I have to admit – I had never thought about visiting the Los Angeles suburb of Watts.
In fact, prior to the beginning of 2020 the only thing I knew about Watts was that it was the site of some deadly riots in the mid 60s. As a seven-year-old, I probably saw something about the unrest on the news here in Australia – but it was anything but top-of-mind.
Then, in February 2020 (just as Covid was beginning to close in) we ended up spending a few days in LA at the start of a trip to catch up with our daughter and son-in-law.
To be honest, I hadn’t planned much for the LA leg of the trip and left that up to my daughter. And it was she who introduced us to ‘The Towers of Simon Rodia’ – or the Watts Towers.
Sabato (or Simon) Rodia was a poorly educated, unskilled Italian teenager when he came to America in the last few years of the 19th century.
He gained work first as a laborer and then as a mason. but was still poorly educated and with no formal qualifications when he eventually found his way to Watts 25 years later.
While he was living on a corner block in the poor LA neighborhood, he decided he wanted to ‘build something big’ – and started what he called Nuestro Pueblo, our town. Everyone else called it “that eyesore,” or “that lunatic’s junkyard” – but eventually it became known as ‘Rodia’s Towers’ or the Watts Towers.
Rodia built towers made from scrap steel woven together with wire, then coated in concrete and decorated with bits of pottery, shards of ceramics, broken shells, broken bottles, rocks and pebbles, and other cast-off building materials from up to 25km away.
It took him decades, working 5 hours a night and two hours in the morning before going off to work – and then every Sunday and holiday.
Eventually, Nuestro Pueblo came to comprise nine major components – including a 30-metre tower (behind the scaffolding in our picture.)
Rodia’s grand vision wasn’t always easy … the structures were often vandalized, and he had a running battle with the City of Los Angeles over permits.
Eventually, he had a fall from one of the towers and abandoned the site in 1954, gifting it to a neighbor and moving back to the San Francisco East Bay area.
The City Council didn’t give up and ordered the demolition of the towers – a process that was only halted by a long-running local campaign, an international outcry, and by stress-tests in 1959 which showed that the structures were incredibly strong and stable.
In fact, the results of those tests were so astounding that the construction process used by Rodia changed the way some structures are designed.
By the 1970s, authorities had done an about-face and taken over guardianship of the towers – opening the ‘Watts Towers of Simon Rodia State Historic Park’ which encompasses the site.
A restoration project started about three years ago and the area is currently fenced off – but it is still a fascinating place to visit and photograph from the outside, and to visit the next-door ‘Watts Towers Arts Center’
As for Simon Rodia? He died in 1965, never having returned to see his life’s work.
He was, however, publicly acknowledged for his efforts at a 1961 exhibit in Berkeley when he was introduced to the crowd – who gave wave after wave of applause for the man who was arguably one of America’s greatest ‘Outsider’ or ‘Naïve’ artists.
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