Today we looked at the consequences of the other side of the economic history of Los Angeles and explored South Central Los Angeles, specifically Watts. Whilst Orange County was benefiting from government defence spending and growing lighter hi-tech industries in the 1960s, South Central Los Angeles was losing pretty much all of its heavy industry. It had been a significant centre for car and auto parts production, but before many places in the developed world, in the early 1960s, it de-industrialised. The concurrent re-industrialisation of Orange County required a very different type of labour force and South Central was left with a large unemployed and mainly African American population. It is no surprise then that urban unrest in the form of the 1965 Watts rebellion accompanied this process.
We began our day at the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC) in the heart of the Watts district. It was founded by Ted Watkins – whose name can be found on many buildings and parks in Watts – in reaction to the 1965 uprisings. His motto ‘Don’t Move Improve’ encapsulates his intent which was to try to prevent people moving out from the area and instead commit to making Watts a more liveable and prosperous place. WLCAC now runs a series of community services from afterschool homework clubs to senior citizen centres, but is also a landlord owning and managing around 800 affordably rented homes. It is the largest landowner in Watts and as such any developments proposed in the district will most likely require their input and consent.
We were given an inspiring tour and talk by Ted Watkins’s granddaughter, Tina Watkins. Tina outlined a fascinating story of the change in the WLCAC mission that was sparked by the 1992 uprising in South Central. After that point they focused less on the economics of the community and more on becoming a cultural, arts and education centre with a mission to tell the stories of black history in the United States. Her tour really made the students think hard about the often hidden and unspoken histories of exploitation and injustices experienced by African Americans which is outlined in a range of exhibits and installations housed at the Center. Tina’s a cappella rendition of Strange Fruit in the mock-up of a night time in the Deep South was truly memorable.
We ended out WLCAC tour with Tina’s father Tim Watkins in a Q&A. Much of this was focused on issues around police-community relations but also, interestingly about the pressures of gentrification that the district is beginning to feel – as large landowners in Watts, WLCAC are in a good position to mitigate some of the negative effects of this development.
After WLCAC we took a short visit to the Watts Towers Arts Center. Rosie Lee Hooks who runs the centre was kind enough to open the Towers up for a tour on a day on which they are usually closed for conservation and work. The students also met the artists in residence Charles Dickson and Carlos Spivey.
The students have talked to a number of people who live in LA and Orange County and most have expressed shock that anyone would visit South Central LA. This is founded less perhaps in prejudice and more in fear, a fear stoked by all forms of media – traditional and social. Most people who live in LA have never been to South Central and never will. By the end of this trip then, our students will have seen and experienced more of the city than most Angelinos. If you are reading this and planning a trip to LA, make sure you take in WLCAC and the Watts Towers, they really are interesting and safe places to go.
Navigators today were actually pretty good. Despite feeling nervous about guiding us through South Central LA Freddie, Elena and Tom knew where they were and were ready to make detours when and if required.
We are gradually posting a number of images on @SussexGeogLA and re-tweeting some of the students’ tweets. Please do follow us if you are a tweeter or just look it up if you’re not.