The poisoning of America: Is Watts another Flint?


Toxic Contamination Beneath Billion-Dollar Redevelopment


The whole world knows the story of Flint by now. The famously depressed city in Michigan, where the majority of residents are African American, shifted its drinking-water source to a local river in 2014 in order to save money. Residents’ complaints about the terrible-smelling murky water that began spewing from their taps were largely ignored. As it turned out, they were being poisoned by lead contamination from years of industrial-waste dumping. Eventually, a state of emergency was declared.

But Flint is not alone. Across the country, for example, there’s another impoverished community you might have heard of — this one near the golden shores of Southern California. Watts, located on a mere 2.1 square miles in South Central Los Angeles, isn’t suffering the immediate effects observed in Flint. Not yet. But the causes of pollution recently detected under a 58-year-old housing project — and the reluctance of officials to address the situation — are much the same.

Perhaps no other community of 40,000-some people has received as much notoriety as Watts. It was a flashpoint of a major African American uprising against police brutality in 1965, and again following the acquittal of the four officers who beat Rodney King in 1992.

Although considered by outsiders to be one of the country’s most dangerous and crime-ridden areas, Watts is also home to two remarkable sculptural monuments, the Watts Towers and the Mother of Humanity.

“Watts was for the West Coast what Harlem was to New York,” according to Orland Bishop of the ShadeTree Multicultural Foundation, “and it holds the historical ground for creativity on this level.”

“Never did I think we were going to face a billion-dollar development that ignores the poison beneath its feet.”

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