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…]

USC grad student murder leads to four arrests + Frank Gehry design coming to South LA

Commander Andrew Smith and others discuss the four arrests made in the killing of a USC student. | Daina Beth Solomon

Commander Andrew Smith and others discuss the four arrests made in the killing of a USC student. | Daina Beth Solomon

Reuters: The case of a Chinese graduate student at USC who was beaten to death has lead to the arrests of four suspects.

SF Bay View: The Leimert Park Village Book Fair will be coming back for its eighth year.

LA Times: Famed architect Frank Gehry has signed on to design a community center, just half a block north of the Watts Towers.

KCET: Restaurateur Brad Johnson brings his Post and Beam restaurant to Crenshaw.

NPR: Crime writer Rachel Hall sets her new book and protagonist in South L.A.

Sonic City: Watts

The iconic Watts Towers. | Willa Seidenberg

The iconic Watts Towers, July 2013. | Willa Seidenberg

Hit play for an audio snippet from Watts from Annenberg Radio News‘ “Sonic City” series: 

Also check out a slideshow of the Watts Towers by Willa Seidenberg.


New map points to the next ride in South LA at CicLAvia

By Benjamin Stokes

On Sunday, a team called RideSouthLA celebrated the launch of its new bicycle map to the Watts Towers, handing out copies at the southern tip of the massive CicLAvia festival. The map offers a next ride for CicLAvia enthusiasts, who numbered more than 100,000 pedestrians and cyclists, and filled more than 10 miles of streets, from Boyle Heights to MacArthur Park, seeking to reimagine Los Angeles.

imageProfessor Francois Bar of USC Annenberg Innovation Lab with Tafarai Bayne of T.R.U.S.T. South LA

One answer came with the RideSouthLA map, which was just printed this week. The map provides a “do it yourself” route for a bike ride in South Los Angeles, from the iconic Watts Towers to the wetlands of Augustus Hawkins Park on Compton Avenue. This was the first printing of the map, and more than 400 free copies were distributed, according to organizers.

Several bicycle clubs from South LA were at CicLAvia, including the East Side Riders, which organized a “feeder ride” to CicLAvia as a group. The Riders were eager to view the map, which features photographs of and by several of their members. Their club is a co-sponsor of the RideSouthLA.com website, and they helped pedal-test the route back in January, using their personal cell phones to photograph the Watts Towers and other community treasures worth sharing.

Like CicLAvia, the map is both about alternative transit and social change in Los Angeles.

New map takes bicyclists through South LA

imageSouth Los Angeles organizers are urging people to explore their community in a new way: on their bicycles.

Ride South LA is new cycling map that guides riders through South LA, ending up at the Watts Towers.

Researchers and avid cyclists have been scoping the area for months to set up the route. it was tested by 60 riders in January — using social media mapping tools to gather data and information about which parts of the city people enjoyed and which they didn’t, according to a news release.

The map is available online and will be distributed at this weekend’s Ciclavia event in front of the African American Firefighter Museum on Central Avenue.

The map was compiled not only from rider feedback but also from photos submitted by riders. Those photos can be seen on the printed map.

The organizations behind this project are hoping for broad social change as people experience South LA in a different light.

“Social change with maps only happens if they are integrated into the community’s storytelling network,” said researcher George Villanueva of USC’s Metamorphosis Project in a news release. Storytelling must go “beyond media organizations, and include residents and community-based organizations.”

Ride South LA hopes to continue mapping the South Los Angeles community.

Other organizations behind Ride South LA include T.R.U.S.T. South LA, the Mobile Urban Mapping Project, the Mobile Lab, the Annenberg Innovation Lab and the East Side Riders Bike Club.

Watts Towers festival attracts folk art

Residents of Watts and beyond gathered for a celebration of folk arts beneath the neighborhood’s flagship cement and ceramic spires this past weekend.

The 2011 annual Watts Towers Day of the Drum and Jazz Festival also commemorated the 50th anniversary of the adjacent Watts Towers Arts Center.


Hundreds congregated on the small, triangular piece of land on Santa Ana Boulevard amid constant live music, craft vendors, arts workshops and local food booths — everyone from Black Panther representatives to homemade soap sellers. The free two-day event, hosted by the Department of Cultural Affairs, evolved from the Jazz Festival, which began in 1976, and the Day of the Drum Festival, started in 1981.

“It has grown from nothing,” said Alma Reaves Woods, a longtime community volunteer who was representing the Watts Towers Community Action Council. “It’s just so gratifying to see the changes and the growth.”


LACMA guides presented tours of the towers, one of only nine folk art sites in the National Register of Historic Places. Between 1921 and 1954, Italian immigrant Simon Rodia recycled rebar, broken tiles, dishware and soda bottles to build this pseudo-shrine of found objects and everyday materials.


Atop one tower, our tour guide pointed out, is a statue of Victory — but she’s missing her head. Below it is Rodia’s cement self-portrait, wearing what appears to be a bishop’s hat. The tour guide explained that Rodia declared himself an ordained minister and performed wedding ceremonies within the 99.5-foot-tall Wedding Tower.

Outside the towers, the Universal Drum Circle pounded away, inviting in children, dancers and any percussion available.

imageUSC animation graduate student Javier Barboza led children’s art workshops, demonstrating crayon rubbings of real plant leaves and plastic insects. He said attendance at the festival has gone down over the last six years he has participated.

“It’s a lot of grassroots-type of stuff, and the community promotes it,” he said. “And the people that usually come are people that have coming for the last 15, 20, 30 years, so they know about it. But the city doesn’t really promote it very much. They promote for like a week instead of for a couple months.”

Nevertheless, an appreciative crowd hunkered down under the main stage tent for Sunday’s headlining act, the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, a massive jazz ensemble from Los Angeles, established by Horace Tapscott in 1961. With over 20 members on stage, including a small vocal choir, “The Ark” brought the event to a roaring, uplifting conclusion.

If folk art encompasses any art form made for the pure purposes of beauty, community and cultural enrichment, then, in the spirit of Simon Rodia, the Watts Towers Day of the Drum and Jazz Festival embodies it all.

Listen to audio from the Watts Towers drum circle:

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.”

Celebrating Cinco de Mayo and harmony between Latinos and African Americans