LOS ANGELES -- A shiny new light rail line bisects Watts now. There is a new shopping center, a health center and thousands of new Hispanic residents who seem to know little of the rage that made the Watts community the scene of race riots 25 years ago.
Academics say the Watts residents rioted for six days because they were tired of racial discrimination, high unemployment, limited access to health care and social services, poor housing and inadequate transportation. Thirty-four people, 29 of them black, were killed; 1,000 were injured, 4,000 were arrested and there was an estimated $40 million in property damage. The National Guard was called in.
"There's still a lot of problems," said council member Joan Milke Flores, whose district includes Watts, "but I believe a lot of progress has been made," particularly in health care, housing and community involvement. "There's a new cohesiveness that wasn't there before," she said. "The people now band together."
Others are less certain. "I've noticed a few changes," said postal worker Ansley Truitt Jr., whose route borders the Watts Towers and the new Metro Rail Blue Line. "But I don't see to what degree things have changed to enhance the lifestyle of the people in the area."
In addition to the train and health and shopping centers in the five-mile Watts area, a 2,000-acre redevelopment project is planned that would bring commercial businesses and industries, renovate public housing and provide social, educational and neighborhood services.
The rioting began Aug. 11, 1965 -- a muggy summer night -- four blocks outside of Watts. Two white California Highway Patrol officers stopped Marquette Frye, a 21-year-old black, for suspicion of driving drunk. A crowd gathered and a scuffle broke out, igniting riots.
The Watts community still suffers, according to Walter C. Farrell Jr., national research affiliate at the UCLA Center for the Study of Urban Poverty. Farrell, with two other professors, is studying trends of the urban underclass.
"The trends have plummeted," Farrell said, referring to unemployment, the growth of youth gangs, a rapid rise in the Hispanic population and the disconnection of blacks from the community's economic mainstream. "They have a higher level of despair, a more depressing economic and social situation, in terms of scale, than in 1965."
Blacks are moving out of Watts, and Hispanics are moving in, changing the community from all-black to largely Hispanic. While racial tensions between blacks and Hispanics are not currently a problem, Farrell said confrontations between the groups "could" become a problem. Hispanics compete for the same jobs in the area.
Joseph Taylor, accountant at the Watts Health Foundation, said the Hispanic influx affects the availability of jobs and has lowered wages. At the foundation, bilingual workers are paid extra for their language skills, Taylor said.
Taylor, who was 5 at the time of the riots, said there were more community programs while he was growing up in Watts and that business people put money back into the community. "Now they're keeping it for themselves," he said.
The planned redevelopment was recently postponed because residents feared losing their homes. Mayor Tom Bradley, with Flores and council member Robert Farrell, whose district borders Watts, formed a committee to find a plan acceptable to the community.
Farrell said the project is expected to improve the community's economy by offering employment and increasing local business ownership. He added: "The people of Watts have endured many challenges and hardships over the years and have managed to make homes, raise families and build a community in spite of the adverse conditions facing them."