The Watts Towers, a collection of 17 steel spires hand-sculpted from pipes, rods, wire mesh, tile and glass over 34 years, represent one of the safe and neutral zones in the gang-plagued district of Watts, Calif., in southern Los Angeles county. Because of the Towers' neutrality, a city councilwoman, with help from the Tony Hawk Foundation, wants to build a skateboard park there. But several outspoken members of the community, who consider the Towers a hallowed and historic place, oppose the idea.
"We're shovel-ready and waiting on the community to make some decisions," says Miki Vuckovich, the executive director of the Tony Hawk Foundation.
Since its inception in 2002, The Tony Hawk Foundation has donated grants totaling more than $3 million toward building 444 public skateparks across the United States. Much like rec centers of old, free, public community skateparks provide a safe and legal space for youth to engage in positive physical activity and social interaction. Several famous skaters from disenfranchised communities -- including Stevie Williams, Terry Kennedy and Theotis Beasley -- have been vocal about skateboarding's positive influence in their lives, and attribute their success in great part to the sport.
Tony Hawk himself is a supporter of the project at Watts. "To provide a positive alternative to the challenges that face the community, I've joined a coalition of community and business leaders to create a landmark skatepark that will give Watts youth a place to be active, creative and enjoy their sport," Hawk said.
Councilwoman Janice Hahn (L.A.'s 15th District is behind the project) has helped build several other skateparks in her district and she's vehement about the positive impact they make. "Our young people need more after-school activities that keep them off the streets," Hahn told ESPN. "Kids in Watts grow up in a gang culture. We're hoping these kids won't join a life of crime -- instead, they'll become skateboarders in their spare time."
Total funding for the skatepark has reached $355,000. The Hawk Foundation has contributed $80,000 and has received a grant from the Annenberg Foundation for $275,000. This is the first skateboard project supported by the Annenberg Foundation, which funds everything from arts and education to animal services.
Groundbreaking is expected to take place in the spring, and the first community meeting regarding the new skatepark was in July, when Hahn spoke with members of the Watts community who are opposed to the park's proposed location. "We suggested alternative locations for the skatepark -- namely Ted Watkins Park, which is a quarter-mile away" says Janine Watkins, who lives across the street from the Towers and is vice chair for the Committee for Simon Rodia Towers in Watts. "We're trying to find a win-win situation. But we're being stonewalled by the county."
Other community members agree. "These towers are sacred. They're one of the major works of architectural sculpture of the 20th century," says Edward Landler, a filmmaker who created a documentary about the Towers. "The community has no objection to a skateboard park, but it should be in the appropriate place. It's like putting a skatepark in front of the Notre Dame cathedral or the approach to the Taj Mahal."
The Towers are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and just last week, the City of L.A. gave $150,000 to the L.A. County Museum of Art to restore the Towers.
There are a handful of skateparks in Watts, but Vuckovich says they aren't accessible to everyone. "People who didn't live in those particular projects didn't skate [at the existing parks in Watts]," he says. "We didn't see a centrally located skatepark [that was] not controlled by a particular faction. We want to build a skatepark where all skaters are welcome."
Capt. Phillip Tingirides of the Los Angeles Police Department told the L.A. Times that the Towers is one of few safe, gang-neutral places in Watts where they could build a skatepark, adding that that nearby Ted Watkins Park sees less police patrol.
Landler says that's ridiculous. "Rather than supporting and enhancing the gang neutrality of Ted Watkins Park, a place designated for athletic recreation, Councilwoman Hahn and Captain Tingirides seem to be trying to force a skateboard park on to the Watts Towers site against community wishes," Landler wrote in a response to the Times.
This thought process isn't unusual: City planners often think that by building a skatepark in areas that report high rates of violence, it may help to curb the problem and provide kids with a more positive way to spend their time. But there's been plenty of gang violence reported within close proximity to skateparks.
On Aug. 18, three people were shot at a skatepark in Las Vegas, and the suspect was thought to be affiliated with a gang. Last January, a Long Beach skatepark was named after Vans-sponsored skater Mike Green, who was killed in a drive-by there in 2005. And in 2007, 20-year-old Derek Wilson, who was allegedly a member of Chicago-based gang called Fork, was arrested after firing a semiautomatic handgun at a downtown skatepark in Spokane, Wash.
The Watts skatepark design is essentially an urban plaza for skaters and BMX riders that can also be used for public gatherings like concerts or markets, and park builders say that kind of design can make the difference between a safe park and an unsafe one.
"We can't really say that a skate plaza equals no crime," says retired pro skater Kanten Russell, who is the principal for Action Sport Development, a San Diego-based design firm that builds skateparks. "But a properly designed and planned facility with good visibility, good lighting and no fencing will create a positive environment that's good for the community.
In the end, everyone involved in the Watts park is trying to do right by the community. Vuckovich contends, "There's a lot of space there -- the skatepark can go anywhere. It doesn't have to be right up against the Towers. We're here to support what the community wants to do."