It’s a fact that’s almost too scandalous for me to admit: In my almost eight years in LA I had never been to the Watts Towers. So when I got assigned one of LA Weekly‘s People issue profiles (an annual favorite to write) on Edgar Arceneaux, the man behind artist-driven urban revitalization program the Watts House Project, I immediately leapt onto the Blue Line, heading south.
I had it in my head that the Watts Towers were gridlocked in some kind of shot-up, paved-over no-man’s land. But I got off the train in a grove of mature pines, with what looked like an early 1900’s train depot (Watts Station, I later found out, a building built for the Red Car in 1904, and the only building on 103rd Street that didn’t burn in the 1965 riots). As I walked the handful of blocks from the station to the towers, the horns from the train blaring softly in the background, I felt like I was strolling through a town in rural Alabama.
The houses, almost all original single-story homes, thankfully never saw enough money to be razed in favor of a stucco box or even trade their era-perfect woodwork for crappy plastic details. Some yards were meticulously manicured, but even if they weren’t, they had this wild, old-growth lushness to them; draped in bougainvillea, their walks studded with unruly succulents. As I walked by one yard, a rooster crowed.
Then I turned a corner and there were the towers, gray concrete crocheted against the sky. And in an electric green lawn facing them, all of Edgar’s team posing for their portrait, as well as some of the homeowners, who, in cooperation with artists, architects, volunteers and other neighbors, have begun to transform their houses into works of art (and you can help, too). I realized that in his quest to get this project rolling, Edgar, who is also one of my fellow GOOD community leaders, saw the same thing I saw in my walk from the train. A neighborhood with good bones and good people, plagued by perceptions of people like me, who just assumed it was a crappy place to live. Like any neighborhood, it only needs a little attention to make it great.
I had the best time hanging out with Rosa Guttierez and her two (of ten) kids Cruz and Ellani, who proudly showed me the improvements in their yard and home. These included painting the house blue and violet and adding a floral mural to the outside. Another of Rosa’s kids painted the hummingbird over her door. And Rosa herself designed a public bench that will go just outside their fence, for tourists to admire the towers from across the street.
But of course I fell in love with the gardens, all drought-tolerant plants in full-bloom. Rosa had planted all the flowers in these little sculptural mounds and as she watered them, we talked gardening while butterflies and hummingbirds and this creepy gigantor grasshopper picked through the blooms. But the most wonderful touch, which I didn’t realize until I got home and looked at the pictures: Poking out from the centers of each are the fluorescent orange pencil cactus you see above, mimicking the impossibly elongated spires of the towers right across the street. You can read more in my piece, “Urban Redeveloper,” and maybe I’ll see you back in Watts at one of the volunteer days.
When I went to Watts I also finally met Kevin Scanlon, the photographer who has taken all the portraits of the people I’ve written about for the past two years, plus about a zillion more (including the one you see above). An exhibition of his People portraits will be opening on Friday night from 7-11 pm at the Montalban Theater in Hollywood as part of LA Weekly’s LA Weekend, accompanied by the sounds (and hopefully the hilarious commentary) of KCRW’s newest DJ, Henry Rollins. On Saturday, the highlight is a meat lover’s panel at high noon, moderated by Jonathan Gold with carnivore commentary by Mark Peel, Octavio Becerra and Susan Feniger, chef at my latest favorite restaurant, Street.