Cultural icon

The reason the city doesn't try to make a cultural icon out of the towers, says a LACMA curator, is because of the people who live in Watts. (Robert Lachman / LAT)

Watts towers did not begin with a tower at all. It began with a ship, or an utterly immobile rendition of one. Three thousand miles from the ocean that carried him to the United States from Italy 26 years before, Simon Rodia dug a boat-shaped trench at the narrow tip of his triangular lot, filled it with concrete and anchored into it scavenged lengths of steel. He constructed a knee-high, green-tinted concrete deck, which he decorated with salvaged tiles in sky blues, ocean greens, and sunset yellows, oranges and pinks. He wrapped the exposed steel rods in chicken wire and coated them with cement mortar. He embellished the tallest one—the foremast—with a series of delicate openwork ovoids. The aft mast became a succession of bowl shapes covered with white seashells.

With that, Rodia embarked on a 34-year voyage of sculptural whimsy around his tenth-of-an-acre backyard. Those who study the Watts Towers say he had no formal plan. Yet in that first sculpture—later christened the Ship of Marco Polo—lies the template for the entire work: the spires, the tiles, the juxtaposition of concrete with capriccio. Indeed, some students of the towers say Rodia conceived of the site itself as a seafaring vessel, setting what looks like a captain's wheel into the base of the eastern tower, just behind the Ship of Marco Polo.

Rodia's tools were crude: a pipe-fitter's wrench, a chisel, a mixing pail. He worked without machine tools or drills, without scaffolding or bolts. It was an obsession that consumed him through six presidents, two earthquakes and a world war, until he had single-handedly constructed, in addition to the ship, three tall towers, a gazebo, a fountain, a fish pond, two enclosure walls and various other things—17 sculptures in all. The tallest tower rises more than 10 stories above the flat Central Los Angeles landscape. The entire agglomeration, considered as a single work, is said to be the largest structure ever made by one man alone—a vertical triumph in a horizontal town.

In 1955, Rodia handed the deed to the property to a neighbor and walked away. He left it to us to figure out what to do with what he had made. Fifty years later, we're still scratching our heads.

By training Rodia was neither artist nor architect—he was a cement finisher and tile maker who could barely read. But he is admired among artists for his superlative grasp of color, among architects for his deft reliance on curved forms, and among engineers for his creative manipulation of concrete, applying homemade batches of it in a "thin shell" style that was rare at the time but is widely used today in building construction. Rodia's real genius, though, was in transforming the mundane and familiar, the mass-produced and commonplace, into something unlike anything else, something singular and surprising and strange. "Go anywhere in the world and look for a structure that's built like the Watts Towers," says Bud Goldstone, a structural engineer who tended to the towers under various city contracts for two decades. "There is absolutely nothing like it. It is unique."

Over the years the towers have been alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) puzzled over, celebrated, vandalized, admired and nearly demolished. Now they are mostly left alone, looked after by a caring few and overlooked, ignored or forgotten by the rest. Watts Towers is one of just six national historic landmarks in Los Angeles (San Francisco has 18, New York City 85). Yet from June 2004 to June 2005, only 6,500 people showed up for tours, compared with 30,000 at Pasadena's Gamble House and 690,000 at Hearst Castle. "L.A. has a very twisted view of the arts," says Edward Landler, who with Rodia's grand-nephew Brad Byer recently completed "I Build the Tower," a documentary film project 20 years in the making. "You've got to be accomplished. You've got to be 'special' to be taken seriously. Here is this man, this uneducated man, this dirty man who you wouldn't pay attention to on the street, who created this thing that can touch us in this way. He didn't care to show himself off, but he wanted to be remembered. He had no notion of this as art—he just wanted to build something."

Why aren't we invested in this phenomenal achievement? Why don't we honor Rodia's vision and perseverance, this classic tale of a poor immigrant making his way to the promised land, creating something from nothing, then moving on? In this most transient of towns, why aren't the towers featured on the Los Angeles city seal? "The reason why they don't try to make a cultural icon out of it is because of the people who live in Watts," says Cecil Fergerson, who rose from a childhood in Watts to become a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and whose face is featured in a mural at the Watts Towers Community Arts Center. "It's a community of poverty," Fergerson says. "Always was. When they take care of that problem, the towers will be bigger than the Statue of Liberty."

Unlike most public art, the watts towers cannot simply be stumbled upon. They're located on a dead-end street, and you don't go there unless that's exactly where you mean to go. A sign on the 105 Freeway helps uncertain visitors find their way, but there is no sign on the 110, "the one people use," says Councilwoman Janice Hahn, whose district includes Watts and who has been struggling with the Caltrans bureaucracy to get one put up. "People need all the help and encouragement we can provide, and we're not doing our part."

The vast majority of visitors don't even attempt to drive—they arrive by climate-controlled tour bus in search of the exotic and dangerous, says Linda Campanella, who works at the adjoining arts center, which runs tours of the towers. "We get people from Japan, Australia, a lot of Europeans," Campanella says. "Some of our out-of-towners, they come here and they say they want to know what the deal is about Watts, this wild place they've been hearing about all their lives. The towers give them an excuse to have a look around." Tramell Turner leads tours of the towers. Turner, who is 27 and an aspiring actor, was born in Watts. The question he hears most often from visitors, he says, is: Where are you from? "They want to know if I'm really from Watts," he says. "Then they want to know what that's like. I tell them it's poverty, that I'd move to Beverly Hills if I could."

There are many, many people living in Los Angeles who have never been to the towers, says Rosie Lee Hooks, director of the arts center. More than a few of those people live in Watts. Part of the indifference may be due to a cultural disconnect—the towers have long been a symbol of African American pride in a community that now is more than half Latino. Another problem is fear. "We have 16 to 20 gangs within the area that is Watts," Hooks says. "People do not feel safe moving from one block to the next. It's a constant struggle." For all but the most intrepid urban explorers, the notion of seeking out the towers holds little appeal. "We're below the Mason-Dixon line. The only real attention Watts gets from the city is from the police," Hooks says.

The line between the streets and the towers is often a tenuous one. John Outterbridge, who was director of the arts center for nearly 17 years, says he urged kids on their way to school to deposit their guns at the towers. "The Crips and the Bloods, I saw a lot of those kids grow up," he says. "I said, 'Leave your guns with me, if you've got to have them.' "

Five years ago Zuleyma Aguirre, the head conservator at the site, was attacked early one morning in the parking lot. A security guard patrols the site night and day, but he did not happen to be watching the lot when a youth on a bicycle swooped in, smashed his fist into Aguirre's jaw and grabbed her purse. He broke six of her teeth and tore open her lip. She's had three surgeries to repair the damage. "I'm a survivor," she says. "It's been very hard to come back here every day, but I am honored to work here. This is my cathedral."

By all accounts the arts center has proved to be a crucial local resource, particularly by providing a haven from the streets for at-risk youth. But over time its mission has become too narrowly focused on the immediate community, to the exclusion of sustaining interest in the towers themselves, says Seymour Rosen, who was an early supporter of the towers and now runs SPACES Institute, an art preservation archive. "When you go into the center, there are no books on outsider art. There is no larger context for the work," he says. "There is very little that would be of interest to the outside world."

Margie Reese, general manager of the city's Cultural Affairs Department, which leases and operates the state-owned towers, says that's as it should be—for now. "My frustration is explaining to people that Watts Towers as a tourism destination right now is a fallacy," she says. "Once I've taken the tour and seen the glamorous towers, I'm still curious. I want to know about the community that surrounds this icon. In my mind the story is unfinished." There is very little to appeal to outsiders, Reese says, and much to be concerned about. "When I drive to Watts and get off the freeway, immediately I begin to think about the people who live here," she says. "It's difficult to look at a tourism component without looking at the needs of the community."

Though engineers marvel at the steadfastness of the towers, time and the elements present formidable challenges. At any given moment the sculptures are riddled with cracks. It takes a conservation crew of 11 to address the fissures and fractures caused by the everyday stresses of the harsh Southern California sun. During the heat of the day the steel armatures expand, and in the cool of the night they shrink. The cement mortar shells are not as flexible, so all that internal motion causes hairline cracks, thousands of them. When moisture gets into the cracks, the problem worsens. Then there are the perennial crises, such as last spring's incessant rain, last winter's freak hailstorm and eight earthquakes in seven decades, most recently the 6.7 Northridge quake, which caused such extensive damage that the towers were scaffolded for years.

Vandalism also has taken a toll. In the decades before full-time security, neighborhood kids would root around looking for anything of value and use the gazebo for target practice. Graffiti is scratched into some of the tiles, and hundreds, if not thousands, of shells and bits of tile and glass are gone for good. An estimated 40% of the decorative surfaces have been repaired or replaced, a job that requires a delicate balance between preservation and re-creation. "It's like dentistry," says Melvyn Green, a structural engineer who oversees the work. "When you have a cavity you go to the dentist, he drills around, gets rid of the debris, the loose stuff, the rot, and then he fills it. That's what you see here at the towers."

That kind of upkeep comes at a price, and every city budget cycle seems to bring another scramble for funding: Will there be money for tours? For annual events such as the Jazz Festival and Day of the Drum? To fill the recurring cracks, to replace the constantly falling tiles? Every year the revenue is found—often in state and federal disaster grants—and the towers drift along to face another season of uncertainty. One thing seems certain, however: The towers are viewed as a drain on city funds, never as a viable source of income and pride.

In 2000, as the city celebrated the new millennium, John Outterbridge looked on in frustration. "The whole thing focused on the Hollywood sign as an emblem of the city," he says. "That was a real failure. I would have fought for a focus on Watts Towers, this city's Eiffel Tower. We should have had all-night jazz, a red carpet, a grand tented party. Every spotlight in the city should have been on the towers. Think of it. Think of what that would have meant." But the city does not take itself—or its history—seriously enough to make the towers a priority, Outterbridge says. "As far as I'm concerned, it has a lot to do with a metropolitan region that does not recognize its role as a cultural mecca and force. There's not a lot of romance here in this city."

The annual budget of the city's Cultural Affairs Department—which was nearly eliminated in 2004—is about $9.5 million. In New York it's more than 10 times that. "In Los Angeles, we don't recognize the value of what we have," Outterbridge says. "We got rid of the Red Car. In San Francisco, people come from around the world to stand next to the cable car. It's more than transportation. It's the pulse of romance." Even the entertainment industry—which is quick to remember the Watts Towers when it needs something to blow up, as in the film "Colors," or a backdrop for extreme violence, as in the video game "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas"—has shown little sustained interest. "There's no relationship," Outterbridge says. "I hosted many movie shoots at the towers. They spend more money on some of the premiere parties than the entire towers budget."