You are unlikely to see any cayenne-colored, double decker tour buses weaving through Watts, the way you would in neighborhoods like Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Watts, in what was once called “South-Central Los Angeles” (the “central” was dropped in 2003 because the term had become a kind of racially-charged shorthand, rife with negative connotation), is another rapidly shifting neighborhood, one with huge cultural and historical significance in Los Angeles.

Watts was originally called Mud Town, but renamed in 1900 for a Pasadena realtor named C.H. Watts. In the early part of the 20th century, the area along Central Avenue was one of the only places African-Americans were permitted to live, and it attracted even more black residents during World War II when migrants began leaving the segregated states of the South in droves. And then, during a slew of hot summer days in 1965, the neighborhood gained national notoriety when the Watts Riots broke out.

A new image of Watts emerged in the decades after: one of drive-by shootings and street wars, gunfire and the destruction of the crack epidemic. And again, in 1992, the neighborhood became an international symbol for a broken system after riots broke out following the acquittal of the white LAPD officers for the Rodney King beating.

There are still lots and buildings waiting to be rebuilt in the neighborhood, more than 20 years after the Los Angeles Riots. Watts continues to need revitalization – more grocery stores, less liquor stores, more jobs. But it quickly became a special neighborhood in our early years in Los Angeles, while we worked with youth at a nonprofit organization in South LA. We soon came to know the corner fish marts and taco joints run by abuelitas; the warm nature of people who hollered as we walked by to ask if we were lost and needed directions. On this day, we explored Watts and into the Florence-Firestone neighborhood adjacent.

This neighborhood exemplifies all that is right and wrong about Los Angeles: a city with great wealth and opportunity divides, with staggering differences in life expectancy and quality of life; but also one with great heart, history, and allure.

Stop 1: Cafe Oaxaca

This little snack spot stands out in the surrounding area: a colorful little café where you can find fresh juices and smoothies among the more ubiquitous raspados, bionicos, and licuados. We ordered the green juice (celery, spinach, pineapple, parsley) and the orange & carrot juice, both of which were delicious. And because it’s an LA favorite, we also got the fruit salad topped with lime and pico de gallo (served in a bowl, not a cup or plastic bag).

(1211 E Century Boulevard, Los Angeles)

Stop 2: Watts Towers Arts Center

The Watts Towers are a national historic landmark, a collection of 17 interconnected structures that were built by an Italian construction worker named Simon Rodia starting in 1921. It took Rodia over 33 years to complete his project, using salvaged steel and scrap parts – bottles, pieces of ceramic, seashells, mirrors, soda pop bottles, and figurines, much of which he found alongside the Pacific Electric Railway between Watts and Wilmington. The towers are truly an eccentric and remarkable sight to see. On an early Saturday afternoon, car-loads of young families were pulling up and getting out, ambling toward the cultural center for a tour (tours run every 30 minutes from 10:30am-3pm). You can’t get inside the structure’s gates without paying for the $7 tour, but if you happen to come by during off-hours, there are placards on the fence surrounding the Towers, giving a description of its history.

Insider’s Tip: Just behind the Towers is a very small ampitheater. Check out the history of Watts etched in the concrete ground, detailing major events from 10,000 BC to the mid-1990s.

(1727 E 107th Street, Los Angeles)

Stop 3: Amapola Market

Looking for the best corn tortillas in Los Angeles? Search no more. Amapola Market – a Mexican grocery with deli, meat counter, and bakery – has some of the very best tortillas, masa for making tamales, and legendary tortas. We were told that people drive from all corners of the city to purchase goods for Mexican cooking. We gawked at the pigs hooves and drooled over the case of freshly-made guacamole and salsas. The pastry section sells a variety of birthday cakes and cookies, as well as individual cups of flan (in every flavor – strawberry, guava, vanilla). We ordered chicharron pupusas at the hot counter ($2), and bought a package of tortillas so fresh, they burned our hands.

Insider’s Tip: Amapola’s only sells tacos on the weekends, and the line can be long. Arrive early, and pick up some masa and fresh corn tortillas too!

(7223 Compton Avenue, Los Angeles)

(Stop 4: Streetside Fruit Truck)

There’s nothing more LA than buying fresh produce out the back of a truck (the kids in our neighborhood run out each afternoon, coins in hand, to buy fruit – much healthier than an ice cream truck!) We stumbled upon this one as we left Amapola, and the sweet couple selling the goods offered us a sample of their sunny-colored oranges. We ended up buying five pounds, as well as a bouquet of cilantro and several crispy apples.

Stop 5: Augustus F. Hawkins Park

Green spaces are few and far between in South Los Angeles, and this park is a real charmer. Once inside, it’s easy to forget the 8.5 acre park is located on the corner of Slauson and Compton Avenues – the clusters of prickly cacti, the expanse of trails, and the view of the wetlands offer a peaceful hiatus from the concrete chaos of the city. We enjoyed a little pupusa picnic with our goodies from the market, and then strolled around the park’s stream, listening to a small group of girls playing ukleles.

Insider’s Tip: There are plenty of picnic tables, but bring a blanket and some snacks for your very own lunch in the grass.

(5790 Compton Avenue, Los Angeles)

Stop 6: El Paraiso #2

We were hungry, but it wasn’t quite dinner-time, so we decided to go…where else? To an ice-cream shop! El Paraiso is known for its paletas (fruit bars), and they offer more than a dozen flavors – tamarind, lime, coconut, guayaba, rice, the list goes on. We treated ourselves to a homemade chocolate-covered banana covered in coconut ($1.50) and salivated when the family sitting next to us ordered a bowl of strawberries and cream. Yum!

(1760 E Florence Avenue, Los Angeles)

Stop 7: Randolph's Smokehouse

We weren’t sure how we would make room for our barbecue dinner, until we walked through the doors of Randolph’s Smokehouse. Randolph himself greeted us as we sat down, explaining his favorite dishes on the menu and what he had been smoking on the grill over the last few days. We ordered several “two meat combos” (per Randolph’s recommendation, with tri-tip, rib tips and chicken) and several sides of mac and cheese, collared greens, coleslaw, baked beans and corn bread. OH MY GOODNESS. The corn bread was still hot, the mac and cheese was creamy, and the ribs were definitely worth the whole trip. Most people streaming through the door were picking up food to go, but there are three tables for those who want to dine in the restaurant.

Insider’s Tip: the restaurant serves Blue Bell ice cream (which is hard to come by, and only sold in 23 states). If you’ve ever had it before, YOU KNOW. The ice cream window is separate from the rest of the restaurant, and they only take cash. Trust us. Bring cash.

(8472 S Central Avenue, Los Angeles)

The Details:

South Los Angeles covers a lot of ground, and is not particularly pedestrian-friendly. However, since we stuck to Florence-Firestone and Watts, we kept our sites a little closer together. We walked, took the bus and (cheated a little bit!) by driving from Watts Towers to Amapola Market.

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