California Fool’s Gold — Exploring Watts

California Fool's Gold


Welcome to Watts mural

It seems to me that the totality of Watts‘s reputation rests almost entirely on two things – the Watts Rebellion and the Watts Towers. Results of a Google search for “watts” can be divided into three categories: photos of the towers, black and white images of burning buildings, and people with the family name of Watts (i.e. Naomi, Charlie, and Reggie). Pop culture and the media almost never present Watts in a positive light – usually they don’t mention it at all.

Metro Blue Line heading to Los Angeles
Metro Blue Line heading to Los Angeles

Watts is, however, a community of 37,000 Angelenos – most of whom probably don’t sell drugs, aren’t in gangs, and probably spend many days not dwelling on half century-old riots or neighborhood folk art – impressive and important as both are. With that in mind, my friend Bruce and I met at 7th Street/Metro Center in the Financial District and headed down the Blue Line to Watts.

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography's hand drawn map of Watts


Detail of a map showing Watts's location
Detail of a map showing Watts’s location from a piece about the Green Line for KCET

Although Watts is often talked about as if it’s its own city, it’s technically a neighborhood of Los Angeles. It’s located on the Eastside of South Los Angeles – neighbored by unincorporated Graham to the north; the cities of South Gate and Lynwood to the east; unincorporated Willowbrook to the south; and the Los Angeles neighborhoods of Century Cove, Harbor Gateway North, and Green Meadows to the west.


What’s now the Southland was largely inhabited at least 13,000 years ago by a people who are theorized to have been the ancestors to the modern Chumash people. Some 3,5000 years ago, the Tongva arrived from the Sonoran Desert and became the dominant nation, establishing numerous villages (such as the nearby Huutngna) throughout the area. The Tongva supposedly referred to the area in which modern Watts is located as Tajáuta.


Spaniard Gaspar de Portolá led an overland expedition through the area in 1769 that set the stage for the subsequent Spanish Conquest. The Spanish first established a mission in the Whittier Narrows region in 1771 and in 1776 moved their mission to its present location in San Gabriel, about 23 kilometers to Watts’s northeast. In 1781 the Spanish founded El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles, the town which evolved into Los Angeles, about fourteen kilometers to Watts’s north.


Detail of Gerald Eddy’s Spanish and Mexican ranchos of Los Angeles (1937) (source: Big Maps Blog)

Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821. The land on which Watts is situated was granted as Rancho La Tajauta to Anastasio Avila in 1843. The 3,560 acre (14 km2) cattle ranch remained in the possession of the Avilas after the US defeated Mexico in 1848. A claim for Rancho La Tajauta was filed with the Public Land Commission in 1852, and the grant was patented to Anastasio’s son Enrique Avila in 1873.


Detail of map
Detail of Map of the Pacific Electric Railway in Los Angeles, California (1920) (source: Big Maps Blog)

Shortly thereafter the land began to be sold to settlers including Charles H. Watts, a Pasadena resident who purchased a 220 acre (.89 km2) parcel in 1886 and began using it to raise alfalfa and cattle. Hoping to spur development of the area, Watts donated ten acres of his property to the Pacific Electric Railway (PE), founded in 1901 by Henry Huntington and Isais W. Hellman. As the map above shows, Southern Pacific Railroad also passed through the area and today its successor, Union Pacific, continues to.


Watts Pacific Electric depot ca. 1942
Watts Pacific Electric depot ca. 1942

PE’s first major project was a line to Long Beach, which was constructed in 1902. The Victorian Watts Station was constructed in 1904 and was one it subsequently served as a model for similar train stations in Covina, Glendora, and La Habra. Other lines that branched off at Watts traveled to Santa Ana, San Pedroand Redondo Beach.

Watts Train Station
The old Watts Train Station today

Watts Station remained in use as a train station until PE’s Red Cars stopped running in 1961 (the shorter Watts Line ended service in 1958). The station was one of the few structures on 103rd Street to survive the Watts Riots in 1965 and four months later was designated Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #36. In 1980 it was re-opened by the LADWP as a customer service office who seem to be occupying it still.

Willowbrook - Rosa Parks Station
Willowbrook – Rosa Park Station

In 1990, the old Long Beach Line right-of-way was re-purposed by the Metro’s Blue Line, the Watts Station of which is located very near the old one. There’s also a Blue Line and Green Line stop a little further south,Willowbrook – Rosa Parks Station – which is where Bruce and I got off of the train. I’d intended to check out Nickerson Gardens and Imperial Courts before further exploring but they’re located beneath the Imperial Highway which isn’t exactly pedestrian friendly. (The can also be approached by East 115th Street, it turns out).

In addition to the Green and Blue Line, Watts is currently served by Metro bus lines 55, 117120, 202, 254,355, and 612 as well as LADOT‘s DASH Watts line. It’s worth mentioning that in 1967, the black owned Blue and White Bus Company was established in Watts to serve its people and surrounding areas. The successful company was acquired by SCRTD (the precursor to the modern LACMTA) in 1971.


Main STreet Watts 1912
Looking east down Main Street (later 103rd) in 1912

The land in Watts was low-lying, prone to flooding, sandy, and therefore cheap. Unlike 95% of Los Angeles, it also wasn’t off limits to non-whites and so-called “not-quite-whites.” Many of Watts’s early residents were connected to the rail. Many of the traqueros were Mexican-American and most of Southern Pacific‘sPullman porters and waiters were black. Other early residents were largely of German, Greek, ItalianJapanese, Jewish, or Scottish backgrounds and engaged in raising sugar beets. Watts was nicknamed “Mudtown,” a nickname which stuck well into the 20th Century when many of the dirt roads were still yet to be paved. Officially, however, it incorporated as Watts in 1907.


Arna Bontemps

Although the first Great Migration primarily involved southern blacks moving to the Northeast and Midwest, some families headed west – including that of Arna Bontemps. Bontemps’s mother, Maria Carolina Pembroke, was a school teacher and his father, Paul Bismark Bontemps, was a bricklayer. The migrated to Watts from Louisiana. Arna later became a prominent poet associated with the Harlem Renaissance.


Leak's Lake aka Leake's Lake
Advertisement for performance at Leak’s Lake (also spelled Leake’s Lake) (image source: Doctor Jazz)

Located beyond the city limits of Los Angeles, Watts was exempt from that city’s midnight curfew on dance clubs. That, in addition to its diverse, working-class population (and during Prohibition, its bootlegging), helped foster a thriving night life by the mid-1910s. South Central Avenue extended south from Los Angles’s South Central neighborhood to Willowbrook and in that era, numerous venues sprang up in Watts including Baron Long’s Tavern (later renamed Jazzland and finally, The Plantation Club), the Watts Country Club, Leak’s Lake (later renamed Wayside Park), and at least by the 1920s, The Chateau, The Little Harlem, and Villa Venice.


The Watts Towers

The most recognizable icon of Watts are the Watts Towers, built between 1921 and 1954. Their architect was Simon “Sam” Rodia, born Sabato Rodia in Serino, Italy in 1879. Rodia and his brother moved to the US in 1895. He moved to Watts in 1920 and work on his folk art masterpiece the following year. The tallest tower reaches 99 and a half feet (30 meters) into the air, just under Los Angeles’s then-100 foot height limit. After he moved to Martinez, it’s believed that he never returned to revisit his handiwork but by then they were already celebrated and Rodia participated in a 1957 documentary about them, The Towers – which Bruce and I watched at the Watts Towers Arts Center.

In 1963 the towers were designated Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #15 (the only other folk art LAHCM is the Hermon Car Wall in Hermon). The Watts Towers Arts Center opened in 1961. In 1990 the towers were designated both a National Historic Landmark and a California Historical Landmark.

The Watts Towers Jazz Festival was instigated in 1976. The Watts Towers Day of the Drum Festivalfollowed in 1981 and the Day of the Drum and Jazz Festivals still takes place the last week of every September. Past performers have included Alaadun, Clayton Cameron Old School Swing, Cuauhtemoc Mexica Dance Group, Futa Toro, Get Lit Players, Greg Wright, Jalaludin Nuriddin (Last Poets), JMP All StarsKevin Richard & Creole Journey from Santiago Cuba to New OrleansKishin Daiko, La Palabra y Calle 6, Ron Powell’s LA Samba, Ultra Sound, and Wadada Cultural Soul World Beat.

Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center
Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center

In 2008, next door to the Arts Center, the Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center opened and offers piano lessons and animation classes in collaboration with CalArts and Sony.

Watts Towers Art Center
Watts Towers Art Center


We visited the Watts Towers Art Center and met the center’s director (and documentarian/actress/singer) Rosie Lee Hooks. We also met Compton-based artist Charles Dickson and after checking out his one man show, checked out the garden and turtle pond — part of the community garden created in 2009 referred to as the Garden Studio. One of the women (I believe that her name was Norma) working in the garden gave me a packet of Peaches & Cream Hybrid Corn kernels which I planted today.

Watts Turtle Pond
Watts turtle pond


Other documentaries about the towers or arts center and available on DVD include: I Build the Towers(2006), A Tribute To Charles Mingus: Past, Present, and Future (2009), Fertile Ground: Stories from the Watts Towers Arts Center, and Trading Dirt with Simon Rodia and Allan Kaprow.


Jordan High School - Adrian Scott Fine/L.A. Conservancy
David Starr Jordan High School (image source: Adrian Scott Fine/L.A. Conservancy)

David Starr Jordan High School was established in 1925 and named after a naturalist and president of Stanford University. Five of the campus’s structures were built between 1925 and 1927. After the 1933 Long Beach Earthquake, the buildings were renovated with a unifying Streamline Moderne-style, designed by Sumner P. Hunt.


In 1926, Watts seemed to be on the verge of electing a black mayor and city council and the Ku Klux Klan clandestinely attempted to infiltrate the town’s politics at every level. Watts was consolidated with Los Angeles in 1926, in part to ensure that a black municipality didn’t neighbor Los Angeles.


Watts experienced significant growth in the 1940s, when many more Southern blacks – especially from Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas – headed to Western cities. The US entered the World War II in 1941 and many war industry jobs were to be found in places like Oakland, Long Beach and Los Angeles. In Watts, four housing projects were constructed to provide housing for the booming population of both immigrants and returning vets – Hacienda Village, Imperial Courts, Jordan Downs, and Nickerson Gardens.


Gonzaque Village

The chief architect of Hacienda Village was Paul Revere Williams, the first black member of the American Institute of Architects. Williams collaborated with Richard J. Neutra, Walter Wurdeman, and Welton Becket on 184 units, which were completed in 1942. The landscape architect was Ralph D. Cornell and, for projects, there’s quite a lot of landscape surrounding the units. Priority on the units was originally granted to defense workers. In December 2000, the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) renamed the project Gonzaque Village to honor neighborhood advocate Ozie B. Gonzaque.


700-unit Jordan Downs was named for David Starr Jordan and Samuel Elliot Downs. Completed in 1944, it was the US’ first Veterans Housing Project. In 1955, HACLA converted it to public housing, shortly after mayor Norris Poulson put a stop to all new public housing in the city due to pressure from right wingers who suggested that public assistance to anyone – even veterans – was Communist and anti-American. The lead architect on the renovation was James R. Friend and the landscape architect was Hammond Sadler. The most famous former resident of the project was track and field athlete, Florence “Flo-Jo” Griffith-Joyner. Just a couple of blocks west is Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School. Jordan Downs has been the home of rappers including Aktiv, Bad Lucc, Blacowt, Dre Vishiss, G Boy, G Tah, Gutta L, Ice Breezy,Kanary Diamonds, Lil Money, Pipe Da Snipe, RiQ G, Sumu, T-Dogg, Twist Downz, V0$k!, Watts Guerillaz, Wolfcat, and Yung Jay R.


The 498-unit Imperial Courts housing projects were completed in 1944. They were renovated in 1955 under the guidance of architect John L. Rex. A memorable scene in the hugely-entertaining but frankly over-the-top film Training Day was shot there.


Paul R. Williams also designed the Imperial Compton housing project, competed in 1955. It was renamed Nickerson Gardens in honor of William Nickerson, Jr., the founder of Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company. The landscape architect was again Ralph D. Cornell. The 1054-unit housing project is the largest project west of the Mississippi River. It was the home of rappers Jay Rock and the 1990s group, O.F.T.B.


In 1948, the US Supreme Court ruled that the enforcement of racist housing covenants was unconstitutional. After that, blacks and other minorities were free (on paper at least) to live wherever they could afford to buy or rent a home. Almost immediately the black population (theretofore mostly confined to South Central proper, South Park, and Central-Alameda in the north and Watts in the south) grew together and spread to South Los Angeles’s Westside and the Mid-City area of Midtown to form one, large, contiguous, black majority region and as a result, “South Central” began to be applied to a much larger region and is still done so by many today.


Watts Riots

On 11 August, 1965, a young man named Marquette Frye was pulled over on the suspicion of drinking and driving by California Highway Patrol. That seemingly quotidian occurrence proved to be the catalyst for the five days of civil unrest which left 34 Angelenos dead, 1,032 injured, and 3,438 arrested.

Even thought the arrest took place in Harbor Gateway North, the $40 million dollars of damage was spread across eleven square miles (more than four times the size of Watts), and the estimated 50,000 Angelenos involved in the chaos was about twice the number of the entire population of Watts, it was labeled the Watts Riots (or Watts Rebellion) and to be sure, Watts was hit particularly hard. 103rd Street, Watts’s main thoroughfare, was nicknamed “Charcoal Alley” because nearly every structure along it was burned to the ground. 49 years have passed since that event and yet Watts is a place still seemingly more associated with a particular conflict than a geographic space… like Vietnam. In City of Quartz, Mike Davis even called Watts-Willowbrook “the Mekong Delta.” However, even though it’s less acknowledged, just as the riots were seen as the end of an era, they also marked a new beginning.


Watts Writers Workshop
The Watts Writers Workshop (image source: the LA Times)

Screenwriter Budd Schulberg organized the Watts Writers Workshop, which was composed primarily of black authors from Watts and neighboring communities. Early writers in the program included Eric Priestley,Herbert Simmons, Johnie Scott, Ojenke, Quincy Troupe, and Wanda Coleman. Unfortunately, it was burned down by an FBI operative, Darthard Perry, in 1975.


The Watts Prophets

Another graduate of the Watts Writers Workshop was the proto-rap group, The Watts Prophets. The Watts Prophets were formed as Watts Fire by Richard Dedeaux, Father Amde Hamilton (born Anthony Hamilton), and Otis O’Solomon in 1967 (notably, before Harlem‘s better-known Last Poets). As The Black Voices they released On the Streets in Watts in 1969. Two years later they returned with 1971’s Rappin’ Black in a White World (recorded in 1970). It wasn’t until 1997 that they released their third album, When the 90’s Came.


Ted Watkins and four other volunteers co-founded the Watts Labor Community Action Committee in 1964 to provide jobs and social services in the aftermath of the rebellion. Watkins was born in Mississippi and passed away in 1993, aged 71. From the outside, WLCAC looks inconspicuous — a bit like a strip mall, a collection of warehouses, or maybe a SNF.

WLCAC and an old train car
WLCAC and an old train car

I saw the WLCAC logo on a building and Bruce and I began to explore and take pictures of the statutes and what looked like an old train car. At that point, a guy on a bike (EJ, I believe he introduced himself as) rode up and asked us what we were up to. After introducing us to someone in charge and shortly after giving us a tour. I also got filled in a bit on WLCAC’s mission by Ronald Preyer — member of soul act The Young Hearts (a fact which he didn’t mention).

Nijel's bronze Mother of Humanity sculpture
Nijel’s bronze Mother of Humanity sculpture

Touring WLCAC’s campus was moving and mind-blowing. It’s a bit like a museum, sculpture park, event space, cultural center, bazaar, school, atelier, and theme park all rolled into one incomparable space. Although it’s currently on hiatus, until recently there was a monthly event with food and music called “Bones and Blues.” There’s really too much to mention here so just check out their website,

A Hopi katsina with glasses
A Hopi katsina with glasses
Phoenix Hall
Phoenix Hall
The Blues stage at WLCAC's Delta Row
The Blues stage at WLCAC’s Delta Row



The Watts Skill Center, since renamed the Maxine Waters Employment Preparation Center, opened in 1966. It was renamed after the congresswoman, Maxine Waters, in 1989.


Watts Health Center

Watts Health Center was founded in 1967 as one of the first Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) neighborhood health centers.


Wattstax poster

A few years after the uprising, the Wattstax concert was organized by Stax Records and the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company. It was held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Exposition Park on 20 August, 1972 and has often been described as the black Woodstock.

It featured performances from the likes of Albert King, The Bar-Kays, Isaac Hayes, Johnnie Taylor, Kim Weston, Rufus Thomas, and The Staple Singers. Mel Stuart filmed a documentary of the event and later injected pointed social commentary from Richard Pryor and The Love Boat‘s Ted Lange, scenes filmed around Watts, and footage pertaining to the Civil Rights Movement. In 2004, a restored version of this amazing film was rereleased in theaters and I watched it a couple of times.


Perhaps even more critically-acclaimed than Wattstax and more closely associated with Watts is Charles Burnett’s poetic, neo-realist film, Killer of Sheep. Burnett wrote, directed, produced, and shot the film primarily over the course of 1972 and ’73. After shooting additional footage in 1975 he submitted the film as his Master of Fine Arts thesis at the School of Film at UCLA in 1977. The film concerns the existence of a man named Stan who works at a slaughterhouse and his family. For many years it wasn’t widely seen because the rights to the music used in the film had not been secured… until 2007, when a restored print was shown in movie theaters and released on DVD. You can find it in Amoeba‘s Black Cinema section.


The MLK Shopping Center opened in 1984. In 1992, the MLK Jr Monument was dedicated by Mayor Tom Bradley. The MLK Jr. Monument was designed and created by Charles Dickson – the same artist whom we met at the towers and whom we were asked if we’d heard of at WLCAC. Dickson really pushed for us to check out the monument, adding that he was really proud of it, but we forgot. Hopefully next time I’m in Watts.


No Human is Illegal

Like most of what was historically the Black Eastside, Watts today is primarily Latino. After the Los Angeles Riots of 1992, many more black residents of the area relocated to more distant communities including in particular those in the Antelope Valley, the Inland Empire, the San Gabriel Valley, Orange County, the San Joaquin Valley, and beyond. At the same time, Latinos, primarily with origins in Mexico and Central America, filled much of the void created by the departure of the previous population. Shortly before the riots, in 1988, Watts was 86% black and 13% Latino. By the mid-1990s the populations were roughly equal. In 2000, the population of Watts was roughly 62% Latino and 37% black. Nowadays it’s closer to 72% Latino and 27% black. 34% of current Watts residents were born in another county – in most cases either Mexico or El Salvador.

Maya Obelisk
Maya Obelisk on Santa Ana Boulevard


Unfortunately, the perception of Watts as a dangerous place still sadly frightens off many would-be visitors. The violent crime rate in Watts is lamentably high – but then all violent crime is lamentable in my opinion. Watts currently has the tenth highest violent crime rate of Los Angles’s neighborhoods but those more violent (Chesterfield Square, Green Meadows, Vermont Knolls, Athens, Gramercy Park, Vermont Vista, Harvard Park, Manchester Square, and West Compton) seem to benefit from their obscurity whereas the Watts name continues to strike fear into the hearts of many.

In 2012, Los Angeles had the 56th highest violent crime rate of cities in the US with populations of over 100,000 — beneath places like Portland, San FranciscoMinneapolis, and Omaha. In other words, it is extremely unlikely that a visitor to Watts (or any Los Angeles neighborhood) is going to become the victim of a violent crime. In fact, I’d rank Watts as one of the friendliest places that I’ve visited — and the only one where someone gave me a seed packet.


Comfort Inn
Comfort Inn in Watts

There are several motels in Watts, including the Hills Villa Motel, the Mirror Hotel, and the Crown Hotel. The Mirror Motel, built in 1964, has the most appealingly 1960s exterior and sign but any traveller knows that such superficialities are rarely accurate indicators of room conditions. My suspicion is that all three are budget motels — the sort that charge both hourly and weekly rates, depending on a lodger’s need. An online review of Hills Villa simply states “It was firme.” Probably more appealing to most tourists is the Comfort Inn, comfortably situated on the WLCAC campus and fairly modern looking. There’s also Airbnb.


In Watts, it seemed as if there was almost always music playing wherever we went. Although Bruce had something with him called a Jammy Pack, he left it unused. Many other folks were less shy about playing their music on phones, and even radios hanging from their wearers necks. No one seems to bother with headphones and it reminded me of the 1980s, when people traded in their inward-oriented Walkmans for outward-projecting boom boxes. In other parts of Los Angeles I routinely see death-wish-having cyclists deafly racing through traffic with their ears blocked by earbuds but in Watts, even the lowrider bicycles have speakers. The musical highpoint of the day came when a car crept by us bumping B.G.‘s “Don’t Talk to Me” off of his best post-Cash Money album, Life After Cash Money.

Music-making has had a huge place in Watts for at least a century too. Back in the day local acts included The Woodman Brothers’ Biggest Little Band in the World, Big Jay McNeely, Buddy Collette, Bumps Myers, Dootsie Williams, the Irving Brothers, Joe Comfort. In contemporary times, rap is seemingly the chosen genre for most Watts musicians and rappers born or raised in Watts (in addition to the aforementioned) include Cashola, Choc Nitty, D Ray, Glasses Malone, Jahccy, Kam, Lil’ Rocc, Lorenzo Straight, and Run Russ.

The most famous jazz musician associated with Watts is almost certainly Charles Mingus, who was born in Nogalez, Arizona but raised in the neighborhood.

Perhaps only slightly less is Sylvester, the Hi-NRG disco star who was born in the neighborhood. Watts the birthplace of another disco diva too — Viola Wills.

Soul singer Brenda Holloway was born in Atascadero but raised in Watts. Watts-born musicians in other genres include Devan Vyasa (electronic) and Blind Boy Paxton (blues).


Despite its large, long-established black population, Watts seems to have only been home to two so-called “negro theaters,” the Linda Theatre and the Largo Theatre. The former formerly stood at 1635 E. 103rd Street. It was a 669-seat, single screen, independent theater that existed at least between 1946 and 1953. The latter stood at 1827 E. 103rd Street. The 904-seat, single screen theater was designed by Carl Boller for his firm, Boller Brothers, and opened in 1923. Both were demolished long ago.

Watts was a film location for several films, including He Walked By Night (1948), Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), My Brother’s Wedding (1983), To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), Daniel and the Towers (1987), Colors (1988), White Men Can’t Jump (1992), Atomic Samurai (1993), Menace II Society (1993), Real Ghosts (1995), Dark Blue (2002), and Family (2008).

In the Blaxploitation era alone Watts was featured in Hit Man (1972), Melinda (1972), The Bad Bunch (akaTom) (1973), Dynamite Brothers (1974), and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976).

Watts has shown up in episodes of the television series Robbery Homicide Division and Southland as well. Although filmed in a studio in Burbank, Sanford and Son (1972-1977) was a remake of the BBC‘s Steptoe and Son which relocated the action from Shepherd’s Bush to Watts.Watts has also been the subject of several documentaries including an episode of CBS Reports titled”Watts: Riot or Revolt?“(1965), and episode of ABC Scope titled “The Face of Watts” (1965), and more recently,American Drug War: The Last White Hope (2007).

The only actors that I know of who are Watts natives are Aaron Meeks and Tyrese (Tyrese Gibson). If there are others (or filmmakers), please let me know in the comments.


Jordan's Cafe
Jordan’s Cafe

Although admittedly my desire to eat at Jordan’s Café was primarily due to the building’s signage (utilizing as it did both arrows and at one point, incandescent bulbs) I lost my chance when it closed in 2010, 68 years after it opened in 1942. I guess my point it — if you see somewhere you want to check out, don’t put it off!

Still open eateries include Caveman Kitchen, Chapo’s Tacos, China Bowl Express, China Express, El Burrito Loco, El Pollo MachoM & T Donuts, Puro Oaxaca Nieves y Antojitos, Sandy’s Food Service,Seafood Express, Tacos La Potranka, and Tamales Elena.

Mafundi Institute
Watts Coffee House — through the door on the left

One of the best-loved places to eat is Watts Coffee House, the roots of which lie in the Watts Happening Coffee House, which opened shortly after the rebellion. Bruce and I first walked right past the restaurant because it’s practically hidden inside a building shared with a school. We did notice the mural, which is a holdover from the building’s past as the home of the Mafundi Institute in the early 1970s.

Inside Watts Coffee House
Wattstax and my Wattstax-inspired “font” and map

It’s not even primarily a coffee house (despite the name), and secondarily a museum/shrine to Watts. The kitchen specializes in southern/soul food. We did both get coffee with our lunches, however, and it was good. After filling our waitress in on our mission, she played a DVD of Wattstax for our entertainment.


Mural at Geraldo's Meat Market Carniceria
Mural at Geraldo’s Meat Market Carniceria
Lee's Market
Lee’s Market — the reason that the chicken crossed the road apparently

There are almost as many markets as restaurants in Watts as there are restaurants although many are little more than convenience or liquor stores. They include C & C Mimi Market, Chapala Market, Easy MarketEl Ranchito Market, El Osito Nutritional Products, El Pavo Mini Market, El Rinconcito Water, El Torito Market, Family Mini Market, Geraldos Meat Market, Hammer’s Market, Harris Grocery Market, Jay’s Market, Jordan Market, Lee’s Market, Lims Market, Local Market, Randy’s Mini Market, Tala MarketTommy’s Liquor Market, and Watts HP Meat Market.

C & J Market
C & J Market — with Mary in a case that Houdini would have trouble with



St. John's United Methodist Church
St. John’s United Methodist Church (source: their Facebook page)
St. Lawrence of Brindisi - 1924
St. Lawrence of Brindisi
Grant AME - Watts
Grant AME


Not unexpectedly, there are a lot of churches in Watts. Some of them are rather interesting architecturally. The Macedonia Baptist Church was founded in 1908. St John’s United Methodist Church was constructed in 1923. St. Lawrence of Brindisi was built in 1924. Bethel Baptist Church was built in 1941.Grant AME‘s current hangar-like home was constructed in 1954.

There’s also Beulah Baptist ChurchBible Revival ChurchChurch In God In ChristCompton Ave Church of ChristDeliverance Church of God In ChristFaith Temple Church of Christ Holiness USAThe First Saint John Missionary Baptist ChurchFirst Unity Missionary Baptist ChurchGood Faith Missionary Baptist ChurchGreat Antioch M B ChurchGreater Wayside Church of God In ChristJesus Is Delight Missionary Baptist ChurchLighthouse Church & Community OutreachMarshall M Rev Union Missionary Baptist ChurchMorning Star Missionary Baptist ChurchMt Beulah Baptist Church, New Light Missionary Baptist ChurchNew Way Missionary Baptist ChurchOlive Branch Baptist ChurchPotter’s House ChurchRevival Center Triedston Church of God In Christ, San Miguel ChurchSt Peter Aoh Church of GodSweet Pilgrim Missionary Baptist ChurchTree of Life Missionary Baptist ChurchTrue Mount Zion Missionary Baptist ChurchUnion Missionary Baptist Church, and Village Baptist Church.


Ted Watkins Memorial Park - Graham
Ted Watkins Memorial Park
Watts Senior Center and Rose Garden
Watts Senior Center and Rose Garden

Unfortunately South Los Angeles is a rather park-poor region. Jordan Downs, Imperial Courts, and Nickerson Gardens both have their own recreation centers. There’s the 109th Street Recreation Center and Park and tiny Grape Street Pocket Park. The Watts Senior Center is home to the Watts Senior Center Rose Garden although the roses weren’t doing much at the time of our visit. Located just outside of Watts is the aforementioned Ted Watkins Park (fka Will Rogers Memorial Park), where the Watts Healthy Farmers’ Market – SEE LA is held on Saturdays. That park is also home to the Promenade of Prominence, aka theWatts Walk of Fame. The nearest park of any real size is lovely Magic Johnson Park (fka Willowbrook Park) in neighboring Willowbrook.


Alma Reaves Woods - Los Angeles Public Library - Watts Branch
Alma Reaves Woods – Los Angeles Public Library – Watts Branch


The Watts Village Theater Company was founded in 1996 by Lynn Manning and Quentin Drew. The organization produces original theater works and educational programming for South Los Angeles.Watts is also home to the Alma Reaves Woods – Los Angeles Public Library – Watts Branch — which was closed because Lincoln’s Birthday.

Watts House Project
Watts House Project
YO! Watts - Youth Opportunity Center -- an old firehouse.
YO! Watts – Youth Opportunity Center — an old firehouse


Local organizations trying to make a difference include East Side Riders Bike ClubFriends of St. Lawrence – Watts Youth CenterNeighborhood Youth Achievers, Operation Progress, Watts Century Latino Organization, the Watts Gang Task Force, Watts Girl Scout Troop #19785, the Watts House Project, the Watts Neighborhood Council, the Watts/Willowbrook Boys & Girls Club, and YO! Watts.

If you’re aware of any other resources or civic organizations that should be included (and linked to) here, please let me know in the comments.


If you’d like to read more about Watts there are several books and short pieces worth a look including Spencer Crump‘s Black Riot in Los Angeles: The story of the Watts tragedy (1966), Thomas Pynchon‘s A Journey Into The Mind of Watts (1966), Colin Marshall‘s A Los Angeles Primer: WattsBud Goldstone and Arloa Paquin Goldstone‘s The Los Angeles Watts Towers (1997), The Dapper Rebels of Los Angeles, and especially, Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles (1999).

My Neighborhood: Watts from Intersections South LA

The couple at Esotouric delved into Watts with their podcast episode, “Secrets of the Watts Towers” and the late, great Huell Howser explored a bit of Watts (and people’s fear in going there) on Visiting…With Huell Howser, Episode #109.

Watts Love

To vote for any communities you’d like to see covered in California Fool’s Gold, name them in the comments. If you’d like a bit of inspiration, there are primers for:

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.

Art Prints



13 thoughts on “California Fool’s Gold — Exploring Watts

  1. Well done. I had the good fortune to direct redevelopment efforts in Watts for two-years in the early 90’s. This hard working community lacks the tools of self determination, the ability to set community standards. The political class with the exception of former Mayor Tom Bradley have not been responsive. Watts is 2.2 square miles and has 2,444 public housing units, approximately 40% if total public housing units in Los Angeles. The institutionalized poverty and lack of political power are the biggest obstacles to physical, economic and social progress. Your summary of the recent projects indicate that only social services have been developed in the past decade.


  2. I learned something yesterday, in 1961 the Pacific Electric service to Long Beach/San Pedro and Watts from DTLA was terminated. Unemployment in Watts skyrocketed immediately afterwards by more than 10% as residents could no longer get to work in DTLA or the harbor area in anything less than a four hour commute. Four years later, the community was ravaged by the riots and what exists now is less than what they had in 1965. I ate at Jordan’s Restaurant, then being the only sit-down restaurant in town. You didn’t miss anything.

    Liked by 1 person

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