Love, Los-Angeles Style
by Tash Moore
One may step off the train and see the sort of platform that must have greeted generation upon generation. Unassuming, wooden, well-kept overall, but certainly urban and with barred windows. Once upon a time, young people of color and blacks alike may have crowded the platform waiting for the Metropolitan Transit Authority rail line to pick them up and transport them downtown. Transistor radios may have carried competing notes as people from all sorts of backgrounds listened to Motown and other delightful sounds. Dressed in their everyday best, sweaters or dresses neatly pressed, they lived day in and day out throughout the 1960s. And just down the long, bending way was the ever-present Towers, a sight for sore eyes when they returned in the evenings from work or school. So-called strife and uprisings aside, these Towers never fell completely down.
While the train station house has grown old with its neighbors, the Towers are undergoing an extensive restoration set to take workers into 2020. Partnered with institutions like LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) and with funding from the LA Department of Cultural Affairs, the work is meticulous and varied.
Originally designed and almost-compulsively built over a period of decades, the Watts Towers were the brain-child of an Italian immigrant, Sabato “Simon” Rodia. He crafted loose ends and found objects into a soaring, multi-tiered structure beginning in the 1920s, then mysteriously abandoned all work on the project about thirty years later though he never stopped talking excitedly about it to anyone who would listen. The restoration is an involved undertaking, with bits and pieces often falling from everywhere you can imagine. A tile here, a rock there. One can imagine trying to sort and reattach a tiny bit of the material as being akin to locating tiny bits in a giant fresco. Except instead of being on a flat wall, this structure is rounded in some places, pointed in others, and somewhat unwieldy. The staff thankfully has the guidance of an archive of photos taken throughout the 1980s to place or replace the found parts. Stabilizing and repairs can take hours per section.
One may wonder, why take such care of what might be considered an eyesore anywhere else? Like so many places where working-class folk set down their roots, the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles is a hidden gem about twenty minutes outside of downtown. While the neighborhood has been portrayed as very black and very agitated by popular media, it’s actually quite diverse and a bastion of affordable homeownership within a city known for income disparities and sometimes horrendous levels of homelessness.
I chatted with Ms. Nedra, an accomplished musician, while photographing the arts and music centers on-site. The neighborhood has an intense, possessive love of the Towers and regular arts programming and neighborhood festivities surround the structure on a monthly and yearly basis. Through Ms. Nedra, I was connected with Mr. Roland who explained the affinity that neighbors have for the pieces as well as the community. The people who work at the art centers have often begun as student volunteers and simply kept coming back until they achieved full-time employment. Mr. Roland, a man in his fifties and who looks a bit like Eazy E if he’d reached middle-age, was himself someone who transitioned from student to leadership. The affection neighbors have for the site was palpable. Mr. Roland explained the culture surrounding the Towers, that it’s a landmark that’s greeted them all of their lives. It’s the tallest man-made structure on their block, rivaled only by the trees planted by neighbors who passed on decades ago.
Male residents routinely tattoo the Towers onto their backs and greet one another with an ease not often described in the press. Even though Watts is known for their so-called racial disturbances, residents were welcoming, glad to talk, and had stories of everyday support for one another. There is a running joke amongst staff of the arts center these last four or so decades whenever there’s a street festival: Has anybody got shot yet? The short answer is No, never.
The Watts Towers are essentially the equivalent of a town center or city gate all rolled into one. The community is quite racially diverse and blacks, Mexicans, Italians, and Jewish neighbors have supported one another for decades, and their children intermarrying. Mr. Roland broke it down to simple neighborly love, they love one another and the Towers. They love knowing that this neighborhood and these works of beauty are theirs.
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Tash Moore is bicoastal Detroit booster, social entrepreneur and activist deeply passionate about promoting diversity & inclusion in all spheres. She currently spends her time between Detroit & DTLA.
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