Touring the Tower

“It’s so good you came today,” poet and tour guide Syni Patterson said as she unlocked the gate at Watts Towers. “Because you know in two weeks all tours will stop and Watts Towers will be closed to the public. No one will be able to come in here and see them. Because of budget cuts.”

It’s an extraordinary statement, but it’s what part-time employees at the little park around Simon Rodia’s 17 world-renowned sculptures in a residential section of Watts have been telling visitors since layoff notices were delivered nearly a week ago. The staff said the towers, closed after the 1994 Northridge quake and covered for nearly seven years in scaffolding while rehab work was done, will close again after the last tour is given on May 29.

It’s not true, insisted a spokesman for the city Department of Cultural Affairs, which operates the towers.

“Cuts will have to be made across the board,” Will Caperton y Montoya said a day after the City Council approved a budget that slashes all general-fund money from the department. “But we will make sure that tours continue, perhaps on a shortened schedule.”

Patterson and other tour guides will be cut loose this month. But they — or someone else who will walk visitors through the towers — will be back in July, Caperton y Montoya said.

The towers — the three-decade-long work of Italian immigrant Simon Rodia — are Los Angeles’ best-known artistic work and draw thousands of visitors each year from around the globe. Made of iron bars, concrete and bits of broken bottles and ceramics, they are one of the city’s few tourist attractions in the long-neglected communities near the 105 freeway. Rumors of their closure for budget reasons were especially puzzling since Mayor James Hahn scrapped plans to eliminate Cultural Affairs and formed a high-powered blue-ribbon panel to study how to make best use of the city’s cultural resources to bolster tourism.

Caperton y Montoya said the department has kept the towers open in the three years since the rehab was completed by cobbling together funds to pay tour guides (visitors can see the towers from the street but cannot walk among them unless they are on a tour, since the work — although not as fragile as it looks — needs to be protected).

The current round of funds for as-needed employees does indeed run out at the end of the month, he said. During June — which accounts for the remainder of the current fiscal year — full-time department workers may walk visitors through the towers, he said, although the schedule has not been set. As of July 1, the beginning of the fiscal year, the various funds that pay for part-time as-needed employees will be re-funded and tours will again take place, he said, although the department will probably have to limit visits to the days and times that are most in demand.

Cultural Affairs will operate in the coming year with just under $10 million, most of which comes from hotel taxes. The $2 million of general-fund money the department got this year is to be eliminated, although Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa grabbed $1.4 million in one-time funds for the department that result from a switch in fee-collection practices by the L.A. Convention and Visitors Bureau. That money restores cultural and arts programs that were on the chopping block. But the department will have to find money to keep Watts Towers open from some other source.

Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who represents the district where the towers stand, said she would do her best to make sure they stay open and festivals like the annual Jazz Festival remain on track. But she acknowledged that she has yet to see a department plan for keeping them open.

“While there are a lot of rumors out there, we have not been told how the Watts Towers will be affected by the current budget cuts,” Hahn said. “Now that we have identified additional funds for the Cultural Affairs Department, I have asked that the City Council receive a full report of how staffing and programming at the Towers will be impacted. At that point, we can better evaluate the situation, and I will do everything in my power to see that all services at the Towers are maintained.”

Meanwhile, a panel led by the state — which actually owns the towers — has entered into a contract to evaluate the upper portions of the three tallest structures to figure out the cause of cracking. State park planner Sean Woods said it is part of an ongoing effort at conserving the structures that Rodia built in his back yard, perhaps as a religious monument.

Continuing stresses on the towers include the rumbling of the nearby Blue Line and freakish occurrences like last year’s once-a-millennium storm that dropped golf-ball-sized hail on the towers and adjacent communities.

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