SOME YEARS back I did a piece for the Los Angeles Times just as the Watts House Project was starting out. A young artist, Edgar Arceneaux had been organizing families from the neighborhood, community artists, architects and the city to rehab the street and the modest bungalows across the street from Simon Rodia’s famous Watts Towers. The idea had been to upgrade the road (which often flooded), but also to build a cultural bridge between the past and the future of Watts — ethnically — as the community’s face changed from predominately African American to Latino.
The project hit hitches along the way — and continues to and recently made more press for not fulfilling its ambitious commitment, but walking the narrow street you glimpse the efforts were/are in good faith. The community still feels like a neighborhood in a way that so many big city places — particularly here in L.A. — lack nowadays.
Building trust has been difficult in a community that has for so long been regarded as a euphemism solely for urban ills rather than a location — a real neighborhood with families and homes and gardens — and of course troubles. It’s hard to build trust in a place where so much has been promised yet often without results, leaving the community to fend for and untangle itself.
When we strolled past a busload of tourists admiring the Towers (which sadly are only open on weekends now) through a chain-link fence, two men and two young boys sat on a porch across from the proceedings with a basketball they idly bounced on the top step. My friend Jan asked if she could take a shot. They passed her the ball and she made a couple valiant efforts. “Nice arc!” shouted one of the men. As she turned to go, and shrugging it off, the other shouted out: “Awww, now don’t pretend you’re hurt now.”
She laughed, looked over her shoulder, and you could see the teenager in her eyes, quick-mouth, prideful ready to go again. One more try. And in that moment I thought it did feel like a late-afternoon day from a decade now very far away. It just goes to show that whatever’s in play it hasn’t broken a deeply-rooted history of strong neighborhood spirit, resilience. I’m still rooting for all of them.