Scambray links research to culture
Posted Sept. 26, 2008
Leah Heagy
English Professor Ken Scambray lectured and exhibited photographs from his research series, “Watts Towers and Fresno’s Underground Gardens” in the President’s Dining Room Tuesday. Scambray received his doctorate from UC Riverside. He has been teaching at La Verne since 1981 and takes students to Italy each year for January intersession as a multicultural study.

The conflicted cultural experience of what immigrants went through when migrating to America was told by Professor of English Ken Scambray to an intimate audience of about 15 members at the Sept. 16 Faculty Lecture Series.

Scambray’s lecture, “Watts Towers and Fresno’s Under­ground Gardens” not only explained the history of these popular California landmarks, but also served to emphasize the cultural significance of the art.

The Underground Gardens were built in the early 1900s in Fresno by Baldassare Forestiere, a Sicilian immigrant, Scambray explained.

Forestiere, rightfully nicknamed “the human mole,” personally dug more than 100 underground tunnels, which became his living quarters for 21 years.

Forestiere’s feat is an inspiration to immigrants, since he recreated his image of Sicily.

His work was an homage to mythological gods that were said to live underground, as well as many Sicilian miners who actually did.

“Forestiere’s 90 some underground gardens represent the simple life in Sicily,” Scambray said. “People made Forestiere out to be an eccentric character, but I think he’s a fundamental immigrant holding onto his heritage.”

Another famous structure noted by Scambray was the Watts Towers, built by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia.

The towers, roughly 10 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, are a collection of many reinforced steel and concrete cones, spawning 80 feet above ground.

They were personally constructed by Rodia’s bare hands.

“The building of the Watts Towers is as much a narrative of Southern California as it is about Rodia, the Italian immigrant who built them,” Scambray said.

The towers are a reflection of California at the time Rodia started building them, a time span of around 30 years, ending in the ‘50s, Scambray said. Rodia collected tiles, pieces of pottery, glass and any scraps people deemed trash and embedded them into the concrete walls.

“These images from the era are pressed into the walls,” Scambray said. “As the sun passed over the glass and tile fragments, the sun would be reflected and so would the idea of an immigrant-rich Southern California.”

The intriguing concept both the Underground Gardens and Watts Towers share, according to Scambray, is the process of the builders recalling their past in Italy and linking it to Southern Californian life.

Scambray stressed that the story of Italian immigrants moving to the West is one of optimism.

The audience, a mix of students, faculty and church affiliates loyal to the Lecture Series, seemed to appreciate the hard efforts of such immigrants. California is noted as being a land rich in culture and diversity.

“I enjoyed the lecture because of the notion of recreating one’s childhood,” said David Werner, English department chair and professor of English.

Werner also noted that Scambray’s lecture serves as an example for literature, since symbolism and metaphors are often what make a topic significant.

“What we teach as English professors is to look at other elements that are left unsaid,” Werner said. “Scambray’s lecture showed us the construction of beautiful sights and also the scenes of their childhood and heritage.”

Werner, who attempts to attend all lectures, agreed that the Series is an important asset to ULV, since it is a fantastic opportunity to learn outside one’s area of expertise.

“The lecture series is one of the nice things about being at the University—being in an intellectual community,” Werner said.

Al Clark, associate vice president of academic affairs, is attributed for taking charge of and organizing the lectures.

The faculty lectures have been occurring for five years at ULV, gaining exponential interest each year from professors wishing to lecture and from community members wishing to learn from them.

According to Clark, the speakers are generally chosen on the principal that they are just coming back from a sabbatical to share their research, they have received grants from the research committee on a topic in their field, or they are new professors. It is an English tradition to welcome them to the University as well as to learn what individual experiences they will bring.

“The heart of ULV is a teaching campus, not a research campus,” Clark said. “These lectures prove that research is going on all over the place.”

Many times, Clark said, teachers will approach him with an engaging topic in their field and, depending on availability, will be allocated a date to speak.

This academic year, the Faculty Research Lecture Series is entirely booked every Tuesday.

The dense schedule of lecturers even led Clark to accidentally schedule his lecture on the San Gabriel River Watershed nature and history during spring break.

One upcoming lecture this fall is Constance Rossum’s “The Challenge for a ‘Neighborhood’ Tribal Casino: Attracting and Retaining Heavy Users” on Oct. 28. Another lecture will focus on “The Influence on Perceived Racial Discrimination and Masculine Ideology on the Self-Esteem of Latino Men” by Christopher Liang, assistant professor of psychology, on Dec. 9.

The Tuesday Faculty Lecture Series, held at noon in the President’s Dining Room, is free of charge and open to the community.

Lesley Michaels can be reached at

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