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Damon Casarez

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The People’s Cheeseburger

The most important fast food restaurant in America is a radical burger joint in Watts

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t lunchtime on a Saturday in early June, in the south Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, the temperature tipped up over the 90-degree mark. Locol, a fast food restaurant at the corner of 103rd and Anzac Avenue, was full of customers. Twenty or so people sat on wooden blocks that lined the dining room wall like oversized baby toys, eating fried chicken nuggets studded with bits of fermented barley, "burgs" made from beef mixed with grains and tofu, and for dessert, ice cream sundaes topped with candied kumquats and banana cream. Locol’s co-founders, chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson, were up in the Bay Area to fine-tune the burgeoning chain’s weeks-old second location in Oakland, and here in Watts, things were running smoothly without them, order numbers ringing out over the soundtrack of old-school Gang Starr and classic R&B jams like "All Night Long." One of the most powerful Black women in Congress was holding court in the restaurant; later that day, a former US president would do the same.

Maxine Waters, who has represented a large swath of South LA since 1991, dispensed hugs and handshakes while talking with constituents and proudly holding up Locol swag. Waters has a long history of advocacy in the neighborhood, going back nearly to the time of the fiery 1965 riots that put Watts on the national radar. In 1992, when four LAPD officers were acquitted for the beating of Rodney King, and Watts burned again, Waters took up the mantle of explaining to her predominantly white colleagues in DC the deep-seated frustrations of a poor, largely Black community that had long suffered from institutional neglect and oppression. "If you call it a riot, it sounds like it was just a bunch of crazy people who went out and did bad things for no reason," she said at the time. "I maintain it was somewhat understandable, if not acceptable." Waters — and others — called it not a riot, but a rebellion.

Just a few hours after Waters’ visit to Locol, Bill Clinton, who was making his way across South LA to campaign for his wife and local Democrats, stopped by. It was three days before Hillary Clinton would win California’s presidential primary and clinch the Democratic Party nomination. In his blue suit and striped blue-and-white tie, an H-logo campaign button pinned to his lapel, the former president gamely shook hands and posed for pictures, including one with two boys fresh from Little League practice, blue Dodgers caps on their heads, perched on his lap. As he stood in the kitchen, gathering with staff for more photos, a woman in the crowded restaurant yelled out, "Hey Clinton, fuck you! Our people are still in jail from your crime bill!"

Clinton barely registered the criticism, which came from Sarra Tekola, a 23-year-old Seattle-based activist involved with racial and climate-justice issues, who was in town visiting family. Cameras continued to snap and roll as she detailed the various tough-on-crime measures enacted during the his administration: "Three-strikes you’re out. Mandatory minimums. And then you want to take pictures with my people here? We’re still in jail!"


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f you’ve ever eaten at a food truck that served cochinita pibil inside of a bao, or a Maine lobster roll torta, you’ve experienced the culinary influence of Los Angeles chef Roy Choi. In 2008, he sparked the high-end food truck craze with his Kogi taco trucks and their menu of Korean-inflected Mexican dishes, from kalbi tacos to kimchi quesadillas. Daniel Patterson rose to national fame at the helm of the San Francisco restaurant Coi, from which he stepped down earlier this year, where he earned two Michelin stars and was lauded for its intellectual, delicate approach to preparing vegetables and foraged ingredients — a practice Patterson engaged in long before every other fine-dining chef clamored to emulate it.

Lydia, general manager ("this is my baby"), and OJ, a line cook. "She really saved me; we are the dream team."

Here’s the story you may have heard about Locol: In 2013, Roy Choi spoke at the MAD Symposium in Copenhagen, the TED Talks of the food world, and called on his fellow chefs to think beyond feeding the rich. He stood in front of the audience of culinary luminaries, including Patterson, and asked them a question: "What if every high-caliber chef, all of us in here, told our investors as we were building restaurants, that we leveraged it [so that] for every restaurant we would build… it would be a requirement to build a restaurant in the hood, too?" Three months later, Patterson called up Choi, and, long story short, the duo were back in Copenhagen the next year, an odd-couple pairing of the lanky, studious fine-dining chef and the hip-hop- and weed-loving food truck king. Together, they unveiled their plans to launch Locol, and a revolution.

With its burgers and fried chicken sandwiches, Locol is recognizably a fast-food restaurant, despite the absence of counter-service standards like soda and French fries. But the greasy paper wrapper of the Locol "cheeseburg" is deceptive. The patty is not all beef, as other chains may proudly advertise: Thirty percent of it is composed of cooked grains and tofu. It’s served on a whole-grain bun leavened with koji, the fermentation culture used to make sake, soy sauce, and miso, which is designed to reproduce the soft texture of white bread without sacrificing nutritional density. The dishes served are punctuated with various Korean and Mexican touches, like breakfast sandwiches loaded with carnitas, or a noodle bowl flavored with ginger and lime.

The menu — and the mission — of Locol didn’t come out of nowhere. Patterson had started the Cooking Project, which teaches kids in poor Bay Area neighborhoods culinary skills, in 2013, a few months before hearing Choi’s impassioned speech at MAD. And Choi, whose Kogi trucks have fed a broader demographic and geographic swath of Los Angeles than practically any other restaurant brand in the city, had spent years laying the groundwork for his latest turn as a messianic populist. His Kogi trucks "built the muscle" for the work of launching Locol, Choi told me. "Because I was feeding people everywhere. It didn’t matter — there was no discrimination. We would just post up and feed everyone for two dollars."

"We know that there’s a connection between things like lack of healthy food to questions of state-sanctioned violence."

After serving tacos "on almost every street I could" in LA, Choi said, "I realized that there were still so many people I haven't fed yet." In 2012, he saw the city congratulating itself on the progress it had made in the two decades since Rodney King, but the sentiment rang hollow to Choi. "That's when I was like, ‘Fuck, man. We are not at a better place.’" On the anniversary of the riots, he wrote a blistering, stream-of-consciousness blog post that opened a window onto his frustrations with everything from the city’s failure to truly serve the people of South LA, to the restaurant industry as a whole, to his conflicted feelings about eating meat. "Here in LA a lot of people have been talking, writing, reminiscing on the riots of ’92. What about the kids of ’12?" he writes. "Who gives a fuck about how it was. Give a fucking fuck about how it is."

The blog post may have read like an impassioned, occasionally surreal tirade — "Animals be talking to me. They told me..stop. Stop, Roy. Please." — but Choi’s anger wasn’t a passing thing, and it resulted, nearly four years later, in Locol opening its doors. Unlike other recent restaurant projects that attempt to reckon with gaping social inequities — Kitchenette, a healthy, low-cost "alternative to fast food" from Kimbal Musk (brother of Elon), or the ex-hedge-funder-led Everytable, which plans to charge less in low-income neighborhoods than it will in wealthier ones — Locol’s messaging isn’t geared toward people who will not be its primary customers. Choi and Patterson don’t openly talk about conscious capitalism or triple-bottom lines. They’re mostly just leaning on the premise that serving neighborhoods like Watts, which often have a dearth of food options beyond corner stores and outposts of gigantic chains, is good business both ethically and fiscally, and likely to be profitable.

To make that happen, the brand has to grow. Choi and Patterson’s partner in Locol is Hanson Li, of Salt Partners Group, a hospitality development company with investments in several high-profile San Francisco restaurants. Following openings in Watts and Uptown Oakland, and the LA-based food truck that rolled out this week, the plan is for Locol to continue to expand in the Bay Area. By the end of 2017, the partners hope to have nine locations nationwide, including a commissary kitchen and a stand-alone coffee shop.

Patterson is white, Choi is Korean-American, Li was born in Hong Kong. The places the Locol team talks about when it comes to expansion are, noticeably, the same places at the heart of current conversations around Black lives in America: parts of Newark, Detroit, Atlanta, New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago, Baltimore, Ferguson. When I asked Patterson if Locol was deliberately choosing to focus on opening in and serving Black neighborhoods, he answered with a question of his own: "We're focused on communities where there's a lack of access to good food, and a lack of opportunity. I would ask you, what do those communities usually look like?"


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ocol’s grand opening in Watts, which was held on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, saw customers waiting in a line that stretched nearly a block outside the door, past the stucco bungalows that line Anzac Avenue. The DJ played both the entirety of King’s "I Have a Dream" speech and Kendrick Lamar’s "Alright," the unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement. Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti was there, Tyrese was there, Jim Brown was there, Lena Dunham was there. Many of the conversations that hung in the air turned from food to politics and then, much like Locol’s own marketing copy, to revolution. Standing in front of the restaurant, Dr. Akida Long, the principal of the elementary school across the street, told me, "We were just talking about the revolution that’s coming to Watts." Not just a food revolution, she elaborated, but a revolution of the community — of jobs, of opportunity.

While the violence of the 1990s has radically declined, Watts and its surrounding communities continue to have the highest murder rates in Los Angeles county. Still, homicide is far from the leading cause of death: The mortality rate for heart disease, for example, is significantly higher. Around the country, Black communities — regardless of average income — are less likely to have access to healthy food than well-off white neighborhoods. According to a 2013 report from the Los Angeles County Department of Health, 29 percent of children in South LA are obese — the highest rate in the county — as are nearly a third of adults. In Ghettoside, the 2015 book on crime and policing in South Central, author Jill Leovy writes that murder suspect Devin Davis, just 17, "was afflicted with ADHD and high blood pressure — a diagnosis rare in teenagers but not uncommon in South Central." Choi and Patterson might avoid explicitly saying that they’re choosing Black communities for future Locol outposts, but by focusing on neighborhoods lacking in food choices and job opportunities, that’s what they’re doing.

CC, dishwasher; Marlon, "I run the line"; Al, "I wash the dishes"

Most of the employees who work at Locol are residents of Watts and nearby neighborhoods — there were 50 when the restaurant opened in January; after a settling-in period that saw some leave and some move up into corporate or on to other locations, the store now has a staff of 31. Many have limited formal educations, past criminal convictions, or both. All receive a starting wage of at least $13 an hour which, while short of the gold standard set by the "Fight for 15" movement, is meaningfully more than California’s current minimum wage of $10, or the federal minimum of $7.25.

Shaddai Wade is one of Locol's employees. The 22-year-old had been jobless for eight months when he heard last December that the restaurant was hiring. "I had just enrolled for welfare. So I was really struggling," he told me in February, a few weeks after the grand opening. He said that he’d shown up at the job fair dressed in a tuxedo, résumé in hand, but Locol’s recruiters weren’t interested in what he’d done before. They only wanted to know who he was, and why he wanted the job — no experience, no background checks, no disclosures of past criminal convictions required. He was hired to work as a cook, and he has since learned how to prepare everything on the menu, from the gochujang-based "awesome sauce" that the cheeseburg is slicked with, to the homey beef chili.

"We're focused on communities where there's a lack of access to good food, and a lack of opportunity. I would ask you, what do those communities usually look like?"

With Watts natives working the line and managing the business, "there’s a significant amount of community buy-in and pride connected to it," explained Prophet Walker, a property developer who helped build Locol’s Watts location and is part of the community that has sprung up around the restaurant. Walker, who at the age of 16 was sentenced to six years in prison for robbery, ran to represent Watts in the state assembly in 2014, a decade after he was incarcerated. He lost, with just over a third of the vote, but the following year was invited to Washington to attend the State of the Union address as a guest of First Lady Michelle Obama. "Watts is an area that, since the riots in 1965, has not seen much development at all," Walker told me. During those riots, the entire commercial row along 103rd Street was torched, earning the strip the nickname "Charcoal Alley." Most businesses never reopened, and many that survived the upheaval eventually abandoned greater South LA, leaving half a million residents with little choice but to drive far afield for basic necessities, including food. Eighteen years passed between the riots and the arrival of new shopping center in South Central.

Watts is a very different place today than it was in 1965, or in 1992, during the Rodney King riots. For one, the historically Black neighborhood is now more than 60 percent Latino. And thanks to a pair of crime-prevention initiatives, the Community Safety Partnership and the Watts Gang Task Force, the neighborhood is often held up as a model of effective community policing. (The LAPD, in contrast, maintains the distinction of being the most violent police force in the country: Officer-involved shootings were up by 60 percent across LA last year, and a disproportionate number of victims were African-American, like 18-year-old Richard Che Risher, who was shot and killed by LAPD officers outside the Watts Nickerson Gardens housing project.) While violent crime was up overall in Los Angeles in 2015, the homicide rate in Watts remains at a historic low: In the 1990s, the Justice Department estimated that one out of every 35 men in South LA would die by homicide. Last year, Watts had eight murders.


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f Roy Choi’s 2012 blog post was the seed of Locol, he explained to me that "the sprout, as it was exiting the ground, was me searching out what I want to do, involving myself in the nonprofit communities here in Los Angeles, getting a feel for where my purpose may lie. Then the sprout was the speech" — the one at the MAD Symposium — "and then this" — he gestured at the soft-opening happening around us, twisting his arms up like a vine — "is the stalk. The flowering and the bloom will be when Watts opens, and what it becomes. Really, what the mission of Locol becomes. It doesn't stop here."

When he wrote that blog post, Choi told me, he was experiencing what he described as "a mental nervous breakdown," one that found him fundamentally rethinking his place in the food world, and nearly led him to quit the restaurant industry altogether. Instead, he channeled his discontent into volunteering at urban farms and neighborhood vegetable stands, such as the ones run by Community Services Unlimited, a nonprofit founded by the Black Panther Party in the 1970s.

Terry, front-of-house manager; Jeremiah, cashier and cook ("I like being up front, but I like cooking more"); Gwen, cook

It was a listening tour of sorts, a period during which Choi connected with food justice groups and other organizations that, in some cases, had been operating in neighborhoods south of the I-10 freeway for decades. Many outside groups hoping to address problems in South Central have failed to get to know the community and its needs so thoroughly. "If you come in and set up without having a relationship with the hood, you'll have a problem," said Aqeela Sherrills, a community safety organizer who, among other things, helped broker a historic truce between Watts’ Blood and Crip factions in 1992.

"From back in the day when we organized the peace treaty in ’92, the vision was that, hey, we stop individuals from gangbanging, you've got to replace that activity with something," Sherrills told me. One attempt came via a performance space that he operated in the early 2000s, at the address Locol now calls home. Now, Sherills — who is Locol’s landlord and has a stake in the overall business — wants the restaurant to set the standard for future development, both in Watts and in other "domestic emerging markets," as he calls the neighborhoods Choi and Patterson plan to expand to. "Locol becomes a model of how to partner with community properly," he said. "It's not just about giving people livable wage jobs and growth opportunities, it's also about ownership. Because when people are invested in it and they own it, both metaphorically and literally, there's something shifted in the imagination."

While Black Lives Matter has come to national prominence for organizing against police killings of Black men and women, Melina Abdullah, a professor of Pan-African studies at Cal State LA who has been involved in the movement since its inception, explained to me that food, and the broader issue of wellness, has a major role in their work. "Our actual emphasis is on ending state-sanctioned violence," not just police violence, she said. "We know that there’s a connection between lack of economic opportunities, lack of jobs — and even things like lack of healthy food — to questions of state-sanctioned violence."

"We are very clear that the oppressive system that we seek to disrupt is white-supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative capitalism," Abdullah continued. She hopes that a business like Locol, even though it is a straightforwardly capitalist enterprise, might be an alternative to the status quo. For example, instead of hiring 2,500 new cops to address public-safety issues, as the LAPD hopes to do, she hopes that the success of a business like Locol could help make the case for alleviating crime through economic programs: small-business incubators, or efforts focused on well-paying jobs and local hiring initiatives, that help to alleviate the poverty of which crime is so often a symptom. (Six former Locol employees, known as the Ambassadors, who welcome customers and help with things like parking while providing a sort of soft security detail, have already established their own stand-alone business that offers security and hosting services.) "With these 50 folks in the neighborhood having liveable-wage jobs, does that drive down crime?" she asked. "Not to say that they’re the criminals, but the idea that [people] need to be economically stable in order to have safe communities — I think this is an experiment on that."

Neelam Sharma, executive director at Community Services Unlimited, is less confident in Locol’s ability to effect change, though she agrees that food is a good place to start. Sharma worked in the Los Angeles Unified schools in the 1990s and early 2000s, an experience that made it clear to her that organizations like CSU need to focus specifically on food issues. "Working with young people really brought it home starkly," Sharma told me of her time with students in South LA. "These kids were not eating breakfast, they were eating sugar essentially twice a day, and their evening meal was usually a pot of noodles or something really basic."

CSU has a history of social activism through food: In the 1970s, the organization ran the Black Panthers’ various social programs, which included a food-delivery service as well as one of the first-ever free breakfast programs for school kids. While the Panthers are gone, CSU carries on a piece of its mission and message: In addition to running five small urban farms, much like the ones Choi volunteered at in 2012, the nonprofit also has a CSA-like grocery delivery service, and operates food education and training programs for kids. Currently, the organization is gearing up to open a grocery store at South LA’s Paul Robeson Center, which will sell produce from CSU’s farms and a network of growers outside of the city.

Despite Locol’s focus on from-scratch cooking and providing job opportunities within the community, Sharma isn’t exactly buying Choi and Patterson’s promise of revolution. "It’s great to have another restaurant" to serve the neighborhood, she said. "But it doesn’t get to the heart of the issue. If all we do is create outlets where there are these options to go get inexpensive, fast-food-but-not-fast-food healthy options that are still based on industrially grown produce, we aren’t changing anything."


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he question of Locol’s ingredient sourcing has been a sticky one. Diners sitting out on the restaurant’s back patio — eating a quesadilla-like "foldie" stuffed with beans and cheese, maybe, or a fried-chicken sandwich — can see through windows on either side of the kitchen door to rows of shelves stacked high with containers full of beans, grains, and other whole, raw ingredients. Some of Locol’s well-heeled customers — those who drive out to Watts from Silver Lake or Santa Monica to try the cool new Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson spot on the other side of town — might have already come to expect this kind of visual transparency, a hallmark of the farm-to-table era of high-end American dining. But Choi and Patterson remain resistant to discussions of where those ingredients come from, which has raised some eyebrows.

Patricia, "I cook the food, make the food, prep the food"; Anthony, "I call it the gatekeeper: I watch the people that come and leave, watch the block, make sure there's peace here"; Tim, "anything that has to do with beverages is me"

"It seems really strange for a place (called Locol at that) to be refusing to even discuss sourcing," the food critic Besha Rodell wrote to me in an email. While reporting on Locol for LA Weekly, Rodell had inquired about the restaurant’s sourcing. Patterson’s emailed reply to her, which she shared with me, avoids specifics, but explains that Locol uses "only naturally raised animals," that "nothing fresh" comes from the monolithic food distributor Sysco — "only specialty vendors" — and that while the restaurant was "starting to work with the local farms that are reaching out to us," they were still "trying different farms and ranches to learn what works best for us, which is why we can't give you an exact answer."

But Patterson also takes issue with the question of sourcing being asked at all: "With all due respect, you are completely missing what is important about Locol," he wrote to Rodell, though his answer could just as easily be directed to Neelam Sharma. "We are serving fresh vegetables and fruits, prepared with love and care, in an area where that hasn't existed for decades."

When I talked about sourcing with Patterson, he was more forthcoming than he’d been with Rodell, pointing out that the Watts location currently relies on the same wholesale distributors that Choi uses for his other restaurants, including LA Specialty Produce and Rocker Brothers Meat and Provisions — both of which are mainstays of high-end Los Angeles restaurants — as well as Sysco. The Locol in Uptown Oakland uses the same suppliers that Patterson buys ingredients from for his own critically vaunted restaurants. Still, Patterson and Choi remain, to varying degrees, frustrated by questions about the restaurant’s supply chain. As Patterson asked me, "Why are we being scrutinized this way, when we are using the same resources as the $35-an-entree restaurants are?"

"After serving food on almost every street I could in both counties, I realized that there were still so many people I haven't fed yet."

It’s true that, despite Locol’s low prices and Sharma’s concerns, the quality of the restaurant’s raw ingredients is high — often remarkably so. The tofu used in both the vegetable stew and the cheeseburg, for example, is from Oakland’s Hodo Soy — the same supplier chef Brooks Headley uses at his cult veggie-burger counter in New York, Superiority Burger. The coffee — which the menu lists for $1 a cup, the same as a small coffee at McDonald’s — has all of the bright, fruity flavors you’d expect from a $3 cup served by a barista wearing a bespoke denim apron.

Instead of cutting corners to get to those prices, Locol tries to remove corners altogether — or at least, links from the supply chain. According to Tony Konecny, who helms Locol’s coffee roasting and brewing operations, that dollar cup is the direct result of volume and efficiency. Konecny, a coffee-world veteran who most recently sold his coffee subscription business to Blue Bottle, explained that the beans he’s buying for Locol come from many of the same farmers that high-end shops use, and the growers aren’t earning any less despite Locol’s low price. He’s just buying beans as directly as possible, and in quantity.

Patterson hinted to me that there are plans to do more — much more — on the sourcing side of Locol as the chain grows, but he wouldn’t do much more than hint. The first steps toward a more custom, integrated supply chain will come as the new restaurants in the Bay Area open, which will be followed by a central commissary kitchen in Oakland where staff will prep and, in some cases, pre-cook ingredients for the regional stores. The giants of fast food, McDonald’s among them, supply their thousands of stores in much the same way — as does Chipotle, which converted to a commissary system in the wake of ongoing food-safety scandals. As Locol expands into other parts of the country, the plan is for stores in any given area to rely on their own central hub for prepped and prepared food.

Wade, line cook, and Ron, "a cook, cashier, everything"

"I know how to grow things, I work with farms, I work with ranchers," Patterson told me. "I have a pretty deep knowledge of the community here, and also our climate, our soil. I know what it can produce." I asked him if his plans included ideas as ambitious as working with suppliers to raise livestock according to their own animal-welfare standards, or figuring out how to extend the higher wage rates the restaurant pays its employees to the workers who harvest Locol’s produce in the fields. "We don't have the volume to execute any grand vision like that yet," he said. But he’s hopeful. "As we look ahead toward that, I'll be able to be very participatory in developing a system that is beneficial for the farmers and for the restaurants. That, I have no concern about whatsoever."


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ccording to Shaddai Wade, the Locol cook, there were a lot of residents in Watts who heard about the restaurant when it first opened and "thought we were going to be serving salads all day." Back in February, he said that some people were "kind of off-put by it, because they heard it was healthy." Patterson gets that this perception carries something of a stigma, and he and others are trying actively to shake it. "‘Healthy’ is kind of a loaded word," the chef said. "We say ‘real food.’ People might say, ‘But you fry things, that's not healthy! But there's beef in there!’ We just say we cook with real food."

Beyond overcoming accusations of healthiness, another challenge for Locol was getting its neighbors comfortable with the menu, which launched with elements that were novel to some diners. "Down the street, Jordan Downs? That’s mostly Top Ramen, that’s mostly the meal," Wade said. (The average annual income for residents of Jordan Downs is just $14,000.) Before he learned to prepare the food served at Locol, he had never eaten some of the ingredients, like tofu. When he heard that the vanilla sundae came with kumquats, "that’s the first time I ever heard that word," he said with a laugh. "I’m like, I don’t know what the hell that is!"

In turn, Watts has changed Locol too. The barbecue-style "turkey burg," for instance, was added to the menu after an early tasting with staff, who wondered why a turkey dish wasn’t offered. There’s also a growing In-n-Out-style secret menu designed by employees. "It's going to evolve from place to place to accommodate regional eating and ingredients," as new locations open, Patterson said. "That's why it’s called Locol."

Locol’s presence isn’t just changing what’s available to eat in the neighborhood. "It feels a lot different because of the vibe," Wade said of the restaurant’s influence on this stretch of 103rd Street. "You have different faces coming down. Five years ago, if someone knew that I lived on 115th and they caught me down here? It would be a different story. There would be trouble." But with Locol as an anchor for the neighborhood, "it doesn’t matter what part of Los Angeles, what part of California, what part of the country, or what part of the world you’re from — you can come and get food, get good food, and have a good time. And that’s big on a lot of levels."

Locol isn’t the only high-profile development in the works in Watts, and Aqeela Sherrills, Prophet Walker, and others are hoping the restaurant’s early success — and its grassroots approach — will influence other plans to build new commercial real estate and housing. Of particular interest right now is the LA housing authority’s ambitious plan, created in partnership with a private development group, to turn Jordan Downs into a mixed-use, mixed-income "urban village." This sort of mix of private capital and public housing does not have a great track record for success: In Chicago, two-bedroom apartments in the high-rise towers that replaced the Cabrini-Green housing project are now renting for $3,275 a month. That’s far out of reach for the former residents of the housing project; the low-income Chicagoans who were forced out of their homes when demolition began a decade ago won’t be lining up to move back in.

"It's not just about giving people livable wage jobs, it's also about ownership. When people are invested in it, there's something shifted in the imagination."

"That’s what we do not want to happen in Watts," Walker said of the Chicago scenario. But even with the transition-smoothing strategies built into the Jordan Downs redevelopment, including a phased buildout and units earmarked for families currently living in the projects, the project, once estimated to cost $700 million, is still likely to squeeze out plenty of residents, and disrupt the lives of countless more.

"I think that it's a significant thing that we opened first, before the development was created," Sherrills said of Locol. "Because we literally got to lay the foundation for what it is that they do there. Because if they don't do it right, a lot of people will be displaced." Sherrills was born and raised in Watts, and in addition to organizing the gang truce and his ongoing public safety work, he has invested in a number of properties in the neighborhood, including the Locol building.

"Five generations of my family are here, my grandkids are in this neighborhood. We ain't trying to give none of this up," he continued. "People fought and died and bled and lived for this community. We are not giving it up like that. You can't just displace us by tearing out the buildings. The spirit of the people live here — it's in the blood, it's in the dirt." Sherrills spoke with pride, but also with frustration over the traumas that the neighborhood has suffered. "Watts, it's an acronym: it stands for ‘we are taught to survive.’ Now, it's going to be ‘we are taught to thrive.’ We're going to thrive and survive here."

Willy Blackmore is a writer and editor who lives in Los Angeles. He covers food issues for TakePart.
Damon Casarez is a Los Angeles-based photographer. In 2015, he was named one of PDN’s 30 new and emerging photographers to watch.
Edited by Matt Buchanan and Meghan McCarron
Additional editing by Helen Rosner and Hillary Crosley Coker
Copy edited by Laura Parker
Fact checked by Dawn Mobley

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