The Watts’ Towers rise above the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles, skyscrapers reaching out vertically in a horizontal landscape, an airy cathedral to an individual’s creative obssession, a singular creator, Simon Rodia. Simon was an immigrant from Italy coming over on a ship. His fluid creation that he worked on single-handedly for 34 years with just crude tools at hand, was a marvel of human spirit. He was living the American dream on his tenth of an acre property as a cement mixer and tile maker, fashioning his creation on the concept of a ship, Marco Polo.
In this time when national elections in the United States center around the concept of sealing off our borders to any new arrivers. The Statue of Liberty along with the 10-story tall Watts Towers stand as symbols of what this country, I believe, is supposed to be about. Taking in the world’s tired and weary, offering them freedom, a new hope, a new dream, possibilities to live out that dream in creations of your choosing. That powerful concept stands in balance now.
Watts may sound familiar to you. It was the scene during the Civil Rights movement in America of a neighborhood, predominately African-American, that exploded in violence and rage. In 1992, LA again exploded in riots sparked by the crowd beating of truck driver Rodney King. “Can’t we all just get along?” Evidently the Civil Rights movement didn’t solve our deep-seated ethnic divide in American as we still wrestle with equity and equality today with black lives matter and racial profiling and our incarceration rates being vastly different based on ethnicity.
I first learned of the Watts’ Towers through reading Don DeLillo’s Underworld, a writer that was actually named-checked in one of Rhett Miller, of Dallas’ Old 97’s, songs. Don DeLillo was fascinated with Simon Rodia and the Watts’ Towers & wrote about it in one of my top 10 books. This was the first book that Ben Swinney and I read in the “Brother’s Book Club,” as a way to stay in touch, connected, while I was stationed in Germany. The book, for me, is an incredibly influential read. The book club is still going strong as The DFW (& Beyond Literary Society. Check it.
“But that’s why you built the towers, isn’t it? Weren’t the towers built as fantasies of wealth and power that would one day become fantasies of destruction? You build a thing like that so you can see it come down. The provocation is clear. What other reason would there be to go so high and then to double it, do it twice? It’s a fantasy, so why not do it twice? You are saying, Here it is, bring it down.”Don Delillo’s Underworld
DeLillo’s novel is a novel of tensions, east and west, cold war and peace, The New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers, the idea of junk in a 1st world democracy of America. Simon Rodia built The Watts’ Towers from scraps and odds and ends without the help of power tools, without scaffolding, and it stands today in the heart of Watts, a rough rough neighborhood. I went and visited it myself and called ahead, asking, “Is it safe to go there?” The answer, yes, yes it is but just drive straight there. If you get stopped at a light or stop sign and people approach you, you may just want to keep driving. Come in the day. Don’t visit at night. Only in the day.
We are a nation built on immigrants. Except for the 1/32nd slice of me that’s Chickasaw, native American, this country and all we profess to stand for, is built around just what Simon Rodia built. The Watts Towers. The Towers, to me, are a symbol of hope that we can work through these dark times, arrive on the other side somehow better, stronger. Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, a Common Good, Justice, and Equality. If we truly hold these truths to be self-evident, unalienable rights? Shouldn’t our national dialogue and results of a democratic election reflect that? These are dark times. But Rodia and his towers offer hope, to work through all that. To return to light.
“I have nobody to help me out.
I was a poor man.
Had little to do at a time.
Nobody helped me.
I think if I hire a man
he don’t know what to do.
A million times
I don’t know what to do myself.
I never had a single helper.
Some of the people say
What was he doing…some of the people
think I was crazy
and some people said
I was going to do something.
I wanted to do something
in the United States
because I was raised here you understand.
I wanted to do something for the United States
because there are nice people
in this country.”
- Simon Rodia, Creator of the Watts’ Towers