For someone of my age and skin tone, the word ‘Watts’ elicits definite feelings of unease. While I am probably too young to actually remember the images of the 1965 uprising, it was part of the mid-to-late 60s period when American cities seemed engulfed in fire, destruction and racial tensions. I certainly do remember the 1992 riots, living here in Los Angeles at the time, standing on the roof of our apartment building, a 10-15 minute car ride from the south-central area of the city boiling over, watching the smoke from the fires that were alight in the city again.
“But Watts is country which lies, psychologically, uncounted miles further than most whites seem at present willing to travel,” Thomas Pynchon wrote in a New York Times essay, 9 months after the ’65 August riots, in the wake, incredibly, of another shooting of an unarmed black man, in his car, in front of his pregnant wife, by a white police officer who, unsurprisingly, was not charged with the death. “She’s going to have a baby,” was the last thing Leonard Deadwyler said. I Can’t Breath. Watts, 1966. Staten Island, 2014. Ferguson, Missouri.
To my discredit, these were some of the thoughts running through my mind as I made my way to Watts last week, the reasons why I never had even thought to make the trip back 20 years ago when I last lived here. This is not my part of the city. Terra vetita.
It is does such a disservice to the place and communities living here. This blinkered, limited view diminishes what Watts actually is, what it’s been, the totality of its history. How can anywhere be reduced to any one thing? I’ll tell you how. Willful ignorance.
Like much of Los Angeles, Watts was, with the appearance of the Europeans, originally farmland. Then the railroad came in the late-19th century, and Watts grew into a working class city, connected to other parts of Los Angeles by an extensive intra-urban public transit rail system. (It’s important to always make that point for people who still think this is a city built for the car.) Many of the residents, in fact, worked for the railroads. Watts was incorporated as a city in 1906 and became part of Los Angeles in 1924 through annexation.
Three years before that, Sabato Rodia, an Italian immigrant and tile worker, had begun what would be a 33 year quixotic art installation endeavour. The Watts Towers, or Nuestro Pueblo, Our Town. It was an imaginative recreation of elements of Rodia’s hometown in southern Italy, single-handedly constructed in his backyard with scraps of metal, cement and other neighbourhood detritus and found objects of broken tiles, glass, seashells.
It is a staggering work of artistic imagination and determination. And defiance. And the individual idiosyncrasy that Los Angeles is noted for.
Not long after completing it, at the ripe old age of 75, Rodia handed over ownership of his house and property to a neighbour before leaving the city to live with family in central California. He never returned, never came back to look upon his creation. Subsequent owners spent five years or so, fending off the city’s attempts to tear the work down, citing safety concerns. But in 1959, after it proved to be earthquake sturdy, the city backed off and the towers remained in place, now part of a community arts centre.
Today, wandering through the project, looking up at the spires which have no logical reason for still being up there, the Watts Towers seem to symbolize for me a constancy, a sense of permanence that withstands the pressures of change and evolution that neighbourhoods and communities are always subject to. Sabato Rodia chose the location, the house with the backyard facing the railroad tracks so that lots of people would see his work of art as they commuted back and forth to work. Before he was finished in 1954, the rails had been torn up, nearby jobs departed further afield, a working class neighbourhood transformed into a highly racialized one, rife with all the tensions and conflicts that boiled over into an uprising one week in August, more than 50 years ago.
Like the Towers, some things haven’t changed that much. “50 Years And I Still Can’t Breath” was an exhibition on display in the adjoining gallery, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Watts Rebellion. Yes, the hate and oppression and state-sanctioned violence against marginalized communities has not gone away. In many ways, it remains as virulent as ever, gone underground and re-emerged, more covert than overt.
But, in Watts, like other economically and social segregated parts of Los Angeles, the trains have returned, in the form of LRTs, re-connecting neglected and ignored neighbourhoods to the wider region. The demographics are changing too as new immigration seizes the opportunities to make a better life for themselves. There’s an amazing resiliency, a potent timelessness, as represented by the towers, to the struggle against all the malignant forces that have besieged places like Watts pretty much from the outset. Conformity, misguided city building, economic dislocation, prejudice, both hard and soft, that see places like these only through a very narrow lens of skewed preconceptions set in mind a long time ago. Preconceptions I should have known to let die a long time ago.
— shamefully submitted by Cityslikr