Mary Plummer | KPCC
In the South Los Angeles community of Watts, waitress Latrice Ridgway bounces in and out of the kitchen juggling plates of soul food for mid-morning arrivals while the restaurant's phone rings nonstop.
Customers can pick up their daily joe at Watts Coffee House at the corner of 103rd Street and Wilmington Avenue, but they can also order from a full menu. Ridgway ticks off the restaurant's meal items as Alicia Keys plays on the stereo.
"Grits, potatoes, hashbrowns, we have hamsteaks. We have waffles with fried apples."
There's a large serving of talk here, too, about Watts as a community in transition and why, decades after the 1965 riots, it remains a community still dealing with poverty, unemployment and crime —and where voting is simply not a part of many lives.
Most precincts in Watts saw fewer than 22 percent of their eligible voters show up at the polls in the 2014 general election, according to the California Civic Engagement Project at the UC Davis Center for Regional Change.
Watts is one of the communities we'll be visiting over the coming months as part of our collaboration with other public radio stations in California. We'll examine voter engagement in low and high turnout neighborhoods and talk to residents about the issues that matter most to them in a pivotal year for national and local elections.
History Of Enduring Challenges
The Watts coffee house established itself in the South Los Angeles neighborhood after the riots five decades ago, when the community erupted in violence following a white police officer's arrest of a young African American man.
Six days of rioting left 34 dead, over a thousand injured and $40 million in property damage. A panel commissioned by then-Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown and led by businessman John McCone concluded that high unemployment, poor schools, inadequate housing and strained police-community relations all played a part in the riots.
Since then, Watts — a historically black community of roughly two square miles and home to about 40,000 residents — has grown more multiracial. About 70 percent of the people here are Latino, 28 percent are black or African American, and 2 percent are from other ethnic groups, according to 2013 population data gathered by the Watts Community Studio, a planning project sponsored by Los Angeles Councilman Joe Buscaino.
When we recently asked Watts residents which issues concern them the most, some pointed to the same issues cited by the McCone Commission report five decades ago.
People also talked about emerging issues that reflect the demographic changes underway in Watts as well as recent events that have captured the headlines.
At a Watts Coffee House table, Felipe Agredano ate a late breakfast with his partner and named immigration reform and gun control as his top issues. He said he's also seen the work done to establish better relations between police and community members in Watts.
"It’s much better than decades ago. You can see the improvement," he said. But he adds there's more to do.
Francisco Ortega, a human relations advocate who has done extensive work in Watts for the city of Los Angeles, agrees there's been positive change: people are now less afraid to walk around during the day, he said.
"There's been progress, there's been development projects, there's been public safety partnerships," he said. "I think Watts is on the trajectory up."
But outside the coffee house, 18-year-old Brenda Nario worries about the violence and shootings that she said remain major problems in Watts.
"I’ve been around that like basically my whole life," she said. "'Cause right there where I live, there’s always cops and helicopters, always looking for somebody with a gun."
Yet despite her strong feelings about community safety, Nario said she won’t be casting a ballot this year. As she put it, voting doesn’t catch her attention.
"I think that voting is important, but I just think that I’m not the type of person to do it," she said.
High school senior Miguel Flores does plan to vote. He would like to see recreational marijuana legalized, but he's concerned about how hard drugs are hurting the neighborhood. He thinks people often turn to drug-dealing because they can't get legitimate, high-paying jobs.
"There’s the hard drugs that are making people homeless, that are making people lose their jobs and lose their family," he said. "But in other words, like you can’t get the drugs out of the 'hood because that's money for the people that live in the 'hood."
Unemployment in California has improved since the latest recession, recently averaging about 5.8 percent. But the unemployment rate around Watts has lagged, hovering around 7 percent.
Basic Necessities Trump Voting
At the nonprofit Watts Labor Community Action Committee on Central Avenue, clients are waiting at the organization's Family Source Center where such services as job training and financial planning are available.
Workers here said many of their clients earn less than $14,000 a year, meaning they’ll qualify for California’s new earned income tax credit for the state’s poorest residents.
Sheila Thomas, who has worked in social services for about a decade at WLCAC, knows voter turnout is a problem in Watts. Many of her clients have a hard time finding their political voice and they don't vote, she observed.
"It’s one of those things that it’s never mattered. It’s never been a part of their daily regimen," Thomas said. "It could be generations in their families that have never voted because they never felt as though it would matter to them."
She said her clients are trying to find food and shelter, cope with mental health problems, and overcome education barriers rather than voting or joining political causes.
Standing in the heart of the Watts' civic center one day last month, Ortega describes the nearby public housing buildings.
"We’re surrounded by like four of the most notorious housing developments west of the Mississippi," he said.
When Ortega first began work in Watts about ten years ago, "there was a lot of tension here, a lot of anger, resentment. People felt abandoned by the political process."
Even though the demographics of Watts have shifted, Ortega said it is the black community that remains the most politically active. To see true change for the better, he said, Watts needs more civic participation from its largest population group.
"The big question of Watts and how Watts will move forward is going to depend on Latino engagement," he said.
In the coming months, we’ll bring you many more voices and stories from South Los Angeles and from a highly engaged community in Santa Clarita that is also undergoing change.
In a collaboration called California Counts, Capital Public Radio is partnering with KPBS, KQED and KPCC to report on the 2016 election. The coverage focuses on major issues and solicits diverse voices on what's important to the future of California. This is the second in a series.
Copyright 2015 KPCC. To see more election coverage, visit http://www.kpcc.org.