“Wasn’t no white man built these towers,” is what the woman said as she walked around the white gate surrounding Watts Towers. She was with another woman and a man, who both wandered into the shade, leaving her standing near us. Slowly, as if she was speaking more to the towers than us, she continued.
“I grew up on this block. We used to play in these towers all the time and it wasn’t no white man built them. I don’t know who it was, but he wasn’t white.” She told us how all the kids on the block used to bring little shiny things to the man who built the towers. He would climb up on the towers without ropes or scaffolding to attach the pieces.
She hadn’t been back to the neighborhood in a long while, and the landmark was quite a bit changed from what she remembered as a little girl. A white metal fence has been erected around the towers, cordoning them off from the public. Admission is charged.
The Watts Towers are a riot of steel pipes and rods, mortar, china fragments, broken mirror pieces, rocks, tools, faucet handles, gears and molds. Someone has done the counting: more than 11,000 pottery shards, 10,000 seashells, 6,000 pieces of colored glass, and 15,000 glazed tiles. There are seventeen towers, two of which are almost one hundred feet tall. They were built by a man named Sabato Rodia. He also went by Simon, and some people called him Old Sam. He called his towers Nuestro Pueblo.
Why does the skin color of the man who built the towers matter?
The question reveals my ignorance; even worse is that I thought the towers were probably built by a guy named Watt. This woman’s belief that the Watts Towers were built by a black man made me wonder. Was she referring to Rodia? Was there another man who helped?
I gathered a little history of Watts and Los Angeles. In addition to towers, Watts is famous for its race riots. The Watts Riots, also called the Watts Rebellion, took place for six days in August of 1965. More than thirty people died, most of whom were African Americans, and more than a thousand people were injured.
In April of 1992, another riot occurred in response to the acquittal of four police officers in the beating of Rodney King. More than 50 people were killed, more than 10 died because they were shot by law enforcement officers, and more than 2,000 people were injured.
For a woman who grew up in Watts, the skin color of the man who built what has become an emblem of the neighborhood does matter. She thought Rodia was black.
Simon Rodia started building the towers in 1921 and stopped work on them in 1955. He sold the land to a neighbor for a thousand dollars and moved away. Three years later, the City of Los Angeles issued an order to demolish the towers because Rodia never had a permit to build them. At that point it wasn’t folk art and famous, and it might as well have been built by a black man. The towers have since been tested by engineers and deemed stable.
Now the towers are surrounded by a white metal gate, Rodia is dead, and I don’t know anything about race riots in Los Angeles. Rodia was born in Italy and came to the States in his early twenties. He didn’t start the towers until he was forty, divorced, and alone. And a woman who grew up in Watts playing on the towers thinks he was black.
What color was his skin anyway?