A Hard-Driven Man
Last week, one of Watts' most colorful legends was confirmed. For nearly 40 years folks around that part of town had heard a tale about Simon Rodia - the eccentric and visionary Italian immigrant who built the Watts Towers - and his red Hudson automobile.
"For as long as I can remember, there has been a story about how Simon rode around town in a red roadster that had a siren attached to it," says Mark Greenfield, director of the towers' Art Center. "I guess we always just thought it was just one more story about him."
But shortly before noon last Thursday morning, the myth became reality when a construction crew working in a dirt lot just behind the towers unearthed a rusty, battered heap of steel.
The mass of mangled metal proved to be more then just another discarded automobile shell. And now curators of the towers are working to piece together the details of the story, dating back to the 1920s, behind the red Hudson.
The tale begins sometime around 1928, when Rodia bought the two-door sedan to ease his commute from Watts to Long Beach. The legendary 4-foot-11-inch construction worker quickly became notorious around the city for his capricious driving style.
"Whenever he was late to work, he would put the siren on his car and people would clear out of his way," says Bud Goldstone, an independent consultant to the city and a historian of the towers. "I guess he just started doing that all the time, and one day when he came back from work some neighbors approached him and said, 'The police were here asking about you and saying they were going to arrest you.' So that's when he decided to take the car around back behind the towers, dig a hole and drive it into the ground."
Goldstone, who first heard the story in 1959 while interviewing friends of Rodia, said he wasn't surprised by the artist's decision: "He would do something like that, because all he wanted to do was work on the towers."
As to why police never bothered Rodia again, Goldstone offers this footnote: "How could he drive the car into the ground and get away with it? Hell, how could the guy go and build 100-foot-tall towers without a permit and the building department not notice?"
As for finding any additional gems, workers have continued turning up more parts, including a window, a fender - and a bottle of liquor. But it's the other story Rodia was fond of telling that some are hoping to discredit. "He used to like telling people he'd buried his wife somewhere around the towers," says Goldstone. "But I don't think it's true."
As if kids in South-Central schools didn't have enough to worry about, including overcrowding, rundown campuses and textbook shortages, one group is warning of yet another problem they may face: toxins.
Earlier this month, more than 60 parents, teachers and students attended a South Los Angeles church hall to hear about persisting concerns over the safety of Jefferson Middle School, which opened this summer atop one polluted site and adjacent to another.
It seems the latest addition to LAUSD's problem-plagued campuses is built upon a site that contains at least three life-threatening contaminants. This according to activists, who also point out that Jefferson is adjacent to a Superfund site, a parcel of land that's been declared among the most toxic in the nation.
State and local officials deny there is any danger, and while agencies such as the state water board and the Department of Toxic Substances Control, as well as the L.A. school district, have declared the school safe, activists argue that previous environmental evaluations were flawed.
Among the worried audience members were two district-hired flacks whose concern was apparently public relations rather than pollution. They were paying close attention to featured speaker Hamid Arabzadeh, the recently ousted LAUSD safety chief who has publicly accused the district of practicing eco-racism - by forcing poor and minority neighborhoods to settle for schools built on tainted land.
Arabzadeh, who was invited by organizers from Concerned Citizens of South-Central Los Angeles, stopped short of calling the school unsafe, but said the district's scientific experts lack the authority and independence to provide complete assurance of safety.
An LAUSD hired gun was quick to respond, according to two translators, who said they overheard PR guru Chuck Ellis quietly telling parents in Spanish that the group sponsoring the meeting was "lying" and "in it for the money." Ellis, who is with PS Enterprises, denied making the comments.
PS Enterprises, a Westside outfit, has a $27,000 district contract, which it's sharing with two subcontractors, "to support community outreach in connection with environmental assessments of Jefferson Middle School" and other projects, according to the school district.
Juanita Tate of Concerned Citizens was outraged when she heard that Ellis was disparaging her group and kicked Ellis out of the meeting.
Bill Piazza, an LAUSD environmental specialist, defended the district's honor, at one point offering to put his office at Jefferson.
"Do it!" shouted a teacher. "We have empty classrooms!"
Piazza has apparently not pursued the notion. For their part, activists have vowed to press on until they are satisfied that their kids needn't wear biohazard suits to school.
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