An Oasis Blooms In Watts; Dorothy Sampson and Her Roses

More than 19 years ago, I was H2H, ( heading to a homicide) on 102nd and Grape when I noticed a profusion of color to my left. Hundreds of rose bushes were in full bloom near the corner of Grandee Avenue and Century Boulevard. It was the rose garden at the Watts Senior Center. I went back later and talked to the caretaker of the garden, the lovely and spirited Dorothy Sampson.

Yesterday, I stopped in on the way to Jordan Downs and learned Dorothy, now 82,  had retired two years ago. In 2007, the city council voted to renamed this oasis as the Dorothy Sampson Senior Center and Rose Garden.Rose.

I wrote the story below that ran in the Los Angeles Times on January 1, 1997.  


Today in Pasadena, hundreds of thousands of people will watch the nation's best-known celebration of the rose. On Thursday in Watts, one person will continue her work on a quieter tribute--the smallest nationally accredited rose garden in America.

Dorothy Sampson will don overalls, grab pruning shears and lovingly tend the Watts Senior Citizens Center Rose Garden.

"I love this place," said Sampson, 63, the gardener at the center, pruning her way through the 480 rosebushes.

The rose garden near the tracks of the Metro Blue Line grew from a dream that germinated eight years ago.

In 1988, Dolores Van Rensalier, then the director of the center, took a group of seniors citizens to Exposition Park's rose garden near the Coliseum. A member of the group, Arvella Grigsby, taken by the beauty of the roses, sadly remarked that it was "too bad there will never be a beautiful public rose garden in Watts."

"I said, 'Why not?' " Van Rensalier recalls. "From that moment on, I was determined to have a rose garden in Watts. Everybody laughed at the idea. They thought the roses would be stolen. Even Arvella patted me on the back and said, 'That's OK, dear.' "


But it wasn't OK with Van Rensalier, a native New Yorker who vowed to create a place of beauty in a neighborhood too well-known for its negatives.

"It doesn't take a lot of people to make a difference," Van Rensalier said from her office at City Hall, where she works for the Department of Recreation and Parks. "Just a few people is all it takes."

Thanks to Van Rensalier, Sampson and crews from the parks department, Watts now has a true garden spot at 1657 E. Century Blvd.

The first roses were planted in 1990. By 1994, the garden was given national accreditation by All-America Rose Selections, based in Chicago. The organization usually requires a garden to have a minimum of 800 bushes before it is accredited, but waived that for the Watts garden, which at the time had fewer than 300.

"We think that a garden is such a wonderful place to reflect, especially in an urban environment like Watts, that the community deserved accreditation," said Patti Tobin, the organization's director of communications. Being accredited allows the garden to receive about 40 of the year's top-rated new roses from the accrediting group.

Today, the garden still has fewer roses than any of the nation's more than 130 other accredited gardens. Nonetheless, there are 480 rosebushes and 25 varieties at the Watts garden, which is open to the public Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

One month after the first bushes were planted, Sampson was hired as the full-time gardener. She had developed an early love for gardening while growing up in Louisiana. Her father would come home from his day job and work on his plot until dark.

"I'd hear that old hoe go 'chomp, chomp,' and I would have to go out and help him," Sampson said.

Sampson married a man who didn't care for the outdoors, so they made a deal: He'd make the breakfast, she'd work in the yard.

"It worked out fine, until he had company over," she laughed. "He would say, 'Look at you, look at you.' "

After she retired in 1983 from her manufacturing job, Sampson began to work as a professional gardener. Not until last year, at 62, did she stop cutting lawns. Now she has only roses to tend.

"It's nice to go by and see this," Juan Mendoza, 19, said as he strolled by the garden on his way to a market.

Mendoza remembers the plot of earth before the roses bloomed.

"It used to be bunk. Now it's cool. The guys around here respect this place," he said, gesturing at the graffiti-scarred neighborhood, a stark contrast to the clean walls of the senior citizens center.

There were a few thefts of rosebushes during the early years of the garden, but they have stopped, residents said.

For motorists driving down Century Boulevard near the Blue Line tracks, the garden provides a stunning splash of color most of the year. This week, however, Sampson is finishing the yearly pruning of the bushes, and soon nothing but bare canes will be on display while the roses rest for two months.

As lovely as the garden is, Sampson is not quite satisfied. Many of its older bushes are not the top-performing varieties, and Sampson longs to replace them. However, there are no funds to buy new roses.


The rose she yearns for the most is Double Delight, one of the world's most beloved flowers: intensely fragrant, with a brilliant red edge and a creamy white center.

She grows dreamy-eyed when she talks about the flower.

"That's my favorite rose, but we only have one," she said.

On Monday morning, with the cloudy skies threatening, Sampson was out in the garden pruning. She came across the one bush of Double Delight, graced with one last strikingly beautiful rosebud. She cut the bloom, took a long whiff, gave it to a visitor and shook her head.

"God, I love that rose," she said.