Councilman Joe Buscaino recently replied to a series of articles by the undersigned setting forth facts demonstrating that Watts is and has been a politically neglected appendage of Los Angeles. Mr. Buscaino takes issue with that contention and responds that Watts has not been neglected and cites several recent projects to support his argument. At the outset, we need to express appreciation for Mr. Buscaino’s efforts for the people of his district and his willingness to debate the larger political issues relating to Watts in particular, and the city generally. Healthy debate always leads to positive results. That said, let us take a closer look at Watts.
According to county statistics and data contained in Mr. Buscaino’s own “Community Studio Report,” forty-two percent of Watts’ residents have not completed high school, only 48% are employed, 8.6% have post-graduate degrees, 34% are below the federal poverty limit, 10% are homeless, 35% have HIV/AIDS, and there is a 30% homicide rate for those 15-34 years old. Nearly, sixty percent of residents believe their neighborhood is unsafe. Worse yet, according to the City of Los Angeles Health Atlas, if you are born in Watts, your life expectancy is 12 years less than if you were born on the Westside. These statistics likely understate the situation in Watts as they include other portions of South Los Angeles. Watts also has the highest population density in the city and has the least amount of green space.
If you walk the streets of Watts, you will not find a single, non-fast food, sit-down restaurant, few grocery stores, and very few banks, none of which are friendly lenders to residents and businesses. Without the support of banks, the community lacks capital to develop like other Los Angeles communities. This is systemic racism. And it is the result of a lack of political power sufficient to direct needed resources to the community. This political distortion has been in place for many decades regardless of who represented CD 15.
Located within CD 15, Watts is on the tail end of the district which includes the much larger anchor communities of San Pedro and Wilmington fifteen miles away. The populations of San Pedro/Wilmington dwarf that of Watts. Consequently, CD 15 never has had and never will have a councilperson from Watts. For these reasons, Watts desires to be part of CD 9, a district encompassing South Los Angeles, where its votes will be more impactful.
Historically, Watts is a community which rose from the migration of blacks from the Deep south. They were looking to escape the worst remnants of chattel slavery, Jim Crow laws, and segregation. It was doing modestly well until it was annexed by the City of Los Angeles in 1926–by a vote of 1356 to 535. It has been downhill ever since. Thirty-nine years later Watts erupted in violent protest over its dismal fate.
In response to the Los Angeles Riot (locally known as the Watts Revolt), the
McCone Commission was created to study and report on the underlying causes of the riot. The Commission detailed the deplorable living conditions and lack of resources in the community. It recommended a significant investment in Watts, including laying the groundwork for a project that would become known as the Cultural Crescent.
The Cultural Crescent was to be a complex consisting of iconic structures, museums, commercial enterprises, and parks, the great and historic Mafundi Institute, all incorporating black history themes. It was intended to be a source of pride for the black community, a source of jobs, a commercial success, as
well as a large tourist attraction. Watts, like Harlem, has a worldwide reputation, and with the Cultural Crescent it could easily develop a large tourist industry. The city has also repeatedly promised the creation of significant green space as Watts is the most densely packed area of Los Angeles and has the least amount of green space.
Promises be damned. Nothing happened to further the intentions of the McCone Commission and Watts again exploded in violent rioting following Rodney King’s beating.
Once again, promises to the people of Watts were renewed and concrete plans for the Cultural Crescent began to take shape and leaders reassured the community of their support for it. Architects created designs, construction plans were proposed and submitted, culminating in a flurry of activity in the years 1993 to present.
Recently, over fifty-five years after the McCone Commission Report, the people of Watts learned that eleven parcels of land on which part of the Cultural Crescent was to be established were actually reserved by the city council for a Westside developer. This transaction took place on Mr. Buscaino’s watch and we look to him to explain how it came about. From what we know to date, the developer intends to construct more than 190 units of “housing” with a handful of “low income” units to satisfy some technical requirement. The Watts Neighborhood Council recently voiced its opposition to the project. By the way, the World-Famous Watts Towers have been compromised in the process by the forfeiture of the main street that leads to the Towers. So how did it happen? We look to Mr. Buscaino to weigh in and explain it.
As to the Watts’ projects mentioned by Mr. Buscaino, the fact is the Jordan Downs Housing project started more than 16 years ago under the name “Watts Rising”. Community protest to the way the project was being advanced caused the Housing Authority to pause the project. As to the new retail space, it does little to advance black business ownership and continues the tradition of blacks as consumers and the enrichment of outsiders. We acknowledge that the Transformative Climate Communities grant is a significant benefit to the community. It had been in the works for years and finally came to fruition during Mr. Buscaino’s tenure and, to the extent his office may have facilitated its conclusion, his efforts are appreciated.
We should never hesitate to acknowledge the good work done in CD 15 and those responsible for it. But, we also expect them to answer for questionable events occurring on their watch, such as the 11-parcel set-aside for what was to be the Cultural Crescent. The set-aside underscores the point that Watts needs to have a larger political voice IF it is to remain part of Los Angeles.
We accept on faith that the elected officials, like Mr. Buscaino, are sincere people who want to do the best they can for their constituents. Still, Watts has been in bad shape for over 70 years and it remains in bad shape. It is a proud neighborhood with a rich history that needs to be honored and preserved. Yet, it is starving in the midst of plenty and largely ignored by the city to which it is attached. We only ask Mr. Buscaino to account for what has happened on his watch and nothing more.
Timothy Watkins, President & CEO Watts Labor Community Action Committee
Mark Ravis, M.D., J.D., M.P.A. Public Interest Attorney