A vision for the worst of ghettos. Massive city and county redevelopment plans offer hope to Watts

Graham Avenue between 103rd and 107th Streets, in the heart of Watts, has changed little in the 23 years since the rioting and burning that made this community a national symbol of urban black anger. Dusty and decrepit, it is vacant land framed by squat stucco houses with bars on the windows and a forlorn Baptist church. But city officials see it one day becoming a ``cultural crescent'' - with an arts center, theater, and museum - linking the famous Watts Towers to a historic train station.

Their vision is part of what may become one of the largest - and toughest - urban renewal efforts in the United States.

Nearly a quarter-century after the Watts riots awakened America to the problems of the inner city, plans are moving forward for massive economic development in this and other parts of south-central Los Angeles that are among the nation's most impoverished neighborhoods.

Though still tentative, the moves by the city and county of Los Angeles call for redevelopment of more than eight square miles. When coupled with several transportation projects and tax incentive programs, officials say, it could bring new jobs, housing, industries, and other activity to an area that has been largely sealed in a mason jar of misery while much of the rest of southern California has boomed.

``I don't think the city has undertaken anything of this magnitude in its history,'' says Bill Brown, manager of the city's part of the Watts project.

The task won't be easy. To make an impact, officials say they will have to address root social problems as well as create industrial parks. Some neighborhood residents remain skeptical that local government will follow through.

On a recent drive though Watts, past tough housing projects and decaying homes, past clusters of men drinking and sitting idle on street corners, Ted Watkins, head of a highly successful community self-help organization, said bluntly: ``After 23 years and all the promises and all the studies, the conditions here are worse then they were in 1965.''

That the area needs help, no one disputes. Although tidy, stable neighborhoods exist, much of Watts remains poor and in disrepair. Unemployment in the predominantly black community is high, schooling is low, and almost half of the households have annual incomes below $10,000.

The story is similar for much of the south-central area, the source of most of the recent gang activity.

Some help has come to the area over the years. After the riots, the city launched a redevelopment effort aimed at ``Charcoal Alley,'' the central business district looted and burned in the upheaval.

But progress was slow, and the capstone of the effort, a shopping center, did not open until 1984. Elsewhere in and around Watts, a major hospital and network of clinics has been built, along with another shopping complex and new housing.

Even so, large-scale revitalization on the order of what has been done in downtown Los Angeles and some other parts of the city has largely bypassed these inner-city neighborhoods. Until, perhaps, now.

In August, the Los Angeles Redevelopment Agency board gave initial approval to redeveloping 1,900 acres of Watts. Shortly thereafter, in a separate but parallel move, the county Board of Supervisors authorized studying revitalization of 3,200 acres of unincorporated area near Compton, Watts, and other south-central communities. Both must still garner final approval, which probably would not come until 1991.

Designation of the areas as redevelopment zones would allow local governments to buy or take over land through condemnation and sell it to developers or industrial companies at reduced prices. New businesses would generate new tax revenues, some of which would be used for other community improvements.

Local officials are also hoping that federal and state enterprise zones, which offer tax credits and other incentives to companies, will spur new ventures. Finally, they expect spinoffs from a light rail line and freeway being built.

``Now is the time when all of these things are coming together,'' says Joan Milke Flores, a Los Angeles city councilwoman who represents much of the Watts district.

One problem the redevelopment agencies would face, however, is the density of housing. In sections of Watts, for instance, settled early this century by railroad workers, many ``box car'' homes sit on 25-foot lots. That means agencies would have to relocate a lot of people to knit sizable parcels of land together.

``We have to be careful we don't rip the fabric of the community in trying to fix it,'' Mr. Brown says.

To have a real impact on the blighted neighborhoods, officials would have to couple their efforts with job training, education, day care, and other social programs.

Local residents, like Mr. Watkins of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, worry that jobs created will go to workers outside the area. ``Urban redevelopment has meant a lot more for the haves than the have-nots,'' he says.

Other community leaders want to make sure poor blacks are not forced out by the development. ``I think the changes you are going see here in the next five to 10 years are going to mind-boggling,'' says Lee Jackson of the Westminster Neighborhood Association.

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