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People often conjure up images of the 1965 riots when thinking of the Los Angeles neighborhood Watts. Hopefully, after visiting Watts Towers (or “Nuestro Pueblo,” as its creator Simon Rodia originally referred to it), people will think of his architectural marvel instead.

My family and I enjoy embarking on occasional day trips around Southern California to visit parks and museums or seek out interesting examples of architecture, and we finally made it to the Watts Towers. Lucky for us San Diegans, the Towers are just a couple hours’ drive away.

I had seen photographs before, but it’s so much more spectacular when you stand in front of the real thing. Listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, this unusual piece of American folk art will appeal to art lovers and architecture enthusiasts – as well as those just looking to see something incredible and unique.

Simon Rodia (also known as Sobata Rodia, Sam Rodia, Don Simon and both Sam and Simon Rodilla) was an Italian immigrant who came to the United States in the late 1890s. He lived and worked in many U.S. cities before finally settling in Long Beach in 1921. And thus began his 34-year-long “career” creating the towers. According to the information provided by the Arts Center (which adjoins the Watts Towers and serves as a center for cultural enrichment programs as well as gallery space for rotating art exhibits), Simon Rodia worked many jobs during his lifetime, including tile setter, quarryman and construction worker – handy occupations for the creator of one of Southern California’s most famous pieces of “architectural folk art.”

The Watts Towers are really a conglomeration of multiple structures created at different times, between 1921 and 1955, conjoined as one magnificent piece. There are several smaller towers, or spires, but the three tallest towers (the tallest of which is 99-and-a-half feet tall) create an image that reminds me of Gothic cathedrals in Europe or Asian temples you might see in India or Thailand.

Simon Rodia made his “Nuestro Pueblo” out of steel rebar, broken ceramic tiles, sea shells, glass and other bits and pieces of things he found, some of which were most likely refuse from his day jobs. In Rodia’s case the old saying, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” is appropriate.

The towers went through a series of different owners after Simon Rodia left and were virtually abandoned in 1955. Thanks to the work of a group of local citizens, “The Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts,” they were saved from demolition. Currently under the auspices of the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, the towers are in the process of being restored and so are surrounded by scaffolding – but there’s plenty of room to walk around and take photos.

Docent-led tours are available on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, but it’s best to call to check for tour times. The folks who work in the Art Center are knowledgeable and more than happy to answer any questions you might have. Ask about the annual Drum and Jazz Festivals, now in their 28th and 33rd years respectively.

On our way up to see the Watts Towers, we stopped about halfway to have breakfast in San Juan Capistrano at a charming little bistro-style restaurant called The Ramos House Café. It’s located near the train station in an old historic home built in 1881. I had the wild mushroom, sundried tomato and garlic scramble. My brother opted for the smoked bacon scramble with rocket (a peppery green I’d never heard of, also known as Italian cress or roka) and caramelized onions – as Rachel Ray would say, “Yummo!” Other delights on their menu include: apple cinnamon beignets, crab hash with scrambled eggs and sour cream remoulade, mac n’ cheese with smoked veggies, and lemon gremolada and strawberry basil pain perdu (which is kind of like french toast, only more custardy and decadent). Everything was delicious and the presentations were exquisite.

Take a drive, spend a day, be moved by art and see an old neighborhood in a new light.

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