By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
We may not have the numbers, but viability is another question. "Ain’t nothing gonna happen until we start being a community," says Helen Colman, a Crenshaw resident who jump-started a block club on 71st Street after the 1992 riots and still acts as adviser. Colman talks proudly about what the ethnically mixed club instituted: tree planting, an annual block-club party, a neighborhood cleanup project called Operation Clean Sweep. Lying just south of the railroad tracks and just west of a ragged stretch of Crenshaw Boulevard, 71st Street was at that precarious point where a neighborhood can slide into intractable decay. Colman was determined it wouldn’t. "People have started fixing up their homes, improved and painted, and are feeling a lot better about things," she says.
The black people on the block tend to have been here a long time. Current block club captain De De Anderson moved to 71st in 1969; her neighbor Henry Carter came the year before. Both have watched black families move out, either to suburbs or back south to their points of origin. Carter, a native of Louisiana, once watched three black families move out and five Latino families move in almost simultaneously. He concludes that "things have generally gone down" in the last 30 years, though not necessarily because of Latinos. "It isn’t getting any better, what with this gang thing and this dope selling," he says, surveying the street from his wrap-around front porch. The houses are spare, but neat and quiet; the blare and bustle of Crenshaw seem much farther away than a block and a half. "But I been here too long. I’m going to tough it out."
Neither does Colman plan on looking elsewhere to lay down roots already dug. Besides the block club, there’s her church, St. John of God, a Catholic church at Crenshaw and 60th Street that was once one of L.A.’s biggest black parishes, a meeting-up place for its Southern-bred contingent. The last black priest, Father Charles Burns, left in ’94; the Eucharist is now given first in Spanish. That’s okay by Colman. "I’m glad for the mass at all," she says. "You learn to adjust, or you leave. That’s it. Stay and improve. We’re all in the hood together."
A growing amorphousness is the greatest part of our poverty, but it is a part nobody discusses because, by definition, it is nothing you can see. In these politically blinkered times people are eager to put faith in the best appearances, and among black people that best-foot-forward thing is very nearly a historical directive. Black newspapers have always followed that directive, but in L.A., facing the demographic desiccation of their readership, such optimism seems hoary, not so much necessary as desperate and out of step.
This is the furious confluence of events they seem willing to ignore: Beginning in the late ’40s, with the official outlawing of restrictive housing covenants, blacks began steadily moving out of the Eastside and other areas of L.A. to which they had been consigned. In the ’60s, that moving out intensified as local industry dried up and the Watts Riots exploded a long-simmering urban discontent. In the ’70s, the industrial base continued its long, slow collapse, and the anti-public-spending movement, rooted in the passage of Proposition 13, took hold. By the ’80s, big government was out, urban neglect was in, the much-ballyhooed black middle class was in full retreat and a tremendous wave of new immigration was under way. Many of the black folk left in South L.A. lacked what sociologists call an "option to exit" — they couldn’t afford to go anywhere else. Add to that the twin scourges of the crack-cocaine trade and the meteoric rise of deadly gangbanging, and black optimism began to sound like an oxymoron.
The black newspaper may also be in danger of becoming an oxymoron, though that is not apparent in a glance at the L.A. Watts Times. If the black community’s solvency could be measured by the paper’s recent fortunes, that solvency would seem reasonably assured. Last fall, the Times moved from cramped, creaky accommodations along the edge of Baldwin Hills to a Wilshire-corridor penthouse that boasts vaultlike quiet, soothing pastel décor and a grand view of the city through a bank of conference-room windows. The new quarters look and feel worlds away from the hardscrabble neighborhood for which the paper is named and from which it took its political impetus after the devastating riots of 1965. The move is ostensibly a good omen — a social climb, something the rival Sentinel, the city’s oldest black newspaper, might even feature on its society page. But it is also a put-on good face that barely masks deeper problems that have been driving the wild black population flux for the last 20 years or so.
The Times’ new digs are in an area that is predominantly Asian and Latino, but associate editor Melanie Polk says that hasn’t changed her goal of serving the black community. For Polk, that community is wherever it happens to be; for the purpose of the paper, Watts has long been less a physical place than a touchstone of local black struggle. "It’s not so much that we’re located in Watts anymore, but that we grew from the ashes of ‘Burn, baby, burn,’" explains Polk, whose parents purchased the Times in 1975. "The whole point was always to get information and resources to African Americans they otherwise couldn’t get."