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Watts since riots -- action, but little change

Twenty years ago this weekend a crowd gathered at the scene of a minor arrest near Watts and the incident escalated into a week of rioting and burning. It had been ignited by the massive frustration of a community that felt desperate -- a community with poor transportation, inferior schools, and a high unemployment rate. Watts residents, who seemed to be ignored by more affluent nearby communities, were often overcharged by absentee landlords and shopkeepers.

Thirty-four people were killed in the riots, over 1,000 injured, the major shopping thoroughfare in Watts was razed, nearly 4,000 were arrested, and the violence took in some 40 square miles of south-central Los Angeles, then and now the largest black ghetto in the West.

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Since then, much has happened and little has changed.

``In a community like this, it seems like the world keeps moving . . . and you're not a part of it,'' says Sandra Clark, a young woman in a word-processing training program in Watts.

The Watts riots touched off massive soul-searching over the state of the black ghetto and helped to awaken the nation to the problems in inner cities.

Since 1965, some good things have happened in and around Watts: A major, full-service hospital and a network of health clinics were built by the early 1970s. Public transit has now fully penetrated the community, where many can't afford cars and most basic shopping is miles away. Hundreds of new housing units have been built and a shopping center finally moved into the area at the end of last year.

Police relations with the community have improved mostly in the past five years. Communities that once saw police as an enemy are now lobbying for more patrols and forming cooperative groups.

But the most basic problems of 20 years ago, poor education and far too few jobs, have proved more stubborn. Nearby factories that once employed people in Watts -- General Motors, Ford, Goodyear, Firestone, Chrysler -- all are closed down. No major employers have moved in to replace them.

At the same time, drug addiction is more serious than ever. Cocaine traffickers have taken advantage of youth gangs as distribution networks on the streets. The drug trade not only spawns violent crime, but it also demoralizes young people who see their peers gain thousands of dollars quickly through dealing drugs.

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Unlike the tightly packed tenements of Eastern slums, Watts is spread low and flat under the sun. Neighborhoods of tiny, aging frame houses are sprinkled with apartment buildings and big public-housing projects.

Liquor stores abound, and in the middle of any weekday, clusters of men, young and old, sit around talking and drinking on the sidewalks. Churches, too, are everywhere, from big Baptist edifices to small, dilapidated houses with hand-painted signs out front.

The most striking success story here is Ted Watkins and his Watts Comunity Labor Action Committee. Mr. Watkins began in 1969 with a $2 million loan from a United Auto Workers fund. Now the group has $40 million in assets including 600 rental houses, stores for on-the-job training, food-stamp outlets, and an office-job training program that successfully places 75 percent of its graduates. Watkins's committee is now building a $750,000 complex of shops to be managed by young people trained in the committe e's grocery stores.

``What Ted Watkins has done is great, but we need 10 Ted Watkinses,'' says Neil Sandberg, Western regional director of the American Jewish Committee and part of a major task force recently reviewing progress in Watts.

The mood of the country toward Watts and other ghettos has shifted since the riots. Watts was once a national call to action, and much attention was focused on its problems by both the government and the private sector.

But after two years, says Watkins, ``the voice of militants began to turn off even those who sincerely wanted to do something.''

Watkins talks of young people like Miss Clark, training in the word-processing program run by his group. Untouched by the drug traffic, she is ``looking beyond Afro-studies to business skills and management. That's where the hope lies.''

Watts, he adds, will never thrive as a community that is 95 percent consumer and only 5 percent producer.

Although Watts is becoming largely Latino, there's still a sense of community here. Barbara Collins was 15 when the rioting broke out, and recalls her parents buying groceries for a local white family afraid to leave the house. The cheerful Mrs. Collins now lives with her husband and daughters in a tiny, $160-a-month house.

``You raise your kids like you're living in a combat zone,'' she says. But she likes the neighborhood and has become a leader in a community group fighting drugs and crime. ``We need to take back control of what's going on in our lives. We've got to do it for ourselves, not let someone else do it for us.''

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