Strange Geographies: The Watts Towers

Ransom Riggs

Los Angeles doesn't have a Statue of Liberty. It can't boast an Eiffel Tower. But we do have one monument unlike anything else in the world: the Watts Towers. Built between 1921 and 1954 by an Italian immigrant named Simon Rodia -- in his backyard, with a window washer's tools and no special equipment -- they're among the United States' best and most famous examples of vernacular art. (Another is Leonard Knight's Salvation Mountain, just a few hours away in the desert, which I did a photo essay about earlier this year.) And yet many people in Los Angeles (I'd even say most) have never seen the Towers and don't know much about them, perhaps fearing the reputation of Watts. The towers are an amazing and enigmatic national treasure.

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The city wanted to destroy them, but after a community group rallied around the towers and the city determined that they posed no danger of collapsing, they turned the property into a state park instead. They are now designated a National Historic Landmark.

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The neighborhood surrounding the towers is fascinating in its own right. While the towers themselves are perfectly safe to visit (stick to daylight hours, though), there are some rough housing projects not far away. I roamed Watts with my camera because, while there are a lot of photo-articles about the towers out there, they don't provide a lot of geographic context. After the 1965 Watts riots, much of the surrounding neighborhood had been destroyed, but the towers remained unscathed. As Watts rebuilt, they became a symbol of renewal and rebirth -- a handmade beacon of hope in a neighborhood that's still regularly rocked by violence.

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