Working for 30 years, alone and without financial help of any kind, Simon Rodia, an uneducated Italian laborer, raised his famous Watts Towers in the yard of his one-room shack between the 1920s and 1950s.
"I had in mind to do something big, and I did" was how Rodia explained the creation of his masterpiece of visionary architecture, admired by artists and designers around the world. Rodia called his towers "Pueblo Nuestro"--"Our Town" in Spanish.
In the midst of Watts--then as now one of Los Angeles' poorer neighborhoods--these proud spires demonstrate that imagination and guts can raise a man above his own limitations and above the restrictions of a society that pegged him as an uneducated immigrant.
Rodia's Watts Towers provide the emotional inspiration and physical centerpiece of an imaginative new scenario sketched for the future urban design development of Watts at a recent four-day community planning workshop.
At the heart of the workshop's recommendations, contained in a report titled "The Challenge of Change," is a suggestion for an expanded cultural-arts complex to be developed around the towers at 1765 E. 107th St.
Link Pedestrian Arcade
The complex, proposed for a park to be created between the towers and the new Los Angeles-Long Beach light-rail line now under construction, would include a multipurpose performance hall, galleries and workshops for artists-in-residence.
A pedestrian arcade would link the cultural center to the recently renovated Watts train station and the adjacent 103rd Street shopping center.
The station would become a "Watts Gateway" identifying the community's "new green and creative heart," according to several members of the team that prepared the report.
"The Challenge of Change" came out of a four-day workshop on Watts mounted June 9-12 by a Los Angeles Design Action Planning Team (LA/DAPT) made up of planners, architects, landscape architects, city and county officials and community activists. The workshop was held at Markham Intermediate School on East 104th Street.
Sponsored by the Los Angeles City Planning Department and the Urban Design Advisory Coalition, the Watts LA/DAPT was the third in a series that has already produced reports on Van Nuys and the Olive Hill district of East Hollywood.
The goal of the series is to bring to bear the combined expertise of top design professionals and city planners, with the participation of local residents, to suggest coherent and socially sensitive urban design policies for the areas under study.
The Watts district, home to 35,000 people, lies between 92nd Street on the north and Imperial Highway on the south, and between Alameda Street on the east and Central Avenue on the west.
If you were able, like Rodia, to climb to the top of the tallest Watts Tower, almost 100 feet high, you would overlook a mixed landscape of quiet, tree-lined streets lined by neat small bungalows and huge, ugly public housing projects defaced by gang graffiti and degraded by drug dealing.
In the long shadows cast by the towers you would see a community caught in the hot hollow of the Los Angeles Basin; a community that deserves an imaginative response if it is to live up to Rodia's challenge to "do something big."
"The Challenge of Change" report is a good beginning. It suggests both short- and long-range urban design plans for Watts.
The short-range plan relies upon a small-scale incremental approach to development, a project-by-project strategy that stitches together the tattered urban fabric of the area piece by piece.
The long-range plan, spread over 30 years, has the ambition to transform Watts into one of the region's major economic centers by exploiting its location next to the new transportation corridors now under construction. The cultural-arts complex would form the focus of the long-range proposal.
Community members interviewed by the LA/DAPT team spoke proudly of the district's social and cultural heritage. They described neighborhoods rich in residents who care about one another and who have formed self-help groups to aid the distressed and comfort the desperate.
At the same time, several people interviewed, such as Robin Cannon of the Concerned Citizens of South Central and Gladys Carr Coleman of the Community Youth Gang Services, described a Watts social landscape that includes many single-parent welfare families headed by women and "gun-toting gang members ready to prey on people who leave the security of their homes or automobiles."
'Drop-Out Rate a Scandal'
"Unemployment is high, development is scarce, transportation is poorly served," Cannon said. "The school drop-out rate is a scandal. The area's location, at the bottom of the Los Angeles Basin, leaves it suspended in limbo between downtown L.A. and Long Beach."
One of the local schoolchildren interviewed by the workshop panel put it succinctly: "This is a jungle, man," he said, "and there ain't no Tarzans."
The report acknowledges that in the decades since the 1965 riots, which residents term an "uprising," attempts have been made to improve the quality of life in the area.
"But the dream of a revitalized Watts community remains unrealized," the report states. "Many of the economic and social conditions which frustrated residents 24 years ago are still evident."
The completion of the Los Angeles-Long Beach light-rail line and east-west Century Freeway early in the 1990s will alleviate the area's sense of isolation by linking Watts to the rest of the metropolitan region, planners hope.
"The community has huge reservoirs of hope, imagination and energy," said LA/DAPT team member Sterling Barnes, a city planner and a member of the Watts Community Action Council. He believes that the resources for renewal are many, "if only we can put it all together, both within Watts and outside."
Barnes explained that the Watts workshop had by far the most intense and numerous community participation of the three LA/DAPT programs done to date.
"What most moved those of us who participated in the Watts workshop was the tremendous passion, interest and energy of the local residents," he said.
Like Rodia, the people of Watts have in mind to do something big.