A Los Angeles Primer: Watts

People turn up in Watts with all kinds of expectations, most of them fearful. Not-so-recent films and even less recent news stories having prepared them for the worst, they still find themselves unready for the most unsettling quality of all: the way that, despite living under the burden of such a loaded place name, it still exudes to the visitor a kind of placeless anonymity. Clive James tried in a 1979 piece for the Observer, writing that "Watts isn't even a ghetto. It's nothing. The inhabitants of Chinatown, Little Mexico, and Little Japan at least know where they live. But Watts is Little Nowhere." All of this does injustice, of course, to the countless real lives lived there, existences of the type I first came to know through Charles Burnett's detail-rich, Watts-set 1977 piece of Los Angeles neorealism "Killer of Sheep." The first time I watched the movie, I didn't recognize its location, and indeed, Burnett doesn't underscore it. But when I told "Los Angeles Plays Itself" director Thom Andersen that, he rightly asked, "Where else could it be?"

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Jan Morris, even more of a world-traveling literary product of the British Empire, tried capturing this quality of Watts three years earlier, in 1976. "All around are the unpretentious homes of black people, so that you might easily suppose yourself to be in some African railway town, in the Egyptian delta perhaps. Few cars go by. You can hear children playing, and dogs barking, and neighbors chatting across the way." The description suits many scenes from "Killer of Sheep", or indeed, any of my own walks around Watts. I tend to go inward from the Blue Line train station, usually unbothered by human, animal, or vehicle. These all exist, but they tend to pass me slowly — or I tend to pass them slowly — on my way to the Watts Coffee House, a small cash-only diner operating, unexpectedly, within the same building that houses one of the area's many schools. There you can sit amid walls festooned with the sleeves of classic soul albums and chisel away at your vast heap of hot sausage, biscuits, gravy, grits, salmon croquettes, and chicken-fried steak.

In reality I visit the Watts Coffee House less often than I'd like to, in part out of fears for my arteries, but also because I can never remember what time of any given day they close. This makes it risky to go in the afternoon on an empty stomach, since, as far as I can tell from my wandering, the Watts Coffee House stands as the only viable source of food in the neighborhood. Most of the dim convenience stores I run across, the kind with clerks behind an inch of bullet-proof glass, put out signs primarily to advertise their selection of liquor. (On stretches like these, you start to understand what all those statistics about inner-city populations' lack of access to fresh produce actually feels like.) Just a few years ago, visitors and locals alike would also have had the choice of beloved Watts institution Jordan's Cafe. I never had the chance to try its food, but I do pass by its empty shell now and again. Its higher-mounted signs — "SINCE 1942," "Fine Food FOR FINE PEOPLE" — haven't yet succumbed to graffiti, but the building itself now slowly approaches the deterioration of the blocks immediately surrounding it, a hazardous texture to which it had once offered a bright contrast.

Yet Watts, on the whole, doesn't feel like a forbidding urban shambles, not least because of its quiet suburban character. Those schools look slick. Some of the unpretentious homes Morris mentions have since become run-down enough for the wrecking ball, not that their owners could summon the resources or even interest for a demolition; others have retained the kind of modest, thoroughly personal charm that other Los Angeles residential areas have long since abandoned for larger-scale garishness. They might startle those Angelenos convinced, on some level, that the neighborhood's eponymous 1965 riots never really ended. "In the daytime's brilliance and heat, it is hard to believe there is any mystery to Watts," writes novelist Thomas Pynchon in a piece of New York Times reporting the year after the trouble. "Only a few historic landmarks, like the police substation, one command post for the white forces last August, pigeons now thick and cooing up on its red-tiled roof. Or, on down the street, vacant lots, still looking charred around the edges, winking with emptied Tokay, port and sherry pints, some of the bottles peeking out of paper bags, others busted."

Plenty of rebuilding has gone on in Watts since 1965, but some of that broken glass remains. "A kid could come along in his bare feet and step on this glass," Pynchon writes, "not that you'd ever know. These kids are so tough you can pull slivers of it out of them and never get a whimper. It's part of their landscape, both the real and the emotional one: busted glass, busted crockery, nails, tin cans, all kinds of scrap and waste." See Watts with clear eyes though Pynchon himself may, this particular image aligns with the standard outsider's conception of Los Angeles' desolate, broken flatland of black desperation. Such an insistently negative outlook can't hope for much accuracy: even the neighborhood's period of black predominance, which began as a result of the Second World War's interstate migration, has ended. But nor can positivity itself do much to erase Watts' bad name in much of the city. Decades of efforts have attempted to change the place's image, but it didn't have much of an image to begin with. Instead of recognizable features of its own, Watts has had to make to do with the fears of others.

Or rather, the fears of others and the one recognizable feature of its own which predates them. But what a feature: standing out on 107th Street but visible throughout much of Watts, we have the Watts Towers, a complex of structures, some of its spires nearly a hundred feet tall, hand-built of cement, tile, and junk between 1921 and 1954 by immigrant construction worker Sabato "Simon" Rodia. The first time you visit Silver Lake, you may well ask yourself, "Am I in Silver Lake yet?" The first time you visit Watts, you'll no doubt spot the Towers and know immediately where you stand. In his famous "The Architecture of Four Ecologies," noted architectural celebrator of seventies Los Angeles Reyner Banham called Watts Towers "one totally self-absorbed and perfected" monument to the city's "fantasy of innocence." He made a point of taking friends to Watts Towers first, before they'd seen anything else in Los Angeles. I try to do the same, whenever possible along with a breakfast at the Watts Coffee House. Watts Towers stands apart from bleak thoughts of rioting, conflict, and dispossession, and after I took a friend visiting from Canada to see them, he wondered aloud why, given its rail connection to downtown, Watts hadn't yet become the next "cool" place to live: a notion Los Angeles hasn't yet allowed itself to entertain, perhaps, but outsiders have always come to change its mind.

Photos by Colin Marshall.

About the Author

Colin Marshall hosts and produces the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. These columns present essays adapted from his book-in-progress, "A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City."
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