Sabato Rodia, an almost unknown Italian American hero

Sabato Rodia, un eroe italoamericano ancora quasi sconosciuto

Mar 13, 2017 641 ITA ENG

The story of Sabato Rodia needs to be known by every Italian, wherever they live. When he built the Watts Towers, Rodia achieved something very unique. That must have been why the Beatles decided to put him on the cover of their famous Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, together with other famous and celebrated people: he's the one on upper right of the picture, just behind Bob Dylan. 

Prof. Luisa Del Giudice has written "Sabato Rodia's Towers in Watts", a very interesting book about this topic. We welcome her on We the Italians and we are thank her for helping us tell the story of Sabato Rodia

Prof. Del Giudice, the story of Sabato Rodia is both very special and also symbolic of the Italian American experience of the 20th century. Could you please briefly summarize it for us?

The story of Sabato Rodia is a fascinating story, typical but also unique. First of all, he did not want to emigrate, it was his parents who sent him away from his native town in the Avellino province (Rivottoli di Serino), no one knows exactly why, when he was 14, to join his brother who was working in a mine in Pennsylvania. His brother dies soon after his arrival, and so Sabato finds himself alone and goes West. He settles in Oakland, where he marries an Italian girl; but his marriage does not go well and he becomes a drifter, losing his way and turning into an alcoholic.

Later, in 1919, he develops a brilliant idea: he wants to do “something big.” So he looks for a piece of land that has to be triangular: he finds it in Watts, a district in South Los Angeles, and he buys it.

There are interviews with him in UCLA Special Collections, where he says, in his very heavily accented English: "I want to build something big, something they never got ‘em in the world".

So how does he build his masterpiece, the towers?

For 33 years, completely alone, he simply collected recyclable materials, such as shells, pieces of ceramic tile, and so forth: and day after day he just experimented and learned about these materials and put them together.

He would dream about it, build a little, tear down, build again until he got it just the way he wanted. He put great care into his work, and that was a hallmark of the Italian American men who worked with their hands.

He built these towers and people around him thought he was possibly crazy: "What is he building?", "What he is gonna do?" they kept saying. But he actually got his neighbors involved: he sent children home to bring back whatever was broken and paid them a penny to help him collect materials that he could use. He had a great sense of color, and the details of his mosaics with chromatic contrast and similarity are magnificent.

There is a documentary film made by Edward Landler and Brad Byer (the latter was Rodia's great-nephew). They had a crane, they went right up to the top and it’s possible to see the care that Rodia used even where no one would ever see. It was just the same care he used down below, where many would walk by and look.

He called the towers with a Spanish name, "Nuestro Pueblo" (Our Town/Our People): he probably knew Spanish better than English.  He had had two common-law wives who were Mexican and his closest neighbors across the street were Mexican too.

He used to play Enrico Caruso's records, so we can say that Caruso (and Opera more generally) is the soundtrack of the Watts Towers. In 1954 a neighbor girl heard a record skipping over and over from his house. She realized that something was wrong, she went in, and found out that he had a stroke, he had been lying there for several days. So he decided at point that he shouldn't live alone like a dog, that he needed to go back to his family: he had a niece up in Martinez, California, and that's where he ended up. From that moment on, he will never see his Watts Towers again.

In the late 50s there is a cinema student at the University of Southern California, Bill Cartwright: his professor, William Hale, had made an 11 minute black and white movie on the Watts Towers, and Rodia appears in that movie. (You too can see it when you visit the Towers) When Cartwright sees that film, he is mesmerized by it and he goes looking for the Watts Towers. He finds them abandoned and investigates who owns these towers, and then he buys them, with some friends, for 3,000 dollars. Then he discovers that there's a demolition order from the City, and that changes everything: but that demolition order is also what causes them to become an international cause célèbre, because they decide to fight the city that considered the Watts Towers to be a “public hazard.”

So Bill and his friends, art students, all the art & architecture intelligentsia, and museum people, start an international campaign called "The Campaign to Save the Watts Towers". People write in from all over the world to fight the city, museum directors, art critics--but not only famous people: so the Watts Towers are as much a story about citizen action as about art.

Bud Goldstone, who is an aerospace engineer, convinces the City that if they can do a test to prove that the Watts Towers are stable, they won't be demolished. He creates a “stress test”: they simulate 10,000 pounds of gale force, a lateral force against the Towers. They bring a truck with a winch on it and they attach it to the main Tower with a cable, with photographers, the press and all the people there. That's a crazy thing: they try to bring down the Towers with this cable! But not only do the Towers not come down: the truck is raised into the air! And while the truck is going up everybody cheers. And so they are allowed to keep the Towers; they won't be demolished!

Then starts the next chapter of the saga: to restore them and to take care of them. When Rodia moved to Watts it was a multiracial neighborhood, with Japanese, Greeks, Jews, Blacks. During the war many African Americans came from the Southern States to work in the industries, but after the war many of these plants closed down, so the neighborhood had become extremely poor, and so the question for the Watts Towers Committee was "how do we care about the Monument and not care about the people right outside the Monument?" There were great debates within the Committee. So they started offering free art lessons to the kids in the neighborhood and it became the foundation of The Watts Towers Arts Center. And it is still there, over 50 years later, doing the same thing: offering free music and art classes and so much more.

The story of the Watts Towers is not just the story of the Towers but also the story of the Arts Center and as well as the Community of Watts. I always felt and agree with the director of the Watts Towers Arts Center, Rosie Lee Hooks, that the three need to be balanced: you have to take care of all three, because without one the others fail. The Towers are a National Historic Landmark, as well as a municipal and state landmark, having received many recognitions over the years.

What I've been trying to do in the last couple of years is build a case for the Towers as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s complex: you have to first get on the Tentative List before going forward, so we had to convince the City and the State Park to write a letter requesting to be put on that List in the Spring of 2016. Unfortunately, we have since heard that we did not get on the Tentative List this year, but we will persist.

Is there a curious anecdote about Rodia and the towers that you discovered doing research for your book?

One of the most curious things I found out about Rodia is this. He was anticlerical, talked like a socialist, at times like an anarchist. His brother-in-law and sister used to complain about his singing anti-church songs with his buddies when he first arrived in Oakland: but then I found out that he actually was a preacher! For three years, in something that called "The Christian Church of True Freedom." He preached in Spanish. We don't have any record of what he actually said. But I suspect that the Watts Towers really became his church, the expression of his spiritual core: he filled it with his heart and his love. The message and goal seems to be to spread love, a communal embrace. It became so much more than just an art monument; it's a living monument; it lives in the community.

"Nuestro Pueblo": what exactly does it mean? He created this monument to gather together another Los Angeles: "We the People" he says, "I build the tower; the people like; everybody come." So one of the artists intimately linked to the Towers, Cecil Fergerson, who started as a janitor and then became one of the first African American art curators at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), said that the Watts Towers are like the Statue of Liberty: they stand with their arms open to all, they have become like a beacon. Indeed, anybody can do something great: if Rodia could do it all alone with personal initiative, then we can do it! It's a great and compelling message.

He built the Towers from 1921 to 1954, then he left and in 1956 the Campaign for the Towers started. He died in 1961. So the Committee considered him a sort of God and in 1956, when they discovered he was still alive in Martinez, they went looking for him.

In interviews, we have the members of the Committee talking to Rodia, that they would pay for him to come back to Los Angeles,  would take care of him, and even have his teeth fixed, if only he’d continue his work. But he said no: "When your mother dies you don't want to talk about it anymore." So there is something very sad about the thing: but he was very gratified that people had finally recognized what he had done.

What they did succeed in doing was bringing him to Berkeley, because they were doing a presentation at the University. They brought him to Berkeley and he had his 5 minutes of fame in front of a big audience. The presenters showed slides and pictures of the Towers, and Rodia was so thrilled to see himself on a big screen. And then he took questions. Somebody asked him where he got his ideas, and showed him pictures of Gaudì’s work in Barcelona, and of the Sagrada Familia, asking him "Did you see this, did you know about this artwork?" He looked curiously and he said "No, I never saw this" and then asked: "Did this man have any help? I didn't, I did it all by myself!"

Why are the towers so important in the representation of the Italian experience in California, and more generally in the United States?

First of all, they recognize that the people who came here brought with them a passion to do things; that if they were given even a modicum of welcome and the freedom to do, they would do great things: that's what Rodia did.

One of the other properties he looked at was at the corner of Santa Monica and Wilshire, in Beverly Hills. People say that if he had built them there, instead of that triangular plot of land in Watts, they would never had survived.  He built them in an area outside the mainstream, nobody really cared about what he did there, and he was free to accomplish this opus.

Also, there's the ethic of hard work: he worked tirelessly, all the time, while doing other jobs to be able to pay for the cement and for the rebar. He called himself a "steel man", and then in his spare time he worked constantly on his Watts Towers.

Where did Rodia get his ideas? He was born in Rivottoli di Serino, in the province of Avellino, and many think that when he decided to build "something big" he had the Gigli of Nola in mind. But inside the monument there are fountains and also a ship, the so-called "Ship of Marco Polo". One of the early directors of The Watts Towers Arts Center, John Outterbridge, actually thought that the entire Watts Towers is like a ship headed eastward, so the Towers are actually like masts on a ship.

Rodia's biggest hero was Galileo, but he talked about the Italian explorers all the time--such as Marco Polo, Colombo, Caboto. He was very proud of being Italian. He wanted to be remembered like his heroes, and he saw himself in the tradition of great builders with an Ancient Roman ancestry. We don't know if he read: he went to the library a lot and I think he probably looked at books with pictures; he didn't necessarily know how to read, but he was very aware of his own heritage.

Do the Italian Americans know this story as well as it deserves?

Not very well, and that's what I've been trying to do: I don't want the local Italian community to take ownership of the Towers and think "The Towers are Italian, so they are ours" because it's not true. On the other hand they should know more about this kind of Italian immigrant worker. I think Rodia is and should be one of our cultural, historic heroes: a hardworking, brilliant, visionary artist, who did something for everyone. He’s easy to celebrate!  Why not institute a Sabato Rodia Day? I’d get behind that one.

But the important thing for me is this: you start with your own ethnic group, with what you know, searching your own ethnic history and culture; but then the impulse should be to go beyond, toward the whole world, to become better global citizens. Indeed, I think that Rodia’s message with the Watts Towers was to embrace everyone: "Nuestro Pueblo", everyone together, and that's what I like and find especially compelling about the Watts Towers.  That already makes them a World Heritage Site!

In 2009 you organized both in the United States and in Italy conferences about Rodia's work. What can our country do to celebrate and spread among our compatriots living in Italy the story of Sabato Rodia and the Watts Towers?

Alessandro Dal Lago and Serena Giordano, who were visiting professors at UCLA in 2008, were writing a book about the Watts Towers, so I was asked to help organize a conference with Thomas Harrison from UCLA.

We had an international conference at the University of Genova, where we brought people from Los Angeles, even the director of the Art Center:  it was a great meeting, and then we followed it up with a big conference here at UCLA. I added onto that a Festival throughout Los Angeles called "The Watts Towers Common Ground Initiative", because there is not enough local attention and promotion of the Watts Towers, in our opinion. There are many people who live in Los Angeles and have never been to the Watts Towers! We really need to value them more - locally as well as internationally - because they present such a great and inspiring story, besides being beautiful.

Here in Los Angeles there are ethnically and economically diverse neighborhoods and what I wanted to do was mix things up, doing part of the conference in Watts, and then doing an exhibition about Watts at the "Istituto Italiano di Cultura", focusing on common ground, and to break down walls between ethnic, economic, and social class.

I've been interested in St. Joseph’s tables for over 20 years and it seemed to me it was a perfect match for what I was seeking to do. We created a table down in Watts, in the church of San Lorenzo da Brindisi, mixing Italian, African American, and Latino traditions.  The church and its vicinity has a lot of undocumented and even homeless people and has great need. Together with the artists of the Watts Towers Art Center, we all worked together. The deep meaning of the Sicilian Table tradition is welcoming the stranger, feeding the poor. It's something that we do as Italians. So, this is another example of how you start with your own ethnic group, but move beyond your smaller community. It’s not just for yourself.  You help address the urgent and pressing needs of society: you feed those who are hunger, those who need to be welcomed.

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