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New Visions and Fresh Starts in Watts and South Los Angeles

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In recent weeks there have been numerous articles on the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb by the United States Military in Hiroshima. There have been an equal number of, if not more, articles about the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Watts Riots in South Central Los Angeles. By all accounts the events of the 1965 Watts Uprisings were almost equivalent to an atomic bomb because they not only changed Los Angeles forever, they represented the tumultuous state of race relations in America at large and also foreshadowed a series of similar riots that occurred across the country through the late 1960s in cities like Detroit, Newark and Boston.

Today, residents, activists and other civic servants in Watts and South Los Angeles are hard at work rebuilding the communities they grew up in, with new skills and fresh perspectives. Their new visions for the future of their neighborhoods are informed by their intimate knowledge of the community, its obstacles and its strengths. Individually and collectively, they are transforming South Los Angeles into a positive place for younger generations to learn and grow in.

This week L.A. Letters examines contemporary Watts and offers an inside perspective from current stakeholders who are doing their part in 2015 to reimagine Watts and greater South Los Angeles.

Eastside Riders Bike & Skate Shop

"As we approach the 50th anniversary in Watts, how many of the older generation are talking about cycling clubs in Watts?"asks John Jones III, co-founder of the Eastside Riders (ESR) Bike Club and field representative for Councilmember Joe Buscaino in Watts. "Maybe few to none. We want cycling to be a staple in the Watts Community fifty years from now and to be a game-changer in a community with so-called 'nothing to do.'"

John Jones III a lifelong resident of South Los Angeles founded the Eastside Riders in 2008, with the intention of increasing bicycle ridership in South Los Angeles, educating the community about safety components and to build greater unity across Watts, Florence-Firestone, Compton, Willowbrook, Carson and the greater South Los Angeles area.

Jones is currently working very hard with his colleagues to create the Eastside Riders Bike & Skate Shop which will be opening on September 5, 2015. Located on Central Avenue and 114th Street, the co-op is "truly going to be a community shop for Watts. ESR will be like a Boys and Girls club for Watts."

And while cycling has become an increasingly popular pastime and legitimate form of transportation in other parts of the city of Los Angeles, in Watts it has taken a little extra time and effort to build momentum. "All kids have to do is drop that tough attitude and do something different. There are people who care and want to make a difference."
For the East Side Riders, cycling also serves a greater purpose.

"We will educate our community and hope to bring a sense of pride. We hope to increase ridership and educate all safety components when it comes to walking, cycling and driving. We must all live together, work together and play together, " says Jones.

Jones, who grew up in the Florence-Firestone community neighboring Watts, remembers hearing about the dangers of going to Watts. Today, however, he sees and experiences a very different reality on the streets. "Growing up in a family full of gang members you heard stories about places in Watts you might go and if you didn't know the right people you might not return. Now I travel via bike through most of these areas and that threat, that problem, isn't there anymore."

Jones credits these changes to new community partnerships. "There is a partnership with the community and police, longtime community activist groups like the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC). Together they've helped change the fabric of the Watts community since 1965 and continue to thrive and help the people of Watts at all costs," he says.

The Eastside Riders Bike Club and their new shop will be another resource in the community to help further promote these changes. They recently gave away 30 bikes to local youth. They will be having a wide range of events and workshops. One of them are their B.E.A.S.T. classes which stand for Bicycle Education And Safety Training. The bike club will be hosting community activities on the third Saturday of every month with their partners The Foundation For Second Chances, WLCAC, GAP, Beacon House, the Office of Joe Buscaino, and the Office of Community Beautification.

They will also be having after-school workshops and are working on getting laptops for students to do homework on-site. In addition, they will feature a spin-off of LA County Sheriff Deputy Ken Yanecko's BEAR class which will teach kids how to ride their bikes correctly and give them the opportunity to upgrade their bikes or get a used bike to make it their own at the end of the class with all new parts.

The Children's Institute
Located on the corner of 103rd Street and Compton Ave, the Children's Children's Institute, Inc. (CII) is a 109-year old organization that serves about 24,000 kids and family members each year in Watts, the Westlake/Rampart area, Torrance, and Long Beach.

They have had a physical site in Watts for eight years, though they've served families in the area for many years before that. Over the last four years they have greatly expanded their Watts' services focusing on trauma through clinical interventions, family support efforts like Project Fatherhood; youth development programs in arts and sports; and early childhood education.

The Children's Institute offers health and support services to families throughout Los Angeles and Long Beach. Photo by Jonathan Olivares.
The Children's Institute offers health and support services to families throughout Los Angeles and Long Beach. Photo by Jonathan Olivares.

"The kids of Watts have just as much potential as kids from more affluent areas--they just need the proper opportunities and support," says Nina Revoyr, Executive Vice President at the CII. Revoyr also happens to be one of LA's greatest contemporary novelists.

As part of their efforts to provide opportunities and support to youth and families, CII is also developing new infrastructure and facilities in Watts. Revoyr is especially ecstatic to announce that Frank Gehry is designing a site for their new Watts Campus, which he designed pro bono. It will be a 50,000 square foot facility on a 2-acre lot just behind the old Watts City Hall. "We're building a safe, welcoming space for kids and families--but we're also creating a beautiful building that will inspire kids to dream," she says.
According to Revoyr, these developments are part of larger transformations in Watts' physical environment that are contributing to a real sense of positive movement, a critical mass of change, including the redevelopment of Jordan Downs, WLCAC's Mudtown Farms project, and Roy Choi's new restaurant.

Nina states: "Something notable about Watts--for all of its challenges, is that it feels like a true community. There is a tremendous sense of pride among its residents, a real commitment to making Watts a safe, beautiful, place for kids--and families."

Watts Re:Imagined
Ashley Hansack is a 22-year-old Los Angeles native that grew up in Compton, Koreatown and Watts. She recently graduated from her undergraduate studies in Washington and after four years, is now back home in Watts ready and excited to apply the many skills she gained in the field with her local community. Hansack's knowledge of urban planning and community politics combined with her street knowledge make her uniquely equipped to make a difference in her local community.

She is now working for a community-based improvement initiative called "Watts Re:Imagined" along with the National Resource Defense Council and Grant Housing and Economic Development Council. Together, they have a goal of promoting positive change in Watts. According to their website, their "vision is a diverse and thriving community that honors culture, values prosperity and preserves our natural resources."
Hansack came on board with this initiative recently after she attended a meeting at the Grant AME church and spoke about her yearning to get more involved in the community.

Hansack wrote her senior thesis on the Jordan Downs Housing Projects in Watts because she, "wanted to focus on a topic revolving around my community and on a topic I care about deeply: environmental justice. I examined the prospective redevelopment project of Jordan Downs by conducting my own research and interviewing 19 different people including government officials, residents of Jordan Downs and Watts, community activists, and scholars." One of the main arguments of her thesis "is that development/redevelopment can lead to the displacement of people so it is important to be proactive in ways to avoid displacement as to not perpetuate injustices." This idea informs the work she wants to do in the future with affordable housing and mobility issues in LA with Watts Re:Imagined.

On August 16 from 12pm-6pm on the corner of 103rd and Central, Watts Re:Imagined activated a lot that has been vacant for many years by bringing live music and performances, fun activities, and art into the once barren space. Hansack collected stories and pictures of people from the neighborhood for the history activity booth which featured the history of Watts and reflections from current residents.

"I think art can be such a powerful tool for mobilization and change and this event is exactly the type of event needed to boost morale in the community and further this collective thinking of how we can work together as a community to allow our visions to come into fruition." She feels a great sense of fulfillment to be able to engage in this work in the neighborhood she loves so much.

Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center
Another amazing location doing important work in the area is the Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center. I recently visited the Wooten Center and was very impressed with their building and youth programs. Naomi McSwain is their Executive Director. She told me more about their history: "The Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center at 91st and Western was founded in 1990 by a mother in honor of her son, Al Wooten Jr., who was killed in a drive-by shooting."

Photo by Jonathan Olivares.
Photo by Jonathan Olivares.

Located less than 2 miles west of Watts, this community center is also very close to the area where the recent "100 days, 100 nights," outbreak of gang violence occurred in the Athens/Westmont area of South Los Angeles. McSwain has lived almost all of her life in South LA and has been committed to educating youth, keeping them out of gangs and protecting them from violence for over 25 years now.

She has many thoughts on how the area has evolved over the years. "I was born and raised in what we now call South Los Angeles," McSwain says. "On a positive note, the changes I've seen as a life-long resident are more people going to college and working in professional careers and businesses. More people owning homes and keeping them a long time, establishing roots for their families. Certainly a lot have lost their homes since 2009 but overall the landscape looks better in terms of ownership and careers, especially since 1965. The bad news is the numbers are still horribly low and there's a lot of reasons for that."

'We have high expectations for our kids,' says Naomi McSwain, Executive Director of the Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center. Photo by Jonanathan Olivares.
'We have high expectations for our kids,' says Naomi McSwain, Executive Director of the Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center. Photo by Jonanathan Olivares.

She has also observed shifts of people leaving the community. "A lot of South LA people, Black and Brown, have moved to the suburbs in the past 20 or so years," she notes. "These are often times people with degrees and professional careers and businesses. They've got the good credit and are buying homes at prices cheaper than in LA. I was one of them. I lived in Moreno Valley for about seven years and later in Pasadena and San Bernardino before I returned to work at the Wooten Center."

Over the years, McSwain's hopes have flowered, been disappointed and revived once again. "I was hopeful when I left in 1996, seeing so many people doing better with events like the Black Business Expo and African Marketplace. Both were very instrumental in fostering a spirit of entrepreneurship and partnership in South LA that you can still feel in places like Leimert Park and Watts. Unfortunately, both events are gone and the problems in education and economics remains." She remembers the gang truce and how hopeful everyone was after 1992. "It was beautiful with the sudden halts in gunfire through the night and rival gangs hugging one another and forgiving old trespasses," she remembers.

Students have access to academic support and a safe, fun space. Photo by Jonathan Olivares.
Students have access to academic support and a safe, fun space. Photo by Jonathan Olivares.

She wants to cultivate change from within. "We're here to work in partnership with parents, schools, government and other agencies to help our kids achieve academic excellence and good citizenship," she says.

"It's all about the time and attention and exposure that can show them what skills they have and what they can do with them. We have an oceanography field trip next week. We did computer animation this summer, coding last year and robotics the year before. We'll be in science competitions this year. Our kids do homework every day at the center and complete college plans starting at grade 3. We have high expectations for our kids and do whatever we can to avoid limiting their potential. Kids can do whatever you take time and care to show them."


Photo courtesy of Jonathan Olivares.
Photo courtesy of Jonathan Olivares.

There are numerous other Angelenos in Watts and the surrounding areas that are doing their part to re-imagine South Los Angeles. Each of the organizations and people mentioned above are doing their part to re-imagine Watts and greater South Los Angeles. All and all, they are making great progress. Though there are still hurdles to overcome and work to be done, the tremendous efforts of these activists and artists are nonetheless inspiring. Salute to these change-making leviathans in the landscape of L.A. Letters.

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