Watts Towers makes list of America’s Endangered Landscapes

wattstowerThe Watts Towers was declared an endangered site last week by The Cultural Landscape Foundation. The iconic South L.A. art piece was one of 11 landscapes that made the “Landslide” list of at-risk landscapes. The foundation cited “thermal effects, vibration and earthquakes” which have cracked the cement case around the towers’ wire structure.

According to Lucy DeLatorre, a tour guide at the Watts Towers Arts Center, Simon Rodia singlehandedly made the towers of recycled materials, including steel bar, wire mesh and cement. [Read more…]

Amid recession, questions over the cost, and purpose, of state parks

The Watts Towers cost a lot to maintain… are they worth the expense?

WATTS- The Watts Towers rise above the South Los Angeles neighborhood, a testament to the ambition of an Italian immigrant who called Watts his home for decades.  But in the realities of a recession, the nearly 90-year-old icons have seen their budget cut, a blow to the 17 fragile structures in constant need of maintenance.

By one estimate, the Towers need $5 million for a complete overhaul that would restore them to their original splendor.  But in a recession, during which thousands of Californians have lost their jobs, is the cost of maintenance for the Towers and other state parks worth the expense? For many in Los Angeles, the Towers – a designated state historical park – the answers come easy:  The Towers represent a California treasure whose presence gives Watts and South Los Angeles an identity.

For many, like artist R. Judson Powell of the Watts Tower Art Center, monuments like the Watts Towers provide “Inspiration” while identifying an entire region. “Were it not for these towers, the name Watts would no longer exist,” says Powell, “because they exist, it keeps the name alive.  It has become a flagship actually.” [see slideshow of Watts Towers]

Icons cost, however.

The California State Parks department lost $14.2 million during the state assembly’s summer efforts to produce a budget; parks officials estimate that in fiscal year  2009-10, the department will lose another $24.2 million in fees lost from mandatory state-imposed furlough days and closing parks.  The grim scenario has prompted parks officials to search for alternative funding until times are better.

“We are fairly optimistic that we will have some important partners come forward to help us fund some parks,” said Roy Stearns, a spokesperson for California State Parks, “However, we have never done this before, and so there is no yardstick to use to gauge how this will work.”

No parks have yet closed as a result of the recently passed California budget, but as many as 100 locations could eventually close for a period of time. The actual number of parks that could be shuttered remains unclear, however.  Stearns said the parks department will start making decisions about which parks may close beginning around Labor Day.

New form of funding for parks?

The recession, meanwhile, has prompted the parks department to search for alternative funding sources to keep parks open and monuments like the Watts Towers from falling into disrepair. “Right now we’re out beating the bushes to find private partnerships, cities, counties, companies, corporations and environmental groups to help us with these parks,” said Stearns. “If we can do that then we can keep more parks open.”  

These partnerships could play an important role in saving jobs.  The cut to the parks department budget could add to California’s unemployment rate, already more than 11%, because most of the $14.2 million trimmed from the budget would have gone to labor—wages, salaries and benefits. 

“We hope to minimize layoffs,” said Stearns.  “However, if we were to close 100 parks and suffer the large cuts that are projected we will likely have to make layoffs. The question of how many still uncertain. The more partnership funding that we get, the more real people we save in real jobs.”

To make up for some of the lost state funding, parks already have increased prices $2 to $5 at day-use parks, and camping fees will increase $10 – $21, depending on location.  The parks estimate the fee increases will raise $200,000 between now and the end of the year and $5 million over the next three years.  But those figures don’t come close to covering the estimated loss of 20% of the State Parks operating budget –$51.6 million–during the next two years alone. 

One concern is that the increased rates could preclude many park frequenters from utilizing the parks, which have become popular destinations because of their appeal as low-budget family vacations.  But the parks department is optimistic that the higher fees won’t completely undermine the appeal of parks that will remain open.

“We have loyal visitors who truly love our parks,” said State Parks Director Ruth Coleman in a statement last month.  “We will do our best to maximize the use of additional funds so that parks continue to be available for public enjoyment.”

 But questions remain about sources for additional funds. 

Spreading the cost of maintenance is one idea gaining popularity, and some parks already are dually funded by the state, federal government and/or private associations.

A high-maintenance monument

For example, the Watts Towers is owned by the state but funded and managed though a third party with funding from the City of Los Angeles, the state, federal grants and private donations.  From 1991-2009, the Watts Towers received more than $1.3 million from the city; $3.3 million from state and federal  grants; and $155,000 from private donors, according to the City of Los Angeles’ Department of Cultural Affairs.  While Watts Towers spokespersons declined to comment on the cost of maintenance, one worker said that the project gets a major overhaul once every seven years or so.  The Towers are currently closed to repair the ground work supporting the structures and to add a new fence around the structure. 

In July, the Los Angeles Times reported one “quick and dirty” estimate of $5 million to fully repair the Towers, built between 1921 through 1955 by Simon Rodia, an Italian immigrant.  The cost of repairs, especially during cloudy financial times, raises questions about how much the city and state should spend on parks and monuments when teachers, hospital  workers and other workers serving the public interests are laid off.

But the cost of maintaining parks and monuments is, according to some Californians, money well spent, even in tumultuous economic times.

“We have special places,” beamed Stearns. “They tell us who we are and where we came from, priceless places which are on equal to anything we have in the country and those are places worth saving for your kids and mine.”