This volume in the Critical Studies in Italian America series, edited by independent scholar and director of the Italian Oral History Institute, Luisa Del Giudice, triangulates on the extraordinary Watts Towers in Los Angeles and their remarkable but mysterious Italian creator, whom the editor restores to his birth name, Sabato Rodia. In addition to twenty essays, many by prominent authors, the collection includes an appendix consisting of transcripts from first-person encounters with Rodia recorded by a variety of visitors between 1953 and 1964. There are three additional online appendices that present documents on work to save the Watts Towers, oral history interviews, and various conference programs.
Beginning with a strong introduction by Del Giudice that establishes the Watts Towers core narrative and identifies key issues to be examined, the collection of essays is organized in three parts. The first part attempts to situate Sabato Rodia and his work within art movements, cultural contexts and migrations. A second part examines the Watts Towers themselves as contested space, and delves into matters of ownership, conservation and guardianship of cultural heritage. The third part looks at 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 the 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 in this collection must continue to be retold. And that narrative begins, according to parish records, when Sabato Rodia was born in Campania on February 12, 1879.
At the age of fourteen, 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 by 1910, but soon abandoned them and became a wandering laborer, known as «Sam» or «Simon» in those years. 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 thirty-three year, day-in and day-out, creative project that he called «Nuestro Pueblo» but that 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, all decorated with inlayed 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 the surface. 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 abandoned property was noticed by a building inspector from the city’s Department of Buildings and Safety and before long a demolition order was issued for the «unsafe» structure. Shortly thereafter the property was purchased by a film-school student and a young actor who began a campaign to save the Watts Towers that drew many big players in the art world into a battle with city hall bureaucrats. The city finally agreed to allow a safety test of the towers and an aerospace engineer, Bud Goldstone, devised a 10,000 pound dramatic load test. As hundreds watched, Rodia’s towers successfully withstood the applied stress to the great applause of everyone but the building inspector. But the work of saving the Watts Towers – and the Watts community – was just beginning.
The essays are diverse, ranging from several historical analyses of Italian migration in Rodia’s times to comparative studies of the creative work of other Italian immigrants in the United States and elsewhere. One theme of particular interest to this reviewer runs through several essays examining the probability that wood and papier-mâché spires constructed for the annual Festa dei Gigli in Nola, near Rodia’s Italian childhood home, served as a source of inspiration if not the very model he drew upon for his Los Angeles towers. Italian ethnographer Felice Ceparano writes of the form and construction of the Nolan Gigli in Rodia’s times. Katia Ballacchino and Luisa Del Giudice find the unique juxtaposition of obelisks and a ship – both in the Watts Towers and in the Campanian Gigli dances – compelling evidence that Rodia had seen or known of the Gigli before beginning his three-decade project. Folklorist Joseph Sciorra sees the Gigli correlation as not only strong but also as a pivotal entry into Rodia’s southern Italian immigrant aesthetics and subjectivity.
Another important theme that runs through this collection is the cultural interaction between the Watts community and the Watts Towers. When Rodia was still building towers, he opened Nuestro Pueblo to his neighbors for weddings and birthday parties. After the Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts saved the structures from demolition, the group immediately set about planning for art classes and an art center. Founding member Jeanne S. Morgan recounts fifty years of csrtw guardianship and programming in the community and historian Sarah Schrank describes the often-troubled spatial and cultural politics and relationships between Watts, Rodia’s Towers, and broader Los Angeles. Several authors tell of their personal experiences working at the interface of the Towers and the community. A panel of artists working in Watts holds an open and memory-filled conversation with Rosie Lee Hooks, director of the Watts Towers Arts Center Campus.
Other books, most notably The Los Angeles Watts Towers by Bud and Arloa Goldstone, have addressed the Watts Towers in various ways and the Goldstones’ exceptionally well-illustrated book is recommended as an adjunct to Sabato Rodia’s Towers in Watts because the current book is not illustrated with color plates. But for that shortcoming, this is a fascinating collection of top-quality scholarship that stands as the most comprehensive study of Sabato Rodia, his influences and motivations, his enigmatic Watts Towers, and their potential to transform South-Central Los Angeles.
Daniel Franklin Ward (Syracuse NY)