Spider, a resident of Jordan Downs, moved to the housing project with his mother after serving in the military.

Isadora Kosofsky for NationSwell

Inside the Revival of One of the Nation's Most Notorious Housing Projects

This is what the future of public housing could look like.

You hear four words — “South Central Los Angeles” — and images immediately come to mind. Empty streets of boarded storefronts, riddled with bullet holes. Sidewalks peppered with shattered crack pipes and hypodermics. It’s a place you recognize from the evening news. The birthplace of modern gang warfare and the short fuse that’s exploded into riot after riot. Welcome to Watts.

At one corner of the two square miles that make up the neighborhood looms the large, 700-unit public housing development Jordan Downs. It’s among the country’s most notorious projects and is where Joseph Paul, Jr., and his outreach team from SHIELDS for Families, an organization that provides counseling, education and vocational training services, come to work. They’re out to revitalize the property from a graveyard of crumbling postwar buildings and an abandoned industrial site tainted with lead and arsenic into an Arcadian “urban village.” The plan, created by the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA), calls for recreational parks and retail on site and would double the amount of available housing with 700 more units tiered at affordable and market rates. But more importantly, Paul wants to see the residents revitalized, too.

“We don’t just want to toss opportunities onto folks or introduce them to an existing mindset that’s not conducive to really growing or evolving,” says Paul, SHIELD’s project manager at Jordan Downs. “We need a physical change, as well mental and emotional change.”

Service providers have been deployed, but HACLA is still in the early phase of what will be an ambitious, expensive and years-long redevelopment of Jordan Downs. It’s one of L.A.’s largest public works projects. If it succeeds, it could rewrite the nation’s public housing policies.

NOT SOON ENOUGH

Jordan Downs’ 103 buildings (located coincidentally on E. 103 Street) all look identical. The two-story beige structures are distinguished only by signs like “BLDG 67.” Entryways are darkened with black soot and grime, and the doors and windows are crossed with bars. “1940’s vintage” is how HACLA’s former president described it in 2008; “like a federal penitentiary” is what the leader of the development’s tenant group said instead.

Soon, the dilapidated complex will be transformed into gleaming four-story townhouses and a retail center that will host a grocery store selling fresh produce and several shops. At the center of the development will be a 50,000-square-foot community center and gymnasium that will look out onto an 8-acre park.

One hundred and three identical two-story beige structures make up the Jordan Downs complex. Isadora Kosofsky for NationSwell

For decades, Los Angeles didn’t invest in South Central, funneling money into Hollywood, North Hollywood and downtown instead. “That is why when… HACLA presented the mayor last year with the concept of redeveloping 1950’s-era public housing into mixed-income urban villages, the idea caught the mayor’s attention,” recounts Helmi Hisserich, former deputy mayor of housing and economic development policy.

Diddy, 21, a lifelong resident of Jordan Downs, watches her nieces and nephews as her son, right, plays on his scooter. Isadora Kosofsky for NationSwell

OUT OF THE RUBBLE 

Under the clotheslines that connect the yards in Jordan Downs like a tangled game of cat’s cradle, children run after each other playing tag. They swing from the bars in the playground and beat music on the tops of trash cans. But after night falls, a different type of life emerges. Dice. Fights. Shootings.

“You have to be a strong person to live there,” says one resident.

One of the oldest housing projects in L.A., Jordan Downs was built to accommodate an influx of factory laborers and war veterans during World War II. In 1955, the housing authority designated the property for low-income residents, and by the 1980s, crime and poverty became endemic. The buildings themselves were so rundown that city council members debated whether residents should have to pay rent. The Grape Street Crips managed the property as their own, operating seized units as drug dens, brothels and dog fighting arenas. Between 2001 and 2011, 78 people were slain in Watts’s housing projects.

Today, more than 2,600 people call Jordan Downs home, half of whom are 17 years of age or younger. Seven out of 10 are Latino, and the others are predominantly black. The average household income is $14,594 — the equivalent of $40 per day for a family of four.

For all its problems, residents take pride in their home and their neighborhood’s culture and resilience. “Watts up,” they tell each other — a pun that’s become something of a pact and a promise.

“Proud to be from here,” a resident says.

“Always will be home,” replies a second.

“Give these people a chance,” says Betty Day, a community leader, “because there’s such beautiful people here.”

Inside the Jordan Downs Recreation Center. Isadora Kosofsky for NationSwell

So far, the wealth of human services that SHIELDS provides — childcare and parenting workshops, youth groups, substance abuse treatment, GED prep, job training, healthcare screenings, and food banks, for example — seem to have made a difference. Even as Paul says he’s still trying “to gain the confidence and trust of people who have been victimized so many times,” a recent report says 34 residents earned the equivalent of a high school diploma and another 113 found jobs. And while anywhere else this wouldn’t have been cause for festivities, the complex recently celebrated three years without a homicide.

BEYOND THE WALLS

Pitfalls abound in employing the residents of Jordan Downs: limited education, criminal records, a language barrier (46 percent of families primarily speak Spanish), among others. Paul’s task is to manage all of these roadblocks, plus translate the opportunities inherent in the redevelopment into paying jobs.

Unlike most real estate deals, Paul participated in negotiations with prospective contractors and lobbied for the highest number of local hires for construction work. He’s also helping local businesses (and Watts residents that work for these companies) prepare their accounting books and other licenses so they can land the contracts for the project. Take Rebel Concrete, for example. The demolition company was on the brink of devastation after the economic downturn, but now the owners are lined up to break ground for the new development and train local, young apprentices on the job at the same time. “Now, it took a year. It’s not overnight,” Paul cautions. “But if you are committed to that process, here is a viable solution.” Not only will the construction work pay decently, but it can also serve as a bridge to future stable employment.

Among the new structures being built is a retail plaza featuring a supermarket, pharmacy, stores and restaurants. That shopping area will be more convenient for current residents and draw wealthier buyers to the market-rate units, but more importantly, it will create 219 permanent jobs.

In another aspect of the redevelopment, workers will pave a Main Street-like thoroughfare through the project. Century Blvd. — a central artery that currently stops short of Jordan Downs — will link residents to prosperous neighborhoods to the west, near the LAX airport and the coast beyond, where members of SHIELD’s nurse-training program, in particular, will benefit from the additional accessibility.

WHO STAYS?

The prospect of losing their apartment frightens many residents of Jordan Downs. It’s why several residents marched to the congressional offices in protest when they first heard that a redevelopment was in the works. They didn’t want to be temporarily relocated out to the San Fernando Valley, or worse, find themselves evicted and possibly out on the street.

That’s because, until recently, official Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) policy had often done just that. Beginning in the 1990s, HUD endorsed mixed-income housing as the best way to fix distressed public developments. Attracting people with a wide range of incomes broke down the walls that trapped residents in the snares of poverty and violence, but usually displaced a portion of existing tenants. Instead of protecting the most vulnerable residents, HUD often funded the razing of dysfunctional projects, staking entire communities on the hope that something better might fill the emptiness.

To ensure no one is forced out, HACLA is planning on multiple phases of development so that housing is built before demolition begins. “Los Angeles is full,” says Rudy Montiel, HACLA’s former president who initiated the project. “We have nowhere for our people to live, for our families to live if we displace them from Jordan Downs.” Because of a vacant 21-acre site next door, the project has the ability to expand without tearing down existing buildings. (Cleanup of that site’s contaminated soil is scheduled to begin this month.) Residents in good standing — meaning those who are up to date on rent, aren’t engaging in criminal activity in the unit and aren’t hosting unauthorized guests — will not be evicted during construction.

What’s more, every public unit now on the property will be replaced with a subsidized unit of new construction. Known as “one-to-one replacement,” it’s a basic idea that’s been missing from other revitalization attempts.

Jasmine, 17, and Soccora, 15, sit with friends after school in a park adjacent to the Jordan Downs recreation center. Isadora Kosofsky for NationSwell

WHO PAYS?

The redevelopment comes with a massive price tag: $700 million (and that’s revised down from the original $1 billion figure). HACLA has lined up roughly one-third of the funding from state tax credits, L.A.’s community development block grants and private dollars from developers.

Last year, HACLA applied for a $30 million grant under the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative, a program run through HUD. The group thought their project was a strong contender, so the denial letter came as a shock.

“I know that sometimes you feel as if you have been abandoned,” Rep. Maxine Waters told residents at a community meeting. “I know that sometimes you feel as if you are being harassed. I know that you feel that somehow the sun doesn’t shine down here at Jordan Downs but I want you to know that even though you don’t see everybody all the time, that we are fighting on public policy to make sure that the federal government understands that no matter what happens there must always be public housing units available for people in this country.”

After revising their application to include better explanations of the residents’ needs and how the project’s benefits will benefit the entire Watts community, HACLA resubmitted it to HUD last month. It expects to hear back in July.

Redevelopment has been promised at Jordan Downs for years, maybe even decades. One after another, managers at the housing authority stepped down amid scandals over law breaking or embezzlement. It’s part of the reason HACLA and SHIELDS are moving slowly and deliberately in their programs: this time, there’s no room for mistakes. But why would anyone in Watts believe that this time is going to be different?

Paul thinks it has something to do with the human spirit. “Our job is to put a mirror in front of these people so they regain a sense of value,” he says. “How do you raise eight kids or five kids in a community that is defeating everyone in their midst? Murder. Dropout rates. Teenage pregnancy. Healthcare issues. And yet you see a mother raise these kids. There’s a resilience in the hearts of these people, a pride in what they are. Our job is to help them see.”

SEE: 15 Images That Reveal the Heart and Spirit of One of L.A.’s Toughest Neighborhoods

How a Few Legendary Rappers and 1 Cool Doctor are Creating Healthier Kids

Jacob Templin

Chris Peak is a staff writer for NationSwell. He previously worked for Newsday, the San Francisco Public Press and the Point Reyes Light. Contact him at [email protected]