Watts Profits

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The city wants to redevelop the historic Mafundi Institute in Watts. Can the community save it?
Art by Evan Solano

On Watts’ 103rd Street in the 1960s, you might have overheard legendary jazz musician Horace Tapscott practicing in a coffee shop on a piano furnished by Sammy Davis Jr. It occupied the ground floor of a building where teen dance prodigies learned moves from Eartha Kitt on a floor donated by Marge Champion, the model for the animated dances in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.   

This was the Mafundi Institute: an arts education center focused on community empowerment, founded in the wake of the 1965 Watts Uprising.

The Institute’s building still stands today, but the music, art, and dance came to a halt in the 1970s, owing to financial divestment from the government and a high-profile board member’s assault charges. Only two tenants currently remain on the property: the Watts Coffee House and a charter high school that offers specialized job training courses. 

Their future has been thrown into upheaval ever since the city announced plans a year ago to lease the building to a developer and turn it into apartments. As a result, community activists have renewed their quest to revive arts programs and save this historic space. 

At a Watts Neighborhood Council meeting last year, Amde Hamilton, a former Mafundi Institute teacher and member of the Black poetry collective The Watts Prophets, eloquently articulated the importance of the building; his speech promptly inspired a group of local residents to fight against the city’s plans. Shortly thereafter, Watts natives founded Friends at Mafundi, an organizing collective aimed at preserving this hallowed ground. 

Inside the building itself, its tenants say that the city’s lack of communication has fueled mistrust. 

According to the proposal, the city encourages developers to preserve the Watts Coffee House. But the fine print offers a loophole allowing potential buyers to propose demolition and relocation of all existing tenants. 

Relations between Watts residents and the city have deteriorated so rapidly that some fear the city might tear down the building in the middle of the night. 

“As genuine as Councilman [Joe] Buscaino is, he’s misguided. He’s not talking to the community,” says Rita Cofield, the main organizer of Friends at Mafundi. Buscaino’s district extends from Watts to his home in San Pedro. “Housing won’t solve our mortality rate, or why our young people are being disenfranchised. It won’t solve education or jobs. Also, housing for whom?”

Branimir Kvartuc, the senior advisor and communications director for Buscaino, claims that Buscaino has heard the calls from community members who want him to leave the building alone. However, he counters that Watts is in dire need of more apartments, and that the Mafundi building is one of the most suitable city-owned properties ripe for redevelopment. 

READ MORE: Amde Hamilton, the Watts Prophets co-founder talks gentrification, poetry and jazz

“We need housing, and all sorts of housing. That’s a fact,” says Kvartuc. “This isn’t the only property that this is happening to. This is happening all over the city.”

“What type of housing” is the question that has made local activists wary of the city’s intentions. According to the proposal, favored bids for the project will combine “innovative housing, (which could include market rate, affordable, or a combination of the two) with local community-serving commercial uses.” It claims that “the most qualified project will reflect a strong understanding of the cultural significance of the site, the unique fabric of the neighborhood, maximize housing choices for local residents, provide robust community benefits, and deliver an expeditious, financially self-sustaining project.”

For some community members, the inclusion of the phrase “innovative housing” and the possibility of market rate housing being built is troubling, especially in light of Councilmember Buscaino’s history of questionable dealings with real estate developers.

Over several years, Buscaino, a former LAPD officer, received at least $94,700 in campaign contributions from individual donors connected to real estate developer Samuel Leung, according to the L.A. Times. Leung pleaded guilty in December 2020 to one count of conspiracy to commit campaign money laundering. He was sentenced to five years probation, 500 hours of community service, and he agreed to pay an undetermined amount of restitution to the city of L.A.  

In addition, Leung lavishly donated to Buscaino, Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Council president Nury Martinez, and indicted former City Councilmember Jose Huizar. It was allegedly part of his campaign to win the alteration of zoning laws around his Sea Breeze apartment complex in Harbor Gateway, a thin strip of the city of L.A. that connects Watts to the San Pedro, Wilmington, and Harbor City areas. The Los Angeles Times has noted that Buscaino was an enthusiastic supporter of the Sea Breeze apartment complex project, despite the opposition of local residents.

Another phrase in the city’s proposal that sets off alarms for activists is “leverage Opportunity Zone funding.” A little-known bit of legislation tucked into Donald Trump’s 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, these designated “opportunity zones” allow investors to delay and ideally avoid paying capital gain taxes for building in low-income neighborhoods. Some local activists consider it just another way for multi-millionaire real estate barons to benefit from the acceleration of gentrification. 

“It’s a concern that it could help increase gentrification — especially in well-situated underserved neighborhoods that are about to pop — rather than local businesses or things that benefit local residents,” says Bill Fulton, the director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. An urban planner who once served as mayor of Ventura, Fulton has extensively studied the effects of Opportunity Zones.

While the idea for the Mafundi Institute was originally hatched in Watts by local artists and activists, the building itself has been owned by various city government departments since the institute’s inception. The first landlord in the mid-’60s was the Economic and Youth Opportunities Agency of Greater Los Angeles, but the Mafundi Institute managed the building. After the institute disbanded, the deed was passed down to what was then the Community Redevelopment Department; the city retained control after the agency folded. 

“No one knew the history of the building. No one knew how it got there… They just thought it was an old dump that could be thrown away.”

Amde Hamilton, former Mafundi Institute teacher

Funding for the Mafundi Institute’s arts programs mainly came from a hodgepodge of various federal and state programs that flooded into Watts after the uprising as part of its “War on Poverty.” But support for the institute began to fade away in the late ‘60s, when President Nixon and Governor Reagan slashed funding for public programs including inner-city arts initiatives.

Then, in 1971, Mafundi Institute board member Ron Karenga (now known as Maulana Karenga) was convicted of assaulting and torturing two women. Karenga, who co-founded a Black empowerment organization that was considered a rival of the Black Panthers (it was controversial in part because it received funding from the Los Angeles Police Department), stepped down from the board before his trial; but the damage had already been done. Financial resources and public support ran dry and classes at the institute ceased in 1975. The building was then turned into office spaces and a local credit union. After the 1992 uprising, the Watts Coffee House and a charter school moved in.  

Friends at Mafundi imagines a reinvigorated Institute, with creative and performing arts classes for neighborhood kids, and a museum dedicated to telling the history of Watts and Black Los Angeles. They want to preserve the Watts Coffee House, along with apartments for seniors and aging artists from the community.

“There’s nothing in South Central now that can identify African-American culture and history,” Hamilton says. “We want to bring back the artists and have programs for kids. Something that African-American children can be proud of. We want to preserve our history and contributions to the city and to California.”

But for some members of Friends at Mafundi, it feels like the forces of gentrification and exploitation are encircling Watts, as with nearby Inglewood, where the recently opened SoFi Stadium has rapidly driven up rental prices.

“It’s in such a good position if you look at a map. It’s close to transportation. It’s not Larchmont, but hey…,” says Ruby Barbee, a member of Friends at Mafundi.

Barbee invokes other forthcoming Watts developments that add to that impending fear of displacement: the ongoing redevelopment of the Jordan Downs public housing project and developer Thomas Safran’s two mixed-use developments next door to the Mafundi Institute building.

Although community activists acknowledge the dire need for affordable housing, Barbee and others interviewed for this story say that housing labeled “affordable” often isn’t affordable for people in the communities where the housing is located.

RELATED: The Rent Strike That Sparked a Movement

Every year, the U.S. The Department of Housing and Urban Development calculates the Area Median Income for every geographic area of the country.  The federal government and local agencies use that figure to determine eligibility for affordable housing. In Los Angeles, according to calculations updated in April of 2020, a low-income family of four makes around $90,000 a year, while a “very low income” family of four makes $56,300 a year. But the median wage for a family of four in Watts is $46,276, or far below that federal calculation, according to census data

Compounding the issue, many affordable housing developments were created with covenants that set limits for when the housing stops being affordable and transitions into market rate costs. According to a report released in 2019 by the California Housing Partnership, over 12,000 affordable rental properties in L.A. County are in danger of converting to market rate housing in the near future. 

In Watts, some residents feel powerless when it comes to deciding what gets built and what gets destroyed.

“The elders have said, enough is enough. No more.

Ruby Barbee, a member of Friends at Mafundi

Barbee notes that the Mafundi Institute building is the last major monument to the memory of what Hamilton remembered as “the Watts arts district.” The area of community-centered spaces, educational centers, and arts venues that sprang up after the uprising included the Watts Repertory Theatre Company, Studio Watts, the Watts Writers Workshop, and the still-standing Watts Towers.

Buscaino’s representatives emphasize that they are aware of the concerns of community members.

“We know this project needs input. The conversation is just beginning though,” Kvartuc says. “It’s not a clean thing, not like someone just turning on a lightswitch. It’s not perfect.”

To date, just four developers have submitted proposals for the project, according to Kvartuc. While he won’t say which developers have submitted proposals, he did say that the city’s Municipal Finance Committee had identified the strongest candidate and will meet in late January to discuss the project further.  

Kvartuc pushes back on the idea that community members won’t have any say in the Mafundi building’s fate. “Once the developer is chosen, they’ll go into the community and ask the community ‘How do we maintain the soul of Mafundi and expand it?’” he says.

For Friends at Mafundi, saving the Mafundi Institute building isn’t just about saving the building itself — it’s about preserving an important piece of history of Black Los Angeles, expanding on its legacy, and bringing it into the 21st Century for the young people of modern day Watts.

“We don’t want to stop progress,” says Cofield, the organizer behind Friends at Mafundi. “We want to be a part of it. When you try to destroy one of our cultural sites, you’re not making us a part of it. I have to keep fighting until the bulldozer comes in.”