Furious protesters and overzealous military men battered large swaths of the small South L.A. neighborhood of Watts into a bloody-ashen pulp almost 50 years ago this week during the 1965 Watts Rebellion. The six-day protest spread destruction through 50 square miles of Los Angeles and wreaked $40 million in property damage.
The neighborhood today in some ways looks similar to America’s other blighted black and Latino hubs — fast food joints, empty lots and abandoned homes at every turn. But it also looks relatively barren compared with equivalent neighborhoods in Chicago and New York City, the nation's two other biggest cities. There are no dense high-rises in Watts, and much of what burned during the rebellion was never rebuilt or replaced.
“It was the beginning of the end of the industrial base in South Los Angeles,” USC race and media expert Erna Smith says of the Rebellion. “It was also a foreshadowing event, in terms of how the city was going to transform itself.”
Smith also points to the event, along with uprisings in other cities, as the beginning of a political and cultural awakening for African-Americans. Sadly, new policy proposals and an influx of funding aimed at turning the area around resulted in little neighborhood change.
For those who would like to mark the 50th anniversary, here's a self-guided tour of Watts Rebellion landmarks:
Avalon and 116th: Marquette Frye’s arrest for suspicion of driving under the influence at Avalon Boulevard and 116th Street on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 1965, sparked the rebellion. Frye's mother, Rena Price, and his brother also were arrested after fighting with officers at the scene. A crowd rapidly grew at the site amid reports that patrolmen had shoved Price, who was rumored to be pregnant (but was actually just wearing a smock).
77th Street Station: Officers from the Los Angeles Police Department's 77th Street Station were responsible for policing Watts. On Thursday evening, Aug. 12, a community proposal to replace white officers with African-American police in unmarked cars was rejected by deputy chief of police Roger Murdock, according to the state-commissioned McCone Report. The 77th Street station was rebuilt 20 years ago, a block away from the old one.
Will Rogers Park (now Ted Watkins Park): After violence broke out and persisted, the federal government activated the California Army National Guard on the second full day of the rebellion, Friday, Aug. 13. They were stationed in what was then called Will Rogers Park.
Athens Park Auditorium: Community leaders and officials met at an auditorium in Athens Park the day after Frye’s arrest to discuss ways to tamp down neighborhood tensions. With the meeting unproductive, Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker called on the California Army National Guard shortly after it adjourned.
Charcoal Alley: A swath of businesses in Watts along 103rd Street near Compton Avenue was dubbed “Charcoal Alley” after the riots. Almost the entire stretch was reduced to smoke and rubble. The area hasn’t regained its liveliness, though some shops appear to be thriving.
“That was our thoroughfare, that was our shopping,” says Lindsay Hughes, a Watts native and business owner who’s leading a Watts Rebellion bus tour later this month. “And they burned it down. The neighborhood burned it down.”
Watts Station: Watts Station was the last remaining structure in Charcoal Alley, and its survival was long seen as a symbol of hope that Watts could make a comeback. While a shopping center was built kitty-corner from the station, the area is still a relative dead zone.
“Economic development was very slow,” says Wajeha Bilal, who manages Watts Station. “They didn’t develop the land for the vendors.”
Watts Towers: Italian artist Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers were left alone during the riots. The jutting, twisting towers were a point of pride for the neighborhood, exquisite art in a downtrodden area.
Watts Happening Coffee House: The Watts Coffee House was founded in a burned-out furniture store along Charcoal Alley shortly after the rebellion, then calling itself the Watts Happening Coffee House. It eventually closed but was recently resurrected across the street as part of a neighborhood reinvigoration effort.