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This Is the Building That Started Watts: The Historic Watts Train Station

Etan Does LA contributed to this post.

In Watts, one of the oldest buildings in the neighborhood is one of the only to survive the fires that engulfed a stretch of 103rd Street nicknamed “charcoal” alley during the 1965 Watts Rebellion.

This is the Watts Station, a Pacific Electric Rail station that operated for over 50 years. But what’s the significance of this station, anyway? And what does it represent for Watts today? 

The Origin of Watts

Just a few blocks north of the Watts Towers, The Watts Station hosted freight trains, and local passengers who were boarding the Pacific Electric red cars that used to run across Los Angeles.

Completed in 1904, the Watts Station signified Watts’s transition from undeveloped farmland to an incorporated city

The railway made it possible for Angelenos to live far away from downtown LA. Watts real estate ads from 1904 advertised lots for “$1 down and $1 a week,” that were “15 minutes from center of town” or a “step off the Long Beach car line.” 

At the same time, Pacific Electric was one of the biggest employers of early Watts residents. They owned company homes there – so workers laying track for one of the new streetcar lines could stay in Watts with their families, until they could afford houses of their own. 

The Watts Station was the first important building on Watts’s commercial center, Main Street, now known as 103rd Street. Right around it, there was a general store, a hardware store, grocery stores, a small post office

According to Etan Does LA, the original building was an eclectic mashup of architectural styles. It had a Victorian-style roofline; craftsman details in the exposed rafters and wide eaves; even some reminders of old colonial buildings, with Grecian columns supporting the portico that served as a waiting area. 

The station has undergone some alterations over the years; pictures from the 60s show the columns removed, and the open portico closed up.

Pacific Electric discontinued the Watts Local Line in 1959, and the rest of the red cars were retired by 1961. It was the end of the lengthy first chapter for the Watts Station, but its history was far from over.

Watts Rebellion

In August of 1965, Watts residents revolted against an act of police brutality that tipped the inequities of segregation and resources in the historic South LA neighborhood. After 6 days of unrest, over 34 lives were lost, and more than 600 businesses destroyed, resulting in more that $40 million in damages

103rd street between Compton and Wilmington avenues, Watts’ economic corridor, was hit the hardest during the revolt, which became known to many as “charcoal alley.” In the aftermath of the revolt, The Watts Station was documented as one of the last standing buildings on that stretch of 103rd Street.

In response to the rebellion, the United States Federal government set aside over $4.6 million to implement the redevelopment of the neighborhood, while the Los Angeles City Planning Department planned a renaissance for the community. 

The LA City Planning department collaborated with a Watts citizen advisory committee to call for more retail and professional establishments in the neighborhood. A shopping center with anchor stores, grocery stores, and government buildings were among the planned sites for Watts’ new civic center—while also preserving the historic Watts station along the corridor.

The Watts Station Today

In 1967, Los Angeles city planning developed plans to turn the station into a community exhibit and information center

However, the Watts Station stood vacant for years, until the Community Redevelopment Agency spent $700,000 to restore it in the ‘80s. It reopened in 1989 as a branch office of the LADWP, with plans for a Watts history museum folded inside – though a longtime resident told us the museum never opened.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro) opened a Metro Blue (A) Line platform right next to the station in 1990, along the same route that the Pacific Electric used to take. I love the idea that over a century after it opened, this station is still the first thing that greets travelers as they step down off a rail car, and begin to explore Watts.  

The Watts Station stands as a relic that has endured the birth of a city, the pain of segregation, and the longstanding promise of redevelopment. 

Today, The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has announced plans to relocate its customer service center from the Watts Train Station to a site across the street in the Martin Luther King Jr. Shopping center. While the next set of plans for the station aren’t immediately evident, the history behind this site shows that there is nothing it can’t endure. 

Special thanks to my fellow blogger Etan Does LA for contributing to this post. Etan is visiting every Los Angeles landmark on the National Register of Historic Places. Check out his Instagram and blog to follow along.

One Comment

  1. The Watts Train Station was compromised by now-indicted former Los Angeles County Supervisor, Mark Ridley Thomas who made special arrangements for his friend and apparent fund-raiser, Thomas Safran & Associates (TSA) to take ownership of the site without so much as a single community meeting or discussion. TSA intends to saturate the precious site with high density, low to moderate income housing thereby robbing the community of precious green space and local economic development control. A real estate development baron, Thomas Safran figures in the compromise of taxpayers with untold hundreds in municipal funds from elected officials he has made major contributions to. Among them Mark Ridley Thomas, Curren Price, Herb Wesson, Joe Buscaino and on. Need I say more about the thread TSA has woven through the careers of all of these allegedly crooked politicians? Why our precious train station belongs in the hands of a Brentwood billionaire beats me but I’ll fight this project on behalf of the community until I either succeed in stopping him…..or die trying.

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