Across the street from where Italian stonemason Simon Rodia chose to do "something big" by building the Watts Towers, a group of volunteers spent a brilliant Saturday afternoon knee-deep in something big as well.
They pitched in for Big Sunday, an annual community service effort that will deploy more than 50,000 volunteers across Southern California this weekend to help with more than 500 projects. From San Diego to Solvang, troops on Saturday painted walls, picked up litter, donated food and, in some cases, cleaned pigs and gave manicures.
"For some people, this is the first time in their life volunteering, and we think that's great," said founder and Hollywood screenwriter David Levinson. "We want to put a spark in the flame."
About 30 Big Sunday volunteers partnered with the Watts House Project, a group aiming to transform a tiny cul-de-sac in front of the towers by beautifying the homes inside and out. As hip-hop tunes blared and a neighbor handed out plates of rice, beans and carne asada, the effort resembled a block party more than a construction project.
Men and women of all ages, up to their ears in dust, worked on renovating a family's frontyard with a new vegetable garden, a lemon tree and a driveway addition. They broke through ground with shovels, hauled concrete blocks, planted rosemary and lavender seedlings and, now and then, stopped to get to know one another.
Moneik Johnson, 35, stood by in awe as the small army of helpers shaped the frontyard of her brown one-story home on East 117th Street. For years she and her family had to keep windows and doors closed tight to keep out the dust from her dirt patch of a frontyard. Renovating it themselves was too overwhelming and expensive, she said.
"I still can't believe it," said the office manager. "I'm going to have beets, cabbage, collard greens, beans, tomatoes and squash. I'm going to want to grab a chair and just sit in my frontyard and look at it all day."
With sweat glistening off their foreheads, volunteers Phillip Grayson, 49, and Jeff McManus, 54, took turns digging to plant the lemon tree. The two met for the first time that morning when they drove in plants from the Hollywood area.
"Twenty years ago I would have been looking to get out and have fun on a day like this, but now I feel more of a need to give something of myself and help," Grayson said.
One house away, Noemi Madrigal converted her home into a command post where volunteers could eat, rest and set up a lemonade stand. Children crowded around a craft table to make mini-replicas of the Watts Towers.
Not long ago, Watts House Project volunteers helped renovate the Madrigal home's frontyard, and soon they will build a shed and patio in the backyard. All the goodwill has built more camaraderie on the block, Madrigal said.
"We look after each other," she said. "We have a sense of pride about our street."
Plenty of volunteer opportunities remain through the end of today. For more information go to www.bigsunday.org.