Long-Awaited Watts Skate and BMX Park Takes Significant Step Forward

Delay in finding park site underscores key dilemma in disenfranchised communities: how to ensure location is one local residents can actually access

A set of ramps at the WLCAC (108th and Central) in Watts attracts a range of youth. But the way gang territories are divided up means accessing the park isn't always easy. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
A set of ramps at the WLCAC (108th and Central) in Watts attracts a range of youth. But the way gang territories are divided up means accessing the park isn't always easy. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

At the Watts Gang Task Force meeting Monday morning in Watts, Councilmember Joe Buscaino announced that he had finally secured the necessary $925,000 in funds and a location for a combination skate and BMX bike park that the community has been waiting for for at least a decade. [If you can’t see the video, click here.]

The new park will go in a vacant space created by an off-ramp of Imperial Highway at Wilmington, a block from Metro’s Rosa Parks station (which will also be getting a major facelift next year).

Monitor Park sits just to the north of the proposed park site (and has a small skate park tailored to beginners). The Arvella Grigsby loop can be seen at the bottom right of the frame - it's a block-long walking loop on a narrow strip of land left over from the off-ramp construction. (Google maps)
Monitor Park sits just to the north (left) of the proposed park site (and already has a small skate park tailored to beginners). The proposed park site will be cradled by the off-ramp, making access from east of Wilmington or southeast of Imperial a little dicey. The Arvella Grigsby loop can be seen at the very bottom right corner of the frame off 115th – it’s a block-long oval walking loop on a narrow strip of land left over from the off-ramp construction. (Google maps)

It won’t be the first project aimed at making lemonade out of the lemons created by the building of major thoroughfares through the community.

In 2011, the County celebrated the opening of the Arvella Grigsby walking loop featuring 25 trees and a shaded seating area on a slender parcel that was also left over from the construction of the off-ramp.

The city-owned lot the skate park will sit on has been neglected for a long time and, as seen along too many off-ramps these days, the adjacent underpass areas have intermittently served as a makeshift shelter for those without homes.

The plans are still preliminary and there will be more outreach with community members regarding the design of the park, but construction should begin in the next six to eight months, according to the councilmember.

A still close-up of the planned skate park facilities. The design is preliminary and the BMX facilities have not yet been included.
A close-up video still of the planned skate park facilities. The design is preliminary, and BMX facilities have not yet been included in this version.

There is a significant demand for designated recreational skating areas in the community.

With as many as 25 gangs claiming just about every square inch of sidewalk within a two-mile radius, streets are not accessible for recreation. Youth have to be careful about the roads they roll down.

Being a skater is one of the methods by which kids have been able to signal to gang members that they’re not about that life. As with cycling, it’s not a guarantee that they will be safe, but even in some of the areas where gang activity is more entrenched, like around Harvard Park (on 62nd, near Western) – perhaps best known by those outside the community for Gee Slick’s “Washing Dishes” video filmed in the park (in which he explains how to make crack) and for the extent to which gang members were known to block construction workers from renovating the park in the mid-aughts – a skate park can both provide a refuge for neighborhood kids and attract some from outside the area (an otherwise unusual prospect), opening up kids’ worlds and giving them another outlet.

Within Watts, the larger housing developments feature some skate facilities, but they are both limited and inaccessible to those outside the developments. The smaller-scale facilities installed at the WLCAC (108th and Central) in 2010 and Monitor Park (at 114th, off Wilmington, seen in the image above) in 2015 have offered younger kids safe places to learn to skate. But they don’t really fulfill the needs of more advanced youth looking to develop their skills and build a skating community.

The popularity of the Monitor Park skate facilities, however, suggests that skaters might be able to access the Wilmington and Imperial site with much greater ease than originally anticipated.

That is no small feat.

When the city had looked for a site for the skate park in the early 2000s, access had been a key sticking point.

At the time, the Watts Towers seemed to be one of the few neutral sites that kids from nearby Markham Middle School (a school serving youth from all four housing developments) and others from around the area would be able to access safely after school. Accessing the Towers themselves isn’t easy – while the monument lives in the hearts of most residents, youth often struggle to cross multiple territorial lines to get there. The entrance to the existing pedestrian bridge that spans the Blue Line tracks is right behind Markham, and would have allowed kids to get directly to the skate park from school without having to navigate any territories lines.

The park that was originally planned to go in near the Watts Towers.
A rendering of the park that was originally planned to go in near the Watts Towers. Source: California Skate Parks

But claims that the presence of the park could harm the fragile towers, that a skate park was incongruous with a significant artistic monument, and that the youth would attract tagging, violence, and drug dealing managed to stall the project.

A block north of the newly identified site, Monitor Park had once marked a dividing line between the Bounty Hunters and the PJ Watts Crips – the gangs that call the housing developments located on either side of it home. Snipers had once hidden in the lot where children’s play equipment and a picnic area now stands. The fact that the park is relatively well-used despite being largely open-air and that it has attracted more than just its most immediate neighbors signals things have changed, to a degree, and offers hope that another open-air facility would be within youths’ reach.

It’s still not ideal – the park will now be at some distance from Markham and other schools in the area. But Markham’s location next to the 103rd Street Blue Line stop and the park’s location next to the Rosa Parks Station may help with students’ access (below).

The location of the new skate/bike park (see yellow arrow) puts it at some distance from Markham Middle School (red marker at top). But the fact that Markham is adjacent to the 103rd Street Blue Line stop (blue "x") and the park will be located at the next stop on the line may help with access for students. (Google maps)
The location of the new skate/bike park (see yellow arrow) puts it at some distance from Markham Middle School (red marker at top). But the fact that Markham is adjacent to the 103rd Street Blue Line stop (blue “x”) and the park will be located at the next stop on the line may help with access for students. (Google maps)

It is, of course, also less than ideal to put such a facility in close proximity to a freeway and two busy thoroughfares in a community that already suffers from high asthma rates. And while Metro recently finished upgrading many of the safety features at Blue Line crossings up and down the line, nothing was done about the dangerous crossing nearest the park at Wilmington, where four sets of Blue Line and Union Pacific tracks cut across the street at an angle (seen best in the Google map image at top). But such is the dilemma created by the legacy of disenfranchisement. Do you put a facility in a place that fits better within planning standards that only people from outside the community would likely be able to access? Or do you site it in a spot that works within the socio-economic context of the community and hope that the investment in youth will pay off by making the community safer and, in turn, making site placement less of an issue down the line?

In his remarks to the gang task force, Buscaino alluded to the fact that he hadn’t been as cognizant of the challenge of accessibility and placement in the community when he was first elected. Working with the task force – a group instrumental in pushing the project forward – had helped him understand why it had taken so long to identify a viable site.

With the help of the Tony Hawk Foundation – known for building skate parks around the country and active in the decade-long process to see one built in Watts – Buscaino believes the park has the potential to be a great asset to the community. It will be the first of its kind combining BMX biking and skating facilities in the South L.A. area. And its location adjacent to a regional transit hub means it has the potential to serve youth from all around South L.A.

Both Buscaino and Miki Vuckovich of the Tony Hawk Foundation pointed out that the design was not complete, and that they would be working with community members and skaters alike to finalize it.

Preliminary reviews on the Watts’ facebook page, although limited, were decidedly mixed. A few even wondered if this was part of the gentrification of Watts – fears the major changes underway at Jordan Downs have helped stoke. Taken together, the commenters’ concerns underscored the extent to which the community remains hungry for greater investment in youth, education and jobs, housing, and upgrading existing facilities which the city has let fall into disrepair.

The fact that this project has been in the works for so long and that finding an accessible and safe site for neighborhood youth has been a key driver throughout should help allay doubts regarding gentrification – this park is first and foremost for Watts’ youth. But it’s not hard to see how decades of neglect of the community juxtaposed with the recent flurry of activity – the art installed along 103rd (below), the rebuilding of Jordan Downs, the changes planned for the Rosa Parks station, the sudden arrival of dockless bike-share, an initiative dubbed “Watts Re-Imagined,” and a $35 million Transformative Climate Communities grant aimed at greening the area, to name a few – have people wondering what’s in store for their community.

New public art pieces grace 103rd Street in Watts. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
New public art pieces grace 103rd Street in Watts. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

In the video, Buscaino says he would be meeting with the Watts neighborhood council this week to discuss the project. More on the project and any planning around access to the site will be posted as it becomes available.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG