Nuestro pueblo

Watts TowersSabato Rodia called them Nuestro Pueblo - Spanish for "our town." We've taken to calling Rodia's construction of rebar and cement and debris the Watts Towers.

Rodia had other names, too. The Los Angeles Times spelled his name Rodilla in early stories, convinced that the elderly Italian immigrant was actually Mexican. (Rodilla, pronounced as it might have been in Spanish, sounds like Rodia.) Other sources say Rodia's given name was Sabatino, not Sabato. His neighbors called him Sam. No one, it seems, ever called him Simon while he lived in Los Angeles.

The year of Rodia's birth, depending on the source, ranges from 1873 to 1886. He is said to have been born in Serino, a town east and south of Naples, or in Rivottoli. There is a town called Ribottoli near Serino. Perhaps the name of Rodia's hometown had been misheard.

Sabato or Sabatino or Sam or Simon Rodia or Rodilla of Serino or Ribottoli or Rivottoli finished "our town" in 1954, gave the towers and his house to a neighbor in 1955, and died of a heart attack on a Friday morning in July 1965 in a convalescent home in the northern California town of Martinez. He never returned. (Of course, he never returned.)

The neighbor sold the house and the towers to Joe Montoya, another neighbor, for $1,000. Montoya sold them to "two Hollywood men" - William Cartwright and Nicholas King - for $3,000. They fought with the city, which had declared the towers structurally unsafe and a hazard.

The city failed to prove the towers were unsafe, however, and Cartwright and King rallied museum curators and the arts community to protect them. Cartwright and King later turned the property over to a non-profit organization. Later, Rodia's former house burned down. The state acquired the towers and made them a state park. The city's Cultural Affairs Department took over their maintenance. The towers gradually fell into disrepair as the bits of tile and broken crockery spalled off Rodia's concrete-over-chicken-wire. The towers went through long cycles of preservation and official indifference. Watts went from a working-class white community to a working-class black community to a working-class Hispanic community. Significant parts of the community burned in 1965 and 1992.

This week, the city began a one-year "trial partnership" with the Los Angeles County Art Museum to manage the future of the towers, which need an estimated $5 million for further conservation efforts. A $500,000 grant from James Irvine Foundation was announced almost immediately.

"Our town" is generally recognized by Angeleños and generally ignored by them. Most of the 45,000 visitors to the towers each year are European tourists.

"Our town" and our town are very much alike.

[Updated: Erin Aubry Kaplan, in her note below, rightly corrects my mistaking 1994 for 1992.]

D.J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles every Monday and Friday at 2 p.m. on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page was taken by flickr user Martin Lindsay. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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DJ, thanks for the fascinating recap of the still-unfinished history of the Watts Towers and the artist who made them. It seems to me the stewardship of the Towers is a hot potato because Watts itself is a community L.A. in general would rather not think about, let alone steward.
Btw, you say the city burned in 1965 and again in '94. Did you mean 1992?