When a vision is born, sometimes the human spirit will stop at nothing to achieve the fulfillment of their goals. So is the story of Simon Rodia, an immigrant born in Ribottoli, Italy in 1879 that immigrated to the United States when he was barely just 14. He came to America when this land of opportunity was welcoming new immigrants by the hundreds every day. As a young boy, he had yet to discover what life was to bring him, however the impressions from his childhood ran deep and would forever leave a mark in his memory, perhaps an inspiration to what he would eventually create as the Watts Towers. This magnificent art installation stands as a pinnacle of pride for a community that has had its share of hardships through the years. Perhaps even Simon himself did not understand at the time just how powerful and symbolic his art would be in the generations to come after.
The Story of a Broken Man
Simon Rodia, born Sabato Rodia, had immigrated with his brother to the United States as a young boy, around the age of just 14. He had worked in a coal mine in Pennsylvania, but moved west after experiencing the loss of his brother in an accident. In 1902, he married his first wife, but lost his marriage due to his raging alcoholism. Two children were born out of this marriage, but it is said that to this day, nobody knows who or where they are. Perhaps they never knew who their father was and what type of redeeming legacy he left behind. After the divorce, he left the San Francisco area and came down to Los Angeles, literally as a hobo riding the rails. He arrived as a poor bum, who managed to bring himself back up, and eventually even married again. Unfortunately, his second marriage ended in divorce as well. Despite the quirks of his human frailty, Simon was a visionary, whose tenacity to fulfill his dreams and passions are an inspiration to us all.
The Birth of a Vision
When Simon arrived in Los Angeles, his vision and passion to build his art was becoming stronger. He had searched far and wide for a property that would be the perfect place to erect his art. In 1921, He found and purchased the triangular shaped lot located at 1765 East 107th Street in Los Angeles, in the community of Watts. It was the perfect location for creating what he called “Nuestro Pueblo”, translated as “our town”. At the time of purchase, the old Los Angeles streetcar had a stop just next to his lot. This streetcar is just a memory of the foundational glory days of Los Angeles today, but back then, it was a major transportation necessity for the many Angelinos that relied on it to get to work. Watts was one of those communities that relied heavily on it, since many of its residents were lower income labor workers, many of whom worked in the railroad industry. The train’s presence in this town had created a thriving community that seemed destined for growth. It was the exact place that Simon had envisioned, a place where his art could be seen by many.
Doing Something Big
After purchasing his property in 1921, Simon began his 34 year project, working on it tirelessly all by himself. He took pride in the fact that he alone built this magnificent art display. Of course, he did have a little help from the children of the community that enjoyed bringing him broken glass and ceramics that he could use for his project. His towers and structures all contain mosaics of broken glass, sea shells, pottery, tile, and mirrors. He erected the entire installation in his spare time, using metal pipes and rods that are so sound, that they even survived a stress test later in 1959, when they were threatened to be demolished. The tallest of the structures stands almost 100 feet tall and was done entirely without the use of scaffoldings or outside help. Simon’s design included each tower to have essentially built in scaffoldings, so that he could climb them as he built them, with nothing but his tools that he attached to his belt. Among the structures, there is a gazebo, also said to have held church service, a fish pond, a ship of Marco Polo, a chimney, as well as the many towers. Surrounding the property is an intricately designed wall with mosaics that mimic the same design element as the structures inside.
The triangular shaped lot is representative of a grand ship, with the point being the bough that faces in the direction of his homeland, Italy. There is even a part that resembles a sail to this grand master ship. The side wall that encloses the display has a design that is representative of waves.
Although no formal connection has been made to the Gigli Festival, one cannot dismiss the ironic symbolism that the Watts Towers has in connection with this famed festival from a town not too far from where Simon is from. The Gigli are 8 giant obelisks adorned in lilies that are paraded through the town. The centuries old tradition originated from a celebration of the return of the town’s men, after being captured and enslaved by the Hun in North Africa. The cultural celebration is about freedom, a similar story that laces the history of the very community that this beautiful art lives in.
The Evolution of a Community
When Simon purchased the property, the community of Watts was a bustling town that was home to many working class folks of all different ethnicities, including Caucasian, Latino, Asian, and African American. The development of the railroad system through the town, along with the Los Angeles Railway and train depot made this community desirable for many of the working class, especially those that worked for the railroad. It was this hustle and bustle that Simon was looking for when he chose his location. The close proximity to the Watts train depot was one of the many reasons why this location was exactly what he was looking for. During World War II, an influx of new inhabitants came in, creating the need for more affordable housing, thus the developments of what are known as the projects came into existence. This was to accommodate the large influx of African Americans that were leaving the heavily segregated states of the south in search of better opportunities, including jobs doing work for the war.
At the time, neighborhoods were still segregated due to housing laws put in place in the 1920’s, but Watts, as most of South Central L.A., was one of the communities where blacks were allowed to live. Although California may have brought some better opportunities, the issue of class and racial divides was still a sensitive spot, thus spurring the infamous Watts Riots of 1965. After an arrest of a young black man on drunk driving charges, the tension became intolerable and riots broke out for 6 days, destroying much of their community. After that time, many of the middle class blacks as well as whites left the area, known as the “white flight”. This left the area an impoverished community for a time that was a breeding ground for the gangs that took hold in the 70s and 80s. Watts had then become a hotbed of much gang related activity. The peak of violence was in 1992, the same year that the L.A. riots broke out. By the mid 90s however, gains were made to have peace as gang truces were formed.
Today, the town is predominately Hispanic and Black. A huge effort is being made to clean up the tarnished image that this tattered town had experienced. Today, crime rates are 50% less than what they were, and a huge rebirth for a tarnished community are well underway. So much so, that it has even gotten national recognition from the White House, when LAPD captain Phil Tingirides and his wife were invited and honored at the 2015 State of the Union address, for their efforts of changing a community for the better. Many of the youth that live there today are involved in extracurricular activities that shatter the boundary lines of the generation before. They have hope in a better tomorrow. Also, a huge focus on art and culture is helping to create a more positive future. The Watts Towers of Simon Rodia are at the epicenter of this positive renewal. Art centers have been erected, and annual events, such as the popular Drum Festival are part of the beauty that is transforming this community to a better place.
Beauty from the Ashes
The reputation of Watts has struggled to find its place again, and still seems to be haunted by the ghosts of its troubled past. While it still remains to be one of the poorest communities in Los Angeles, its inhabitants are making efforts to shape a different kind of future. It is clear when you are driving to this site that this area is not an affluent community. Small homes with bars on the windows are commonplace. Although the grit of the town is evident, if you are making your way to this National Historic Monument, you will understand better the contrast that the beautiful art of Simon Rodia has in relation to the surroundings. I found the artwork to be a beautiful and ironic display. Using thousands of broken and shattered pieces to create the art to me is symbolic of the fight of the citizens of Watts through the years. What once was a area that confined an entire race and class of people, who were told that they were “broken”, and less than perfect, is now proving itself that even in perceived “brokenness”, that beauty does indeed exist. In Simon’s towers, it is the collective of broken pieces that come together to create a harmonious display of art, just as the citizens, can be united in creating a beauty in their struggles, in their quest for freedom and in creating a better tomorrow for their community. In generations past, middle class communities have spiraled down into meccas of crime and poverty, but perhaps these same communities can rise again, like a phoenix rising from the ashes. Only the citizens can create their better future, which has been evident in Watts. So there stands the symbolic Watts Towers of Simon Rodia, a reminder that citizens united creates true beauty, that even among the broken and tattered, beauty still exists. And all this is because of a man, though broken and imperfect himself, tirelessly refused to give up on his divine dream.
Getting to the Watts Towers
Watts Towers are best accessed of the 105 freeway. A simple map search will guide you directly to it. There is a parking lot entrance located off of Graham Ave. There is a large community garden located on the corner, adjacent to the parking lot entrance. You can also park along 107th Street, but it is a dead end and you will have to turn around for street parking in front of the welcome center. Along with seeing the Watts Towers, the art museums at the same location are also something to see. Inside the visitor’s center, there is a room that has seating to watch a short 10 minute documentary video. I highly recommend taking the time to watch the video, as it gives a beautiful backdrop on more of the history of this intriguing place.
The price for admission is $7.00, Seniors and Young Adults ages 13-17 $3.00, children 12 and under are free when accompanied by an adult.
Hours of operation are Friday 11am-3pm, Saturday 10:30am-3pm, and Sunday 12:30-3pm. When school is in session, tours begin at 11am on Thursdays also. Tours run every 30 minutes, with the last tour of the day starting at 3pm. Limited or no tours on rainy days. Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, with the Gallery open on Wednesdays, however no tours. Also closed on major national holidays.
For more information, call (213) 847-4646
Watts Towers is on the National Register of Historic Places, is a designated National Historic Landmark, and is a Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Monument.
In 1954, after 34 years of dedication to this project, Simon suddenly quit, and deeded the property to a neighbor. He walked off and never returned. He passed away nearly 10 years later, in 1965 in Martinez, California. Today the Watts Towers are managed by the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs.
“I had in mind to do something big and I did it”- Simon Rodia