There was a Gaudi in my backyard all these years and I never knew. Well, I had obviously heard of the Watts Towers but when I arrived here in 1995, Watts was still synonymous with the riots of 4 years earlier and, if no other violence that spread outside its borders ever erupted again, in the collective imagination of this city the Watts neighbourhood never improved and it was no place for people like me – whatever that means. Any city this size, especially one with no reliable or effective public transportation, ends up having large segregated sections where no one ventures unless they live there and Watts has always been one of them. To this day, exiting the freeway, one is welcomed by neatly organized camping tents underneath the overpass, followed by an improvised park of run- down campers that most likely don’t have any hook-ups to electricity or water. Our shame is right here but it’s sometimes easier to look at faraway lands and feel moved by someone else’s plight. The houses around the Watts Towers Arts Center, if not pretty, are well-kept and show a pride of ownership and the man waving at us, flanked by his dog, from behind his fence, gave me a sense of hope I probably shouldn’t feel.
It was a visionary Italian man (where else from??) who was responsible for our group’s expedition to this side of town to see the Towers that, over 40 years after his death, stand as a beacon of self-expression. The photos I often saw don’t do them justice because it’s impossible to experience on the printed page the intricate mosaic of broken glass, sea shells, ceramics, household wares and whatever else this man collected in the over 30 years it took him to build this monument. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Sabato Rodia was an uneducated man who migrated from Italy at the turn of the 19th century, most likely looking for work. He ended up becoming a tiler, incidentally working at the Tile Malibu Factory of Adamson House memory. He married, had two children and, after the death of his daughter, fell into what we would now call depression but, at the time, was simply filed under getting drunk to annihilate the pain. Wife and son left him and Sabato bought himself a triangular plot of land in Watts, where he built a small, bare bone house and, in his spare time and often at night, set out to create a dreamlike vision in his backyard, a structure that is reminiscent of the spires of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. What is astonishing is that this man achieved this masterpiece all by himself, with hammers, chisel and his bare hands.
Who knows if he knew what his dream would look like but I suspect his work was intuitive, a bit like fictional characters that take a life of their own while the writer is hard at work inventing them. Maybe it was his fantastical way of trying to go back home – the Towers are actually meant to represent the sails of a boat, with the bow facing east. Inside this whimsical cement and tile and glass garden, there is a bread oven, a gazebo, a wedding cake, in addition to the three towering structures.
In 1954, one year after completing his project, Sabato just walked away from it, gave the keys to a neighbour and moved North, to come back to it only once. He was already in his 70’s then and had acquired the wisdom to know that it’s not about the destination. His 30 year voyage had come to an end. Little did he know he was leaving an enduring symbol to a city known for its impermanence. Most of all, he left an enduring act of love and pride to a neighbourhood that badly still needs both.
Watts Towers Arts Center
1727 E 107th Street
Los Angeles CA 90002 Tel 213 847 4646