01/29/21 MHC Alumna Rita Cofield Keeps the Spirit of Mafundi in Watts
By Cindy Olnick
Rita Cofield (MHC ’21) doesn’t need to look far to use her new Master of Heritage Conservation degree. A lifelong resident of L.A.’s Watts neighborhood, she’s working to protect a building (designed by USC Architecture alumni) in her own backyard.
Known originally as the Watts Happening Cultural Center, and also known as the Mafundi building, the 1969 modernist structure at 1827 East 103rd Street is on a site slated for redevelopment. Cofield’s nominating the building for local landmark (Historic-Cultural Monument, or HCM) designation while advocating with neighbors and elected officials to return the building to its historic use as a cultural arts center for homegrown artists of all disciplines.
“We want to remind our community that it’s not just about the struggles our community has gone through, but it’s about the triumphs as well,” Cofield told a Spectrum News 1 reporter in this piece from November 2020.
The Mafundi building exemplifies both the neighborhood’s identity and the power of art. “Art is a big part of healing,” says Cofield, a creative person herself. “Art helped the community heal after the Rebellion.”
She’s referring to the 1965 Watts Rebellion, a six-day uprising that culminated decades of underinvestment, discrimination, and other forms of systemic racism. The roots of the Mafundi building date back to the months following the unrest, when neighborhood youth converted an abandoned building into a performing arts center. The Watts Happening Coffee House blended food, music, theatre, writing, visual art, health fairs, book clubs, and more to foster Black empowerment and self-worth.
By the community, for the community
In 1969, the organization moved to its current location, setting up shop as the Watts Happening Cultural Center. The two-story, white stucco structure was designed by USC Architecture alumni Robert Kennard and Arthur (Art) Silvers. Partners at the time, both architects were influenced by the modernism of Richard Neutra, Victor Gruen, and Paul R. Williams.
Kennard and Silvers were as much activists as architects, particularly when it came to the next generation. As African Americans, they “made it their mission to encourage and mentor young people, especially underrepresented ethnicities, to pursue careers in architecture and urban planning,” writes Cofield in the HCM nomination. “They made sure students were also aware of social justice issues as they themselves navigated inequalities as professionals.”
The building has been an anchor for many cultural and social service organizations over the years, including the New Watts Writers Workshop, created by poet Amde Hamilton of the renowned Watts Prophets.
From 1969 to 1975, it housed the Mafundi Institute, named for the Swahili word for craftspeople or artisans. The cultural academy gave Black artists creative space and freedom, fostering self-empowerment, community identity, and African aesthetics. In 1972, artist Elliott Pinkney created a mural on the northeast façade depicting the institute’s logo: from the silhouette of a young Black man radiate other silhouettes in the Pan-African colors of red, green, and black.
Now the Robert Pitts Westminster Neighborhood Center, the building houses the Los Angeles Education Corps and the Watts Coffee House. The latter is a soul food restaurant that’s been there since 1995 and was recognized as a Legacy Business by the Los Angeles Conservancy. Its walls are covered in memorabilia including classic albums, headshots of up-and-coming actors, autographs by the likes of Steve Harvey, even a note from the architect, Art Silvers.
But which community?
The building is owned by the City of Los Angeles, which solicited bids last year for a land lease to develop the site for housing and mixed use. The request for proposals (RFP) prioritizes projects that keep the Watts Coffee House as a tenant, and those that “make a clear connection to” the site’s heritage. It mentions adaptive reuse but does not require keeping the existing building, even though the site can accommodate its integration with new construction.
“[The City] says the housing is for the community,” says Cofield. “But is it for the community that’s there now?”
As is common, particularly in underinvested communities, some neighbors think “new is better” and favor all-new development on the site. Cofield urges a compromise. “We don’t want to stop progress,” she says, “but we don’t want progress to push out who’s already there.”
Cofield and other community members have met with Councilmember Joe Buscaino, whose district includes the Mafundi building. She says he acknowledged the need to “do better” regarding arts and culture in Watts. “Well,” she replied, “here’s your opportunity.”
Stories and self-determination
Watts exemplifies long-neglected neighborhoods now facing the double-edged sword of attention and gentrification. With tens of millions of dollars pouring into neighborhood development, people like Cofield want to make sure the community has a significant say and retains the benefits.
Even as cities like Los Angeles take steps toward equitable development, large bids have historically favored wealthy, white developers. It remains to be seen if the City will turn the tide. As encouragement, Cofield points to case studies of cities like Pittsburgh that are trying to foster employee ownership of legacy businesses. Project Equity does similar work.
Self-determination for Watts residents also means owning their stories. Cofield chafes at calls to “reimagine” the neighborhood. “‘Reimagining’ is sanitizing,” she says. “We don’t need to be sanitized. We come from a legacy of greatness. We need to take back the narrative of Watts—good, bad, and ugly.”
Like most people in heritage conservation, Cofield sees things as they are but envisions what could be. Her vision stems from the Watts of the 1920s. “It was said that most every home had a piano,” she says. “You could walk down the streets of Watts and hear people playing music. Those of us advocating for the salvation of the Mafundi building also want to see Watts return as the ‘Hub of the Universe.’”
Preserving the Watts Happening Cultural Center is a critical step in maintaining the neighborhood’s identity and providing, as she writes in the HCM nomination, “a beacon of community resilience; a place that develops and implements programs and services which foster the spirit of Mafundi.”
The Mafundi building exemplifies the important places in communities of color that are vastly underrepresented among designated landmarks. To help close the gap, the California Preservation Foundation will launch a new grant program in mid-2021, with seed funding from longtime advocates Stephen and Sherry Schafer, to expand the diversity of California properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The USC Heritage Conservation Program looks forward to working with CPF to pilot this new initiative.
Related Links: USC Master of Heritage Conservation Program