Cornerstone Theater Company


Jordan Downs Transformation by the Decade-1970’s

Preparing for the May 18th opening of A Jordan Downs Illumination has prompted a lot of discussion on the relationship between art and change. From the destruction of the Watts Rebellion rose an artistic renaissance that centered the needs of the community. The Watts Happening Coffeehouse was a place for artists, famous and otherwise, to gather and exchange ideas.

The Watts Happening Coffee House above was the original meeting place of the Mafundi Institute and the Watts Writers Workshop founded by screenwriter Budd Schulberg.

The Watts Writers Workshop was awarded a grant to build and maintain a performance space. Celebrities like Sidney Poitier and Quincy Jones would give classes at the theater.

Artist and activist Earth Kitt drove from Beverly Hills to the Jordan Downs Recreation Center every Saturday to give dance lessons.

There were a variety of organizations offering classes for community members of all ages.

Art classes at Watts Arts Center.

And every Summer the Watts Summer Festival brought out the whole neighborhood.

By the 70’s, Watts was a community filled with art, theatre, dance and music.

R & B group, The Whispers got their start in Jordan Downs.

As it turns out, however, during the 60’s, the FBI had been quietly planting informants in various Black organizations. Eventually, the Watts Writers Workshop lost their federal funding. The organizers planned a fundraising dinner, but the 350-seat theatre was burned down before it could take place. Darthard Perry later confessed to committing arson on behalf of the FBI.

A Cointelpro documentary shows Darthard Perry confessing to setting the Watts Writers Workshop on fire at 3:45.

In 1973, Richard Nixon put a stop to housing projects like Jordan Downs. By 1974 an early version of the Section 8 housing program was introduced, offering more flexible options for low income housing. Communities like Jordan Downs were, once again, out of favor with legislators. With cities turning away from housing projects in favor of mixed-income solutions, the residents of Jordan Downs were placed on the back burner.

Jordan Downs resident looks up at her ceiling.

In addition to art programs, there were dozens of non-profit organizations (like the Watts Labor Community Action Committee) that nurtured, mentored, housed and fed the community. These organizations helped support people during times of change. What are some other non-profit organizations that are doing good work in Watts? Shout them out in the comments.

This blog series was created by Lindsay “LJ” Jenkins, A Jordan Downs Illumination Producing Associate. The material within these blogs was collected during the creation of A Jordan Downs Illumination premiering May 17-26, 2019 at the Jordan Downs Recreation Center in Watts. CLICK HERE to find out more and purchase tickets.