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Watts businesses today similar to those of 50 years ago


By the time the Watts civil unrest took place in 1965, Chambers Shine Parlor and Repair had spent nearly a decade serving customers in the community near the intersection of Manchester Boulevard and Central Avenue.

Started in 1955 by Thomas and Dorothy Chambers in the parking lot of a Red Car turnaround station, the business later moved a few doors away, and at its height, employed 35 people at shine stations and was the largest such Black-owned company in the nation, said Stephen Randolph, who is the Chambers’ son-in-law and now operates the company as well as the barbecue restaurant, Randolph Smoke House, located next door.

The store-front business also offered repair services for shoes and purses. But more importantly, the business hired people from the community. In fact, Chambers has hired thousands of young people and taught them the trade, estimates Randolph, who attended Fremont High before going on to graduate from Cal State Dominguez in business administration.

And Chambers, like 80 percent of the businesses that populated the area in the 1970s and 1980s, was Black-owned and many, if not most, were financed by the owners and their families.

The situation in the community was not much different then than it is today, said Randolph.

“Unemployment was real bad and the way South Central, Watts, Florence/ Firestone looked then is how it basically looks now; no change.”

In fact, a community survey of residents conducted in 2013 by 15th District Councilman Joe Buscaino, found that the neighborhood priorities in Watts were in order: employment, physical activities (for youth), cleanliness, (law enforcement), social activities, culture, transportation, housing and government.

Perhaps the key changes between then and now, said Stephens, is who lives in the community. In 1965 stay the majority of residents were African American, whereas nearly three quarters of residents today are Hispanic.

But like then, Stephens said most of the businesses in the community were owned by residents.

Today, according to the 15th District research, the situation is much the same—local people operating local businesses. And about one-third of those who completed the questionnaire have been running a business in the community for at least 10 years, and intend to stay, while 85 percent expect to invest in or improve their business.