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Watts

The lead riders at Ride Arc kept stressing the security of Watts before and during our 14-mile bicycle journey through the heart of this heavily-repped ‘hood. Still, it was hard not to trip over finding ourselves in very specific places made notorious by news, music, and reputation. We know Watts has untold positive stories and an important history, along with the noteworthy murder rates. Home to Charles “Express Yourself” Wright, Ras Kass, Eldridge Cleaver, Mingus, and FloJo, among other notables, Watts has left its mark on our culture well beyond rebellions and gunsmoke.

We’d also be riding into Compton, and shit, we were incidentally born, raised, and are straight outta there. Okay, no we weren’t, but we know all the lyrics to those tracks. Funnily enough, we found out Suge, Dre, and Quick aren’t the only famous former residents of the large city. Such unlikely crackers as Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, Vince Neil, Mort Sahl, and dumbass-in-chief George W. Bush have all called Hub City ‘home’ at some point. Those are just cases in point: we hear a lot about Watts and Compton, and even visited a few of times here and there, but firsthand we really know.....

Watts

Watts

...fuck-all about it.

Over-shooting a 9PM deadline and a crucial cross street off 103rd St., TACO-fanatic Cbro and I reached an Easternmost dead-end smack in front of the Jordan Downs Housing Development, womb of Grape Street Crips and some of the most blood-soiled turf in the history of Los Angeles Street Gangs from the disastrous late-80’s to the present in a bad year. Voices challenged us from the dark gated lanes between the cramped housing. 24 people were shot in Southeast LA in July alone of this year (6 in Hollywood), so we flipped a bitch and ducked west a few blocks, our natural fear of the unfamiliar rising a little.

Soon we’d be riding through the loops of rival gang turf, about 8 blocks south and a few west at Nickerson Gardens, breeding ground for Bounty Hunter Bloods, one of the biggest and most psychopathic Blood sets in the city. But we’re not here just to prove Watts is no shoot 'em up, we came to meet many welcoming people living their lives as best as they could both in and out of frequently under-funded, broke-ass conditions, and see both historic and altruistic parts of our beloved city. Watts residents span a moderate range of races and classes, but one thing all have in commong is a fierce pride in ther city.

Shoving off from the 103rd St. train station, my beach cruiser took quickly to the back of the long line of riders. We pedaled along the rail line, eventually turning into some suburban streets climbing up the low hundreds. Most locals were shocked to see a crew of 30, mostly light-skinned, biking fans pedaling through their streets, parks, and projects, and let us know in words both degrading and supportive.

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A light blue, moon-lit sky played on endearing front yard scenes of late-night family life. Ranchera music blasted as a grandfather, father, and baby boy tinkered on a classic truck; the aroma of home-cooked food pointed its wispy finger our way; and children chased each other in the short grass and summer heat. Even more luminous was the backside of Watts Towers, where we took our first stop for sight-seeing with a little background provided by the squad leader.

Hitting the road again, we pedaled south and east. It was about this time that we experienced our first negative reaction. A lot of residents were popping out of their yards and rides to ask what was up, with smiling little kids waving and their moms wishing us a good ride. A big bald dude in a hooptie came by, “Take that bike to shit to Hollywood!” The reactions kept coming, varied and numerous. Mostly curiosity, shock, and good natured busting on us, which included everything from light racial remarks to balks of faked aggression, but all was good and even some of Watts' toughest looking homies were cool and wished us a good time, a few still shaking their heads at the sight and talking good-natured shit.

WATTS

Pedaling through dark surburban streets, I soon found myself lost in a lightless roundabout suburb of cul-de-sacs and twists. I intermittedly passed packs of older teens hanging out in groups. I soon lost the bike crew, or they lost me, and I shuddered at the thought of a solo-ride through ground I hardly knew. I don't shit myself easily, but a small sense of panic rose in my gut. I came to a pitch-black crossroads to realize I was dead-lost in this labyrinth of small houses and idle boys. Circling back around to the thick-set and white tall-teed group of four teens, they dropped what they were doing, stopped me, and pointed out the way my group had ridden. This helpful advice was repeated a few minutes later, when a rowdier crew of young men (same tall tees) pointed the way, jumping, encouraging me to catch up. Left alone in lightless, exit-less pockets of Watts, I was treated with nothing but kindness, surrounded by US society’s most demonized demographic.

Um...not that I expected anything different...or anything like that (I'm sure none of those kids would feel cool being dropped into a Pacific Palisades cul-de-sac at 10PM). Watts can be a very dangerous place after the Bs and Cs ceasefire broke down, but its most dangerous for those who live the life, not those with shitty bikes.

The next few minutes took on a surreal feeling. Pretending I was Deebo, my squeaky cruiser playing an obnoxious rhythm, I lazily tried to join the group. Rolling through the dusky, tree-lined streets of tiny classic frame houses, some of which actually housed early railroad workers and Southern settlers (Watts used to be the only place Black Angelenos could buy property in the early part of last century), the growls and yells of agitated dogs echoed from the yards of every other house. A few houses stood clearly unoccupied, their windows a mass of black tape and billowing garbage bags. This cacophony of aggressive barks was suddenly met by the rattling of a heavy chain and I could not help but feel I was on the Haunted Mansion ride for a split second, with my senses assaulted with sounds behind every door.

Emerging into the street and the larger group of bikers, we hurried forward into the streets of Nickerson Gardens at a steady pace. It’s generally not too cool to roll up somebody’s projects in a team of 20, but we were mostly given cheers and smiles, along with our pass.

The 1,066 thin cement units are densely packed together, and the life is vivid on the small plots of grass in front of the housing. Mostly youthful residents were chilling in groups of five to ten on small stoops or propped on fences, those Southern snapping songs seemingly popping off in all directions. There seemed nothing to really do but hang out outside to beat the heat, something I’ve seen in ghettoes from Soweto to Sav-La-Mar.

WATTS

Bodies rushed to the street to see what we were up to, asking us questions…again, what were 20 “white people” doing in Watts projects at 10PM? Occasional packs of pretty girls and slick roughnecks busted on us, but it was mostly love all around the horn. We know how people can be about outsiders in their projects and TACO sends massive respect back to the people of Nickerson for welcoming us with warmth and support. Next time, we're coming with tacos.

Upon our eventual exit, more jokes were cracked at our expense, more surprise was registered at our presence, and my fly azz got me macked on by two cuties cruising in their sedan. We kept up a flirtatious conversation for most of my ride through Nickerson, but eventually the only thing I ever loved, the road, came calling my name. Sorry, Valentine…it’s truly not that I’m not interested, things are just kind of complicated right now. If destiny does follow the rules you dared imagine it does on that star-crossed night in August, I’ll let you take me to lunch another time.

Watts

We continued Southwest on our late-night quest, chided, waved to, honked to and at, and welcomed on the streets of Watts and Compton. We rode past enormous knots of freeway intersections, community gardens, condemned properties, green spaces, parks, and murals, along with more scenes of everyday family and public life. Some kids shouted at us, “White people! Hey dude! Hey what's up dude! Totally!” I Spicolied them back to peals of laughter. Other people wished they had their cameras and called their friends. We invited a few people along but no one was game.

Granted it was past ten, but most business was closed, most of the major streets were empty (not unlike much of LA) and dark, and a lot of things seemed down at the heels from building fronts to pot-holed streets.

As the night crawled towards the time of the final train, we passed Locke High School and Martin Luther King Hospital. Our leader, who had often stressed the safety of the neighborhood, introduced a lot of depressing and critical editorial, which might or might not be true. He told us Locke has some of the highest incidents of violence in a local high school, something we might be able to believe from the everyday anecdotes of a few former teacher friends from there. He mentioned that scandal-plagued King, facing closure, has been the training grounds for battlefield surgeons due to its high-incidence of bullet-wound victims. And it was depressing enough just being a hospital.

Watts

He also took us past the Center, which is reportedly doing a lot of great community outreach work. A pause was taken by the green strip that stretches all the way to the sea where community farmers are able to grow their own. We also saw the intersection of the 110 and 105, massive freeways over the Metro Green Line station that has won awards for its design.

Dashing through Athens Park, we rolled onto a greater, greener spread at Earvin Magic Johnson’s Rec Area (we love you Magic!), an amazing spread of lush lawns featuring two avian-crowned islands in a figure-eight of a lake where locals can fish. The sight was all ours to behold, as a huge train of bike-lights spread throughout the mostly empty park, over bridges and hills, in a giant circle under the white moon.

Stopping at the first train station in the 120’s, some cops emerged from their station and expressed surprise. “What are you guys doing here?” After getting their answer, “Oh, just taking a late-night ride through Watts?” one repeated with a sarcastic smile, eyebrows reaching for heaven. We are not the only ones surprised by our presence or invasion or whatever this exhilarating, eye-opening, experience had been.

WATTS

And that was a question we had been asked all night and I myself wondered. What the fuck were 20 people, presumably raised in neighborhoods more affluent than the one we visited, doing in Watts and Compton? It’s sometimes hard to rationalize why a heavily light-skinned, though very mixed-raced crew of cycling fans would descend in a pack on a neighborhood that might rather stand up while minding its own business. I believe it was more than mere fascination or voyeurism, but to indeed dispel myth from truth, to form an introductory impression rather than be given one, to see firsthand areas of the city we love that we often only get to know through the news, braggadocio, or outsider hearsay.

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