Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers
Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers
Sociopolitical Realities, Economic Underdevelopment, and Renaissance: Yesterday and Today
Abstract and Keywords
In this chapter, a former intern at the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC) shares her perceptions of Watts and her experience in a program designed to encourage high school students to pursue a college education. The WLCAC is a community-based, nonprofit public benefit organization that aims to improve the quality of life for the residents of Watts and South Central Los Angeles. She sees Rodia as an example of someone who opposed “social paradigms that governed societies, stereo typed people, and allowed in equality to exist.” His life and his work expressed a vision “that spoke silently against preconceived notions about America.” In Watts she sees a community “that fights every day for equality with regard to food, housing, education, health, and employment”.
Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete? Provide nature’s law is wrong it learned to walk without having feet. Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams; it learned to breathe fresh air. Long live the rose that grew from concrete when no one else cared.
What do we know about great men? A few words come to mind: inexplicable, brilliant, innovative, and ingenious. What we know about Simon Rodia is that he was all of these and more. As Copernicus (“Nicolaus Copernicus” 2005) and Galileo were revolutionary in science, mathematics, and medicine, Columbus in exploration, Rodia joins their ranks as a skilled master builder and visionary artist. His area of expertise was constructing towers out of steel rods and cement. He designed and decorated surfaces with mosaics made from tile shards, glass, marble, broken dishes, rocks, seashells, and pieces of bottle, (p.338) while using impressions made from hand tools, automotive parts, corncobs, wheat stalks, and various types of fruit, as a method of covering these surfaces with many images (O’Donovan 2008).
As Simon Rodia worked to “do something big,” he was not timid about expressing his concerns about politics and social change. Using the Watts Towers as a statement to express his unique talent, building one of the world’s most unique artworks of the twentieth century, he also expressed his socioeconomic and political ideals through this work. During Simon Rodia’s journey from Old Italy to New America, we see through the Watts Towers how he was able to “fight back” against social paradigms that governed societies, stereotyped people, and allowed inequality to exist. With these challenges, he began to create and express a vision that spoke silently against preconceived notions about America. As we travel from the past to present, from Old Italy to New America, we see similar struggles against economic underdevelopment and cultural politics. Today, instead, we add the dimension of community activism and, more important, the understanding of community leaders in Watts who have been at its forefront—as proponents of change.
Upon Rodia’s departure from Italy in the late 1890s, the country was experiencing social unrest due to entrenched hierarchies, change in government as a newly unified nation, and severe underdevelopment—all factors in mass migrations from the South of Italy (Trueman 2000). Soon after his arrival, California’s population increased over 20 percent, the country was undergoing massive industrialization, and racial division was systemic. During the World War II era, however, a timeline of economic expansion, reform, and political shift was sparked in Southern California (Bean 1968).
During the 1920s, Rodia saw Watts through many different lenses. While the majority of the local residents worked in manufacturing, building maintenance, or food services or were small business entrepreneurs, there were very few professionals in the community (e.g., doctors, lawyers, or bankers). According to the Automotive Club of California (Intersections of South Central: People and Places in Historic and Contemporary Photographs 2006), “this caused a geographically discontinuous and socially fractured community, much of what Rodia believed to be true.” Several of the major concerns Rodia expressed were his dis plea sure with the way elected officials governed American society, how local law enforcement treated immigrants, and the strained relationships within families. Coming from Italy, it was an eye-opener for Rodia to witness for the second time around injustice, unfairness, and inequality (Intersections of South Central 2006). Those same factors still exist today in the Watts community.
Much like Simon Rodia, I, too, journeyed (or migrated) from my home in Atlanta, Georgia, to Southern California. To me it seemed like a dream. Traveling over 2,000 miles to a city, sight unseen, proved an economical, political, and social shift from my normal life, and I arrived in Los Angeles on August 17, 2003, to a city famous for cultural diversity, movie stars, beautiful scenery, and beaches. After stepping off the airplane into the new city I would now call home, it took me a while to adjust to the climate, the people, and a new way of life. For the first couple of years, I worked and went to school. I had little time for socializing with friends, and besides, I really did not have any friends. I knew only the people I worked with at the time. Like Rodia, I came to Los Angeles to do “something big,” although I did not know the extent of it until a couple of years down the road. My first year in Los Angeles was difficult. It wasn’t until 2005 that I actually started feeling somewhat better about being in the city. At that time, I worked for the University of (p.339) California, Los Angeles, as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer in the Watts community. The organization I worked for was called the City of Los Angeles Youth Opportunity Movement (YO! Watts), and it was located in the heart of Watts, about one mile from the Watts Towers. It wasn’t until I began working there that I got a sense of local socioeconomic and political realities. Before setting foot in Watts, I, like many other people in the South, had a preconceived notion of what Watts was. I thought Watts was the thriving community that existed in the 1960s. It never occurred to me that it had changed. I guess I never made the transition in my own mind, from the stories I had heard about the community prior to the Watts Riots of 1965, and I did not really believe films that depicted Watts as a low-income, high-crime, and drug-ridden area.
The community I came to know and love was struggling, not only with its image, but with its past. The Watts I saw (and still see) is one that fights every day for equality with regard to food, housing, education, health, and employment. According to statistics from the Advancement Project, the “Great Migration” of African Americans to the city greatly changed the racial composition of Watts (Nicolas 2002). This is probably what Simon Rodia saw when he settled in the city during the 1920s. The growth of the African American population in and around the Watts area coincided with the expansion of the manufacturing industry directly northeast of Watts along Alameda Boulevard. Between the 1920s and 1940s, the African American population in Watts grew from 14.4 percent to 35 percent (Sides 2003). African American workers were largely excluded from higher-paying industrial jobs and were relegated to janitorial and other low-skilled positions within factories. While racial discrimination and segregation existed in the workplace and in the surrounding communities, Watts remained a racially heterogeneous community into the 1940s (Advancement Project 2007).
When I begin working with YO! Watts, I thought it was going to be fairly easy. My goal was to recruit as many students into postsecondary education as possible. I began organizing a college center, college field trips, and college events for students at David Starr Jordan High School and around the community. Little did I know that organizing the college center was not going to be easy. Like building the Watts Towers, this, too, was going to take much patience, effort, and dedication to finish. The project’s evolution became a story in itself. Jordan High School was one of the lowest-performing high schools in the city of Los Angeles, with a high dropout rate; it was located next to one of the largest housing projects in the United States. I did not think I was prepared to handle the frustrations of the job, similar to the frustrations Rodia might have experienced in his building project. In the mornings before school started, while walking or catching the bus to work, I would see middle school students handcuffed outside the school yard being questioned by the police. Working at Jordan High School, I saw shortages of textbooks, high substitute teacher rates, and high dropout rates. One parent commented:
I see my community as a sleeper. It’s got potential, but trying to bring that potential out gets difficult…. People don’t look at this community as having potential because of its violence. A majority of the potential doesn’t get developed because of the lack of resources.
Many of the students I worked with had failing grades, low SAT scores, overcrowded classrooms, and problems at home, but they continued to fight against adversity, graduated, and continued on to college. I believe they took refuge in coming to tutorial sessions, (p.340) college trips, and weekend educational seminars. Successfully reaching students was not an easy task. Once the students began to believe in what they could accomplish, that college was attainable, their focus, minds, and motivation changed.
Even though the statistics stacked up against the students, I did not stop trying to reach as many as I could. According to socioeconomic environmental research on the Watts community by the Advancement Project, Watts had a high unemployment rate, minimum unemployment training opportunities, low levels of educational attainment, low performance, unsafe schools, and general poverty (Advancement Project 2007). The statistics did not scare me, because like Rodia, I had a mission to do “something big,” and I believed that each student I worked with could do the same. Some of the challenges included students not speaking English; lack of financial resources to pay for college; noncitizen parents and/or students; first-generation students try to attend college; parents not wanting them to go to college; parents not wanting to fill out the financial aid forms; and schools being ill equipped with counselors to effectively manage their caseload. Charting unfamiliar territory was a challenge, but once again, it did not scare me. I had a passion for education and wanted to see each and every senior get the same opportunity I had, which was to attend a four-year college or university. I felt that my goals were positive, but getting “buy-in” was a challenge. In the beginning, students would not listen to me until I came up with the idea of providing lunch. I noticed that the typical student lunch was a can of soda and some type of chips or nothing at all. I decided to go to the local grocery store (Food for Less) on my way to Jordan and pick up bread, ham, cheese, turkey, chicken, a couple of bags of potato chips, water, and fruit drinks. This drew attention, and when I hosted the various college workshops during lunch and after school, the students actually ate lunch and listened attentively to my presentation.
During the first week of school in 2005, I presented a workshop on postsecondary education twice a week from mid-August until Christmas break. In addition to the workshop, college recruiters came to the school, weekly college trips were planned, and the parents were offered workshops. Once students and parents began believing that these high schoolers could go to college, have it paid for, and in most cases become the first generation to attend a postsecondary college, the real work began. Students began going to tutoring before and after school, taking an interest in all their classes, attending SAT and ACT preparatory courses, as well as filling out admission, financial aid, and scholarships applications online.
The reward was over 150 college and university acceptance letters for the spring of 2005. This was one for the history books at Jordan High School. I knew my passion was education, and I always loved working in this field, but I could not have anticipated the number of students who would be motivated to attend college. The most amazing part about that particular school year was that students were also motivated to “do something big.” They really fought the odds. If you know the Watts community and its history, struggle is not a stranger. From the days of Rodia, this was evident in his dream to build the Watts Towers, here in the Watts community. It took many long hours, patience, commitment, dedication, and the will to achieve—all in spite of adversity.
The beauty of the Watts community is that the fight has never ended. From my own experience, the students are proof of that fact. Every day, people are signing petitions in local shopping centers, organizing community meetings, encouraging youth to finish school, and advocating on behalf of civic and civil rights, to ensure that the community (p.341) of Watts and its people are not forgotten. When I first saw the Watts Towers, I was amazed by the dedication, strength, courage, and persistence Rodia must have had to build them. It is not something that happened over night: It took him over 30 years. Today, I am reminded instead of the students I have worked with in the Watts community and their dedication, strength, courage, and persistence, despite the great odds stacked against them. One particular student I have worked with, and continue to work with, I met as a result of advertising for free tutoring in 2004. He stopped by after school and introduced himself by saying, “I am Eduardo, I am 12 years old, I want to go to Yale University, and I want to be a jazz musician.” I was speechless for a moment, but answered: OK. Another student had a mother who would not let her finish school. She was encouraged instead to stay home and watch her younger brothers and sisters. At the time she told me this story, her grade point average dropped from a C to D. She would often have to fight her mother to get out of the house in the morning in order to go to school. One thing that motivated her was the belief that graduating from high school and continuing her education was the right path for her. It was a long road, but she ended up graduating and attending college in New Orleans. She currently has one year left before completing her bachelor’s degree in marketing and communications. It was the idea of “doing something big” that carried both students along their path toward success. Sure, they could have not hoped nor dreamed and just accepted what life threw their way; but instead they decided to create their own individual reality, fulfill their own vision, following Rodia’s example. This speaks volumes to evidence-based research that says otherwise.
Artist Gordan Wagner called the Watts Towers “an expression of freedom” (Goldstone and Paquin Goldstone 1997). Although considered unskilled and uneducated and often mocked as a crazy man by his peers, Rodia, idealistic and focused, silently contributed to change in Watts. Through the construction of the Watts Towers, he not only proved he was capable of achieving great work, but he did it outside the normal scope of what greatness was considered to be. He was neither an oil tycoon nor a celebrity, and he was not a manufacturing entrepreneur. From the moment he began building the Towers, Rodia showed how common perception could often be mistaken. A poor and uneducated immigrant, he nonetheless had great dreams. The Towers represent his legacy of hard work, dedication, strategic planning, and, more important, a vision of change. Regardless of his circumstances, Rodia proceeded to achieve “something big,” setting the tone for others to follow, such as the Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts, whose understanding of the greatness of his work motivated it to save the Towers for us all, and the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC), which set out to develop Watts on many fronts.
The Watts Labor Community Action Committee is a community-based, nonprofit public benefit organization, with a primary mission of improving the quality of life for the residents of Watts and South Central Los Angeles. WLCAC was founded on the philosophy “Don’t Move, Improve” and has worked diligently to engage low-income residents in self-determining the vision for their community. For over forty years, WLCAC has consistently served community residents and in the process established itself as a leading social service organization in Watts.
Whether Rodia built the Watts Towers to be seen from the highways of Southern California, to remember the eight craft guilds of Nola, or to speak to economic underdevelopment, cultural politics, and community activism, he was an extraordinary man. (p.342) The climate of poverty against which Simon Rodia struggled in the 1920s still exists today in Watts—as do injustice and inequality. Currently, community activists seek to redirect many misconceptions about this place, promote education, and stand as a vision of change. The “rose that grew from concrete” is Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers. They represent change, hard work, and dedication. More important, however, it is the very people of Watts who represent change, commitment, and community. Taken together, they represent Nuestro Pueblo—Our Town.
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