The Severed Foot
I don't remember what day of the week it was, or even what month, but it was the year 2000, and I was walking down the middle of the street, carrying a long wooden ladder over head. It wasn't an exceptionally tall ladder but it was big enough to get upon the roof of a house. I had borrowed it from the Watts Towers Art Center and I was in the process of returning it to them.
Walking towards me was Mark Greenfield, the Art Center Director at the time, and he was peering into the distance across the park towards the flashing lights of a police car. "What's happening over there?" I asked. “They say that a kid coming home from school found a foot in the bushes over there.” As I began to stand the ladder up and lean it against my shoulder. I watched the policemen exiting the car and walking towards the abandoned field. They stood there shoulder to shoulder peering down towards something obscured by the tall brushy weeds.
The entire park used to be filled with golden and green plants with their elongated stalks and heads that remind a city boy of wheat. The then new John Outerbridge Park has a few mounds of grass within its landscaping, a recent investment in the neighborhood by the Cultural Redevelopment Agency (CRA) to help beautify the area. It was part of a 1968 master plan to rebuild Watts after the 1965 uprising but it was so expensive it didn't get realized until 1999.
Both officers seemed identical in character, neither tall nor short, dark tight-fitting shades with close-cropped haircuts, tan uniforms and gun belts. One had the curiosity to take out his baton. He reached down with it and returned with a clear plastic bag on its end. From our point of view it was grimy and hardly transparent, but the shape that the weight of the bag made proved the shape of a foot. It was a brown foot, dark walnut in color and looked to have been there for days. I wondered where the person was who had once been attached to it.
Before it became part of the city of Los Angeles, Watts was once a working class suburb. A community formed after the great western expansion by immigrants of both European, African American and native Indigenous descent. Before that it was Rancho La Tajuata, a ranch for cattle and beef production. And long before that, during the Crustacean Period, it was an ocean basin.
Simon Rodia, an Italian immigrant, knew this when he built his Watts Towers in the shape of a ship. He worked on it for 33 years, from 1921 to 1954. Rodia had a grand ambition to build something great, so he started in his own backyard constructing monuments that stand as a testament to individual will. He constructed Watts Towers entirely by himself, of rebar, chicken wire, concrete and a veneer of mosaic made of broken plates, bottles and tile.
The tallest of the towers is 99.5 feet tall on a site made up of 17 separate sculptural elements, including a wedding chapel, a small ship and baptistry. Watts Towers, composed of complex polyhedrons and tetrahedrons, is considered one of the most significant sculptures of the 20th century. I believe the geometry of the towers, both inside and out, explores complex relationships between inner and outer states.
A tower is the inverse of a pit, and a pit is the inverse of a tower. In the Bible, as punishment, you were either cast in a pit or locked in a tower, that was what happened to those that challenged the status quo. While imprisoned, you typically survive through introspection towards enlightenment. Physical freedom from societal norms serve to liberate your people and yourself. You must possess power over yourself if you want to have power. I suppose that's the essence of the stories of Moses, Jonah, Jesus, and the guy left in the cage with the lions.
Rodia’s towers are all the more magical when you learn he was a self-taught engineer and sculptor who, like my grandfather, never went to school past the 6th grade. His towers sit on a triangular lot created by the railway lines of the Pacific Electric Railroad. These are the tracks that cut across the grids of LA’s segregated landscape.
Watts Towers and the wall that surrounds them form a ship with a bow that points southeast towards Rodia's native Italy. He named his four towers after the ships of Marco Polo, a fellow explorer who knew there was once an ocean here too. But with time, those layers of ocean sediment were obscured by a thin, fragile crust of civilization. No one told Rodia to be wary of where he walked because he might crack that surface.
Jazz legend Charles Mingus would later describe how, as he walked to school, he would see some towers went up and some came down. It was always a work in progress over the decades. Rodia didn't have a master plan but believed in an emergent process that would steer him toward the best designs. But because only he understood what he was doing he was deemed a madman, tormented by kids who threw things at him while he hung high in the air working. During World War II, some people even thought he was a German spy building a radio tower.
If you visit the Towers today you find no evidence of his explorer spirit. It's been buried in the stratum of the ocean floor, to tell a more conventional story that benefits those in power. Not the towers that inspired Charles Mingus's improvisational roots, but towers stripped of their true transgressive power.
To look too deep is to find oneself alone in that ocean. It was always there, it's still there but remains invisible to those who haven't been taught to see it. Be aware that if you stumble into it, into the successive waves of ripple effects made by unjust decisions across time, that you will be on your own.
The officers were standing there, leaning over as they stared into the bag. Then suddenly, one started swinging it into the air and flung it deep back into the weeds. They walked back to their car, lights cutting off as they drove away.
I looked at Mark, I don't remember anything of what he said. "Welcome to Watts," maybe? Standing there stunned. I imagined that ladder now able to stand up on its own and me climbing it into the clouds, looking for Beatrice, as I escaped this sphere of the Inferno in hopes to get to Paradiso.
I call the Watts Uprising of 1965 the Great Eclipse, that singular event that obscures all of Watts past and forms its potential future. Commonly called a race riot, the phrase immediately criminalizes that action, obscuring it as part of a global phenomenon where working-class people revolted against the false promises of industrialization.
These revolutionaries wanted to build a more just and equitable society. One based on meritocracy and fair reward for hard work. Most of the uprising saw destruction of property, not attacks on people. It was a reaction against capitalism. When one is stripped of the ability to shape their space they will reshape it out of that frustration. I believed then as I do now that the role of art in the public sphere is to give people the ability to reshape the space they live in. To move beyond the great eclipse is not to attack that infamy but to build new stories together.
Watching that bag spin on that baton and fly through the air seemed to happen in slow motion. I didn't see where it landed but as it arched through space I thought of the history of police abuse in the city of Los Angeles on the poor, the segregation of blacks both geographically and economically with the dehumanization that comes along with it. Slaves captured after attempting to flee the plantation must have suffered similar fates.
I dreaded the answer to the question, “Whose foot was that and will we find parts of this person elsewhere?”
Mark came and told me later that they did find a foot, but that it was made of rubber. A rubber foot. It had been Halloween a few days earlier and someone had left that prop there either by accident or design. A dark humor underlies the relief, yet I wonder, why did the cops throw it back in the field. Didn't they think someone else might find it? Perhaps they thought a severed foot in the brush made sense in Watts somehow? I guess I could have gone and gotten it too, but I didn’t.
Edgar Arceneaux, 2014