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Watts Towers — world's treasure, L.A.'s secret

The soaring artworks, created by an Italian immigrant and working man, are now under lock and key for budget reasons. Yet visitors still come from Berlin, Korea and New Orleans.

May 28, 2010|Hector Tobar

We Angelenos have done a pretty poor job of showing our love for one of our greatest treasures.

It's the delicate and soaring creation of an ordinary working man, an Italian immigrant who filled up his humble property with a work of art now famous the world over.

These days the Watts Towers are kept under lock and key Monday through Thursday thanks to budget cuts, sealed off from the public by a 10-foot-high security barrier. People from near and far come to see them and end up seeing mostly fence.

"It's like you're visiting someone in prison," Dorothy Clark Wade said Wednesday, as she guided two relatives from Marion, La., around the fence. "Or some wild animal in the zoo."

She gazed up at the towers, which filled the spring sky above her, loops of mortar and steel decorated with glass, tile and sea shells shimmering in the sun. When she was a girl growing up in Compton in the 1970s, she told me, she visited the towers and there was no barrier.

"I could walk up and touch them," she said. But on Wednesday, she and her out-of-town relatives had to settle for pointing cameras through the barrier.

So did a lot of other people — from Korea, Berlin, New Orleans. Like me, they had all found themselves locked out.

This great monument of L.A. culture doesn't have an official website. Many of us showed up thanks to an unofficial one, which hadn't been updated with the latest cutback in hours.

"It's closed?" asked Ruth Jansen, a 25-year-old art student from Santa Rosa.

These days, it seems like they're scaling back everything that's the collective property of the people of Los Angeles. This is especially bad news for the Watts Towers, because they're needy and fragile.

They are, arguably, the most delicate pieces of public art in the city, made up of 100,000 bits of tile, glass and pottery that routinely fall off and need to be reattached. But the worker whose job it is to do this has had his hours and funding reduced too.

In a few days the veteran curator who's staffed the towers for decades will be taking early retirement, another victim of budget cuts.

None of this will stop the people from coming from all over the world for a look.

Many have heard the story of the towers' creator, Simon Rodia.

"It's very moving to stand here and to think that one person's passion is responsible for this," said Gisela Nolte of Berlin.

Nolte's sister, an L.A. resident, brings all her visiting relatives to see the place. "My other sister cried when I brought her here," Heidi Baumgarten told me. "And I cried too."

Rodia, a day laborer and construction worker, moved to Watts in 1921. The community was young then, and home to a large population of Southern and Eastern European immigrants. He built the towers over the course of 34 years, using a host of discarded objects, including broken bottles and plates.

The tallest of the towers stand 99 feet in the air, supported by buttresses which Rodia also decorated. Together the 17 structures are considered one of the world's crowning examples of "naïve" or "outsider" art, though it took L.A. awhile to realize this.

After Rodia abandoned the property in 1954, the towers were nearly torn down by city officials who considered them a dangerous eyesore. A community of art lovers stepped in to save them, the first in a long line of those who've helped keep the towers standing.

"I don't think people in City Hall are aware how important the towers are to people around the world," said Michael Cornwell of the Committee for Simon Rodia's Towers in Watts, a preservation group.

Much of L.A. isn't aware either.

"People here don't know about them," said Mercedes Ulloa Reyes, a 72-year-old native of Chile who's lived in L.A. for six years. "I come to see them because I'm an old lady who likes beautiful things."

As my colleague Mike Boehm has pointed out, the towers aren't tall enough to be visible from much of a distance. And they're in a corner of L.A. long synonymous with urban dysfunction, very far off the L.A. tourist circuit. You have to stretch your neck, figuratively speaking, to see them.

If they were on the Westside, they might be as big a draw as the Getty Center.

"You can't see them from the interstate," said New Orleans resident Trevor Boffone, 24, who hadn't been in L.A. long enough to start calling the 110 a "freeway." He was in town for a whirlwind, 24-hour tour with his friend Kayla Richardson from Orange County.

"My mother wouldn't let me go here, ever," Richardson told me.

To outsiders the landscape around the towers can look dangerous. "The attitude about coming here is fear," said Jansen, the art student. "We're told we're not safe. We're not welcome."

Soon Taek Kim, a 75-year-old native of Korea and longtime L.A. resident, knows these fears are not really justified. That was why he brought his 26-year-old niece, who was visiting from Korea, to see the towers.

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