- Sabato Rodia’s Towers in Watts: Art, Migrations, Development ed. by Luisa Del Giudice
Folklorists have, until only recently, viewed the National Landmark Watts Towers in Los Angeles as a good example of idiosyncratic art. Sabato Rodia’s Towers in Watts: Art, Migrations, Development, edited by independent scholar and Director of the Italian Oral History Institute Luisa Del Giudice, tests that contention. A volume in the Critical Studies in Italian America series, this book focuses on the Watts Towers and their remarkable but mysterious Italian creator, whom Del Giudice restores to his birth name, Sabato Rodia. In addition to 20 essays, including many by prominent folklorists, the collection includes an appendix consisting of transcripts from first-person encounters with Rodia recorded between 1953 and 1964. There are three additional online appendices that present documents on work to save the Watts Towers, oral history interviews, and materials from international conferences organized over the past decade by the editor (https://fordham.bepress.com/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=soc).
Beginning with an introduction by Del Giudice that establishes the Watts Towers’ core narrative and identifies key issues to be examined, the essays are organized into three parts. The first part presents diverse attempts to situate Rodia and his work within art movements, cultural contexts, and migrations. The second part examines the Watts Towers themselves, both architecturally and as contested space, and delves into matters of ownership, conservation, and the guardianship of cultural heritage. The third part explores the Watts Towers and community relations. It includes the editor’s personal reflections on work to address multiple goals all along the Watts Towers–Watts community continuum through her leadership of the Watts Towers Common Ground Initiative that called forth much of the content in this book.
In her introduction, Del Giudice asserts that the Watts Towers can rival the Statue of Liberty as a national symbol. For that to happen, she says, the narrative told so well in this collection must continue to be retold. That narrative begins, according to parish records, with Rodia’s birth in Campania on February 12, 1879. At the age of 14, Rodia was sent to the United States to join his older brother, a coal miner in Pennsylvania. When the brother was killed in an accident, Rodia moved west, eventually settling in Oakland, California. He started a family but, [End Page 87] by 1910, abandoned them and became a wandering laborer, often known as Sam or Simon. In 1921, he purchased a triangular plot of land on the outskirts of Los Angeles in Watts, settled down, and commenced with focused determination a 33-year, day in and day out creative project that he called Nuestro Pueblo but which became known to the world as the Watts Towers.
From the start, Rodia’s work drew attention from neighbors and visitors. Using only basic hand tools, he built and tore down and rebuilt many towers of cement-encased steel bars, decorated with inlaid seashells, broken tile, and pottery, as well as similarly decorated fountains, ovens, and walls, and a structure he called a ship. The final tower in the complex rose to just short of 100 feet from street level. In 1954, a documentary filmmaker visited Rodia and made a short film about his work on the unusual project. Not long after that, Rodia, having suffered a mild stroke, deeded his property to a neighbor and left Los Angeles.
The neighbor also abandoned the property, and the unusual structure was noticed by an inspector from the city’s Department of Buildings and Safety who determined it to be unsafe and saw to it that a demolition order was issued. Shortly thereafter, the property was purchased by a film school student and a young actor who began a campaign to save the Watts Towers, drawing many big players in Hollywood and the art world into a battle with city hall bureaucrats. The city agreed to allow a “safety...