Sarah Schrank


On her book Art and the City: Civic Imagination and Cultural Authority in Los Angeles

Cover Interview of March 19, 2009

A close-up

I encourage readers to explore the many art controversies explored in Art and the City as windows onto the urban landscape at specific historical moments.  The chapter on the Watts Towers, for example, beginning on page 135, describes a most remarkable artwork, also depicted on the book’s cover—seven towers of steel, cement, glass, and found objects that Sabato Rodia, an Italian immigrant, built in his backyard between 1921 and 1954.  Standing almost 100 feet high at their highest point, the Watts Towers were a private project meant for the public gaze.  Surviving two violent urban uprisings in 1965 and 1992, and standing in one of the poorest parts of Los Angeles, they are probably the city’s most famous artwork.  The chapter describes the grassroots efforts of a broad-based arts community to save the Watts Towers when the city tried to tear them down in the late 1950s.  After this victory, activists established a center to teach kids art and music, a facility that remains in Watts to this day. 

For all of the intricate on-the-ground politics involved in protecting and maintaining the Watts Towers, their story is also one germane to students of American popular culture.  Hollywood movies, record companies, and advertisers have frequently featured the Watts Towers as a symbol of black Los Angeles, a cultural trope that challenges historical and mainstream representations of the city.  The history of the Watts Towers perfectly captures the diverse and unexpected struggles for cultural representation I describe throughout Art and the City.