The last time I was here I was maybe eight years old. I was not the same person and this was not the same Watts, a neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles best known for a series of riots in 1965. But these are the same Watts Towers.

The soaring man-made pinnacles, the tallest of which stands just under 100 feet, are today being renovated, and fencing prevents intrepid tourists from wandering through the site, but the beauty in Simon Rodia’s life work is visible all the same. It is said to be the largest work of art created by a single person, although despite this, it is one that few Angelenos have ever heard of, let alone seen. Such is the nature of Watts’ former reputation, one belied by the warmth of those who call this place home.

The tops of some of the Watts Towers

Hawkins House of Burgers is crowded, but it is always crowded. My friends and I seem to be the only non-locals at what has routinely been called Los Angeles’ best burger joint. “Have you been here before?” the man sitting next to me while his order – fish tacos he swears by – is made. I tell him no, and he gives me a look of confusion followed by a big smile. “You’re in for a treat!” He asks me what brings me to Watts, and I tell him I spent the morning at the Towers. His smile widens. (However wide the smile, though, these burgers were almost too large to fit, although truly spectacular.)

The Watts Towers, dreamt of and built by an Italian immigrant, were so embraced by the local, predominantly African-American community, that when threatened with demolition in 1959, locals partnered with architects, artists, and others to save them. (I am proud to say that my great-grandmother, Kate Steinitz, was one of the artists who helped form the Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts to save the structures.) It is an unlikely pairing, one as random as the Towers themselves, and in that randomness is the beauty that awed me as much now as it did when I was a little child.

The colors on the spires don’t pop out at first, but really grab you

When Simon Rodia, an Italian immigrant, moved to Watts in 1917, he was divorced, estranged from his family, barely literate, and mostly broke. In 1921, for reasons still unknown beyond a general desire to be remembered, he began construction on his property. Using steel and concrete, his towers took 33 years for him to build alone. Seventeen interconnected towers were built in all, along with gateways, walls, arches, and other supports. Each of these, in turn, was decorated with thousands upon thousands of tiles, pieces of glass, shells, colored rocks, and homemade stamps.

So many different colors and shapes

The designs seem completely random. On one archway, the bottoms of green 7-Up bottles make the dominant feature; in another area it might be small tiles, white shells, or countless stamps. There is no discernible method, and Rodia used what he found, or what members of the community brought. For some, this make the Watts Towers confusing and disorienting, patternless and fully freeform. To me, that is the beauty. Everywhere you look is completely different from anywhere else. The light reflects differently off the different surfaces, and shapes catch the eye in incredibly varying ways. It is a delight for the sense of sight.

There seems to be no pattern, and that is fascinating

In the summer of 1954, Rodia stopped construction after suffering a mild stroke and a fall. In 1955, he quitclaimed the property to a neighbor and left, never to return. Today, following the actions of the Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts, the site is administered by the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department and has been designated a historic site. The current refurbishment is expected to end mid-2020.

Some tiles are missing and will be replaced in the refurbishment

For those who love art, architecture, or just the bizarre beauty that one can find in the world, the Watts Towers are a worthwhile excursion in Los Angeles, and a reminder that beauty can be completely random.

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