Watts: beneath surface tranquillity, chronic problems beg for solutions

Seventeen years ago this small patch of Los Angeles literally burned its way into American history as a symbol of black despair and anger.

Today, the wounds left in Watts by six days of rioting in the summer of 1965 appear to have healed, at least on the surface. Along a main avenue, 103rd Sreet - dubbed Charcoal Alley when the fires and looting ended - burned-out buildings have given way to new, modern structures. Like any other community, Watts has its share of unkempt homes. Still, it's no tenement slum. Freshly painted homes and well-kept gardens can be found on almost every street.

Yet to look beneath the surface of Watts is to find a community still deeply troubled, one that in many ways has come no closer to solving the problems it faced nearly two decades ago: high unemployment, youth gangs, crime, broken families, drugs, alcoholism, troubled community-police relations, violence-torn housing projects, and, perhaps most significant, an acute lack of confidence among many Watts residents in their ability to break out of the cycles of poverty and the welfare state.

''I think we've lost a lot of folk along the way,'' says E. Grace Payne, executive director of the Westminster Neighborhood Association, a social-service center founded by the Presbyterian community in 1960. ''I think people are rather apathetic.''

''They don't realize, 'Hey, there's a better life for me,' that 'I could make a change,' '' she continues. ''They just accept what is, accept the status quo.''

Statistically, the status quo is hard to pin down in Watts. Neither the city nor the US Census Bureau breaks down economic statistics for this 11/2 -square-mile community of 32,000. Local leaders, however, estimate that 70 to 80 percent of Watts's predominantly black population receives some form of government aid and that unemployment runs as high as 50 to 60 percent.

Not everything has remained the same since 1965. Badly needed affordable housing has been built, both by the city in conjunction with private developers and by the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC), a nonprofit organization formed in 1965 to bring more jobs and better housing to the Watts area. Health facilities have been built, streets widened, county recreational facilities expanded, a shopping center constructed, and another one planned - although Watts residents still must leave their community to find a large supermarket.

''It's getting better,'' says Sarah Davis, who has lived across the street from the world-celebrated, folk-art Watts Towers since 1940. ''They're trying to build (Watts) up. It's coming on.

''I guess it's coming on,'' she says, as a train whistle blows from the tracks that run near her small home. ''Slow but sure.''

Nonetheless, people like Ted Watkins, executive director of the WLCAC and one of Watts's most influential residents, say that the community has made little real progress in addressing the roots of its despair. The problems, says Mr. Watkins, who has lived in Watts for 38 years, ''are worse than I've ever seen it in my lifetime.''

Perhaps the most nagging source of Watts's stagnation lies in the difficulty community leaders have had in attracting private enterprise - particularly businesses willing to train local residents.

Although the city successfully pulled public and private sources together to revive an abandoned shopping center not far from Watts, efforts within the area have not been so successful. The one small shopping center that has been built has been hampered by the developers' inability to persuade a major supermarket to invest in the center.

''Burned once, why go back and get burned again?'' says one city planner, in explaining business reluctance to move into the area.

Equally disturbing to many local leaders, however, is a pervasive feeling that Watts as a community has given up. The frustration that found its tormented release in the violence and anger of 1965 finds expression today as resignation and defeat. It is an emotion fueled by the fact that the federal funds that poured into Watts after the riots had little long-term effect. It is fed further by the belief that current federal cutbacks reflect an attitude of indifference toward the poor and blacks.

''It's a defeated sort of anger,'' says Woodrow Rideaux, president of the Watts chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. ''They didn't feel that way in '65 because they hadn't really made a try. Now they feel it's sort of hopeless, whether they admit it or not.''

Local residents and leaders agree that all the elements that sparked the 1965 riots exist today. But they also insist that another riot is highly unlikely - that, as Sarah Davis says, ''I don't think anybody that's got any common sense would want that anymore.'' Part of the reason a riot is unlikely, they say, is the defeat the community feels; part, they add, is because of fear of swift and final action by law enforcers.

''What Watts needs,'' says Mr. Watkins, ''is continued involvement in self-help, self-development community projects. There's got to be a sense of the community being involved in its own destiny. The answers are the same for us as for any other community.''

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