Why The Difference?
By Jessica Ekwegh
I have been a resident of Los Angeles, California my entire life. I have seen things ranging from predominately white areas such as Manhattan Beach to the predominately black neighborhoods like South Central. With my extensive knowledge of the area, over time I have noticed a wide range of differences between the two. Most white neighborhoods like Torrance and Manhattan Beach are some of the well-kept areas in Los Angeles County, while others like Watts are in unsightly condition. I not only want to point out the differences between these neighborhoods, but I also desire to get down to the root of why many white neighborhoods seem to receive borderline excessive amenities while black areas are neglected.
My interest in the local history and living conditions of Watts, California was first sparked about two or three months ago, after I moved in with my grandmother, who has been a Watts resident all of her life. Every morning, as I am leaving to school I am slapped with the harsh reality of the poor condition Watts is in. Everyday, I see trash and debris in the streets, a high unemployment rate, countless homeless people, buildings in desperate need of remodeling and high numbers of stray animals loose in the streets. And I can not help but to question, why is Watts like this? Would Watts be in this condition if most of its resident were white? In my opinion, the answer is no it would not be.
Before being a resident in Watts I shared the same view of it with many outsiders looking in. That view was that it was a dangerous, poverty-stricken area that I would never live in. What I did not realize was that, Watts, despite its reputation, is a very distinctive community with a very unique history. “Watts is home to the Watts Tower built by Simon Rodia, one of the four nationally recognized historical landmarks in Los Angeles (www.laist.com).”Watts was established in 1926; originally all its residents at that time were Caucasians who worked on the railroad. While comparing Watts now to then, you will see two completely different neighborhoods. During that period Watts was a very nice looking neighborhood, the government provided funding towards maintaining the upkeep of the area, and Watts was an area that people actually desired to live in. Gradually, over the years, many African Americans began to settle there and by the 1940’s, Watts was almost a completely African American neighborhood.
However, even though Watts carries the negative reputation it does, it has been home to many people for many years. For example, Mary Ann Phillips, my grandmother, has lived in Watts since 1946 and has experienced everything from the 1965 Watts riots to the present day gang battles that happen on her very street. My first question to her was, “Has Watts been like this your entire life?” Her response to me was, “No, it has not always been this way. Watts used to be a very nice neighborhood for African Americans; it was like our own little world. Most of the businesses were black owned. There was not trash all in the streets. People took pride in living in Watts they would not throw their trash just anywhere, yards were well kept, and children were not just running around unattended. Overall people were more polite and the area was a lot safer than it is now. That is the Watts I grew up in.” Next, I asked, “In your opinion, why do think Watts is not getting any better?” She replied by saying, “it is a combination of things. One, many people have given up on this area. Another is that the government has been neglecting this area for years just allowing it to go in a downward spiral. The crime is eating this area alive, the high rates of gang violence and drug dealing and the fact that people just stopped caring about Watts. But unlike many people I still do, Watts has been where I have lived for sixty-four years and I do believe that it can be what it used to be with some effort and the proper support.” I continued on and asked my next question, “Do you feel that the government has been neglecting Watts as a result of racism? She replied with a very passionate, “YES! I do believe the government has neglected this area because it is a black neighborhood that is why white neighborhoods look better. Even though Watts once was nice, proper funding for maintenance there has not been provided, and if it has been it was far from enough.” My final question to her was, “Do you feel there is anything that could be done to beautify Watts again?” She said, “Proper funding provided from the government, remodeling of many different buildings, schools, housing projects, and most importantly people who care enough about Watts to make it a desirable area to live in.
After interviewing my grandmother she left me with a vivid picture of what Watts used to be like when she was a young girl. So, what was the first thing that began to change Watts? I discovered from my research, that it began after many of the area’s factories closed down, one by one. This in turn, put many residents out of work. Also, racism was still very prevalent during that time. White police officers were notorious for harassing many African Americans in that area. “The Community’s high unemployment rate, perceived harassment by police officers, and lack of adequate public services such as hospitals was a boiling fuel in the Watts (www.laist.com).” Later, in 1965, an African American man was arrested and beaten by a white police officer in Watts. This event was just the spark needed to ignite a riot. “A five day riot where thirty four people met their deaths, over a thousand wounded and enormous damage was caused; this is now known as the infamous Watts riot (www.planetware.com).” This was the turning point for Watts. From there, things only got worse. “The 1970’s did not fair well for the Watts Community either, when the Bloods and Crips rivalry took the area hostage. Between 1985 through 2005 the LAPD reported 20,000 gang related homicides in the Watts (www.laist.com).” In recent years, community leaders have tried to give extra attention to museums and the Watts Tower, hoping to bring visitors to the community and help lift the negative stigma that the area has developed over the years.
Therefore, after reviewing all of my research, both sources of information were very useful with helping me understand why white neighborhoods and black neighborhoods look so different. My grandmother’s experience illustrated to me what Watts was like at its best, and the information that I gathered from online sources revealed to me all that this area has been through and how it never truly recovered from it. Most white neighborhoods never had to undergo high unemployment rates, harassment from polices officers and inadequate services. Their communities did not ever have any riots because of racial, social, and/or economic frustration. Thus, that is where there difference lies. In addition, people who do not care about the up-keep of their neighborhood and an overall ignorant mentality of life spreading throughout many African American areas, only goes to further explain to me why white neighborhoods and black neighborhoods conditions are so contradicting. However, even with that being the case, that does not make it fair. I believe that the area’s residents deserve to live in a nice looking neighborhood as well.
I feel that the necessary change in order to restore the beauty of Watts can start with me. If I put forth the effort of going out and picking up trash around my area, my actions might inspire others to not litter so much or start picking up trash well. If I began to attend some community meetings, I might gain insight on some of the improvements people in the area are trying to make. Another possible way would be to seek other young people who would want to see a change in our community. I believe that every neighborhood deserves an equal amount of attention and opportunity.
"The Neighborhood Project: Watts." www.laist.com. Gothamist, 2007. Web. 7 Jun 2010.
Watts." www.planetware.com/los angeles. Plant Ware Inc, 1995. Web. 7 Jun 2010.
An Interview with Mary Ann Phillips
by Jessica Ekwegh
1. How long have you lived in Watts?
Answer: Since 1946
2. Has Watts always been in this condition; if not what did it used to look like?
Answer: No it wasn’t, it used to be well kept. The area was nice and a lot safer.
3. In your opinion why do you think Watts is not improving?
Answer: Because no one is putting forth an effort to improve it, the crime rate continues to escalate and the government neglects to provide us with the proper funding to try to restore our area.
4. Do you feel that the government that the government ignores this area because it is predominately inhabited by African Americans?
Answer: Yes, absolutely it is still constant racism going on around us and that is one example of it, if most of these people living over here in these projects were white it wouldn’t look like this I bet.
5. Do you feel anything can be done to save this community?
Answer: I feel a lot of things can be done.· More funding· Remodeling· More people who want to restore Watts.