Art and Migration: Sabato (Simon) Rodia and the Watts Towers of Los Angeles

Art and Migration: Sabato (Simon) Rodia and the Watts Towers of Los Angeles

 International Conference,University of Genova,Italy

April 2-5, 2009

The WattsTowers: Simon Rodia Fights Back

 WattsLabor Community Action Committee

10950 South Central Avenue

Los Angeles,California90059


Presented by:

Shirmel Hayden


Despite the immense research on Sabato “Simon” Rodia, little is known about the socio-economic and political realities of his journey from Italy to America.  Known best for his extraordinary vision, his work is praised as a unique monument to human energy, consistency, and skill (Goldstone 1997). Although his overall image at times gave a negative impression to reporters and fellow artists, community neighbors often turned away from what seemed to be inconsistency in his character.  This is far from the truth, in fact, he was intellectual and masterful at the arts.  This is illustrated through his lifeworks known as the Watts Towers.  While using various objects such as glass, concrete, shells, steel, rocks, and marble, he designed one of the world’s most unique economic, public, and political statements of the 20th century.  His artwork currently exists in the Watts Community located within Los Angeles, California.  Often offended by the injustices throughout his journey, presently, we see the same offensive state of affairs existing today in the Watts Community.  This paper intends to take a deeper look into the economic underdevelopment, cultural politics, and community activism of Simon Rodia as he journeyed from Old Italy to New America, while bridging the gap between yesterday and today.[1]

 Full Entry:


Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete? Providing nature’s law is wrong it learned to walk without having feet.  Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams; it learned to breathe fresh air.  Long live the rose that grew from concrete when no one else cared.

                                                                                                Tupac Shakur[2]



            What do we know about great men? A few words come to mind, such as unexplainable, brilliant, innovative, and ingenious.  What we know about Simon Rodia is that he was all of those things and more.  Just as Copernicus, Galileo, and Columbus were revolutionary in science, mathematics, medicine, and exploration; Rodia joins those ranks as a skilled architect and craftsman.[3]  His area of expertise was building and constructing towers out of steel rods and cement.  As he designed and decorated walls with mosaics made from tile shards, glass, marble, broken dishes, racks, seashells, and pieces of bottle; while using impressions of hand print, work tools, automotive parts, corncobs, wheat stalks, and various types of fruit as a method of covering walls.[4]

As Simon Rodia worked to “do something big”, he was not shy in expressing his concern with politics and change.  Using the Watts Towers as a statement to express his unique talent, he built one of the world’s most unique socio-economic and political realities of the 20th century. During Simon Rodia’s journey from Old Italy to New America, we see through the Watts Towers how he was able to “fight back” social system paradigms that govern societies, reject individuality, and superimposed formulas he often thought threatened equality and justice. Taking a look into social systems, particularly individuality, we see Simon Rodia’s method used to overcome one-dimensional thinking that often prevails in social systems analysis and design.[5]  In this paper, we are going to travel from yesterday to today. We will see economic underdevelopment, cultural politics, community activism, and more importantly the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC) at the forefront as visionaries for change.

Upon Rodia’s departure from Old Italy in the late 1890’s, several things were happening.

1) political reforms, 2) social unrest, 3) change in governmental leadership, 4) economic division, and

5) high unemployment.[6]  By the time and during his time in America, Simon Rodia saw 1) an increase in California’s population by over 20%, 2) boom of manufacturing industry, 3) racial division, 4) industrialization, 5) rise of Unions, 6) war and reform; sparking a timeline of economic expansion and political shift in  Southern California.[7]  In New America, it can be said that economics and politics are more than often the driving forces behind change. To compare the two areas known to Simon Rodia, both were in a state of economic and political change.  

            During the 1920’s, Rodia saw Watts through agricultural, industrial, commercial, and urbanization lens.  Majority of the local residents worked in manufacturing, building maintenance, food services, or were small business entrepreneurs, there was little professional community residents such as doctors, lawyers, or bankers. This according to Automotive Club of California’s book entitled, Intersections of South Central: People and Places in Historic and Contemporary Photographs, “this caused a geographically discontinuous and socially fractured community, much of what Rodia believed to be true”. [8]  At the time Rodia was not happy with the way elected officials governed, the American society, how local law enforcement treated immigrants, and strained relationships between families. Coming from Old Italy; it was an eye opener to witness for the second time around injustice, unfairness, and inequality.[9]  Those same factors still exist today. 

I have worked and lived in the Watts Community for over 4 years.  My journey through Watts has allowed me to work in education, advocacy, teaching, mentoring, and as a grant writer.  While working in Watts, I see the same hinders Simon Rodia expressed.   The beauty of the Watts Community is that the fight has never stopped. Everyday people are signing petitions in local shopping centers, organizing community meetings, encouraging youth to finish school, and advocating on behalf of civic and civil rights, to ensure that the community of Watts and the people are not forgotten.  When I first saw the Watts Towers, I was amazed by the dedication, strength, courage, and persistence it took Simon Rodia to build it. It is not something that happened over night, but during the course of time. This reminds me of the Watts Community and the dedication, strengthen, courage, and persistence of the people that continue to advocate for change.

            Artist Gordan Wagner called the Watts Towers “an expression of freedom”.[10]  Although considered unskilled, uneducated, and mocked often among his peers, Simon Rodia silently contributed to idealism and change. Through the construction of the Watts Tower, he not only proves he was capable of achieving great work, but he did it outside the scope of what greatness was considered to be. He was not the oil tycoon, nor did he capitalize on the Manufacturing Industry. From the moment he begins building the towers; Rodia shows how perception can often be mistaken. The towers represent hard work, dedication, strategic planning, and more importantly, a vision of change.  Regardless of his circumstances, Rodia proceeded to achieve “something big”, setting the tone for others to follow, such as Committed for the Simon Rodia Towers and the Watts Labor Community Action Committee established in 1965. The Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC) is a community based non-profit public benefit organization, with its primary mission of improving the quality of life for the residents of Watts and South Central Los Angeles. WLCAC was founded on the philosophy “Don’t Move, Improve” and has worked diligently to engage low-income residents in self-determining the vision for their community.  For the past 40 years, WLCAC has consistently served community residents, and in the process, established itself as a leading social service organization in the Watts Community.    

Currently, WLCAC is working to develop the Watts Public Policy Institute (WPPI). The WPPI founded by Tim Watkins, current President and CEO of the organization is being developed to further serve community residents of Watts.  The WPPI is a multi-location collaboration of organizations concerned about the effects of poor public policy.  WLCAC is the host institution of the WPPI and also its primary location.  Other entities contribute to the functioning of the WPPI and assist in fulfilling duties to the community.   The purpose of the WPPI is to establish a unified group across various locations and include various types of social organizations that respond to policy advocacy related to specific regions of social decay.

Its mission: to improve the quality of life in poor places through community-based policy research that supports advocacy.  

Its vision: to serve as an international resource for communities seeking solutions to poverty.   

            Whether Rodia built the Watts Towers to represent the highways in California, the eight craft guilds of Nola, economic underdevelopment, cultural politics, or community activism, he was an extraordinary man. The same climate Simon Rodia struggled with in the 1920’s, still exists today.  All contributing components of injustice, unfairness, and inequality are present today in the Watts Community. Currently, community activist seek to redirect many misconceptions, promote education and be a vision of change.

[1]    Goldstone, Bud., & Goldstone, Arloa Paquin. (1997) The Los Angeles watts towers.Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute.

[2]  Shakur, Tupac. (1999). The rose that grew from concrete. MTV Books/Pocket Books:New York,New York.

[3]  Stanford University. (2005). Nicolaus Copernicus. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved January 22, 2009 from,

[4]  O’Donavan, Donald. (n.d.). Simon Rodia, architect of dreams. Retrieved December 23, 2008 from,

[5]    Ramos, Alberto Guerreiro. (1976) Theory of social systems delimitation: A preliminary statement. Administration & Society. Sage Publication. Retrieved December 1, 2008 from, atWaldenUniversity.

[6]    Trueman, Chris. (2000) Italy in 1900. Retrieved February 11, 2009 from,

[7]    Rawls, James., & Beam, Walter. (2008) California: An interpretive history. (9th ed.). McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. Retrieved February 11, 2009 from,

[8]    Automobile Club ofCalifornia. (2006) Intersections of South Central: People and placed in historic and contemporary photographs.Los Angeles: Automobile Club ofSouthern California.

[9]    Automobile Club ofCalifornia. (2006) Intersections of South Central: People and placed in historic and contemporary photographs.Los Angeles: Automobile Club ofSouthern California.

[10]  Goldstone, Bud. & Goldstone, Arloa Paquin. (1997) The Los Angeles watts towers.Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute.

Author: Shirmel Hayden


The State of Watts- Watts Renaissance Planning Committee


Forty Years After the 1965 Revolt

By the Watts Renaissance Planning Committee

Timothy Watkins Sr., Co-Chair

As Watts enters its fortieth year anniversary of the 1965 Revolt, hope continues for a better future.  A peculiar little place,Wattsis like the orphaned child that becomes a great communicator and world class symbol of perseverance.  It is for reasons of pure tenacity and determination of its people that the place still exists, much as it has for the last 100 years.  Watts…the rebellious child, challenging the world beyond its skimpy one-mile square borders, to acknowledge and respect its people….for people do survive and cooperate here despite perceptions of the world beyond Watts.

The people that sleep here know….that there are musicians, artists, inventors….along with doctors, lawyers, merchants….and then there are the lovers, haters and exploiters among us.  For this is Wattsand its legacy; a poor place that has nurtured some of the worlds richest contributions to politics, science, sports, medicine and invention…. a poor place where rich human spirit thrives despite the failure of the longest fought war in American history:  The War on Poverty.

It was through the absence of service, following the exodus of businesses and residents fromWattsafter the ’65 Revolt that solutions were sought to fill the void.  The real need for education, justice, health care, employment, planning, housing and attention to culture and the environment compelledWattsin an unprecedented, trailblazing fashion.

Forty years later, not a lot has changed inWattsdespite the influx of untold millions of dollars and hard work.  Also, despite the fact that when another riot, much broader and destructive, erupted in 1992, it was almost as ifWattsyawned.  The riot surged and thrust huge throngs of people into the streets ofLos Angeles.  But unlike the ’65 Revolt, this time it was more like a tsunami, with violence and destruction washing over Watts and rapidly dissipating.  Sadly,’92 was without the profound sense of purpose that compelled change throughoutAmericaduring the decade following ’65.   It was in ’65 that a slowly churning civil rights movement erupted with the birth of Black Nationalism and an end to the status quo……or so we thought.

Popular thinking at the time was that the War on Poverty could combat despair and hopelessness with a newfound commitment to “making things better” for people that had been abandoned and forgotten by the rest of society.  The War was supposed to aim resources towards places like Watts, the Mississippi Delta, East Oakland and theBronxwhere hopelessness turned to desperation threatened to tear the very fabric of life away from other peaceful, stable communities.  Relief is an odd friend to poverty.  It reduces the pressure in the pot while the contents keep boiling.  No less hot and constantly building again to the point that begs for relief; the chance to vent a little.

Members of the Planning Committee find themselves frustrated by American society’s seeming unwillingness to “turn off the fire under the pot”.  The more we work, the more there is to do.  Some people that work in Watts compare the syndrome to “building a bicycle while riding it”.  Therefore, it is with a profound sense of urgency that we find ourselves seeking solutions to poverty while continuing to treat its symptoms.

In this light, we must stop to express appreciation for, and insight into the uphill battles that we manage in partnership with all of our friends in the struggle.  It is our belief that within this very battle, reside the solutions to poverty.  The imperative is to distinguish potential associated with sustainability rather than the minimalism of survival…the power associated with being enabled versus the obligatory permissions that ride with empowerment.   Again, it is in this light, that we have stopped to assess and analyze the longest fought war in American history.

Many wonder, with all that has been waged on The War in communities like Watts, why so little seems to have been achieved.  In fact, in too many ways, life has become decidedly worse.  In reflecting on forty years of direct experience, we are convinced that “poor policy makes poor places”.  This observation makes the distinction between “poor places” and “poor people” and allows us to hope for the return of human dignity to people living in places likeWatts, as it allows their potential as enlistees in The War to be examined.

If in fact, people suffering poverty conditions are diligently consulted, their relegation to the outskirts of The War can be reversed, making them full participants in the development of solutions to poverty.  We can’t tolerate the argument that it is the individual responsibility of our neighbors to “propel themselves into the mainstream by pulling themselves up and out of poverty by the bootstraps”.  More than fifty years of welfare has ruined generations of families by making them life-long dependents of governmental assistance.  Therefore, we won’t be persuaded for we’re already convinced that without correction to poor public policy, no significant change to quality of life conditions in places likeWatts can occur.  We are also convinced that over time, without correction to poor public policy, organizations that fight poverty will settle for simply treating the symptoms of poverty in frustration, having given up on the search for a cure.

Far too often in the community ofWatts, quality of life is directly impacted by the failure of unions to join in community advocacy.  It seems that the point of “union” in places like Watts is missed.  For the families of over 670,000 members of the American Federation of Labor in the County of Los Angeles, far more could be achieved if membership issues were set aside and human beings simply joined in support of one another.  Every day, thousands of Watts area union families are provided with services that are meant to improve the quality of their lives.  Through the unions, they are connected to tens and hundreds of thousands more.   The challenge and the opportunity is before us to develop ties that bind between the millions of residents throughoutLos Angelesthat happen to be either directly, or indirectly connected to unions.

Reflecting on our collective experience, and after researching data on the subject of public policy in our community, statistics bolster our conclusions about life inWatts: Eight major policy areas suppress and undermine solutions to poverty.  Many would say that there are more but these eight impact the broad spectrum of quality of life issues.  They are education, health, housing, employment, justice, planning, and attention to culture and the environment.   It is within these eight areas that pressures aggregate to the extent that makes life virtually unbearable in the community ofWattsand others like it.

With careful planning and full community participation, solutions to poverty can be identified by the people ofWatts.  Ideas that have long been abandoned inWattscan once again emerge to solve old problems in a new stream of consciousness.

  • In 1945, the United States Government Council on Race Relations commissioned a group of professors to study migratory patterns of Black and Brown people during the great migration that followed the abolition of slavery.  The study was remarkable in that it was titled “The Problem of Violence” yet it focused on the conditions that drove abject poverty in Watts at that time.  Ironically, it found that education, housing, employment, justice, planning and attention to local culture were the areas that needed to be addressed.  Recommendations were provided at the close of the study.
  • In 1965, the Governor of California commissioned a blue panel group of esteemed citizens headed by then Senator John McCone.  The findings of the commission mirrored those of the study that was conducted forty years earlier.  Recommendations were provided at the close of the study.
  • In 1992, following the Los Angeles Revolt, Rebuild L.A. determined that many of the same conditions that were found in earlier studies, contributed to the wanton destruction and senseless violence that fueled the rebellion.  Recommendations were provided at the close of the study.
  • In 2005, the Urban League released a study that bolsters the conclusions of all previous studies.  Recommendations were provided at the close of the study.

Little has changed and in fact, much has worsened.

The primary concerns on the minds of mostWattsarea citizens include the same group of negative conditions that were identified sixty years earlier.   Therefore, why not take the recommendations from the studies produced over the past sixty years and implement them through a series of local accountability models.  For the sake of the Watts Renaissance, let’s just call it Plan B, an assured implementation plan for all past recommendations that are deemed by the people ofWattsto be relevant and worthwhile as of 2005.

So as the world scrambles to tell its story about Watts….Forty Years After the Revolt, from an outside point of view, let this account stand as one from the inside ….one that reflects a consciousness of the damage done by poor public policy …and the unyielding determination of a community to end its poverty.

Copyright 2005, all rights reserved.