In the City of Good Ol' Watts


Driving on the 110 from Los Angeles, you exit onto a boulevard dotted with carnicerias, iglesias and minimarts. Kids on bikes dart in and out of lanes and a Maserati flashes in your rear view mirror, a display of conspicuous consumption both at odds with its surroundings and wholly unsurprising.

Ask somebody about the Southland neighborhood of Watts and, depending on their age, their answer will center around either the 1965 riots or Simon Rodia’s towers. It’s telling that the neighborhood’s two distinguishing features are opposing forces: the former, an uprising that torched the neighborhood so completely that its main street was dubbed ‘Charcoal Alley’, and the latter, a striking display of colorful folk art smack dab in the middle of the unlikeliest of areas.

More than fifty years have passed since the Watts Riots, but the neighborhood has been unable to shed its violent reputation. Like Vietnam, Watts remains associated with the violence that destroyed it, rather than what grew back after the fire. Most of the businesses that didn’t burn down fled the neighborhood. Fast food chains were the only restaurants (if you can call them that) willing to return, leading to the neighborhood’s slow descent into food desert status. Locals claim there is only one sit-down restaurant worth going to. Think about that: 50,000 people and only one place to properly sit down and break bread.

Which brings us to Locol. Founded by prolific chefs Roy Choi and Dan Peterson, Locol attempts to upend the fast food industry and the industrial complex that have such a stronghold on underserved communities like Watts. Its core mission is to bring affordable, healthy food to these neighborhoods and, by so doing, redefine what we consider to be ‘fast food’. Though the chain received overwhelmingly positive press at the outset, it’s struggled since. Amidst operational missteps and sucker punches from the press, Choi and Petersen have resisted the urge to clap back, choosing instead to forge ahead with a steady PMA and an openness to criticism. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will a solution to systemic ghettoization.

Driving on 103rd Street reminds me of my early childhood years in Vallejo, a drive-through community with familiar rough exteriors and unattended foundations. In neighborhoods like this, children grow used to the steady presence of firearms in their homes. Family dinners take place at Popeyes, and treats for good behavior are administered at Baskin-Robbins. The institutions that feed our communities are important everywhere, but are of particular importance in places where mom works the night shift and dad’s patience runs out sometime around his second Colt 45.

Community development scholars and millennials who slept through a couple of sociology lectures in college will tell you that social entrepreneurship ventures are shortsighted and bank too much on the ‘feel-good’ factor. People will tell you that in order to change the world, Locol needs to change its face. But I’ll let you in a little secret, some subtext the Eater review that you read may have missed: Locol isn’t for us. It is, first and foremost, a place to provide healthy food and job opportunities in places that have been disenfranchised for decades. Its gaze rests on its host communities, which Locol treats as the whole, messy, complicated product of human indifference and intervention that made Watts what it is. It does not beg for our Yelp reviews, it does not need our advice and it means nothing whether or not we, the middle class patron, feel good about ourselves. For Locol to fulfill its original promise, its surrounding community—not the urban enclave that ghettoized that community in the first place—needs to embrace it as their own.

Before Locol opened last year, the neighborhood’s main object of outsider interest was the Watts Towers. Built piece-by-piece of found objects by Simon Rodia from 1921 to 1954, the towers were initially met with curiosity, cynicism and management troubles. When the city issued a demolition order for the property in 1959, artists and architects from around the world demanded that the landmark be placed under a stress test to confirm its solidity. Though the towers stand at nearly 100 feet tall and are anchored less than 2 feet in the ground, the cranes used to apply 10,000 pounds of lateral force were unable to topple or shift the artworks. The test was concluded when the cranes broke.

Today the towers are considered one of California’s most culturally significant historical landmarks. They serve as a model for how structures are designed for stability and endurance, and for how public art is preserved and funded. Over time, what originally began as a tribute to a community became the symbol for it.

The urge to project parallels between Locol and the towers is hard to resist. A passion project begins in service of a community. Good intentions are met with outsider skepticism and operational obstacles. One can only imagine what Locol’s allegorical stress test will look like but let’s hope that, like the Watters Towers before them, Locol will stand as a testament to what happens when consistent, small steps are taken by good people.