A deprived urban community, still scared by racial conflict and the infamous riots? Or is it something different, a place that's been reborn and has transcended its dark days?
That last is the quiet little district we visited a few weeks ago, to track down one of its more idiosyncratic landmarks.
Like most of LA, Watts is a a simple grid of tree-lined streets, full of little bungalows with gardens full of bright flowers. In the bright of the fall sun, it's an inviting place, wide open streets came and peaceful, basking in the Pacific light.
You drive through districts and streets with names familiar from police procedurals and thrillers, watching lines of children walking to a playground and families shopping at a park farmer's market, happily shattering illusions with every inch of road. There are kites on the houses, and morning glories glowing purple in the sun. Crossing the metro lines you see them, the towers, reaching to the blue skies in a grid of helices and spirals.
There's not much parking by the Watts Towers State Historical Park, and the gates are firmly bolted shut, while workers continue to carefully restore the tower that was damaged in the storms of 2005. They'll reopen next year, but for now you can still walk around the walls of Simon Rodia's garden and look at the towers he built over 30 years, from 1921 to the mid-1950s. It's an amazing place, where one man let his imagination go wild, putting together a construction that reminds you alternately of Gaudi's Parc Güelll and of the Little Chapel of Les Vauxbelets.
Broken pottery and glass encrust the towers, adding bright colours to the brown and grey of the concrete. Here and there are mosaics, often with the repeated motifs of "1921" and "Nuestro Pueblo", along with impressions of the simple tools that Rodia used to build his masterwork.
A marvellous place, and one worth taking some time to visit.