Activists Build Culture From the Ground Up

Many promising arts programs that emerged after 1965 riots fizzled after funding faded

`When a mind is idle, it wanders, but when it turns its struggle for identity into questions of art, it becomes focused, creative, vital.'

- Cecil Fergerson, Watts historian

WHAT Cecil Fergerson and other local leaders call the "coming of age of Watts" occurred in this black community in the years after the 1965 riots.

Under the spotlight of crisis, philanthropists, artists, corporate, and government officials poured into the community as one of the first big tests of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. More than 50 private and government-funded programs from community orchestras to poetry clubs were started.

"There was a blossoming of community identity through literature, music, arts, drama, dance," Dr. Fergerson says. "Prior to that, Watts was just a nice neighborhood of diverse people trying to eke out a living and grab part of the California dream."

The legacy of cultural involvement of that period undergirds the community to this day. Most of the fires that consumed 12,029 structures in recent riots bypassed Watts.

"The lack of physical destruction to Watts [then]was attributable to the concentration of cultural programs within the community," says James Woods, founder of the Studio Watts Workshop, a program in visual arts, dance, drama, and writing. "We [in Watts] have matured in understanding who and what we are ... and [have learned] that a great degree of collaboration amongst the cultures must take place with a sense of respect as opposed to denial."

Cultural activists say that self-expression and the arts mean far more than quality-of-life enhancement. They are the very means and ends of the communal experience itself. The more outlets to explore, teach, persuade, criticize, stimulate, the less likelihood of mass expressions of frustration, they say.

"Rioting is a form of expression that gives vent to the boredom, disinterest, and internal conflict that has found no other means to express itself," says Joe Howard, an L.A.-based, ethnic musicologist. "If you don't give a community something to feel and a way to feel it, the people drift."

Mike Stewart, cultural liaison to City Councilwoman Joan Flores, anticipates a second arts renaissance as inner-city woes move up the national agenda. During his visit here, President Bush promised new programs. Peter Ueberroth, chairman of the Rebuild L.A. task force, has called for new, public/private partnerships. City cultural affairs director Adolfo Nodal is planning an arts recovery program.

"Under the circumstances, serious commitments are inevitable," wrote Max Benavidez, a local poet. "Our badly frayed social fabric is desperate for the kind of sense-making that only art can provide."

Community activists here are asking how such renewed interest can be sustained. If there is a lesson from the aftermath of 1960s rioting, it is that government largesse is not enough. Starting with President Nixon, and continuing under the Reagan and Bush administrations, most of the former activities ran out of funding or faltered. Well-known programs like Mafundi Institute - which housed performing groups - and Watts Writers Workshop - which held readings and published scripts - lasted just a few years .

"In the mood of crisis, lending and grant institutions got caught up in short-term acts of goodwill," says Woods. "If funding had concentrated on establishing institutions rather than temporary programs, we could have accomplished much more."

Woods says recent riots also are focusing attention on the failure of contracts negotiated after the '65 riots. His workshop, which has since been renamed the Watts Community Housing Corporation, has still not received $1.5 million from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development promised in 1972 and renegotiated in 1986.

ONE of the success stories is the Watts Tower Arts Center. Begun as a community center in 1961, the small operation was taken over by L.A's City Cultural Affairs Department about 10 years after the Watts riots. Under the visionary direction of John Outterbridge, the Center has become the cultural heartbeat for the community.

"The people in Watts consider John the head of the family," says Richard Wyatt, a prominent L.A. muralist who attributes his life in art to his mentor. "He has been able to mold a generation of artists who otherwise would not have seen the artistic life as an alternative."

Through a bevy of programs including art tours, exhibits, and studio workshops, the center has thrived, while others begun in the same decade have fallen by the wayside.

"The Center has kept alive the idea of arts and brought it to a new dimension for the community," says Fergerson. "They [are] able to rechannel some of the area's frustration. If [the Center] were ever to go, the hopes of a lot of people would go with it."

"I thought art was just something you looked at in a museum," says Jamie MacMillan, a 13-year-old who has just completed several video projects with the Watts Towers Arts Center in collaboration with the California Institute of the Arts. "I found out it can be a way to find out who I am and express myself in a thousand different ways."

Besides building community pride in the center as a must-stop for international visitors, Outterbridge sponsors two events that attract tens of thousands: the Simon Rodia Rhythm & Blues, Jazz, and Gospel Festival, and the Watts Towers Day of the Drum Festival.

The festivals are held at the site where Italian artist Simon Rodia spent 33 years on his own constructing the nine-tower monument that is Watts' most famous landmark. Adorned with mosaics of broken glass, tile, sea shells and pottery, the spires of structural steel covered with mortar were constructed without machine, scaffolding, bolts, rivets, welds or drawing board designs.

"I use these spires to tell kids about the human spirit and the persistence of vision," says Outterbridge.

Though the Center's success has become widespread, observers like Woods admonish that alternative, nongovernment-funded programs are also essential in developing truly free outlets for artistic expression.

"Could the voices of radical social activists be presented there?" asks Woods.

"We have to keep asking the questions because otherwise the outlets get gobbled up or suppressed by the political establishment and you have a situation that begins to boil again."

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