NEA awards Watts arts grant amid Towers skate park controversy


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As controversy mounts over whether creating a new recreational opportunity for Watts youth would undermine the neighborhood’s leading cultural attraction, the Watts Towers, the federal government announced Tuesday that it will pump $350,000 into Watts and neighboring Willowbrook in hopes of sparking an arts-driven revitalization of the historically poor neighborhoods.

On Monday, the top state parks official in Los Angeles complained that councilwoman Janice Hahn’s plan to build a major skate park next to the Watts Towers is being railroaded through city government, and called for a full-scale environmental review of the project rather than the relatively cursory one contemplated by the city’s Recreation and Parks Department.


Sean Woods, superintendent for the state parks department’s Los Angeles sector, says far more information and public input is needed regarding the skate facility and how it might affect the fragile, state-owned towers, a national historic monument that’s considered one of America’s greatest folk-art masterpieces. For the full story, click here.

Meanwhile, the National Endowment for the Arts rolled out the first wave of funding under its new Our Town initiative, launched by NEA chairman Rocco Landesman, a former Broadway producer who named it in honor of Thornton Wilder’s signature drama. The program provides money to partnerships between local governments and private arts groups, aiming to use the arts as a tool to revitalize cities. The NEA announced 51 grants totaling $6.6 million.

The city of Los Angeles’ Department of Cultural Affairs will receive $250,000 -– the maximum -– for design work aimed at turning the historic, 1904-vintage Watts Train Station on E. 103rd Street into an exhibition space and visitors’ center where tourists can learn about Watts’ history and cultural offerings, including the Watts Towers, four blocks away on E. 107th Street.

The small, yellow wooden station, a former Southern Pacific Railroad stop, is nestled against the 103rd Street/Kenneth Hahn station platform on the Metro Blue Line; it houses a neighborhood office of the city’s Department of Water and Power.

The NEA grant also will cover design work for an “artist pathway” that visitors could follow on foot from the train station to the Watts Towers, encountering art installations along the way. Additional funds would be needed to execute the vistors’ center and pathway; the Watts Labor Community Action Committee and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will be involved in the planning. The NEA also will give $100,000 to the Los Angeles County Arts Commission to help it develop a cultural plan for Willowbrook, where the county is investing more than $600 million to redevelop the Martin Luther King Jr. Medical Campus. More than $1 million will be set aside for a major public art commission on the campus, and other arts-related projects are envisioned to improve the area’s streetscape and economic viability.

The NEA funding will help officials find out what residents in Willowbrook and surrounding neighborhoods want and get from the arts, and identify artists living there, said Letitia Fernandez Ivins, assistant director of the arts commission’s civic arts program. “We want to make sure the arts is part of the overall conversation in planning for the community,” she said.


A series of community meetings will include film screenings or performances so they are not just discussions, but art-happenings in themselves, Ivins said. LA Common, a Leimert Park-based nonprofit group that fosters grassroots neighborhood arts projects, will be the arts commission’s partner in developing a Willowbrook arts plan.

Other California grant winners are San Jose, with $250,000 to enhance its downtown, and $150,000 each for Richmond and San Diego. Richmond will create a multimedia art installation focused on dance, and San Diego will plan an arts component for its Village at Market Creek redevelopment district.


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A towering symbol of hope in Watts

-- Mike Boehm