FROM the Naugahyde chairs of his barbershop, as well-worn as an Indian head nickel, Robert Blue can look out and see how the Watts section of Los Angeles has changed in the 25 years since riots made it a national symbol of urban despair. To the left along 103rd Street, into the heart of what was once called ``Charcoal Alley'' because of the burning and destruction done, the scene is almost suburban. There is a fast-food shop on the corner, a tidy housing enclave farther down, and a new shopping mall framed by palm and eucalyptus trees beyond that.
But to the right, the view is different: run-down shops, a few boarded-up stores, empty lots, and, two doors down, a church that dispenses food to prodigious numbers of poor and jobless.
The twin views are a reminder that, a quarter century after the rioting, Watts has seen blighted areas cleaned up and new organizations arise to cater to the needy.
But large areas of the community remain untouched by such improvements, and many of the social problems that gave rise to the rioting on those warm days in August of 1965 persist. Unemployment, underemployment, lack of affordable housing, inadequate education - some of these are as stubborn now as back then. At the same time, new woes have arisen, notably gangs and drugs.
While few black leaders here and across the country expect Watts or other inner-city neighborhoods to erupt in flames, they warn these problems are causing a growing frustration in the black community - one that often manifests itself in higher drug use, dropout rates, and violence.
``Physically, there have been a number of improvements that have taken place,'' says Ted Watkins, a longtime community activist in Watts. ``But they do not outweigh the impoverished and decaying conditions as far as people are concerned.''
Gangs conduct their mischief here though other neighborhoods have more drive-by shootings.
The rows of bungalows in Watts do not resemble the vertical slums of the East. Although the community contains four public-housing projects - more than any other Los Angeles neighborhood - most of its 30,500 residents live in single-family homes. This includes tidy, middle-class neighborhoods with jade plants and orange trees.
Beneath this veneer, however, are some reminders that Watts is not Beverly Hills:
Unemployment approaches 16 percent, about three times the national average.
Forty-one percent of the people live below the poverty level.
The dropout rate is higher than in the rest of the city, topping 40 percent at some schools.
``Some areas of Watts are doing better,'' says Reginald Pope, pastor of the local Bethel Missionary Baptist Church. ``Some still have a lot of needs.''
Visible improvements can be seen at the corner of 103rd Street and Grandee Avenue. On one corner is the Martin Luther King Shopping Center, with all the fresh vegetables and video supplies of tonier towns. Across the street, the old Watts train station has been refurbished. Two new health centers hum with activity.
The recently opened light-rail line linking Long Beach and downtown Los Angeles stops in Watts. Other evidence of urban renewal's thumbprint: 600 low- and moderate-income houses, a new post office here, a new community center there.
Despite these changes, impoverishment remains. On a drive through the area, Mr. Watkins, head of a successful community self-help organization, passes tough housing projects, shuttered storefronts, and endless houses with bars on the windows. He points out positive changes along charcoal alley and new housing developments. But then, passing a clutch of black men sitting on a corner, he intones:
``Look at the number of people on the streets. It's not a holiday. These are people who don't have jobs.''
Many of the tire, rubber, and other manufacturing plants that drew blacks to the area in the 1940s have closed. The new fast-food restaurants and other businesses that have sprung haven't been able to absorb all the workers, and blacks are often left out of service-sector jobs.
``We're restructuring them out of the economy,'' says Dr. James Johnson, a poverty expert at UCLA.
Watts is the site of what is supposed to be the biggest redevelopment project in the history of the city. An extension of earlier renewal efforts, the proposed $200 million project would include building a cultural corridor of theaters, shops, and art centers, as well several hundred new homes and apartments.
Public and private capital would be directed toward attracting offices and light industry to the area. Job training, child care, drug counseling, and other social services would be expanded.
Some local residents, though, complain the project would turn Watts into an ``annex'' of downtown. They worry about losing their homes through eminent domain. Amid the furor, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and local politicians recently put off the project for six months. They vow not to displace residents and are involving them more in the planning.
``We believe redevelopment can be a stabilizing force rather than a threatening one,'' says Roy Willis of the city Community Redevelopment Agency.
Optimists - and there are some - point to the community's strategic location near downtown, the airport, and the harbor, and new transportation improvements as evidence of the area's potential. They envision greenbelts where dirt patches now exist, mini-Silicon Valleys where old warehouses stand.
If it all comes about, maybe Watts can then overcome perhaps its biggest obstacle: its image.
``Watts is the name of a community. It is not the name of a riot,'' says E. Grace Payne, head of the Westminster Neighborhood Association. ``The riot was in Watts but it was also in Detroit, Chicago, and Newark.''
She sits at an oak table in her office, talking about a favorite subject: the good aspects of Watts, the PhDs, professional athletes, and others from here.
``People assume if you live in the ghetto you are ignorant, uneducated, poor, and on welfare. Watts is a community like anybody else's community.''
First of two articles