Nuestro Pueblo, last week's post comparing Sabato Rodia's dilapidating towers to our fragmented town, drew a comment from Erin Aubry Kaplan. She offered a political metaphor for the troubled state of the Watts Towers. "It seems to me," she wrote, "the stewardship of the Towers is a hot potato because Watts itself is a community L.A. in general would rather not think about, let alone steward."
L.A. and the Watts Towers haven't mixed well since Rodia walked away from them in 1955, never wanting to return. As Erin and others have said, the towers and the city failed to connect because of the kind of place Watts was and is.
Watts - racially mixed and always marginal - wasn't where big dreams were going in the 1930s and 1940s. Los Angeles largely ignored Rodia's towers during the 33 solitary years he took to built them. In the 1950s, finally taking notice, the city wanted the towers demolished. The arts community wanted them saved. And when they were, the towers were turned over to the city, which abandoned them to the elements and their neighborhood. It's hard to judge which was harder on them. Watts burned around the towers in 1965, followed by drugs and gangs and despair and worse fires in 1992. By 2005, nearly 40 percent of the tile and glass fragments cemented onto the towers had been damaged, lost, or subject to repair.
Los Angeles had failed Watts and failed the towers, too, in complicated ways. They became a state park, but operated by a distracted cultural affairs department. The department had funding for conservation, but the money was always at risk, almost always in the form of handouts from state and federal agencies. Tourists arrived sometimes, but mostly from somewhere else - Italy, Australia, Japan, Germany. The earthquake in 1994 led to six years of repairs, nearly removing the towers from sight behind scaffolds. Community projects based at the towers offered part-time jobs in the neighborhood, but not much connection to the towers themselves.
The Watts Towers still stood, but for what?
They stood as symbols of an identity - as something valued by distant, white Los Angeles but rooted in the present blackness of Watts. Some residents came to believe that the builder of the towers was black himself, not an eccentric Italian-American cement finisher who had abandoned his towers years before Watts was an African-American community. Now Watts is a majority Latino community, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has tentatively embraced the towers as their custodian. Identity, always fluid in L.A., is slipping away and with it, political leverage.
There's real anger in this. Rosie Lee Hooks, director of the Watts Towers Arts Center told the New York Times, "I am trying to figure out what LACMA is doing here. We've been here 50 years." And she was skeptical of LACMA's marketing of the towers to arts donors: "I think they ought to plan about what they need to do, and come down and meet with us before they start showing the baby off." On the center's website, visitors are urged to sign a digital petition that frames the relationship between the towers and the county art museum as "cultural genocide."
LACMA sees the relationship differently. When LACMA's one-year deal with the city was announced, museum director Michael Govan said, "By expanding LACMA's mission to include the care, preservation, and interpretation of architectural and sculptural works of art within the community that are at risk of neglect and deterioration, we are changing the way LACMA functions as a museum, from what we collect to how we work within the community more directly."
What that work will be, given the museum's limited commitment to the towers and its own fiscal concerns, is hard to pin down. Past promises from local politicians that the Watts Towers would anchor an arts-oriented neighborhood economy were never met. LACMA can't meet those promises now. The Watts community isn't what the museum is best fitted to conserve.
In 2005, Margie Reese, who was general manager of the city's Cultural Affairs Department, told the Los Angeles Times, "Once I've taken the tour and seen the glamorous towers, I'm still curious. I want to know about the community that surrounds this icon. In my mind the story is unfinished. . . . It's difficult to look at (the towers) without looking at the needs of the community."
The towers loom over a dead-end street on the Watts flatland. But what do they stand for now?
D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles every Monday and Friday at 2 p.m. on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.