Forty years later, the unemployment rate is the highest of anywhere in the city.”
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa
August 11, 2005 was the anniversary of the infamous Watts riots. There were celebrations, an acknowledgment that time had passed. Yet, for most living in this area, time has stood still. There was little or nothing to celebrate. Life in the neighborhood is virtually the same. For those living in this Los Angeles community, some forty years have gone by and little has changed.
The Watts area, a section of South Central Los Angeles, is still symbolic of life in the “slums” of America. Poverty leads to greater poverty.
Conditions today are as they were in August 1965, horrendous. Then, more than half the residents were unemployed. One quarter of the households were receiving welfare. In 2005, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa suggests circumstances are similar.
Forty years ago, landlords were absent. Property-owners were typically white, well off, and would not want to be seen in such a slum. Most residents lived in squalor. Rat and roach invested homes were the “norm.” Leaking roofs, cracked walls, and poor plumbing were common. Buildings were not maintained. The idea of repairs, restoration, and renovation were whimsy. These did not happen.
Public transportation was not available in this part of town. Residents were required to walk more than a mile merely to find employment, go to their jobs, or to purchase goods. Shopkeepers, businessmen, and bankers took advantage of this. Prices were higher and quality much lower in poverty stricken neighborhoods. Interest rates were also adjusted; these did not favor a struggling clientele.
Racial discrimination was rampant. The police were suspicious of all Black citizens. Surveillance was strong; law enforcement was always watching and waiting for African-Americans to do wrong. Police brutality was acceptable and occurred frequently.
For local residents life was a struggle. Surviving was barely possible; thriving was fantasy. The Black population could not gain access to capital. Beginning a business venture was next to impossible. Improving one’s station in life was not even a dream.
People in Watts felt as though they had no control over their own destiny. Resources were limited. Negro’s were not represented in city government. African-American citizens had no power. Though the right to vote was finally awarded to Black citizens in 1965, there was no reason to believe that things would different.
In 2005, there are slight differences; however, life still looks grim! Look for your self. Read and reflect upon the following statistics. These numbers come from the Los Angeles Youth Opportunity Movement.
• In Watts, 22 percent are unemployed. In other areas of Los Angeles the percentage is less than 7.
• Employed residents typically work in low-skilled and low paying positions. In other areas of the city the numbers differ. Most are gainfully employed in areas that require greater education, expertise, and pay a better wage.
• 32 percent in the Watts residents work in production, transportation, or material moving occupations. In the city of Los Angeles only 15 percent work in similar circumstances.
• Service occupations support much of Watts. Rarely are residents found in professional and specialized stations.
Educational attainment in Watts is lower on average than it is in any other area of Los Angeles. Upward motion and motivation are nil. In some respects, numbers are declining.
• The percentage of adults earning at least a Bachelor of Arts degree increased by only one percentage point from 1990 to 2000.
• As of the 2000 census, 3 percent of adults in Watts have earned a BA degree; in the City of Los Angeles, 26percent of had achieved this feat.
• 64percent of adults in this community do not have a high school diploma.
• Nearly 40% of the adults in Watts have less than a 9th grade education.
This number is 5 percent higher than in years past. Some speculate that this is a reflection of an increase in the immigrant population.
• Currently, more than 30 percent of the population is foreign-born.
• Ten years ago, only 7.5 percent of Watts’ residents were immigrants.
• 76 percent of immigrants now living in Watts arrived in this country within the past 20 years.
• The population is no longer predominantly Black.
• In 1990, the community was 58 percent Black and 43 percent Latino.
• By 2000, 61 percent of the population was Latino, and 38 percent was Black.
INCOME AND POVERTY
• The median household income was $19,600 in 2000.
• In the city of Los Angeles median household incomes were twice as high.
• Per capita income in South Central Watts was $6,800 in 2000
• In the city as a whole, inhabitants earned $20,700.
• 46 percent of the persons living in Watts reluctantly embraced poverty.
• Less than 23 percent in the city of Los Angeles, live in poverty.
• 59 percent of children under 18 live in impoverished circumstances in South Central, Watts.
• In Los Angeles proper, the number of children under 18 living in poverty is 31 percent.
• 24 percent of area households or half of the Watts’ citizenry received public assistance in 2000.
Housing in Watts is more affordable than it is in the city as a whole.
• The average median rent is just $491 per month, 27 percent less than median rent in the city.
• Buildings in the area are about the same age as those in the rest of the city, averaging about 42 years old.
• By HUD definition, homes and apartments are severely overcrowded.
• 28 percent live in what homes classified as severely overcrowded, 56 percent higher than the city’s rate.
• The vacancy rate is very high. This contrast is considered classic in area with slum and blight conditions.
• Watts is a renter’s community; 64 percent of households rent their residence.
• Residents of Watts tend to stay. Upward mobility is not the standard.
• Homeownership rates are low, the population lacks wealth and assets.
In 1965, circumstances such as these caused great frustration. Riots were the result. Is another rebellion possible? Absolutely.
Forty years ago, there was a glimmer of hope. Former President Lyndon Baines Johnson promoted and proposed laws that that would advance the American Dream. He spoke of creating a “Great Society,” ending poverty, promoting equality, improving education, rejuvenating cities, and protecting the environment. Programs were initiated. However, hope died as the Dream was left behind, as was Watts was left behind.
Now four decades later, we are asked to believe again. Novice Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa proposes change. He presents his dream. He calls it the South Los Angeles Investment Initiatives project. He says, “These initiatives will not transform Watts overnight, but what they demonstrate is a commitment to every part of the city, a commitment to a part of the city, Watts, where a dream has been deferred.”
Can we trust, or will this dream be as the American Dream was, delayed, distilled, and ultimately destroyed. We cannot know with certainty; however, we can hope, again. We can decide to make a difference. We can choose to allow this dream to thrive.
You might enjoy reading references directly, rather than through links. Please venture forth.
• Los Angeles Youth Opportunity Movement
• Los Angeles Times, A truth buried in the ruins of Watts, by Kay S. Hymowitz
• Los Angeles Times, Renewed Focus on Watts’ Lessons, by Patrick McGreevy and Jessica Gresko
• The Washington Post, Burned, Baby, Burned. Watts and the Tragedy of Black America, by John McWhorter