Getting rad at the Watts Towers

Circe Wallace of Wasserman Media Group, left, and pro skaters Terry Kennedy and Paul Rodriguez on vacant land near the towers.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Should a Tony Hawk-endorsed skateboard park be a neighbor to South Los Angeles’ cultural landmark, the Watts Towers?

In what could become a battle between athletics and aesthetics, the answer will be up to city officials, who figure to get an earful from advocates for the arts and backers of youth recreation, debating an immediate benefit for youngsters and a longer-range dream of a cultural district, anchored by the towers.

Skateboard park proposal: An article in Wednesday’s Calendar section about a proposal to build a skateboard park near the Watts Towers said that Wasserman Media Group was backing the proposal. The proponents include a manager employed by WMG and two of the pro skateboarders she represents, but they are pursuing the initiative as individuals rather than as representatives of WMG, a sports management and marketing company. —

Pushing the skateboarding park are Councilwoman Janice Hahn and the Wasserman Media Group, an L.A. sports management and marketing company headed by Casey Wasserman, who has arts affiliations of his own as a board member and major donor to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Although no formal plan has been submitted, a conceptual plan has been drawn and fundraising is already underway, with an early boost from star skater Hawk.

Hahn said that after the Wasserman group approached her with the idea of creating a major skate park in Watts with donated money, picking a site wasn’t just a matter of finding a parcel with the right dimensions. “We were looking at a lot of other places. [Watts Towers] is a neutral, gang-free area, and those are few and far between. We had to look for a territory that’s not owned by a gang.”

Critics of the proposal, including some neighborhood activists, think a place for kids to hurtle and soar would be a poor match for a delicate work of sculptural folk-art that’s one of just eight places in the city that’s been designated by the federal Department of the Interior as a National Historic Landmark.

“How would we feel about . . . a noisy skateboard park being planned in the vicinity of the Getty or LACMA?” asked Luisa Del Giudice, a Los Angeles-based scholar who helped organize an international conference last spring in Genoa, Italy, about the towers and their creator, Sabato (Simon) Rodia. Between 1921 and 1954, the Italian immigrant single-handedly built the idiosyncratic, colorful and elaborately ornamented structures.

“It sounds like it would be great for Watts, but not near the towers,” said Michael Cornwell, chairman of the Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts, which has tried to lobby for more effective conservation of the towers -- which city officials admit has been drastically underfunded.

Rosie Lee Hooks, director of the nearby Watts Towers Arts Center and Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center, last month sent an e-mail to the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, which owns the land where the skate park would be built, warning that it would generate noise and possibly become a magnet for drugs, violence and graffiti taggers. “We are not a recreational park. We are an educational institution and campus,” Hooks wrote.

Hahn thinks the skate park would work in harmony with the towers, about 40 yards away, and with the two city-run arts centers that stand beside them on a dead-end stretch of East 107th Street. She thinks volunteers from the community would ensure there’s proper supervision.

“This is an area where the need is great,” Hahn said, and her experience with other skate parks in her district suggests that “drugs and violence are not a problem. Skateboarders are not criminals.

“I think it’s pretty cool, really, to have kids skateboarding in the shadow of the Watts Towers. That really paints a picture of Watts,” she said. “You’ve got the history, and then the present and the future.”

But critics see the proposal as another in a series of hasty, haphazard moves by the city over the last 10 years affecting the towers and the rest of the Watts Cultural Crescent -- a 10-acre redevelopment district established in the early 1990s that has yet to see the restaurants, galleries, art studios and combination movie theater and education center that were conceived to turn it into a tourist destination and economic engine.

A major skate park elsewhere in Watts could be “something wonderful,” said Janine Watkins, a community activist who owns a house by the towers.

But “this is a tourism destination, a national historical landmark, and the city should be treating it as such. The towers should be their golden egg.”

Watkins, who is affiliated with the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, laments that in a community where resources and opportunities are already scarce, the skate park could divide people by setting those who want a peaceful, contemplative setting for a world-renowned artistic jewel against advocates for children’s recreation.

Donny Joubert, a co-founder of the Watts Gang Task Force, says his group was impressed after seeing a presentation about the skate park. “If somebody wants to come in and do something for the community, I don’t see why not,” he said. “I think you’ll get more folks to support it than will be against it.”

Hahn says she’s willing to override established strategies for the Cultural Crescent to take advantage of an unexpected opportunity. “Sometimes we plan forever, and kids never see anything.”

Chris Jordan, executive director of the Grant Housing and Economic Development Corp. based at Grant African Methodist Episcopal Church, foresees an intense community debate.

“There’s been a lack of development in the entire area of Watts, so when there’s a hint of anything happening, there’s always heightened awareness and an excitement that goes along with it,” he said. Jordan says he hopes the outcome will offer something for adults as well as youngsters and will serve both cultural and recreational purposes, perhaps by commissioning artists and landscaping experts to embellish a skate park design.

“That’s the tightrope that’s going to have to be walked,” he said. .

The skate park originated with Circe Wallace, senior vice president of management at Wasserman Media Group, which manages professional athletes and does sports-related marketing. She said she’d first gotten to know Hahn when her client, professional skateboarder Paul Rodriguez, helped establish a skate park in Harbor Gateway.

Watts has smaller skateboarding layouts in the Nickerson Gardens and Imperial Courts housing projects and at Ted Watkins Memorial Park; Wallace, whose specialty is managing action-sports athletes, wanted to develop something big in the neighborhood, and, along with her L.A.-based clients Rodriguez and Terry Kennedy, enlisted Hahn’s help.

Wallace reached out to Hawk, and in October the annual Beverly Hills benefit for his Tony Hawk Foundation, which makes grants to help build skate parks across the nation, raised $44,000 for the Watts Towers skate plaza.

Colby Carter, senior designer of California Skateparks, an Upland company that’s providing pro bono design work, said the conceptual plan he’s come up with is “easily a $350,000 build for sure.” Wallace is the point person for fundraising and says that the Wasserman Foundation, headed by her boss, will be among the donors.

Like his entertainment mogul grandfather, Lew Wasserman -- who helped raise the money to create the Music Center and was founding president of Center Theatre Group -- Casey Wasserman has branched into arts philanthropy, including a $1.5 million Wasserman Foundation gift to LACMA in 2007.

In his design, Carter said, he tried to take inspiration from the Watts Towers. The conceptual plan features three circular areas for skaters, an echo of its three towers.

Kiara Harris, spokeswoman for the Community Redevelopment Agency, said that for the skate park to become a reality it would have to be approved by the CRA’s board. Then, she said, the City Council would have to concur.

Among the agencies that might have some say would be the city’s Office of Historic Resources, whose manager, Ken Bernstein, said any review it might do would seek to “ensure there is no adverse impact on the towers physically or to its historic significance.”