LAPD commander says Watts Towers may be the only viable place for a Watts skate park
Capt. Phillip Tingirides of the Los Angeles Police Department says he understands why people who cherish the Watts Towers as a work of art, as a landmark and as one of the few attractions that can pull tourists into Watts are unhappy with a proposal to install a $350,000 skateboarding park in the towers’ shadow.
"I get their concerns," says Tingirides, commander of the LAPD’s Southeast area, which includes Watts. "The towers is one of the only places where people come from other places to see Watts, and they don’t want to lose that" or see visitors’ experience diminished by noise and tumult.
Indeed, it’s not uncommon to hear Watts Towers advocates wonder if anybody would ever consider plunking a skate park in Hancock Park, next to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art or beside some other comparable cultural attraction. Ted Watkins Memorial Park, which is for active recreation, including a community pool, is just a few blocks away, some note. Why not put the skate park there?
But spend 15 or 20 minutes talking with Capt. Tingirides, and you quickly become aware of some reasons why it's not so simple. If Watts is to have a major skate park in the near future, he says, the towers-adjacent site may have to be it.
On a bureaucratic level, Tingirides said, Ted Watkins Park poses problems because it's an island of county-owned land amid a sea of L.A. city streets; the LAPD doesn’t normally answer calls there, he said, and the distance to the nearest sheriff’s station and regular patrol routes means that response times tend to be longer. So adding a skate park under the current jurisdictional realities could make the policing challenges tougher.
But it’s the psychic topography of a gang-ridden landscape, Tingirides says, that makes the Watts Towers site the only publicly owned parcel where most neighborhood kids would feel safe making the trip.
A big chunk of a Watts skate park’s target audience, Tingirides said, would be students at Markham Middle School, which is just across the Blue Line tracks from the the strip of parkland occupied by the towers and the nearby Watts Towers Arts Center and Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center. No gang claims the intervening sidewalks or the foot bridge over the tracks.
Put a skate park in Ted Watkins Memorial Park, though, and it becomes a different story. “Five blocks in Watts can be a long way in terms of where people will actually travel,” Tingirides says. “There are so many invisible lines that people won’t cross.” Some of those fall between Markham Middle School and Watkins Park, where the likes of the Hacienda Village Boys, the Hacienda Village Crips and the 99th Street Mafia lay claims along the route. Depending on where a kid lives, Tingirides said, the trip home from Watkins Park also might be complicated by Bounty Hunters, PJs or the Grape Street gang.
"One of my top priorities in working with the community is trying to dissolve those lines," Tingirides said. "It’s such a deep-rooted cultural issue: 'These are lines we just don’t cross.' It’s been so long, through generations."
Erasing those lines doesn’t necessarily involve shrinking the gangs’ turf, he said, but depends instead on persuading people that certain routes are safer than they think.
"Most of the time, if you’re on a main thoroughfare just going from one place to another, not messing with other people, and you’re dressed down" -- that is, not sporting clothing that bespeaks a gang allegiance -- "you’re pretty safe." The police have had some success with escorting people along certain routes until they begin to realize it’s OK to walk them and add those destinations to their lives’ routine grid. "You have to feel it over and over again, until you trust it."
With time, it might be possible to instill residents with confidence that their children could walk safely from Markham Middle School to skate in Ted Watkins Park, then walk home, Tingirides said.
But should an attractive and needed development in Watts -- a $350,000 skate park funded by donations -- have to wait until the psychic landscape changes?
“Unless they can find someplace else, I would hate to see this thing go by the wayside,” Tingirides said. He wondered whether the skate park could be squeezed into plans for a renovated, artificial-turf soccer field at Markham Middle School that includes "a berm along 108th Street to prevent drive-by shootings."
The proposed skate park, he said, "is a thing that’s direly needed" for kids who crave activities but have few options. "It’s not going to answer all the problems, but it’s something we’ll have." For Tingirides, as things now stand, the parcel by the Watts Towers "is the best spot that the most people are going to use."
-- Mike Boehm
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Photos, from top: Pro skaters Terry Kennedy (center) and Paul Rodriguez (right) and their manager, Circe Wallace, are key backers of a skate park near the Watts Towers. Credit: Ricardo de Aratanha / Los Angeles Times. Conceptual design of Watts Skate Park by Colby Carter of California Skateparks. Credit: California Skateparks