The Watts Towers: Not Just for Tourists

Yesterday, the New York Times reported that the Watts Towers of Los Angeles, which are struggling to draw tourists, are endangered. But the towers serve the people in the Watts community, too.

The Watts Towers. Flickr user Michael Oh

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Yesterday, the New York Times reported that the Watts Towers of Los Angeles are endangered. The city, facing budget shortfalls, has cut the three workers assigned to maintain the towers, which, at about 100 feet tall, were made by a single artist with bottles, metal, shells and other objects. Their artistic allure is known the world over; their problem is their location:

The attendance problem is due, as much as anything, to where the towers are: 18 miles from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (which had 914,396 visitors last year), 25 miles from Disneyland (which drew 15.9 million visitors in 2009) and 13 miles from downtown Los Angeles. They are hard to find without a map, or a G.P.S. device.

The city has contracted the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to care for the towers.

While the report mentions the Watts Towers Art Center, it does not explore in depth the extraordinary impact the towers have had on the Watts neighborhood itself, visitors aside. Watts is still remembered as a scene of riots in the 60s and 90s, and now is still a poor neighborhood, but according to artist activists in the area, residents once afraid to go outside have been inspired by the towers’ legacy to welcome creativity into their lives and homes. Edgar Arceneaux is the executive director of the Watts House Project, a self-described “artist-driven urban revitalization initiative” which has used art and artists to bring life back to a troubled neighborhood in central Los Angeles. In a recent issue, I interviewed Arceneaux about the project and its effects on this diverse neighborhood as part of a larger piece about the power of the arts to transform neighborhoods. Here are some of the highlights:

Here in L.A. we were fortunate that the Watts House Project was born and nurtured in a preexisting arts community, across the street from the Watts Tower. But we realized in our decade of talking with families that there were many projects starting that never finished. There’s tremendous energy in the presence of the park, but none of it is directed to the homes surrounding it. Folks here have tried in informal ways to take advantage of the cultural cachet that tourism brings, but not in a way that’s transformative for them. We see ourselves as a bridge builder, able to connect organic ideas with resources and partnerships to the benefit of the individual, the family and the home. We realized that just through the leveraging of the skills already here, that training could be built into the improvements of the homes — and we had the making of an arts-as-economic-engine model. Take Genaro Alvarez: When I met him he had a sketch for a sunburst motif for a fence, and three days later half the fence was built. He taught himself how to weld. Now he is a professional welder and our No. 1 fabricator.

In our case, there are at least three conditions that have to exist for something like this project to take root: One is that there has to be some stakeholder, whether it’s a resident or an institution that the community trusts, who believes in what you’re doing. Second, you should be tapping into the preexisting conditions. Third, it’s important to have an institutional affiliate. In our case it was the Watts Tower Arts Center, which helped provide infrastructure, and was something already recognizable. People will adopt an idea a lot easier if they can see themselves in it.

I hope you’ll read the interview and share the news that the towers impact many more people than the random tourist. You can learn more about the Watts House Project here.

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Tags: los angelesbudgetsmuseums

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