Los Angeles, CA: Watts Our Town

Artist rendering overlaying people interacting with different elements of the plan

Photo courtesy of WLAC

How can urban design and public art connect two vital cultural resources to a neighborhood?

Located in southern Los Angeles, the Watts neighborhood is home to the Watts Towers, a vernacular art sculpture made by Simon Rodia. The towers serve as a major cultural asset in the area and are within walking distance of a metrorail public transit stop and other cultural spaces in the neighborhood. However, because of a lack of signage and promotion, visitors and many LA residents do not realize that these connections exist. Partnering with the city, a local neighborhood development organization set out to design and program a visitors center at the train station in a historic building and design a network of walking paths with public art that would stitch together the neighborhood’s different cultural anchors.


Watts is a lower-income, high-density neighborhood in central Los Angeles. It is also the focus of many new planning efforts including a large streetscape enhancement effort by the transportation agency Metro, and a $25 million Wattstar Cinema and Education Complex that is currently under development. This current focus on the area’s infrastructure is important for serving both the residents and the visitors that are drawn to the Towers, a world-famous soaring sculpture made by Rodia during the early- to mid-20th century.


Historically, Watts sat at a major junction of the rail line, and the area became the home to many of the African Americans−who worked on the trains−and their families. Today the demographics of the neighborhood are shifting. According to 2001 census figures, 70% percent of Watts residents are Latino and 30% are African American. It remains an economically challenged neighborhood where 40% of residents live below the poverty line, and there is a median household income of $29,228 per year (below the $53,000 LA County median household income). Added to this mix are the 20,000 visitors that come to the Watts Towers every year, representing 28 states and 65 countries from Europe, Asia, and Africa. Over 50% of visitors to the towers are international tourists.


Today there is a need to create greater economic opportunity, employment possibilities, and job training throughout the Watts neighborhood, along with improvements to the physical environment. Often tourists come to the Watts area without knowing exactly where to go, so local leaders wanted to create a visitors center that could help orient people who arrive and address some of the neighborhoods existing needs. There was also a keen desire to create pedestrian links between the towers and other art sites in the neighborhood like the iconic sculpture dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. located in a nearby shopping area. However, community leaders knew that embarking on a new planning effort would be challenging. Watts has received its share of unfulfilled promises from urban planning efforts, so there was a lack of trust between the neighborhood and the City. As one community leader says, “this [neighborhood] is not a tabula rasa—the community has been promised much but given little.” Project partners, therefore, needed to make sure that they were building the trust needed to see the plans come to fruition.


The Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) and Watts Labor Community Action Community (WLCAC) set out to pull together the many different planning efforts that were currently focusing on the Watts area, and in so doing help to orchestrate an arts- driven urban design plan for the neighborhood’s central area. In the center of these plans was the creation of a Watts Historic Train Station Visitors Center that would transform the bill payment center and underutilized rest area into a robust community gathering space with an exhibit space, café, and public restrooms. Another key element was the envisioned "artist pathways" that would connect the 1904 train station to the historic Watts Towers and Charles Dickson’s “I Have a Dream” sculpture of Martin Luther King, incorporating public art throughout their sequence. As the project team worked together, they formulated their primary vision as one in which the arts, public transit, and environmental sustainability strategies would be used to increase both the quality of life for residents and the visitor experience.


The project was shepherded collaboratively by a close partnership between the DCA and WLCAC. As an organization, the Watts Labor Community Action Committee has served the community for the past four decades, working to revitalize the neighborhood with housing, employment training, and cultural opportunities for area residents and youth. Because the WLCAC has an extensive community network, it was able to galvanize different resident groups and create a strong network of project stakeholders. One of the lessons that was learned by the project partners during the project development was how critical each partner was for ensuring the success of the project. “Both the government and communities need to recognize each other’s strengths. They each have a role to play,” said WLCAC project director Tim Watkins.


The process itself was very much a central part of the project goals. WLCAC wanted the community engagement to give residents the capacity to explore, express, and develop a shared vision for what the community could become and to create a means of giving voice to residents who may have been left out of earlier top-down planning processes. “Working with large scale projects is difficult,” said a staff member from WLCAC, “the processes and regulations are so complex that poorer communities get lost.” To counter that effect, it tried to engage as many people as possible that represented a diverse cross-section of Watts. Recognizing the diversity within their own community, its leaders did not equate success with results that everyone agreed upon. To bring about the best results, staff said, “tensions have to be OK—controversy is needed.” To help with these more difficult conversations, the DCA and WLCAC viewed themselves as intermediaries who moved things forward, and not as the authors of the final plan. They balanced the goal of having a clear arts plan with the idea of having enough flexibility built into it that it would allow residents to adapt it and to be entrepreneurial once the plan was put into place.



Because of the extensive outreach and care that was taken to ensure that the neighborhood's different groups had the opportunity to discuss issues of growth and change together, the planning process has instigated a dialogue about the possibility of creating a larger cultural district for the neighborhood. Creating this change to the South Los Angeles Master Plan authored by the City of Los Angeles could help to build the economic and regulatory capacity of the Watts Neighborhood area and engage the arts to help meet the neighborhood’s development goals. Project mangers, however, knew that these longer-term project outcomes had to be balanced with shorter term gains. As project manager Tina Watkins said, “the most important thing when working with poor neighborhoods is creating success. It’s important to find the low hanging fruit in your plans and make sure you’re able to create something people can see.”


Project managers also recognized that optimism was essential for ensuring the project success. Similarly, they knew that with a string of unmet promises still fresh in their minds, there was really no way of guaranteeing that this new effort would capture the optimism of residents. However, for the time being, organizers are encouraged by the level of trust that is developing between the neighborhood and the city. A great deal of that optimism, says WLCAC director Tim Watkins, has to do with the fact that they were able to, “take what looks like nothing and make something out of it. That’s the trick. It’s what we did here, both with our buildings and with the community. You can never move forward thinking you don’t have the resources you need. They’re always there, you just need to find them.”


Watts Labor Community Action Committee

Watts Towers of Simon Rodia State Historic Park

Project page on the California Department of Parks and
Recreation website Site Plan

Rendered plan drawing of design proposal

"We were able to keep a clear vision for the project while letting it evolve by keeping everything written down.  It sounds simple but it’s important to be clear about what your intent and purpose is. We had a very simple plan that everyone had agreed to, but it gave us the flexibility along the way…. on how we got there." – Tina Watkins, General Manager, WLCAC

  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art
  • City of Los Angeles Department of Public Works Bureau of Street Services
  • City of Los Angeles Planning Department
  • Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority (Metro)
  • American Institute of Architects, Los Angeles Chapter
  • National Organization of Minority Architects
  • Harbor Watts Economic Development Corporation
  • Earth Art Partnership
  • Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts
  • Friends of Watts Towers Art Center
  • Watts Towers Community Action Council
  • Watts/Century Latino Organization

As result of the project a vision for the cultural crescent has been proposed and the Northern portion of the design known as the Artist Pathway East, is pending construction.  The Pathway will incorporate public art elements and community input gained through the Our Town project.  With completed designs in hand the team will work with DCA to assemble funding for the next phase of the project through investment and possible grant resources.

Project partners also worked with the City of Los Angeles Department of Public Works, Bureau of Street Services. NEA funding allowed for community-based Artists-in-Residence at DCA's Watts Towers Arts Center to envision and design a large-scale Gateway Monument to be built adjacent to a Metro Rail Station.  Entitled "We Are Watts," this large scale sculpture represents the diversity and cultural history of the Watts community.  As part of the design process, a series of community meetings were held to solicit community feedback. The Gateway Monument is currently in the engineering phase, with construction scheduled to begin early 2015 through funding from a Metro Call for Projects awarded to the Bureau of Street Services.

An advisory team of local artists connected with the Watts Towers Arts Center was formed as a result of the project. Their task is now to create designs that will incorporate public art into the newly constructed project areas.