Strange Geographies: The Watts Towers

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Los Angeles doesn't have a Statue of Liberty. It can't boast an Eiffel Tower. But we do have one monument unlike anything else in the world: the Watts Towers. Built between 1921 and 1954 by an Italian immigrant named Simon Rodia -- in his backyard, with a window washer's tools and no special equipment -- they're among the United States' best and most famous examples of vernacular art. (Another is Leonard Knight's Salvation Mountain, just a few hours away in the desert, which I did a photo essay about earlier this year.) And yet many people in Los Angeles (I'd even say most) have never seen the Towers and don't know much about them, perhaps fearing the reputation of Watts. The towers are an amazing and enigmatic national treasure.

Rodia built his towers -- two of which top 100 feet -- out of steel pipes and rods wrapped in wire mesh and coated with mortar, which he decorated with found objects ranging from bed frames and bottles to broken ceramic plates and sea shells. Here's one of the entrances:
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Like Salvation Mountain's Leonard Knight, Rodia improvised his towers, not building according to any predetermined plan. These are imprints of some of the tools he used:
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An archway made from bottles. Green bottles are 7-Up, Squirt, Bubble Up and Canada Dry; blue bottles are Milk of Magnesium.
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Why did he build the towers? He was asked that question many times, and he gave different answers over the years. One was simply that "I had in mind to do something big and I did it." Another was that they were a monument to his adopted country. He also told reporters that he built the towers to keep himself busy after quitting drinking -- giving the broken bottles which decorate portions of the tower new meaning. He finished the project in 1954, and citing unceasing conflicts with some members of his community over the structures, gave them to a neighbor and moved to Northern California, where he would die 10 years later, never having seen his towers again.
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The city wanted to destroy them, but after a community group rallied around the towers and the city determined that they posed no danger of collapsing, they turned the property into a state park instead. They are now designated a National Historic Landmark.

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The neighborhood surrounding the towers is fascinating in its own right. While the towers themselves are perfectly safe to visit (stick to daylight hours, though), there are some rough housing projects not far away. I roamed Watts with my camera because, while there are a lot of photo-articles about the towers out there, they don't provide a lot of geographic context. After the 1965 Watts riots, much of the surrounding neighborhood had been destroyed, but the towers remained unscathed. As Watts rebuilt, they became a symbol of renewal and rebirth -- a handmade beacon of hope in a neighborhood that's still regularly rocked by violence.

108th Street and Compton Avenue.
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Peace, love and private property:
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This is Success Avenue, which runs through the heart of the notorious Nickerson Gardens housing project, just blocks from the towers. (Here's an LA Times article about a night spent riding along with cops in the area.)
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The towers make occasional appearances in movies and television, though they're more closely associated with Watts than with Los Angeles as a whole. They're a major setpiece, for instance, in the classic blaxploitation flick Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde, wherein helicopters try to kill the hero/villain as he climbs the towers, King-Kong-style:
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You can check out more Strange Geographies columns here.

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August 18, 2009 - 8:36am
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