Today I did the second of my “someday, when I get a chance” local day trips. In just over four hours and less than 60 miles, I visited an iconoclastic image of Los Angeles in the 1960s, and a 25-cents-each-way funicular railroad in the very heart of the city.
In August 1965, I was getting ready to enter my senior year of college in upstate New York. The news of that month from California overshadowed anything in my calm, self-centered life: the Watts Riots.
As the smoke rose, and the dead started to add up, one repeated image, time and time again, seared its way into my brain: the fantastical Watts Towers. Geography and life got in the way of my experiencing the towers first hand, until today.
The towers are actually a collection of almost two dozen separate sculptural pieces, with two of the towers reaching nearly 100 feet in height. The towers are made of steel pipes and wrapped with mesh, coated with mortar, and festooned with shards of porcelain, tile, pottery, sea shells, and broken glass. Simon Rodia spent 30 years (1921-1955) building this unique tribute to his native Italy. Watts Towers are one of only nine works of folk art listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and one of only four U.S. National Historic Landmarks in the City of Los Angeles.
In less than 20 miles, I went from the hell that was Watts in the ‘60s, to Angels Flight in downtown LA. Billed as “the Shortest Railway in the World” (at a total length of 298 feet), this funicular
conveyance dates to 1901, when it was actually located about a half-block from where it is now, moved due to an urban renewal upheaval about 40 years ago. For the price of a quarter, one can manage the very steep hill between Hill and Olive Streets in style and with a salute to history. [Notice City Hall, in the background, just to the left of the railroad car. It’s the building featured in the Dragnet TV series.]