L.A. Gangsta Tours: What up in Watts
Ok, it’s 20 years after the Rodney King-inspired riots that blazed through Los Angeles and since that time things have cooled down quite a bit. So much, in fact, that the areas of Watts, Compton and South Central LA are hitting the tourism scene as destination central for those who think LA lacks cultcha.
On a recent tour LA Tourism & Convention Board offered to foreign journalists, I tagged along as the only local to see if I could see some glow beyond the attack dogs chained to backyard fences and billboard ads offering tooth extractions for a bargain $49.
What stands out beyond the rough edges is LA’s everyones-ness. The city, no matter what the area, is a rolling composite of neighborhoods, one after another, in tight communities of people just trying to live together and get by.
Watts is one of those neighborhoods. Formerly called “Mud Town,” it’s a little 2.5 square mile in south L.A. that is as notorious for riots that broke out in the summer of ‘65 as it is for the spiraling 100-ft. towers that mark the neighborhood skyline – an unexpected masterpiece of rebar and colorful scraps created singlehandedly in the middle of the last century by the Italian immigrant who lived there.
Today, an active arts center at the scene gives interpretive tours of the towers and the strange life of their creator, Simon Rodia, and welcomes visitors into a local art museum surrounded by old trees and peaceful gardens – on just another street in Watts.
Nearby, a compound known as the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC) takes it a step further with an art museum, an immersive slave ship exhibit, glass-making classes, a skate-board park, a drama stage, a timely photo exhibit of Dr. King and the marches on Washington, and a compelling, if not odd, walk-through recreation of a street in the Old South. You can find, among the memorabilia, what is possibly the world’s largest collection of “gator-babies.” The small ceramic souvenirs depict happy alligators feasting on wide-eyed little babies taken from their slave mothers and thrown into the bayous as gator bait. Whether a myth or fact of the late 1800s, the clay figurines keep the conversations alive and provide anchor for a broad and curiously curated collection of race-inspired kitsch
The WLCAC was founded 50 years ago. And while it has grown into a sizable center in those years and makes a mark on the map as a “must do” for any visit to South Central, it has figured out that Watts is more than a neighborhood with a history and a flair for art. It’s a wild ride.
So some tough-looking homies in red T-shirts were summoned, and a battalion of bicycles collected and Watts Ride was born to take tourists on bicycles through the toughest parts of L.A. for a very good (and safe) time.
For $40, you get a bike, a group of guides and take off on a 90-minute to 4-hour, 10-mile ride around Watts, experiencing such places as Pancho’s Bakery for bolillos, or the WPA-era Roosevelt Park. Participants can check out the soul food buffet at Watts Coffee House and burger shacks reputed to have the best burgers in L.A.
Stops along the route include the Watts Towers and the WLCAC compound, and guests are treated like queens and kings, says Tim Watkins, whose father founded the community center.
The tours have to be scheduled through ridesouthla.com or by calling (323) 563-5639. Or download the map and start exploring. But it helps to have a hefty guy in a red T-shirt at your side telling you the stories, shaking down the ‘hood and pointing out the Watts hot spots
Similarly, LA Gang Tours (LAgangtours.com) takes groups through the urban jungle of backyard L.A. on scheduled tours and on a big, safe bus. But the web site has not been maintained and a human reservations person is hard to reach.
Photos by Lark Gould, copyright© 20122 comments