There was a time when the mere mention of Watts brought an instant image to mind, at least to people who lived outside that small and storied but embattled community south of downtown Los Angeles. The image was of poverty, crime and danger, and was played for all it was worth in the popular media. In the 1983 movie Blue Thunder, an LAPD helicopter had a hard landing, and to signal the danger the pilot faced, the filmmakers were sure to make it clear that the copter went down in Watts. It was a code word for an African-American neighborhood. Watts extended from the harbor to USC.
In the last two decades, the code word has become South Central. In the movie of that name, executive produced by Oliver Stone, the gang members central to the films story lived and ran near South Hoover miles from South Central Avenue, the portion of the city that fostered jazz clubs and black culture in Los Angeles before the lifting of racial covenants freed African-Americans, in theory, to live wherever they could afford to buy.
But community activists like Helen Johnson, a city animal-services commissioner who lives in Vermont Square, had had enough of pop-culture references and news-media reports referring to any African-American neighborhood where there was a report of crime as South-Central. Councilwoman Jan Perry agreed, and after she crafted a measure, the full City Council signed on. There will be no more South-Central. From now on, it is South Los Angeles.
These are people who have been through two riots, Perry said of the community backers of the name change. We were looking for a broader moniker one that allows a community to define itself.
But some confusion still exists on just what section of town the new South Los Angeles covers. The South Los Angeles Area Planning Commission covers West Adams, Southeast Los Angeles and the area formerly known as South-Central. But Perry said West Adams remains West Adams, and South-Central will become South Los Angeles. There is no plan, she said, to make all of the neighborhoods south of the Santa Monica Freeway into South L.A.
The real issue may be that the city is becoming responsive to residents who wish to create their own identity, and supporters of the name change say such self-empowerment outweighs any fuzziness of neighborhood boundaries.
South Los Angeles may become the new euphemism for African-American neighborhoods, but as Johnson told the council, at least the term will be accurate.