on January 29, 2012
Driving to the Watts neighbourhood in south LA is an interesting experience in itself. The area is depressed and in parts bleak. Dusty roads are bordered by windowless shops and bars, and silent railroad tracks and run down shopping malls create unwelcome interruptions between rows of housing.Without a car, I’m not too sure how you could get to the Watts Towers. They lie in the heart of the Watts, far from any local transport system (that I could see) and obscured by trees and the roofs of the homes. But as we neared the triangular plot where the towers are located, the conical tops came into view. Initially they looked like some sort of space age telegraph masts but as we pulled up beside them, the glint of coloured glass, tiles and pebbles became evident. There are seventeen major sculptures at the site and all are the work of one rather humble but extraordinary man. It is possible to take a guided tower of the tower but if, like us, you just turn up unannounced, information boards line the perimeter of the site and you have good views of the towers from the outside. Sabato Rodia (later known as Simon and Sam Rodia) was born in Italy in 1879. His older brother emigrated to the USA in 1895 and Simon followed him to Pennsylvania a few years after, working as a coal miner. Sabato later married, had a family and moved to the west coast. He found work in quarries, logging and as a construction worker in Seattle and eventually California, developing skills that would later enable him to construct the vast work of art in Los Angeles. Rodia started on the towers some time around 1921 and continued to work on them for the next thirty years. It wasn’t until he was almost 75 years of age that he decided to stop, deeding the plot and the towers to a neighbour and moving to Martinez to be near family. He died some ten years later, apparently without ever seeing the towers again. Walking around the towers and reading about Rodia’s life, you get the impression of a man who was incredibly driven but perhaps quite lonely. Early in his life he had a wife and children but the marriage disintegrated, with no evidence that he kept in touch with his offspring. However when you look at photos or videos of Rodia, his toothy grin suggests that perhaps he was quite happy with his lot, and proud of his achievement in the Watts neighbourhood. His mission was to build something new, something that the world didn’t already have and his thirty year project has given this part of LA a touch of much needed colour, wonder and excitement. The towers are built using structural steel covered with mortar and then embossed with coloured shards of glass, shell, rock and ceramics. The Gaudi-esque result is something that would look right at home in a fairytale book so in spite of its location, Rodia has ensured that people will be drawn to gaze in wonder at his towers for years to come.
©Travelocity.com LP 2000-2009