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Watts: The Forgotten Slum | The Nation

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Watts: The Forgotten Slum

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The Watts riot was rooted in contempt--for those who ignore the suffering and squalor of a community.

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Carey McWilliams
Carey McWilliams was editor of The Nation for twenty years (1955-75) and wrote numerous books on California. He died on...

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Thirty-one dead, over 700 injured, 2,200 under arrest, 1,000 fires, property damage of $200 million—such is the preliminary toll for the long weekend of rioting in the Watts area of Los Angeles. A feverish search for scapegoats is now under way and will no doubt continue through the 1966 gubernatorial campaign. High on the scapegoat list is the self-righteous Chief of Police who dismisses as a "canard" the charge that the Los Angeles police could ever be guilty of brutality; apparently Chief Parker doesn't watch television. Then there is Sam Yorty, the agile Mayor, playing political tricks as always; warned of the possibility of riots, he did nothing. The list is long and includes The Heat— a favorite scapegoat in all race-riot investigations—and Social Conditions. Here Watts qualifies on all counts: dropouts, delinquency, disease and dependency. But none of these social factors alone or in combination necessarily "cause" race riots, actually it is when conditions seem to be improving that the riots usually explode. Predictably the forthcoming investigation ordered by Governor Brown will stress the same tiresome cliches: police brutality, inadequate leadership, The Heat, slum conditions. All the while the truth about Watts is right there in front of people, in plain boldface type, for all to read; simple that it is incredible. The hatred and violence of race riots is triggered by contempt, and of all forms of contempt the most intolerable is nonrecognition, the general unawareness that a minority is festering in squalor. Until the riots began, Watts had simply been forgotten by the encompassing "white" community.

A sizable Negro community began to develop in Mud Town, as Watts was then called, after 1916; the community later spread along Central Avenue with the influx of Negro migrants from the South which came after World War I. In the 1920s, Watts was a well-known slum—the unfailing butt of bad jokes by comedians on the Orpheum circuit. But it did exist; people knew about it. Anna Bontemps wrote a novel about it (God Sends Sunday, 1931), while Gilmore Millen wrote a novel about the rise of Central Avenue (Sweet Man, 1932). For the new residents of the 1920s and 1930s, Watts was a fact: perceived, studied (a bit) and understood (to some extent). But the big post-World War II migration and boom changed all that.

Today there are thousands of new residents who have never seen Watts. They may have driven through it or over it, or around it, but never to it, nor have they ever stopped there except to change a tire. Artfully isolated from the disagreeable, the haute bourgeoisie of Brentwood, Bel-Air and Beverly Hills can shop lunch and play games for years on end without seeing a Negro except as a domestic. The new middle class living in jerry-built "lily white" subdivisions, each with its own shopping-center, can honestly claim to be no more aware of Watts than the nice Germans were of Belsen. For the highly paid technicians at the Jet Propulsion Lab, Watts might well be an unnamed crater on the moon. If the culture-conscious upper middle class, currently preoccupied with new music and art centers, has heard of Watts at all it is probably as the site of the three bizarre and oddly beautiful Watts Towers. This universal unawareness of the squalor and misery that is Watts has fostered the illusion not merely that Los Angeles is without a serious "race problem" but that it is a much better city, in this respect, than Chicago (see p. 92) or New York which, for a time, was true. Anna Bontemps and Jack Conroy found that Negro migrants had made a better adjustment in Los Angeles than in any other American city, a circumstance they explained by suggesting that the Japanese- and Mexican-Americans had drawn off much of the racial hostility which otherwise would have been concentrated against Negroes (They Seek A City, p. 205), but this has long ceased to be the case.

For a time, Negroes flocked into Los Angeles in the post-1945 period at the rate of 2,000 a month, most of them looking for but not finding defense jobs, more recently, the rate dropped to about 1,000 a month. Watts is the ghetto of the migrants; 98 per cent Negro, it has the highest population density in the country. "Ever since World War II," the San Francisco Chronicle notes, "Watts has been a little like a pressure cooker." Of course there is a lack of local leadership, most of the residents are migrants. Following the Los Angeles pattern, middle-class Negroes left Watts years ago and today have little direct contact with it. Moreover, by ignoring the existing middle-class Negro leadership, the larger community has undercut whatever influence this leadership might have exerted among Watts residents.

Two brief camera shots suggest the reality of Watts. In one a large, calm-voiced Negro patiently explained to Governor Brown that the larger community was "always taking from Watts and, not putting back", why, he wanted to know, "do they do us like they, do?" In another shot, a Negro told the Governor that the Negroes of Watts "know how other people live"; they watch television. They know, he, said, how much the government is spending on "missiles and things like that" They could hardly not know, living in Southern California. Only last fall, shortly before the election, President Johnson reminded the Californians that the government pours more than $2 billion annually into the payrolls of the state's aerospace industries, most of it in Southern California. For a time the general boom provided a measure of upward mobility even for Negro residents and thereby stimulated still further Negro migration. But for the last year or so, new Negro migrants have found themselves increasingly bottled up in Watts with little immediate prospect of escape, while being bombarded day and night with images of affluence, and constantly tempted by the well-stocked shelves of the supermarkets Even so, matters might have gone along as before, given a measure of insight and recognition and understanding. Neglect can be tolerated, discrimination can be endured, but the contempt of indifference inflames.

Now, at last, Watts has recovered its social identity. Those who say that the riots have set the civil rights movement back—that they have left permanent scars, etc—simply do not know the history of big-city race riots. The sad fact is that most race riots have brought some relief and improvement in race relations and the Los Angeles riots will not be an exception. The seeming indifference of the larger community is structural. Los Angeles is the city of sprawl. To sprawl is to relax and feel comfortable. For most residents, Los Angeles is a comfortable city, psychologically as well as physically, because the unpleasant can be kept in its place—at a safe distance from most of the people. By accident more than design, Los Angeles has been organized to further the general tendency toward social indifference. The freeways have been carefully designed to skim over and skirt around such eyesores as Watts and portions of East Los Angeles; even the downtown section, a portion of which has become a shopping area for minorities, has been partially bypassed. Now that the community knows once again that Watts exists, it will begin to pay some attention to its problems. Nothing could be more fatuous, therefore, than the suggestion advanced, most surprisingly by Max Lerner among others, that the Los Angeles riot were "without a cause." Hatred never exists in a vacuum, and violence of this sort is never without a cause.

If Watts lives in history it will be as the scene of the riots and the home of the Towers. The three Watts Towers, which have drawn the praise of distinguished art critics, were built by Simon Rodia alone, unaided, at his own expense, over a period of thirty-three years. He built the towers out of "waste" which he had collected broken files, dishes, bottles, over 70,000 sea, shells, bottle caps and whatnot. The walled garden from which the towers rise is covered with multicolored mosaics or with imprints of tools, hands, corncobs and baskets. Out of this "waste" he built three structures of great beauty. He built them with no drawing-board designs, machine equipment or scaffolding: they were literally "built in the air." Rodia was born in Rome and came to this country when he was 12. A tile setter and telephone repairman, he settled in Watts and devoted most of his life to building the towers which, when completed in 1954, he gave to the city and his neighbors. "I wanted to do something for the United States," he said, "because there are nice people in this country." Whatever his reasons, the towers— and the towers alone—redeem to some extent the ugliness and hatefulness of Watts, the slum Los Angeles forgot. In 1959 Rodia left Watts, not to return, a man of his quaint old-world social attitudes obviously did not belong in jet-age Los Angeles. He was reluctant to say why. "If your mother dies and you have loved her very much," he said, "maybe you don't speak of her." On July 21 he died in Martinez—in Northern California—at the age of 90. It is fitting that he died away from Watts and before the riots.

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