The first time I read about Watts Towers I was in grade school and living in Glendale, which is a suburb of Los Angeles. Even at a young age, I was intrigued by this public art work display and the artist behind it, Simon Rodia. Although I am not an artist, I have always had an interest towards the arts, says the lady who draws stick figures.
I remember asking both my mother and father individually, who were divorced by then to take me to see Watts Towers. My parents are of Asian decent and knowing what certain parts of Los Angeles were like back in the 1980s, they both refused the trip to Watts. I had no idea what they were talking about, as the ideas of a “high-crime neighborhood” was not a concept to me. I am being honest here, I was quite sheltered.
Decades went by and I had eventually forgotten about visiting Watts Towers and moved out of state. Then on one visits back to my native homeland of Los Angeles, I decided to take that long awaited trip to see Watts Towers. I had taken my daughter with me since art education has always been a part of our family.
Los Angeles neighborhoods have changed here and there in the last 30-40 years, so it was relatively safe to visit during the daytime. This public art display has become a Historic State Park and is protected by the city of Los Angeles. It is also a great cultural art center for African-Americans and Latinos who live in the area.
Cool Fact: Simon Rodia’s black and white profile is next to Bob Dylan’s picture on The Beatle’s “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band” album cover!
History of Watts Towers
Watts, a neighborhood in Southern Los Angeles, has seen several demographic cultural changes in the last 100 years . That concept is nothing new in Los Angeles, and is one reason why I appreciate my hometown. It is currently an African-American and Latino community, but in the late nineteenth century it was a ranching community. Although it grew quickly due to the railroad and the Watts Station, this city was not even part of Los Angeles until 1926.
In 1921, an Italian immigrant named Simon Rodia, had purchase a small piece of triangular shaped land in Watts, with the help of his brother. Simon, also called Sam, was born in 1879 in southwestern Italy in a town called, Ribottoli. He had immigrated from Italy to America when he was 15 years old, and settled in Philadelphia. From there he moved to Seattle, Northern California and eventually to Southern California. For work, Simon’s occupation was a laborer; laying tile and cement, as well as other similar jobs. He was known as being eccentric and was possibly a drunk. He was known to complain about the Catholic Church, women, children and the government in a very hot-tempered manner.
In 1921, Rodia started building his artistic vision just steps away from his home. He was not conventionally educated but was a self-taught artist who also dabbled in construction. For 33 years, from 1921 to 1954, Rodia dedicated much of his time working on the towers. He worked every weekend and every day after his labor jobs. All of his time was spent on his artwork that the marriage from his third wife, Carmen, had eventually ended.
Simon built all of the towers single handedly, with no outside help what-so-ever. He used the simplest of tools and built with scraps of material, remnants and trash that he collected in the neighborhood. There are seventeen cone-shaped towers in total that are decorated with broken tile, pots, bottles, shells, pottery and a couple of grinding wheels.
The towers were built with salvaged steel and without scaffolding. Simon would bend the steel into shapes, wrapping them with wire and then apply a cement cover over it. For safety, he used to anchor himself with a window washer belt and bring up all his material in buckets. Simon never stopped reinforcing his structures, especially after the 1933 earthquake hit in neighboring Long Beach.
After more than thirty years, Simon stopped his building unannounced and moved to Northern California. He deeded the property to his neighbor and moved to be close to his sister’s family, he was 76 years old. No one knows why he stopped, just as it was a mystery to why he began building. Rodia passed away ten years later, one month before the Watts Riots occurred.
Today, the Watts Towers are a National Historic Landmark and a California Historical Landmark, that was declared in 1990. It is also a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument and one of nine folk art sites which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places in Los Angeles. All of this prestigious recognition dedicate to one man’s dream that took 33 years to build!
Watts Towers has been offering tours since the 1960s and although you can view the towers from the street, doing a tour is the best way to visit it.
For opening hours and tour information, please visit the state website – Watts Towers
Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable…– George Bernard Shaw
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