Early in the morning, with roosters crowing next door, you can find Betty Day in her park. That's what she calls the slender pocket park on Grape Street, built incongruously on an empty single-family home lot across the street from her house.
“They built me a park when Jim Hahn won,” the 76-year-old Day says matter-of-factly. She's wearing Wrangler blue jeans, a white button-down Lacoste long-sleeve shirt and a black do-rag on her head.
The park acts as a sort of outdoor child care and community center, a place where kids go after school or, in the summer, all day, and get a free breakfast and lunch. They play basketball, dodgeball, red rover.
“If it rains, we put a tent up,” Day says. “The kids still come.”
Day is a legend in Watts, her home for more than 60 years. She came during the “Second Great Migration,” when, in the wake of World War II, more than 5 million African-Americans moved to cities like Chicago, Oakland and Los Angeles, where an explosion in good factory jobs beckoned. During the war, widely acclaimed public housing projects — Jordan Downs, Imperial Courts and massive Nickerson Gardens — were built in Watts to house these and other arriving workers.
By then, L.A. County was the nation's second most segregated big metropolitan area, thanks largely to racially restrictive home-deed covenants that kept whites from selling to nonwhites in certain areas — a practice that persisted even after it was ruled illegal by the courts in 1948.
“The effect was that the black population was piled up in a concentrated area,” says James P. Allen, professor emeritus of geography at CSUN, “a huge black ghetto that was forcibly created by severe housing discrimination and blatant segregation. … And the toughest part of this ghetto was Watts, an isolated and swampy area that flooded when it rained.”
By the 1960s, Watts' big housing projects were virtually 100 percent black, and more than one-third of Watts' residents lived in them. Crime rose. The mostly white police treated residents as if they were hapless citizens of an occupied country.
“Police used to address us as 'nigger boys,'” says Perry Crouch, whose family moved to Watts in 1953, when he was 4.
He was 16 on Aug. 11, 1965. Walking down Avalon Street, he saw a crowd of people gathered at 116th Street. In the center of the scrum was 21-year-old Marquette Frye, who'd been pulled over by the California Highway Patrol for drunk driving in his mom's Buick.
According to Crouch, the traffic stop spun out of control. After one officer threw a woman against a wall, the crowd, thinking the woman was pregnant (she was wearing a smock), became incensed.
“Then one dude threw a bottle,” Crouch says. “And it was on from there.”
That night and the next, angry mobs formed and threw rocks at cars driven by whites. The violence seemed to run out of steam by 11 p.m. It wasn't until the third night — Friday the 13th — that all hell broke loose.
Despite its poverty, Watts had a thriving commercial center then, and most of the business owners were white. There were department stores, theaters, sit-down restaurants, a Farmers Bank, a Safeway, a Woolworth's, a Kay-Phillips Furniture store.
Within days, nearly all were looted and burned to the ground.
“I went into stores and … I took stuff,” Crouch says. “I threw rocks at cars. I did what everybody else did.”
Police and National Guardsmen opened fire on the looters and practically everyone else not wearing a uniform. Thirty-four people died (including one law enforcement officer, who accidentally shot himself). More than 1,000 were injured.
Watts was nothing short of a war zone.
Dee Dee Pitcher-Henderson lives on 103rd Street, across from Ted Watkins Park. Back then it was Roy Rogers Park, and 103rd Street was a true commercial thoroughfare. During the uprising, as most residents in Watts call it, her father was shot in the hand by police, and almost every store on her street was reduced to ash.
“Those places, they ain't never brought that back,” says Pitcher-Henderson, a preschool teacher and member of the Watts Neighborhood Council.
Save for a small strip mall and a couple of fast-food spots, Watts today is shockingly devoid of businesses — and thus jobs. There are no theaters, only two clothing stores and, in this community of 39,500 people, just one well-hidden, sit-down restaurant, Watts Coffee House, which opened in a burned-out furniture store soon after the riots and was called Watts Happening Coffee House; in 1997 it relocated across the street. The ruined stores on 103rd Street were replaced with houses and apartments.
Watts became, and has stayed, a blighted suburbia embedded in the densest urban area in the United States.
“If I really want to shop, I have to go out of Watts,” Pitcher-Henderson says.
The 1965 unrest was the first of many violent upheavals. Shootings became a regular occurrence. Crime skyrocketed. Gangs took over. Crack cocaine took over. The factories began closing. And black residents moved out by the thousands, some to the neighboring cities of Compton, Hawthorne and Inglewood, others to the Inland Empire and Palmdale or to the South. They were replaced by Latinos, who according to the U.S. Census now make up about 70 percent of Watts' population; blacks account for less than 30 percent.
Day is one of a core of African-Americans who not only stayed in Watts but started groups that today dominate the area's neighborhood leadership.
Day had eight children — five boys and three girls. Most joined gangs. In 1987, Kenny was killed at a gas station in an auto theft. Another son, Wayne “Honcho” Day, allegedly head of the Grape Street Crips, did 11 years in prison on a federal drug charge.
In 2005, after a horrendously bloody month that left seven dead, Day helped found the Watts Gang Task Force. Among the dozen other co-founders was Crouch, who'd moved away, gotten several degrees and moved back to help the neighborhood he'd once burned.
The task force was a historic effort to mend relationships with cops and boldly intervene with members from myriad gangs, including Grape Street Watts Crips, the Bounty Hunter Bloods and Elm Street Watts 13.
“We have a model for law enforcement and community engagement that is second to none,” says the Rev. James Jones Jr., a founding member of the task force. “Look across the nation, all these folks being shot and killed by police. When it comes to our community, the last officer-involved shooting was two years ago. We haven't had an unarmed [person] murdered by the police — you'd have to go back eight, nine years.”
The Watts Gang Task Force meets every Monday. And Day still, on occasion, walks the streets at night, looking for gangbangers to castigate.
“When they see me coming they would run, the troublemakers,” she says proudly. “Because Ms. Day is not playing with y'all.”
That's not to say Watts has turned around. It's desperate for anyone to invest in its economic growth. The people want jobs and programs.
But Watts is, in many ways, a forgotten, far-flung neighborhood. When Pitcher-Henderson calls City Hall to have graffiti removed from her back alleyway, city employees use whatever paint color they happen to have left over.
They'd never try that in Sherman Oaks or Mar Vista. It's an apt metaphor for Watts, a small corner of L.A. accustomed to living off the city's dregs.
But Pitcher-Henderson is still here. Betty Day is still here.
“I don't want to move to Cucamonga,” Day deadpans, turning away to go help the children.
—Jill Stewart also contributed to this report. For more information on CSUN's atlas of L.A.'s changing demographics: https://www.csun.edu/~hfgeg005/eturner/books.html
Editor's note: A correction was made to indicate Wayne “Honcho” Day's prison term was 11 years; he did not die in prison.