Getting rad at the Watts Towers
A skateboard park has been proposed near the landmark. Proponents say it would benefit youth on territory considered gang neutral. Not-so stoked opponents say action sports and art are a bad mix.
Circe Wallace of Wasserman Media Group, left, and pro skaters Terry Kennedy and Paul Rodriguez on vacant land near the towers. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
In what could become a battle between athletics and aesthetics, the answer will be up to city officials, who figure to get an earful from advocates for the arts and backers of youth recreation, debating an immediate benefit for youngsters and a longer-range dream of a cultural district, anchored by the towers.
FOR THE RECORD:
Skateboard park proposal: An article in Wednesday's Calendar section about a proposal to build a skateboard park near the Watts Towers said that Wasserman Media Group was backing the proposal. The proponents include a manager employed by WMG and two of the pro skateboarders she represents, but they are pursuing the initiative as individuals rather than as representatives of WMG, a sports management and marketing company. —
Pushing the skateboarding park are Councilwoman Janice Hahn and the Wasserman Media Group, an L.A. sports management and marketing company headed by Casey Wasserman, who has arts affiliations of his own as a board member and major donor to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Although no formal plan has been submitted, a conceptual plan has been drawn and fundraising is already underway, with an early boost from star skater Hawk.
Hahn said that after the Wasserman group approached her with the idea of creating a major skate park in Watts with donated money, picking a site wasn't just a matter of finding a parcel with the right dimensions. "We were looking at a lot of other places. [Watts Towers] is a neutral, gang-free area, and those are few and far between. We had to look for a territory that's not owned by a gang."
Critics of the proposal, including some neighborhood activists, think a place for kids to hurtle and soar would be a poor match for a delicate work of sculptural folk-art that's one of just eight places in the city that's been designated by the federal Department of the Interior as a National Historic Landmark.
"How would we feel about . . . a noisy skateboard park being planned in the vicinity of the Getty or LACMA?" asked Luisa Del Giudice, a Los Angeles-based scholar who helped organize an international conference last spring in Genoa, Italy, about the towers and their creator, Sabato (Simon) Rodia. Between 1921 and 1954, the Italian immigrant single-handedly built the idiosyncratic, colorful and elaborately ornamented structures.
"It sounds like it would be great for Watts, but not near the towers," said Michael Cornwell, chairman of the Committee for Simon Rodia's Towers in Watts, which has tried to lobby for more effective conservation of the towers -- which city officials admit has been drastically underfunded.
Rosie Lee Hooks, director of the nearby Watts Towers Arts Center and Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center, last month sent an e-mail to the city's Community Redevelopment Agency, which owns the land where the skate park would be built, warning that it would generate noise and possibly become a magnet for drugs, violence and graffiti taggers. "We are not a recreational park. We are an educational institution and campus," Hooks wrote.
Hahn thinks the skate park would work in harmony with the towers, about 40 yards away, and with the two city-run arts centers that stand beside them on a dead-end stretch of East 107th Street. She thinks volunteers from the community would ensure there's proper supervision.
"This is an area where the need is great," Hahn said, and her experience with other skate parks in her district suggests that "drugs and violence are not a problem. Skateboarders are not criminals.
"I think it's pretty cool, really, to have kids skateboarding in the shadow of the Watts Towers. That really paints a picture of Watts," she said. "You've got the history, and then the present and the future."
But critics see the proposal as another in a series of hasty, haphazard moves by the city over the last 10 years affecting the towers and the rest of the Watts Cultural Crescent -- a 10-acre redevelopment district established in the early 1990s that has yet to see the restaurants, galleries, art studios and combination movie theater and education center that were conceived to turn it into a tourist destination and economic engine.
A major skate park elsewhere in Watts could be "something wonderful," said Janine Watkins, a community activist who owns a house by the towers.
But "this is a tourism destination, a national historical landmark, and the city should be treating it as such. The towers should be their golden egg."
Watkins, who is affiliated with the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, laments that in a community where resources and opportunities are already scarce, the skate park could divide people by setting those who want a peaceful, contemplative setting for a world-renowned artistic jewel against advocates for children's recreation.
Donny Joubert, a co-founder of the Watts Gang Task Force, says his group was impressed after seeing a presentation about the skate park. "If somebody wants to come in and do something for the community, I don't see why not," he said. "I think you'll get more folks to support it than will be against it."
Hahn says she's willing to override established strategies for the Cultural Crescent to take advantage of an unexpected opportunity. "Sometimes we plan forever, and kids never see anything."