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Contributing To Community Spirit, Hawkins Burgers Survive Watts Riots

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A confrontation between a black man and the police escalates until a neighborhood is on fire. We are not talking about Ferguson. Fifty years ago this week the LA neighborhood of Watts was destroyed by what some people call riots and others call a rebellion. We heard yesterday from the author Walter Mosley about his memories of being in Watts during that time. This morning, Karen Grigsby Bates from NPR's Code Switch team reports on how one business there survived and is currently going strong.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Cynthia Hawkins is at the grill of Hawkins House of Burgers, located on a corner of busy Imperial Highway and tiny, dead-end Slater Street in Watts. And she's doing what she says is her passion - making food that keeps her customers happy, like her bacon cheeseburger.

COREY HAWKINS: Applewood bacon - the best bacon you can eat on a burger.

BATES: It's not fast food. Orders can take 15 to 20 minutes, but that's OK with customer Jeanie Young.

JEANIE YOUNG: It's really good. It's worth the price and the wait.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Order 58.

BATES: People like Jeanie have been coming here for good food and good service for a long time. Hawkins House of Burgers is a pale, stucco building that has a banner boasting its rep as the best burger in LA and signs indicating food stamps are accepted at its market next door.

How are you?

HAWKINS: Nice to meet you.

BATES: Good to meet you.

Out on the tiny back patio, inches from heavy traffic, Cynthia Hawkins gives me a little history. She says this place has been here since 1939.

HAWKINS: My grandfather built this building. He initially had a malt shop. And then they had the little grocery store. And then, like, 30 years ago, we started this restaurant here. So I'm proud to say we've been in this community for a long time.

BATES: Long enough to see it go up in flames twice. The first time was in 1965 during the Watts uprising. Police hit a man whom they pulled over and residents rushed out to the streets.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Los Angeles, Calif. - the district called Watts. Thirty-four persons died. Forty million dollars' worth of property is destroyed. Almost 4,000 are arrested.

HAWKINS: I was a little, bitty kid at that time. I remember there was a liquor store right next to here, right next door to us. And, I mean, they burnt everything down.

BATES: But not this place. Over the years, the Hawkinses had built a reputation for open-handed hospitality, not just for customers, but for those in need.

HAWKINS: My grandmother would just cook and have a long table and just feed the whole community. That's why we're like that. My grandparents did it. My parents did it. And the brothers and sisters, we do it.

BATES: Cynthia continues that family tradition by employing folks from the neighborhood and offering discounts to the residents of Nickerson Gardens, the gigantic public housing development across the street. If there's food left over at the end of the day, she donates it to hungry neighbors. All of that engenders a deep reservoir of community goodwill.

But many outsiders are wary of visiting Watts because of its reputation for crime. Yet Cynthia says she never considered leaving her home or her business here, an attitude she inherited from her dad, James. He refused to be run out of the neighborhood when gang violence raged in the late '80s and early '90s.

HAWKINS: You would hear a shootout at night. My father would wake up in the morning and open up his store. You know, that's the way it was.

BATES: So he wasn't afraid.

HAWKINS: No, you can't - you cannot be in this community and be afraid.

BATES: Even gang members respected the family. That respect protected Hawkins in 1992 when LA blew up in what's now called the Rodney King riots. Even as everything around them burned, Hawkins House of Burgers remained open and intact.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHEAP EATS")

RALPH SALTSMAN: Hey, folks, we're here in Watts. We're at Hawkins House of Burgers.

BATES: Now people come from all over the city and beyond thanks to social media and foodies like Stephen Solomon and Ralph Saltsman, who visited for their show "Cheap Eats."

SALTSMAN: Hot links.

STEPHEN SOLOMON: Pastrami.

SALTSMAN: Best burger, fresh bun.

BATES: Cynthia Hawkins enjoys the people who've just discovered her shop, but her true loves are her regular customers and, of course, this neighborhood.

HAWKINS: Watts is wonderful. Please know that.

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.