The Watts Towers are one of America’s most remarkable works of art, not only because where they are situated, but also because of how they came about, an old Italian immigrant’s life’s work, threatened many times over, but now formally protected as a National Historic Landmark.
So a tour of Los Angeles’ museums during the ongoing, city-wide exhibits called “Pacific Standard Time” — about L.A. art between 1945 and 1980 — should include a visit to Sabato “Simon” Rodia’s mighty works in Watts, that troubled, largely black, and poor, part of Los Angeles.
The trip south from downtown on the huge 110 freeway towards Long Beach is a journey away from the wealthy and glamorous Los Angeles to another world at East 107th Street, in South Central Los Angeles. There, in 1965, the Watts riots lasted five days killing 34 people, injuring and arresting thousands and damaging and burning down almost a thousand buildings. In 1992, Watts was hit again by riots following the acquittal of white police officers in the beating of Rodney King, resulting in over 50 deaths and a billion dollars in damage.
It is a quiet and almost deserted morning on East 107th Street with the exception of a few visitors, like us, and a couple of police officers, who stand and eat their sandwiches next to their car. The 17 different works of art, the tallest almost 100 feet high, dominate the neighborhood. They are the result of Simon Rodia’s work from 1921 to 1954, next to his little home on the small plot of land he had bought. The towers are surrounded by well-kept, often colorfully decorated small homes.
In 1955, Rodia gave it all away and left Watts, never to return. He died ten years later. Over the years, his life’s work has been threatened countless times, but the Watts Towers still stand, now formally called “The Watts Towers of Simon Rodia State Historic Park” and managed by the city of Los Angeles’ cultural affairs department in partnership with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). A small art center with a shop and a gallery are also part of the park.
It’s an stunning sight, this remarkable symbol of one man’s dogged efforts to create something beautiful of what he found, rocks, pipes, glass, ceramics, pottery, bottles, tiles, all put together with mortar and steel wires in a huge, colorful mosaic, an example of “folk art” that has become historic.
Rodia, born in the village of Ribottoli 1879, called his creation “Nuestro Pueblo” – our city. “I build the tower people like, everybody come,” he said.