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Uncommon Watts and Compton

No foolin’! Today I did a last-minute outreach assignment for The Robert Group, this time to spread the word to various community centers, parks, libraries, churches and child care facilities about an upcoming community meeting on April 9  staged by County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas to entertain community input for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Medical Center master plan, which will be at the hospital’s H. Claude Auditorium from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Most of the work was dropping off stacks of fliers, like the one pictured left, to various community centers on a list. Since this was a relatively wide distribution area bounded by Century Blvd on the north, the Harbor Freeway on the west, the Artesia Freeway on the south and Santa Fe Avenue on the east, there was a lot of miles stacked up for this one. The night before I mapped out the locations and plotted them out on a map so I could make an effective route between spots.

I was already familiar with some of the area, having done outreach assignments last year for The Robert Group’s outreach for Metro’s Imperial/Wilmington station project, and a few of those places, like Charles Drew University and the Willowbrook Library were re-visited. There were a few parks that did not have open community centers, so those were either skipped or substitutes were found, as in the case of the Magic Johnson Recreation Area in Compton, which had no recreation center building, but did have a neighboring child care center. I handed a stack to the administrator and she told me there were 44 sets of parents who go to the center, so she asked for extras, which I did have.Even as I left, I saw one parent who picked up her daughter, already leave with one on her hand. Everyone seemed receptive and eager when presented with the fliers; MLK and health care access in general is a huge issue in this community.

A lot of non-community people whom I know seem very apprehensive about this part of town, or just parts of town in general. Last night, while taking the Dodger Stadium Express bus back from yesterday’s Dodgers Opening Day game, I had a brief conversation with this couple who were asking about bars around Dodger Stadium, and quipped about Echo Park being a “sketchy” area. I don’t seem to have a problem going there, and visit friends and businesses there all the time. So perception seems to be a great segregator for certain people. Being somewhat familiar with South Los Angeles and environs, none of that fazed me (though it might be a different story at night); I saw some sights there that looked even better than my own neighborhood.

Here’s a look at the “Uncommon” sights of Watts and Compton:

The Rose Garden at Watts Senior Center, Watts: One of my stops was this senior center, which features a well-manicured rose garden and gazebo. Not the thing most people picture when people think of “Watts.”  But this City of Los Angeles-run facility was bustling inside with senior activities. Located on the corner of Century Blvd and Wilmington Ave, you can even see it from the Metro Blue Line, just north of the 103rd St. station.

Watts Towers Arts Center, Watts: Maybe not so uncommon as it is unappreciated, this is actually the community’s most famous and iconic landmark. Centered around a group of 100-foot tall steel towers handcrafted between 1921 and 1955 by onetime resident Simon Rodia, an Italian immigrant. The surrounding park and greenway had neighborhood kids ride around on their bicycles, and there was a group of college-aged young adults either walking around the grounds or hanging out at the park – all of whom happened to be white. Aside from the whoosh and horn blare of the occasional passing Metro Blue Line train nearby, the loudest sound was made by chirping birds. The complex also features a small art gallery space, as well as a youth arts center named after jazz bassist (and product of the neighborhood) Charles Mingus. How cool is that?

Earvin “Magic” Johnson Recreation Area: Located adjacent to Compton, in unincorporated L.A. County land, is a 94-acre park (formerly Willowbrook Park) named after the Laker great that features lakes, trails and picnic areas. This looked way nicer than any recreation area in my part of town…in fact, my part of town doesn’t even have any recreation areas!

Horseback rider, Athens: Usually, equestrian centers are found in rural or upscale parts of town. But I found not one but two people ride their horses on a trail that runs parallel to the Union Pacific railroad tracks in the Athens area, near Figueroa St and El Segundo Ave. Can you declare, “I’m on a horse!” in your neighborhood?

Townhouses in Compton: Near The Hub City’s downtown area, directly south of the Metro Blue Line station is a set of recently-built townhouses, not something that fits the stereotypically-held image of “Compton.” Which is probably what the civic leaders of the city had in mind, working to turn their city around. It’s been working, since the city has recently recorded a 67% drop in homicides and longtime residents taking to talking the streets again.

In contrast to the above, the only place where I felt slightly uncomfortable was the Imperial Courts Housing Project in Watts, just north of the 105 Freeway. It wasn’t as though I feared for my life or anything, but I automatically felt like I felt removed from the rest of the world by just being there. The World War II-era public housing project’s uniform architecture and color scheme felt very institutional, dare I say prison-like, even though there were no physical walls or fences surrounding the complex. But if even a visitor can feel a separation from society, how would a resident feel?

Prior to the early 1950s, most of what is now known as South Los Angeles was an auto-centric predominantly white suburb indistinguishable from any other suburb at the time. But after the “white flight” postwar demographic phenomena, the newer black population who moved in to the area, after the previous white population abandoned it, came from either a  rural or much denser urban environment.  Incidentally, the newer Latino population also came from either high-density urban or rural areas. So to both population groups, the suburban layout was a foreign environment which posed problems such as challenged access to retail and employment centers. The effect of that suburban separation still lingers  today. I would recommend that the future of most of the South Los Angeles area should be based on transforming the landscape: Converting parts of the suburban layout to highly dense residential, commercial and employment centers, while converting other parts to large swaths of open space for recreation (The Earvin Magic Johnson Recreation Area seems to be a functional example), or even agricultural use (Those South Central Farmers folks certainly have a point).

Going back to MLK, Jr Medical Center, access will still be an issue for the area; although located just walking distance from a joint Blue and Green Line station, those who live far from the rail lines will still have to contend with a relatively long drive or an even longer bus ride. Living very close to a medical center myself (Three of them to be exact), MLK Jr Medical Center should be less of an “island” (as it seems to be now within the immediate area) and fill its surrounding areas with related businesses (private-practice clinics) and commercial zones that benefit both hospital employees and the community.

1 comment to Uncommon Watts and Compton

  • Jose

    Welcome to Compton. You missed the new shopping center of Compton. It is located on Alameda and 91 Freeway. The shopping center includes: 24Hour Fitness Center, Target, Best Buy, T.G.I.F Restaurant, Home Depot, Ross, Party City, Del Taco and many more (and much more once Phase 11 is completed). Every time, I talk to my friends or family members who have not been to Compton, about the neighborhoods where almost every other house has a horse, or about nice homes (new or old), or things like that, they do not believe me. I told my friend about the new town homes you have mentioned, and he said “no way, we are getting out of a recession, who will built homes in Compton? Maybe in Downtown LA or Santa Monica, but not in Compton.” I invited him to Compton, he came, sadly, when he came, he got scared because he heard the ambulance passed by my house, with the siren on. But he was amazed, to see how Compton really is. He said he has been to Oakland, and the part of Oakland he has went, gangsters outside in the alley and outside houses, was the Compton he thought he was coming too.

    I cannot wait for the county to open MLK Hospital, and redevelop near the hospital area. Willowbrook is in need of more housing (single-homes), shopping and dining options. I hope LA City follows LA County footprint, and redevelop or invest in Watts too.

    NOTE: Compton is not in South Los Angeles, Willowbrook is.

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