Watts is not Montreal. The latter is where I thought I would be about now, squeezing a week of Euro-esque travel out of my handful of vacation days and Euro-unfriendly budget. Those plans, however, were derailed by the onset of an acute bout of joblessness. And so my unplanned summer stay-cation began with a midday trip down the Harbor Freeway.
An Angeleno who has never toured Watts Towers is the urban equivalent of a New Yorker who has never bothered with the Statue of Liberty. You think it will always be there, that you'll get to it someday, maybe when you have out-of-town visitors. And then 14 years later, you find yourself staring at a job posting in Ohio or Oregon and realize you might leave L.A. without having made the trip.
On a smoggy Friday, I exited at Century Boulevard prepared to be underwhelmed. The website said the towers were "scaffolded." When I called, I was warned that I could see them only "through the fence." Tours had been restricted since May 2008, when FEMA coughed up $569,000 to repair damage from torrential winter rains three years previous. The scheduled March 2009 re-opening had been delayed to at least late September; three workmen had been laid off because of the city's budget crisis.
Still, there were plenty of undeterred visitors. I joined half a dozen in the adjacent Watts Towers Arts Center for the 12-minute documentary, "The Towers." The 1957 film -- made before Watts Towers was laden with cultural and political symbolism -- has an odd, noir feel. A narrator's gravelly voice sets the scene over an eerie "Twilight Zone"-ish flute: "The little city of Watts clings to the outer edge of the city of Los Angeles, a scattered collection of shacks, trailers and weather-beaten bungalows. Flat and impoverished, it is the last place on Earth to look for the extraordinary."
More stucco, fewer trailers, but otherwise the assessment of Watts holds up. I stepped outside with a guide to see what I could. As it turned out, the scaffolding was gone and plenty can be seen through the fence.
My guide laid out the story of Sabato ("Simon" or "Sam") Rodia, the 4-foot-11 immigrant from southern Italy who'd started out in Pennsylvania's coal mines before heading west. Multiple wives and many unaccounted for years later, he arrived in Southern California, bought a wedge of land right up against the Red Car tracks, and in 1921 began building a landmark during evenings and weekends. He was 42.
In 1954, when he was about 75, Rodia left, handing the deed to a neighbor. Many narratives paint his departure as mysteriously abrupt, but my tour guide said he'd fallen and broken a hip and went to live with his sister.
Writers have offered many poetic and erudite descriptions of Rodia's creation, and it's hopeless to try to match them. Suffice it to say that the towers are a folk art marvel on the micro and macro levels. Thousands of small bits of tile, pottery, colored bottle glass, shells and even ceramic figurines adorn the walls, fountains, basins and mortar-encased towers -- 17 structures in all. And yet for all that detail, parts soar nearly 100 feet. If the Statue of Liberty stepped off her pedestal and strolled over to Watts, Rodia's tallest spires would reach past her chin.
If Watts Towers, like Lady Liberty at the mouth of the Hudson River, was positioned in a prominent locale (say next to the intersection of the 10 and the 405), more Angelenos might demand it get sufficient attention and care from the tangle of government agencies it's been entrusted to. The skinny pie-slice of a lot and adjacent park are owned by the California State Parks but administered by Los Angeles' Department of Cultural Affairs, under a lease that lasts another 20 years. Since 1990, the site also has been on the National Register of Historic Landmarks, but that means it's worthy of protection, not that there's cash set aside to do it.
Just last month, two city commissions -- Cultural Affairs and Cultural Heritage -- met at City Hall to face dogged complaints of inadequate maintenance and poor conservation at the towers. There's talk of asking for help from the Getty Conservation Institute or from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and of soliciting private donations. It'll take an estimated $5 million to get them back in prime condition, and probably lots of years of scaffolding and looking through the fence.
It's a funny thing about monuments. They're designed to immortalize a specific person or idea. But meanings, like concrete exposed to the elements, can be unexpectedly fragile. The Statue of Liberty, a gift from France marking our nations' shared history of revolution, soon represented the U.S. as an immigrant nation, as new arrivals sailed past on their way to Ellis Island. It wasn't until 1903, 17 years after the statue was installed, that Emma Lazarus' poem ("Give me your tired, your poor ...") was engraved on a plaque there. For me, its proximity to lower Manhattan has refocused its symbolism on other aspects of liberty since 9/11.
Symbolism and interpretations have accumulated on Rodia's magnificent piece of "outsider art," so much so that Italy's University of Genoa hosted an international conference about it in April. Ordinary visitors like me stand looking at the filigree and make of it what they will. Maybe they stand across 107th Street and trace the towers' ship-like profile and see the Italian immigrant as another new-world explorer. That the towers emerged unscathed from the 1965 Watts riots transformed them into a symbol of the African American neighborhood and black pride. Others see in the mosaic of broken tiles, Asian dishes, glass and shells a beautiful metaphor for diverse Los Angeles, or in their decay, government's inability to do anything right. Some reflect on Rodia's lost years of drifting and alcoholism and read spiritual redemption. Others chalk it all up to the work of an obsessed madman.
On that smoggy jobless Friday, when I looked at Watts Towers, here's the message it gave to me: Halfway through life, you can start again and build something new.