Watts Towers rise up out of the surrounding working-class neighborhood like a fist pumped heavenward in victory. Amongst run-down ranch houses and dead-end streets, they sit serenely and proudly, a confection of concrete spun like sugar. Despite graffiti that proliferates elsewhere in Watts, the Towers remain untouched; rightfully respected.
Back when I worked at Book Beat, I’d seen pictures of the Towers many times in folk art or outsider art books and been intrigued–I’m a sucker for anything with mosaic or tile work, so right off the bat, the site appealed to me. When T and I found ourselves not terribly far away after an afternoon at Venice Beach, we decided to go check it out.
I’m not sure any photograph could have prepared me for how astonishing and moving this structure is in person. As someone who dabbles in creative pursuits in my spare time, it was both inspirational and incredibly humbling (like, who the F am I, this guy was the real deal). The towers’ creator, Simon Rodia, was an Italian immigrant and day laborer who worked on the project over the course of 33 years (1921-1954); pretty much any second not given over to work or bodily functions was dedicated to their construction. He created what he called nuestro pueblo, “our town”, partly out of scrap found along the railroad tracks, and would walk up to 20 miles up and down the tracks for materials. The towers were built solely with hand tools, no machinery. The dedication and perseverance it took to realize his vision are virtually unknown in this day and age, a sobering thought to those of us quasi-addicted to the instant gratification of blogging, instagram, etc. Not appreciated and even at risk of being torn down in the 1960s, the work is now being maintained and restored.
We weren’t able to actually enter the site, but had to content ourselves with viewing it through a fence. It’s beautiful and strange and awesome and I can only imagine sitting inside and staring up through the towers from within. Please do yourself a favor and visit this place if you’re anywhere nearby; photos don’t do justice to the actual experience. Read more about Watts Towers at the official website or on Wikipedia. Particularly fascinating is the religious ritual performed in Rodia’s home town and from which it is speculated that he took his inspiration.