Clean-up Effort of a “Beauty Spot” Unearths a Strange History in Watts

The semi-parklet at 96th and Central that the East Side Riders cleaned up on MLK Day (photo: sahra)

When is a public park not open to the public? Or even a park?

Apparently, when it is owned by the Department of Water and Power (LADWP).

This little plot of land on the corner of 96th and Central Ave. in Watts was one of the many vacant lots that Ted Watkins helped turned into a park in 1968. In the years following the 1965 Watts Riots, Watkins, a labor leader, civil rights activist, and founder of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC), put youth to work converting blighted spaces into pocket parks.

The dedication of the "beauty spot" to workers everywhere in 1968 (photo: sahra)

According to the dedication on the cornerstone, the park was intended to serve as a symbol of unity and hope to the weary and oppressed.

Over the years, however, it has fallen into disrepair. Earlier features have been paved over or covered with dirt upon which sad patches of grass grow. Not only are there no places to sit, a large and heavily tagged “No Trespassing, Parking, or Dumping” sign tacked to a tree warns you shouldn’t have bothered thinking about getting comfortable in the first place.

A few years ago, the East Side Riders bike club took on the task of trying to keep the site up so elderly neighbors could have a place to sit. They planted some trees and got a letter of reference from the WLCAC recommending that they be allowed to take over upkeep of the park. They wanted to plant flowers, put in benches, fix the sidewalk where tree roots had buckled it, and paint a mural on a wall across the street from the park to beautify the surrounding area.

Unsure of who could grant them that authority, they started reaching out to city officials.

Janice Hahn’s office told them it was County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ territory. Ridley-Thomas’ office told them it was city property (Central Ave. is city-maintained on one side and county-maintained on the other in some areas of South L.A., which can make things confusing for everyone). So, they reached out to the mayor’s office and were told it might be something they needed to take up with Bernard Parks’ office. Parks’ people told them it was LADWP-owned.

The LADWP told them that they needed to have insurance in order to be able to take care of the park, something which was beyond the budget of a completely volunteer-based community bike group.

But the LADWP didn’t seem to be taking care of the property; it continued to accumulate garbage and debris.

No trespassing in the public park! (poor quality cellphone photo: sahra)

So, the East Side Riders decided to brave the obstacles and clean up the park as one of the service activities they perform on Martin Luther King Day.

It is incredibly frustrating, they feel, to have a potentially peaceful, green community resource — a rare commodity in the area — stagnating just out of reach. If it has sat there since 1968, it would seem one could safely assume that the property will not be needed to serve some vital purpose for the LADWP any time soon. Why not make it easy for the community to make it beautiful?

It isn’t quite so easy, representatives of the Neighborhood Land Trust, a non-profit that works with communities to build parks around L.A., have told me on previous occasions when this question has come up. People with good intentions underestimate the commitment necessary to maintain a site over the long term and the costs of upkeep.

Still, some neighbors appear determined to uphold Watkins’ motto, “Don’t move…improve,” and have begun a petition to take back control of the park, according to Jones.

For now, however, it sits forlorn and unimproved. But, at least, it is super-clean, thanks to the East Side Riders.

The East Side Riders' clean-up crew (photo: courtesy East Side Riders)