- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 30, 2009

LOS ANGELES | Juanita Sims has lived in the notorious Jordan Downs project in Watts for nearly four decades, raising eight children behind the barred windows of the cramped barrackslike apartments.

She moved in shortly after the Watts riots in the 1960s left nearly three dozen people dead and made the South Los Angeles community a national symbol of urban decay.

Now Mrs. Sims fears she’ll have to leave, just as Watts emerges from years of neglect with a proposed urban village of shops, homes and businesses that would force the demolition of Jordan Downs.

“I’m not afraid to move, but what my fear really is: Where?” said Mrs. Sims, 73, who sat at a kitchen table against a wall covered in peeling white paint. “That’s what I’m concerned about: Where are we going?”

The proposed demolition of the sprawling complex of two-story cinder-block buildings is part of an audacious but as of yet unfunded $1 billion effort by city housing officials to remake a large swath of the hard-luck neighborhood into a national symbol of rebirth.

The Los Angeles Housing Authority has pledged to relocate residents within the community, but some of Jordan Downs’ 2,300 tenants are skeptical, noting local agencies’ broken promises of providing job training and wireless Internet service.

“The plan is to put everybody out,” said resident Arthur Jenkins, gesturing toward the homes with both arms as he stood on a sidewalk. “The plan is to build condos.”

Jordan Downs, which dominates a parcel of blight the size of 40 square blocks that includes a school and an abandoned factory, was originally built as temporary housing for factory workers during World War II.

The project and the surrounding neighborhoods became engulfed in poverty in the following decades. In August 1965, rising tensions between residents and law enforcement culminated with riots that raged across 50 square miles for six days. Thirty-four people were killed, more than 1,000 injured and 600 buildings were damaged or destroyed.

Since then, Jordan Downs and the rest of Watts has remained a hot spot for crime and poverty. Just a third of the project’s residents between 18 and 60 years old are employed, and households average less than $16,000 annually. Jordan Downs’ robbery rate this year is five times the city’s rate based on population.

The city’s public housing officials hope their redevelopment project will help tenants feel safer by drawing middle-class residents into the area. They say living among people outside the poverty cycle - along with a planned new corps of case workers to help impoverished residents find good-paying jobs - will raise living standards.

“I see this as a way to invest in the people in such a way as hasn’t been done in Watts in forever,” said John King, a Housing Authority director.

Plans for the new complex are being drawn up, but officials say it likely will include a mix of town houses and apartment buildings, peppered with shops and interspersed with small parks and athletic fields.

Mrs. Sims said she can’t imagine having to leave her longtime home in the project, but acknowledged she might not have a choice.

“I just don’t see moving right now,” she said defiantly as her 9-month old great-grandson clung to her leg and squealed. “But it’s not for me to say.”

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