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Jordan Downs: A False Start for the Privatizers

In 1989, the city proposed selling off Jordan Downs to a private developer. But organized tenants defeated the plan just as suddenly as it had been introduced.

A red, yellow, and black illustration of three men with their hands up, as those they're being arrested.
(Illustration: Kira Carlee | Knock LA)

Tom Bradley, the city’s first Black mayor, is commonly depicted as the political rival of the notorious and openly racist then LAPD Chief Daryl Gates — this, Bradley certainly was. At the same time, these two figures were only as far apart from one another as liberals and conservatives in this city have long been — which is to say, on certain crucial issues: not far at all. 

When he was first elected in 1973, Bradley represented for many a radical break from the white-dominated clique of elites that ran LA up until that point. Yet by the end of his 20 years in office, punctuated dramatically by the uprising in 1992, perhaps most stunning was just how little material conditions had changed. 

“We are engaged in a war against the criminals of this city,” Bradley declared at an anti-crime rally in 1985. A former police officer himself, he largely supported the war on gangs that escalated in the 1980s. As mayor, aside from some minor tweaks and a few instances in which he was pushed to take a stand against police violence — like after the brutal killing of Eula Love in 1979 — he drastically increased funding to the LAPD, enlarged its ranks, and avoided criticizing his former colleagues. 

Bradley’s project was to make Los Angeles a “world-class city” — a torch that has been passed down to all elected officials who have followed. This required a harsh crackdown on the surplus, jobless, poor, mostly Black and Latine people whose very existence stood in the way of this goal. 

As applied to particular neighborhoods, this elite political project also involved the demolition and privatization of the city’s public housing. Sometimes passively and sometimes more actively, Bradley supported from behind the scenes as the city moved toward the mass removal of public housing communities

A black and white photograph of Tom Bradley standing at a podium and getting sworn in as the mayor of Los Angeles.

Tom Bradley getting sworn in as mayor of Los Angeles in 1973. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Jordan Downs, a 700-unit development in the heart of Watts, built in the 1940s to house workers during World War II, was quickly singled out as a special target. By the 1980s, Jordan had developed a reputation as the most notorious and dangerous project in the city, a community rife with criminals that embodied the urban crisis writ large. 

But with crisis often comes opportunity: The land underneath Jordan could be leveraged toward the broader goal of “revitalizing” all of South Central, and Watts in particular, if only the poor Black tenants living there could be removed. In February 1989, with the backing of Bradley and other establishment figures and institutions, the Housing Authority suddenly proposed selling off Jordan Downs to the highest bidder. 

The war on public housing had begun.

A ‘Win-Win’ Privatization Proposal — for Everyone but the Tenants

Although it had been in the works behind closed doors for about a year, the plan to auction off Jordan Downs came as a total surprise to the complex’s residents. On February 9, 1989, the Los Angeles Times broke the news that the Housing Authority was planning to sell Jordan Downs to a private developer.

The “bold effort” to privatize the homes of 700 families would require the buyer to keep it “affordable” for an unspecified number of years. The money from the sale would then be used for needed repairs at other developments. It was a “win-win situation,” in the words of Leila Gonzalez-Correa, HACLA’s soon-to-be sacked executive director.  

But for how long would the current tenants be among the purported winners? “That’s something we’re going to have to discuss,” said an attorney hired by the city, just days after the plan was announced, responding to the question of exactly how many years the project would remain low-income.

A map illustrating the locations of public housing developments in Watts.

A map of public housing developments in Watts. (Map: Camille Kaplan | Knock LA)

The city’s elites quickly voiced their support for the plan. Mayor Bradley thought the plan was “innovative and creative,” one of his aides told the press

The Los Angeles Times editorial board backed it, too: “A private deal, although not a perfect solution, would allow new owners to repair the project, improve security and winnow out troublesome tenants.” Selling off Jordan Downs was “worth a try.”

Nobody was more pleased than LA’s major real estate players. Jona Goldrich, the head of the mega-landlord-developer Goldrich & Kest (still one of the biggest property owners in the city today) told the Los Angeles Times that he had been lobbying for years for the city to get out of the business of public housing. His firm was interested in purchasing Jordan Downs — however, “if the Housing Authority tells me you have to take back gangs and you have to take back guys who have a record of being delinquent in rent, I would not take the deal,” he insisted.

HACLA was singing the same tune, with Gonzalez-Correa stating, “We need to tighten up the procedure whereby drug dealers and people who don’t pay rent can be evicted.”

Repression, Rebellion, and Revitalization in Watts

To understand what prompted this sudden proposal, we need to look back at least to the 1965 Watts rebellion, the conditions that sparked it, and the radical organizing that took hold in and around Jordan Downs in its wake. 

Jordan Downs was a hotbed of organizing activity in the 1960s, a crucial focal point in the 1965 uprising and the decades that followed. According to Mike Davis and Jon Wiener’s Set the Night on Fire: LA in the Sixties, the development was dubbed “the Pentagon” for the role it played during the rebellion. It acted as a community center where “scores of youth” met to strategize and “discuss the resumption of the uprising against the police.”

Jordan Downs also was the birthplace of the Sons of Watts, an organization that existed alongside the revolutionaries of the Black Panther Party during the late 1960s. Members of the Sons of Watts and other Jordan Downs residents were involved in organizing the Watts Summer Festival and other efforts in the community in the years following the uprising.

By 1980, although much of the radical organizing of the late 1960s had diminished, Jordan Downs was still a center of militancy and anti-establishment sentiment. “We get rocks and bottles thrown at us in here more than anywhere else,” an LAPD officer told the Los Angeles Times.

By then, the conditions that made Watts so flammable 15 years earlier — police abuse, residential segregation, deep poverty, organized abandonment by all levels of government — remained. Arguably, the situation was growing even more desperate due to larger forces like intense deindustrialization and big cuts in federal funding to cities. 

LA’s power brokers responded with a neoliberal development strategy that, on the one hand, showered corporate developers in downtown and other strategic areas with money and land, and, on the other, doubled down on aggressive policing and incarceration for the poor Black and Latine masses. 

Max Felker-Kantor explains in Policing Los Angeles that “the dream of making Los Angeles a world-class city attractive for international investment and economic development required a political commitment to eliminating drug crime and gang violence.” On this front, “liberals, conservatives, and law enforcement officials were often closely aligned.” As Bradley exempted the LAPD from across-the-board budget cuts, the size of the force grew by over 1,500 officers in just a few years during the 1980s. 

Police violence against poor people of color was taken to new heights with the war on gangs. It reached a crescendo in 1987 as the LAPD — loaded with surplus military equipment from the 1984 Olympics — launched the massive police sweeps that were dubbed “Operation Hammer.”

A black and white photograph of four armed policemen surrounding a Black resident. One policeman is holding up their gun towards the resident. The photo was taken in 1966

Armed police threaten a Watts resident in 1966. (Photo: UCLA Library Special Collections)

The Los Angeles Times covered a series of these sweeps in May 1988, detailing how every night for several weeks, the LAPD would go out with 160 officers in South Central to make arrests and put people into gang databases. “I think people believe that the only strategy we have is to put a lot of police officers on the street and harass people and make arrests for inconsequential kinds of things,” LAPD Chief Gates said. “That’s part of the strategy, no question about it.” 

“You all going to get us jobs?” one 10th-grader near Jordan Downs mockingly asked the Los Angeles Times reporter. The answer, quite simply, was no. As Mike Davis pointed out, despite a $400 million LAPD budget in 1988, a “pathetic” program of 100 jobs for “high-risk” youth was the only carrot the city would offer its young people trying to stay out of gangs. 

But if you were a capitalist looking to invest in the inner city, the local state was much more generous. In 1988, the powerful Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) declared a project area covering all of Watts, which would allow for generous “financial incentives,” funded by diverted property taxes, to be provided to businesses. 

The privatization of Jordan Downs was part and parcel of the city’s strategy for the neighborhood. “Jordan is right smack in the middle of Watts,” Gonzalez-Correa boasted when announcing the sale proposal in February 1989. “I really believe that turning around Jordan will be the most important piece of turning around Watts.” 

The Citywide Tenants Movement Flexes Its Muscles

The tenants of Jordan Downs — especially the women — immediately organized themselves, summoned their troops, and raised hell. 

“We are very upset because we did not have any idea about this,” Lillian Browning, the head of the Jordan Downs Resident Advisory Counsel told the Los Angeles Times. “Pandemonium reigned” at a public meeting held at the development two days after the announcement of the plans. Six hundred people packed the complex’s auditorium as residents heckled the Housing Authority spokespeople and forced them to cut their presentations short.

The residents were flexing organizing muscles that they had strengthened in recent years. 

According to Ronald Brooks, whose 1993 doctoral dissertation documents the residents’ struggle, organizing by public housing tenants across the city had been steadily intensifying since 1987. It focused primarily on poor conditions and abusive management. In early 1988, frustration had built to the point where the Housing Authority Resident Advisory Committee (HARAC), made up of representatives from each public housing complex, demanded the resignation of Gonzalez-Correa. 

“At the last meeting with tenants, they just chewed her up and spit her out,” said Gilda Haas of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA). 

In April 1988, more than 150 residents from across the city showed up for the first ever protest by public housing tenants at City Hall. Where was Tom Bradley during this momentous event? He was in Australia, drumming up investment for the Los Angeles International Airport. This anecdote neatly captures Bradley’s approach to public housing, and the poor in general: just not as important as the quest for a “world-class city.” 

At this point, an estimated $100 million was needed to renovate all of LA’s 17 public housing developments — a large sum in those days, but hardly insurmountable. The city was more than willing to spend such sums of money when it aligned with the priorities of the ruling class. 

The city had just borrowed $500 million from the bond market to expand the Convention Center on downtown’s southern edge, a project “enthusiastically backed” by Tom Bradley and other elites. This turned out to be a major money-loser for decades, with the public still paying $48 million per year in debt and interest payments as of 2015. Bradley also found time to unsuccessfully beg the Republican Party to hold its 1986 convention in LA: “The people of Los Angeles would be honored to host a convention that would stand in large measure as a tribute to Ronald Reagan.”

For public housing, stinginess reigned. Beyond providing a one-time loan of $818,000 to the Housing Authority for emergency repairs at Jordan Downs, the city did nothing to make up for HACLA’s lack of funding. A core part of the war was simple attrition and abandonment. 

A HACLA official quoted in the Los Angeles Times deflected responsibility from anyone in a position of power, instead blaming the tenants themselves for the conditions of their communities: “A young woman’s idea of upward mobility [in public housing] is having a baby and getting her first welfare check,” he said. “Then she leaves her mom’s and gets a place of her own — in the project, of course.” 

A black and white photograph of five Black women standing close together and smiling on a Los Angeles sidewalk.
The Resident Advisory Council for Nickerson Gardens, another housing project in Watts, 1984. Included in this photo is the citywide tenant leader, Claudia Moore, on the far right. (Photo: UCLA Library Special Collections)

Down Goes Privatization, Down Goes Gonzalez-Correa

“What is happening here in Jordan Downs is going to happen to each one of the [17] developments,” said Claudia Moore at a press conference tenants had called on February 24, 1989. Moore was the head of HARAC and a resident of Nickerson Gardens, another project in Watts. The tenants saw clearly that the battle over Jordan Downs was a battle for public housing citywide. 

Jordan Downs residents had gathered the media to present signatures from 1,000 public housing tenants across the city demanding that the Housing Authority delay its decision for a year and pay for a consultant to help the tenants assess the proposal. “The Housing Authority has been secretly working on this proposal for a year … and I can tell you the residents have not been consulted,” Lillian Browning told the press. 

A black and white photograph of the parking lot in front of Jordan Downs
A 1989 photograph of Jordan Downs. (Photo: UCLA Library Special Collections)

A week later, Moore published an editorial in the Los Angeles Times, co-written with an LAFLA attorney, titled “Don’t Sell Jordan Downs to a Developer.” They argued that the land would soon “greatly increase in value,” which could allow the private owners to make millions in profits. “But what about the public?” they asked. “In city hands, these units would remain in the pool of low-income housing forever. In private hands, they would be low income only so long as federal subsidies to the developer require it. Currently, this is estimated at from 5 to 15 years.”

The same day the opinion piece was published, the Los Angeles Times reported that, due to the planned sale, the federal government had revoked $5 million of modernization funds slated for Jordan Downs. The information was only revealed thanks to a public records request by LAFLA; the Housing Authority had intended to keep it secret.  

By the middle of March 1989, it was clear that the tenants’ organizing had turned the tables against the Housing Authority, as several city councilmembers began to harshly criticize the privatization plan. 

By the end of the month, Gonzalez-Correa was again under fire — this time, for having proposed a policy that would have essentially banned HACLA employees from speaking to anyone outside of the agency without her express permission. “What are we trying to hide here?” asked then city councilmember Zev Yaroslavsky.

Then came the final straw: Mayor Tom Bradley, sensing the shifting political winds, reversed his support for Gonzalez-Correa. Bradley reprimanded her in a letter that was provided to the media after the Los Angeles Times reported that Housing Authority officials had interrogated a tenant leader for criticizing the Jordan Downs privatization plan on television. “It is imperative that, from your office on down, the Housing Authority does everything it can to encourage, not discourage, tenant participation in the management of their communities,” wrote Bradley — who just weeks earlier was fully supportive of the privatization scheme made without any tenant involvement. 

On April 3, it was reported that Gonzalez-Correa had quietly resigned

“It was about time she got out,” Moore triumphantly told the Los Angeles Times. “I don’t see how the lady could have stayed.”

On April 13, after a public hearing attended by over 100 tenants from Jordan Downs, City Council voted unanimously to oppose the plan to sell the development to a private owner. The next day, the Housing Authority surrendered too, officially abandoning the privatization proposal.

The tenants had won. They defeated a seemingly unanimous consensus among elites and stopped the Housing Authority from selling off their homes to a developer bent on erasing their community.

Three years later, before and during the 1992 uprising, residents from Jordan Downs would again defend their community, this time by helping to organize a historic gang truce and political movement in Watts rooted in the neighborhood’s four public housing developments. According to historian Elizabeth Hinton, “unity parties in Imperial Courts and Nickerson Gardens went on as the surrounding areas burned.” From unity, these young residents went on to demand massive redistribution and public investment

Tom Bradley, meanwhile, tapped Peter Uberroth, a Republican corporate executive who helped organize the 1984 Olympics, to head the Rebuild LA initiative. It was a pathetic attempt to entice major corporations to invest in poor areas that was quickly exposed to be an abject failure. As Mike Davis later summarized in the updated preface to his classic City of Quartz: “Funds from Rebuild L.A. went to the usual suspects — politically connected developers and ministers — while almost nothing trickled down to the housing projects or mean streets.”

By the end of Bradley’s reign, the chasm between the ruling class and poor Angelenos had never been greater. 

And as would be made clear in the next decade, the battle for Jordan Downs was far from over.

Read more of this 10-part series, LA’s War on Public Housing: The Era of Demolition and Privatization, here.