Los Angeles: The Rebirth of Watts


Twenty-five years ago, South-Central Los Angeles, the Watts area, erupted into riots and flames. Across 100 square miles of the city, people ran amok, looting, burning, and killing. The country had not seen anything like it since the Detroit race riot of 1943. Watts became a symbol of explosive violence fed by social discontent.

The black leaders of the time rationalized the riots, the destruction, the deaths, as results of white America's entrenched racism, parasitic capitalism, and patronizing attitudes toward what are now called "people of color." Caught between black rioters, white police, and National Guardsmen sent in to restore peace, the city's Mexican-American population hunkered down and waited for the riots to spend their fury. The day after order was restored, Mexicans began a mass exodus from their traditional neighborhoods in South-Central Los Angeles, heading for East Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley.

Los Angeles's white establishment turned its back on Watts, as did the black middle class, which moved out as quickly as the Mexicans had. Like the Mexicans, middle-class blacks refused to suffer because of perceived wrongs against a growing group of uneducated, unskilled blacks flooding in from the Southern states. White businessmen, particularly Jewish businessmen, the backbone of free enterprise in Watts, boarded up their shops as their leases ran out and left.

In the wake of the riots, block after block of what had been a thriving business district died overnight. Watts became a cultural and industrial wasteland.

After a quarter century, capitalism is returning to Watts, and it speaks Korean and Spanish. Capital, which speaks all languages, is finding its way into the neighborhood to provide shelter and amenities for Koreans, Mexicans, and other Latinos determined to work for themselves.

In the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of Spanish-speaking immigrants flooded into Los Angeles. They spilled out of East Los Angeles to form barrios, Spanish-speaking communities, in the San Fernando Valley, Pomona, the Inland Empire of San Bernardino and Riverside, and Orange County. But most, looking for cheap housing, headed into South-Central Los Angeles—Watts.

On a recent visit to Watts, I interviewed a man who told me his earliest memory is of the riots. He is 32 years old, didn't finish high school, and hasn't worked for several months. At his last job, as a construction worker, he didn't always show up on time, so they fired him.

He says he applies for work everywhere, but no one will hire him because he wears a beard and isn't "clean-cut." He says dust reddens his eyes and makes it look like he's on drugs. He doesn't use drugs, just drinks a little beer. He complains that Mexicans take all the jobs. He doesn't like the "rich" blacks who move out as soon as they can afford to. He says they should stay and help people like him.

A block away is a grocery store that a black family ran for 30 years. They recently closed the store because too many customers owed them money for groceries bought on credit. For a generation, children could pick up milk and bread, and the store would run tabs. For a generation, people would come in on payday or once a month, when their welfare or Social Security checks came, and settle their bills. But people stopped settling up, so the elderly black couple closed their store, and black capitalism lost two more practitioners.

Korean grocers will probably reopen the store any day, but they won't give credit. Nor do the hundreds of Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans renting space on Central Avenue in order to sell groceries, clothing, tacos, straw hats, radios, televisions, and furniture.

Central Avenue, the principal street of Watts, used to have the appearance of a bombed-out city. Plywood sheets were ubiquitous. Now Central Avenue is coming back to life. Investors who sense a commercial renaissance are building strip shopping centers and buying up land and buildings willy-nilly.

The new entrepreneurs not only rent stores, they rent or buy houses in Watts and fix them up so they can be close to their businesses. They are displacing the blacks. Those who can afford it move to the suburbs, to Riverside County, where the black population has increased by more than 30 percent in recent years. Or they move to the San Fernando Valley. Wherever they go, it's a long way from Watts. And they don't come back.

The second man I talked to in Watts was a longtime real estate broker, a black self-made millionaire who owns two dozen rental properties. His view of Mexicans: "I love them madly.…Once in a while, they gang up on me. That is, I'll rent to one family and when I come back a month later to collect the rent, there'll be another family living with them. But they always pay their rent." The broker is retiring, selling his properties to Mexican immigrants for small down payments and carrying the mortgages.

He doesn't live in Watts. He hasn't in years. He only returns to collect his rents.

A few blocks away I met a young Mexican from Guanajuato, who was selling snow cones, raspados, from a pushcart. He told me he'd been in the United States for five months.

"How long have you been selling raspados?" I asked.

"Five months," he said. He started the day after he arrived, illegally, in Los Angeles. He sets his own hours, picks his territory, and works seven days a week. He makes $30 to $40 a day, sending half home to his wife and children in Mexico, where he used to work 10 hours a day for $4.00.

The Watts riots? He'd never heard of them. He couldn't believe anyone would complain about conditions in America. "There's too much money to be made here." he said.

Raoul Lowery Contreras is a syndicated columnist based in San Diego.