"Don't go there, it's not the safest part of town," many a (non-Militant) Angeleno would say, usually to a tourist or newcomer to town. And usually that would apply to all parts of town save for the Westside or the Valley west of the 170. I wonder though if such words were uttered in the name of genuine care for the safety and welfare of another, or to simply bring other neighborhoods further down, as if they were eternally denied the chance to revitalize themselves.
The year was 1993; the month was July. Still in college but enjoying summer vacation at the time, I decided to do a little exploring around town with a friend of mine. Three years prior, this thing called the Blue Line had thrusted an exotic new form of transportation into the psyche of some Southern Californians: light rail. My friend, Tony (not his real name, in fact I had forgotten it as we lost contact years ago), heard me talk about this exotic new form of transportation for a while, and eventually wanted to see what it was like.
So on an early Saturday afternoon, I picked him up and drove to Downtown Los Angeles where I parked my car at a certain location (there was no Red Line at the time) and proceeded to take a ride on the Blue Line.
Tony was amazed at this sleek, new exotic form of transportation, from the moment he bought his first ticket to when he boarded the train and got to his seat.
We took the train from Downtown all the way to Long Beach and back, just sampling the sights and immersing ourselves in the experience. I had forgotten who proposed the idea, but on the trip back, one of us decided, just for adventure's sake, to go to Watts.
Watts. One of those places where perception defeats any semblance of reality. Let's play a game of word association, shall we? I'll throw out the word: "Watts." What's the first thing to come to mind?
Surely it would be one of these words: Gangs, Crips, Gangs, Bloods, Gangs, Drive-By Shootings, Gangs, Drugs, Gangs, Ghetto, Guns, Gangs and oh yeah, I forgot...Gangs. And remnants of the 1992 riots were still visible all over the city.
But still we wanted to see this Watts place. It was still daytime, the weather was relatively warm but not unbearably hot and not a cloud in the sky. Both of us were area natives, so perhaps this trek would satiate our urban curiosities. I had been to South Central before - the actual South Central, meaning southern blocks of Central Avenue that were once the hub of Los Angeles' black community before World War II. Just a couple years prior, I was a volunteer for a city council candidate at the time and had walked the neighborhood to garner support for his campaign. He didn't win but I got to know a part of town that was largely misunderstood. Tony was Half-rican American (half-black, half-white) though he grew up a Westsider. From my previous experience, I was probably more comfortable round these here parts than he was.
We arrived at 103rd St. Station in Watts and alighted the train. We were both in wonder, awe and freaked-out amazement that we were actually in this fabled place called Watts. The first destination: A two-block walk from the station towards the southeast to the area's sole landmark: The Watts Towers.
I had known what most others had known about the Towers: That they were an ersatz sculpture made out of steel bars, concrete and glass bottles found around the area and cobbled together by one Simon Rodia, an eccentric, diminutive Italian immigrant who one day decided to leave and was never heard from again.
We were unable to get in due to renovation but we ogled the towers from as close as we could get. To me they were a slight disappointment; not in their aesthetics but in their stature. If placed in Downtown they would certainly be overshadowed by even the mid-rise buildings.
But we were here and appreciated the sole part of Watts that has always been appreciated.
And then we heard the sound.
"POP!" We heard echoing in the distance.
We looked at each other, startled, knowing instinctively what it was, wondering who would be the first to say, "Dude, let's get our asses out of here." But our exploring selves wanted to continue our trek; we came this far already.
Out lives seemed to flash before our eyes. Those perceptions were true, we feared, this place was full of trigger-happy gangstaz ready to kill the first thing that moves...
"POP! POP! POPOPOPOPOPOP! (followed by a descending whistling sound accompanied by a fizzle)"
"Wait a minute," I thought. "What's today's date?" I asked, almost rhetorically.
"It's July 3," Tony replied.
"Tomorrow's July 4. Those were FIRECRACKERS!" I said.
Then we started to laugh.
Much more relaxed now, we proceeded to walk back towards the Blue Line station at a much more leisurely pace, along the abandoned railroad track that once took the old Pacific Electric Red Cars from Watts Junction to Santa Ana. The sound of the firecrackers had continued, just like they would in any other neighborhood.
Even years afterward, when I would boast that I had actually been to Watts - and survived (to play on the xenophobia of others), I'd bring up this story to tell to others about how perception can get in the way of reality.
On Independence Day 1993, both my friend Tony and I had declared independence from our fears.