After 22 years, the fliers went out in a last-minute flurry, the fulfillment of a promise the community had every reason to doubt: “The Book. Imperial Courts. 1993–2015. Finally, it’s party time.” The dates, in their finiteness, read like an obituary, and over that span the Watts housing project had indeed known loss far too often. But the passage of decades was also a testament to something less predictable and more triumphant — continuity, endurance — all documented by a visitor from the Netherlands with auburn hair and hazel eyes. “A lot of us was a little wishy-washy at first,” says an Imperial Courts fixture known as Chin, his bald head and diamond earrings gleaming under the late-October sun. “We thought it was a setup.”
Chin is 41 today, which means he was 19 when he was first approached by photographer Dana Lixenberg, who had lugged her folding metal 4x5 Wista field camera from Amsterdam to post-riot Los Angeles. She ventured south on the 110, then east on what would become the 105, to 32 acres of barrack-style apartments with the regal name of Imperial Courts. Built as temporary quarters for World War II factory workers, the 490-unit complex — together with neighboring Jordan Downs and Nickerson Gardens — was both maligned and mythologized as the largest concentration of public housing west of the Mississippi. The community’s frustration and isolation jolted Lixenberg, inspiring her to seek out a version of Watts that parachuting journalists were bound to miss, “to expose the charismatic power of individual people, and to avoid stereotypical representation,” as she puts it. Her 1993 portrait of Chin — formal, posed, black-and-white — shows him with a mop of Jheri curls, his infant daughter, Dee Dee, on his lap. “I had hair then!” Chin says. “He was once a young man,” says Lixenberg, who is 51 and now lives in New York. “Just like I was a baby.”
Time went on, the years healing many of the community’s fissures. The gangs tamed some of their worst impulses; so did the police. Although Watts would become majority Latino, it retained its African American identity — in part because multigenerational enclaves like Imperial Courts, for all their burdens, still offered a sense of place hard to find in L.A.’s sometimes alienating sprawl. The gravitational pull of the projects worked on Lixenberg, too, drawing her back after a long break, then again and again. By making Imperial Courts a regular stop, she created a masterwork of sustained observation. Lixenberg photographed people who later died, who later went to prison, who later went missing, never to be seen again. She also photographed people who kicked their habits, who grew out of their gang, who served their time and never messed up again. And, of course, all the people who fell into none of these camps but had their lives disrupted by those who did. In 2008, Lixenberg photographed Chin’s daughter, by then a confident teenager. In 2013, Lixenberg photographed Dee Dee again, now holding an infant of her own — Chin’s grandson Emir.
Throughout it all, Lixenberg kept vowing to compile her photographs into a lasting record. On a Saturday afternoon, with 180 copies of Imperial Courts packed into her rental car, Lixenberg held a signing right there on 114th Street, personalizing each with a gold metallic Sharpie. Priced at $77, the book was free to anyone who appeared in its pages. “It’s a beautiful thing,” says Tiffany Johnson, clutching hers like a family heirloom. “Because, you know, you only have one life to live. I could die tomorrow — and y’all be looking at my picture like, ‘Dang, I was just with her.’”