Monday, June 9, 2014

One Man's Trash: The Treasure of the Watts Towers

Complacency and apathy are two pejoratives commonly associated with members of my particular generation.  I wish I could offer myself as a faultless rebuttal, refuting those generational jabs.  Sadly, I am probably the poster child for the insulting, if sometimes accurate, stereotypes.  It is my goal to celebrate the wacky tacky wonder of sites historically significant.  Nevertheless, I am guilty of taking for granted landmarks so firmly entrenched in the collective consciousness of our community that I often fail at my goal.  As it turns out, I am pathetically apathetic.

Apathy was certainly not a condition from which Simon "Sam" Rodia suffered; for more than thirty years he worked obsessively on building his dream.   In as many years, I never once made time to immerse myself in the genius of what is undeniably Rodia's and Southern California's greatest folk-art installation, the Watts Towers.

"The Towers" (1957)

Built on a residential block on a pie-shaped lot in decidedly-working-class Watts, the grandeur of Rodia's towers belies the humble surroundings.  Although his skills were masterful and his actions purposeful, it remains unclear as to whether there was a master plan when in 1921 Rodia began his masterpiece, "Nuestro Pueblo."

The technique was established early on.

James, our incredible tour guide, and Mary

James recounted growing up in the area when the towers were used
(officially and otherwise) as playground, community space, wedding
chapel, and water park; he explained how Rodia looked long and hard
for an ideal plot of land along the Red Car track that would bring a
steady stream of people - and their garbage (the very materials used
to build the towers) - to the site of his life's work.

Meant in part as an homage to the pilgrimage of his hometown's patron saint
(and the towers erected there in his honor),  Rodia's work also achieves the weird
 and wonderful heights of Antoni Gaudi's seminal work, La Sagrada Familia. 

With similar spirit as the notable folk architects behind Tio's TacosNitt Witt RidgeGrandma Prisbrey's Bottle Village, and the Mystery Castle, Rodia found beauty in repurposing utilitarian objects, dramatically transforming scrap metal, broken pottery, and discarded soda bottles into sky-scraping, skeletal towers.

Worthy of appreciation on many levels - architectural, artistic, historic - our deepest respect for the Watts Towers
is in the fact that it is fundamentally a giant trash castle!  Seashells, broken Bauer Pottery, Malibu Tile rejects, glass shards, used pop bottles, cracked porcelain dinnerware, and jagged jadite (things considered garbage) were given a second, and beautiful, life as part of Rodia's singular vision.

Behind gates since 1994's Northridge earthquake, it is difficult
to capture the scale of the towers.  James showed us how to exploit
the panorama feature on our phones in order to get a tower-to-toe
photograph of Mr. Tiny and the full height of the 99.5' tower.

In 1955, with little explanation, Mr. Rodia decided his magnum architectural opus was complete and deeded the land and structures to his neighbor.  After being slated for demolition in 1959, a group of USC students combined their resources to save the towers.  Now property of the State of California, The Watts Towers Arts Center is operated by the Cultural Affairs Department of the City of Los Angeles.  Continuing very much in the tradition of Sam Rodia, no apathy is allowed at The Watts Towers Arts Center.  With active after-school arts and music programs, artist residencies, concerts, and festivals, the center has become the centerpiece of the community.

Norma, Mary, and Noemi

 Norma oversees the community garden and turtle sanctuary (bottom left).
Noemi, one of the center's brilliant tour guides and resident historians,
took a good deal of her time to show us the grounds and share her personal
experiences of growing up across the street from the towers; she said that
through the Watts Riots of 1965 and the scariest days of the LA Riots (1992),
the Watts Towers remained free of vandalism and, to this day, there has never
been a need to remove graffiti!  She also admitted that as a child, she used to
bathe her dog in the Towers' baptismal font! 

Activism and community support keep the Watts Towers alive.  I was definitely changed and enlightened by our visit and by the well-informed staff.  If you are ever anywhere near Los Angeles, be sure to check your apathy at the door and experience the Watts Towers! 

The Watts Towers Arts Center
1727 E 107th St
Los Angeles, CA


Mr. Tiny


  1. Watts Towers has been on my list of places to visit in LA for the past year...and I completely forgot to go when we were in town!!! I will definitely remember next time. It looks awesome!

    1. It sounds like we've got your itinerary all set for next year. Woohoo for planning ahead!!!

  2. So cool! I have never heard of the Watts Tower. It reminds of the Cathedral of Junk that we have in Austin:

    1. Nice!!! I'm adding that to the list. We've been to lots of trash castles, but a CATHEDRAL, that is worth the trip. Thanks for the link!

  3. Lovely! That makes me think to a french story:
    The horse postman, a french postman of the 19h century who built a castle with stones that he brought in his postman bag after letters delivery!

    1. That reminds of the song, "One Piece at a Time." So awesome, I need to add it to my list of places to visit!

  4. wow that is really amazing

    retro rover

    1. Pretty neat, huh? I flatter myself thinking that I could join the ranks of the trash castle builders....but quickly realize I don't have the patience or the attention span!