warehouse. He wants to turn it into something called Phoenix House, an artists and writers studio outfitted with solar panels that would illuminate the towers at night and be an added attraction. The name "Phoenix" is a nod to the original workshop building, which famously burned down in 1975, and with it a lode of unrealized dreams. "I'm a preservationist," Eric says. "All I want to do is resurrect the workshop in that space."

That'll be tough for him to do without a space -- or a place -- to call home.

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