Criticism — From the April 2016 issue

Something Big

The legend of the Watts Towers

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I saw the Watts Towers — or a picture of them, at any rate — before I’d heard about them, before I knew what they were. They’re in the background of the photo on Don Cherry’s album Brown Rice (1975): skeletal spires silhouetted against the twilight, with Cherry in the foreground, cradling his trumpet, wearing robes that seem not only pan-African but pan-astral. Taken together, the purple-blue sky, Cherry’s outfit, and these skyrocket towers create the impression that this was the site from which Sun Ra would have chosen to blast off and return to Saturn. Cherry grew up near the towers, after his family moved to Watts, California, from Oklahoma. I’m guessing that he must have known Charles Mingus, who was born in 1922, making him fourteen years Cherry’s senior. In his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, Mingus remembers “something strange and mysterious” being built near his home — “what looked like three masts, all different heights, shaped like upside-down ice cream cones” — and how local rowdies would throw rocks at the crazy Italian guy who was doing this construction.

Photographs by Lena Herzog

Photographs by Lena Herzog

When my wife, Rebecca, and I drove over to Watts on a cloudy Saturday, the towers looked, at first, a little smaller than I anticipated. Not in height — the three main ones were tall, elegant, vying with one another for altitude — but in the way they were clustered together, hemmed in. More space between them would have made them airier, less solid-looking. The cramping, I saw as soon as we got out of the car, was the result of a six-foot metal fence around the perimeter of the site. Instead of starting at ground level, the towers began, visually, six feet from the ground, over the top of the fence. Aesthetically, the trick was to keep people out while allowing the sky in; as things were now, the balance — in a place that was partly a celebration of balance — had tipped away from aesthetics toward security. Maybe the weather played a part; unusually, the sky itself was hemmed in by a band of cloud.

We walked around the perimeter, seeing for the first time the intricacy of the structures, the abundance of decoration and ornamentation. On the Brown Rice photo the towers seemed made austerely of metal, but each spar, strand, and tendril was covered with concrete, adorned with glinting colored crockery, green and blue glass, bits of tile.

The only way to get in among the towers is on a guided tour. We bought tickets at the visitor center — appropriately homey rather than fully corporate. The tickets, pinky purple, were like the ones you used to get at cinemas; the guy handing them over was wearing a large black T-shirt that was just about big enough for him. We showed him the Cherry album cover on Rebecca’s phone.

“Oh man, that’s deep,” he said.

We had ten minutes to wait before our tour began, so we went next door to the Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center. I loved the way this place was named after Mingus, the honoring and the legacy. How many times, in London, had I cycled, walked, or taken the bus along Brixton Road, past Max Roach Park? How cool that someone had the gumption to name it after the great drummer rather than one of the English poets: Tennyson Place, Keats Street, Shelley Way — reliable signs, always, that you are entering the world of hard-to-lets and potential threat. Not that Roach’s name made crossing the park to visit a friend who lived in the flats beyond appreciably nicer. Nothing ever happened, but it was always a relief to get to his place, to hear the multiple locks being turned, to see the door opening and then shutting securely behind us again so that we could give ourselves entirely to Speak, Brother, Speak! or Money Jungle.

There were plenty of pictures of Mingus in the center named after him, some album covers and CD cases on display, and an exhibition of artworks, but ten minutes was plenty long enough to take everything in. We walked outside again, and joined the other people on our tour: a dozen or so of us, mainly Europeans, gathered in a semicircle. Our guide, a smiling African-American woman, asked what the most important rule of the visit was going to be.

“Enjoy yourself,” said a man in an already-enjoying-himself Hawaiian shirt.

“Have fun,” said Rebecca, tuning in quickly to the spirit of the place. But no, the main rule was: Do not climb on the towers. Fair enough. You can’t have people clambering all over the towers as if they’re part of an adventure playground, but it was a bit of a downer in the way that prohibitions always are.

In among the tendrils and arches of the towers, we listened to the story of their creator. Sabato Rodia — who for much of his life went by the nickname Sam — was born in Ribottoli, Italy, most likely in 1879, and emigrated to the United States in the 1890s. Sabato settled in Pennsylvania, where he and his brother worked in the coal mines. The brother died in an accident in the mine. Sabato moved to the West Coast, married Lucia Ucci in 1902. They had three children and lived in Seattle, Oakland, and Martinez, California, before the marriage collapsed in 1912. He then worked as a mason and as a construction tiler, lived with another woman named Benita.

HA076__03H90-1In 1921, he bought a triangle-shaped lot here at 1765 East 107th Street in Watts, five miles south of downtown L.A. The lot measured 151 by 69 by 137 feet, and Rodia, at the age of forty-two, began to transform it into his home and his lasting monument. According to some accounts, he started work on the towers to give himself something to do after he quit drinking (though Mingus remembers him “drinking that good red wine from a bottle” as he worked). He lived with a woman named Carmen, who left him sometime in the 1920s. From then on he lived alone, building the towers until 1954, when he gave the property to a neighbor and moved to Martinez to be near his sister. He was seventy-five. The following year the neighbor sold the property to a man named Joseph Montoya, who intended to open what would have been the world’s most spectacularly located taco stand. These plans came to nothing and he sold the property in turn to two film people, Nicholas King (an actor) and William Cartwright (then a student at USC, later an editor), who began the long process of ensuring the survival of the towers.

As the talk about Rodia and his work continued, we shuffled through the site, sometimes on the edges, near the boundary walls, sometimes right by the towers, with their glinting and shining bits of glass and the imprints of the tools he’d used to make them and of anything else that came to hand: cornbread molds, rug beaters, faucet handles. Rodia salvaged and scavenged what he could from where he could — rebar, glass, crockery, bottle bottoms (green for 7-Up or Canada Dry, blue for milk of magnesia), junk that might be left over when everything else of apparent value had already been taken and used. That is the essential contrast: the scale of the undertaking and the modest means of its construction and materials. Klara, in Don DeLillo’s Underworld, is struck by exactly this: “She didn’t know a thing so rucked in the vernacular could have such an epic quality.”

HA076__03H90The towers soared overhead, sturdy, intricate, graceful: science-fictiony, daft, and Gaudí-esque all at once. They were like a forest of trees, linked by concrete creepers but without any umbrella or canopy of leaves. But they were also like inverted and bejeweled corkscrews. Or like . . . The power of the place comes, in part, from the way it’s impossible to put your finger on quite what the towers are or look like. To Klara in Underworld the place seems like “an amusement park, a temple complex and she didn’t know what else. A Delhi bazaar and Italian street feast maybe.” Whatever we come up with, a crucial part of the experience resides in that “what else”: a suggestion of skyrocket, the masts of a triangular ship heading east but becalmed forever in the doldrums of Watts with only wave patterns in the perimeter walls to serve as the sea. The guide took these nautical references as evidence that Rodia’s heart and course were set on Italy, the land he came from, but this was greeted with some mistrust by a white-haired member of our group who spoke for us all.

“How much of this is supposition?” he wanted to know.

It was all a matter of record, our guide insisted, could all be verified by things Rodia had said in interviews either while the towers were being built or after he’d finished, when they began to attract the attention of the world at large. By then they had become mythic, and it is the nature of the mythic that it remains true to itself while subtly adapting to the spoken or unspoken needs of those to whom it appeals, whose hopes it embodies. But the towers’ adaptive capacities are also a proven physical fact. They bend away from the sun, our guide told us, like sunflowers in reverse. This was met with a long silence, a breathing skepticism, but then she explained that it happens because of the thermal expansion of the concrete. The towers leaned away from the sun, their nondenominational appeal causing myriad meanings and associations to flow toward them, unimpeded, free. From them too, as if they were not ship but radio masts, transmitting the sound of which they were the visual embodiment, broadcasting their location, drawing us closer.

Those earlier mentions of Mingus and Cherry were not just circumstantial: in another passage in Underworld, the towers put DeLillo’s narrator in mind of “a kind of swirling free-souled noise, a jazz cathedral.” The improvised nature of the undertaking, of learning in the process of doing and making — of being in the grips of something without necessarily being sure what the outcome will be — seems intrinsic to it. But jazz, in essence, is communal, and by Mingus’s time there was a considerable history and a large body of theory to draw on — or reject. Rodia worked alone, building his intricate and epic solo inch by inch, without the benefit of architectural theory or the support of collaborators like Dannie Richmond or Roland Kirk. What he most wanted from the community — which may have been the motive for buying his plot of land here in Watts — was to be left alone, to go about the business of bringing this thing into an existence that would owe nothing to anyone else, but that would end up being for everyone else.

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is the author of many books, including Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi; Zona; and White Sands, which will be published in May by Pantheon. His story “Forbidden City” appeared in the December 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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