Going Gray in LA

Going Gray in LA

Today I was down at the Central Library and stumbled across a very cool show about growing old in Los Angeles. Journalist Ruxandra Guidi and photographer Bear Guerra spent time with seniors living in four communities along Broadway: Lincoln Heights, Chinatown, Downtown and South LA. The show is called Going Gray in LA: Stories of Aging Along Broadway, and it documents a side of the city that most of us pay little attention to. The images the media presents of LA are generally focussed on the young and beautiful. Senior citizens, unless they’re rich and famous, are usually ignored.

You can see the show like I did, in two small galleries on the first floor of the Central Library.

Going Gray in LA at Los Angeles Central Library

If you do make the trip Downtown, you can pick up a free print version of the material, with text in English, Spanish, Japanese and Chinese.

You also have the option of viewing the images and stories on KCRW’s web site.

Going Gray in LA at KCRW

Either way, you should check it out. The images are beautiful and the stories open a window on a world most of us don’t pay enough attention to.

Downtown Artists Fight Eviction

AE 01 Coming Soon

Artists are being forced out of the Arts District. This isn’t news. It’s been happening for years. The news is that now the artists are fighting back.

On Saturday, November 4, two groups of artists facing eviction organized a parade to bring attention to the rampant displacement that threatens their community. Earlier this year the residents at 800 Traction were told by the new owners of the building that they’d have to leave. Also this year, the people behind the Artists’ Loft Museum Los Angeles (ALMLA) were hit with a steep rent increase that seems intended to force them out. So the two groups have gotten together to let the world know that they’re not going quietly.  On Saturday, November 4 they staged a parade through Downtown.

AE 10 Skel Pharm

The parade started in Little Tokyo.

AE 12 Angel 1

Took a right on Alameda.

AE 14 Crowd Alameda 3

Then the protesters headed down Alameda toward Fourth.

The parade started in Little Tokyo, cut down Alameda to Fourth, then wended its way along Seaton, Fifth and Hewitt, finally winding up at 800 Traction. It was an interesting walk. Protesters waved signs and displayed artwork. Two giant skeleton figures towered over the crowd. A few cars honked to show their support.

AE 16 Crowd Alameda 4

A momentary pause on Alameda.

AE 18 Crowd Seaton 2

Marching along Seaton.

AE 20 Merrick

And then up Merrick.

We passed in front of the building that holds ALMLA, which is actually a brand new enterprise. Michael Parker and Alyse Emdur have lived in this space, along with other artists, for 16 years. Parker says that in just the last 6 years their rent has risen by 200%. The latest increase is beyond what they can pay, and Parker believes it was designed to force them out. So the artists at 454 Seaton decided to create ALMLA, which they hope will draw attention to their situation, and to the larger wave of displacement that’s sweeping across Los Angeles. Just before the museum’s opening, the landlord went to court to shut the event down. Fortunately he failed.

I used to hang out in this area back in the 80s and 90s. It’s depressing to see some of the changes that have taken place. While most of the buildings remain, with the onslaught of gentrification many of them now house chic boutiques and pricey restaurants. Anonymous LLCs have bought up a lot of the real estate, and investors seem bent on turning this part of Downtown into something very close to a suburban mall.

AE 40 Shop

Shop in the Arts District.

AE 42 Restaurant

Eat in the Arts District.

AE 44 Creative Campus

Gentrify the Arts District.

Like I said, we ended up back at 800 Traction. A number of the artists who live in this building have been here for decades. Some were among the first wave of artists to move to the area back when it was more or less a decaying industrial ghost town. And most of the current residents at 800 Traction are part of the Japanese-American community, which is crucial to this story. This community has hung on in spite of successive waves of forced displacement going back to WWII. In the early part of the 20th century, Little Tokyo stretched far beyond its current boundaries. There were numerous Japanese-owned businesses and Japanese cultural institutions in the area between Alameda and the LA River. The first assault was the internment of Japanese-Americans after Peal Harbor. Since then City Hall has carved out one piece after another. And now these artists, after years of working within the community, are threatened with eviction.

AE 50 Golf 2

A performance featuring two of the Downtown elite enjoying a round of golf.

AE 52 Golf 4

They seemed to agree that gentrification wasn’t happening fast enough.

Hanging out with the other party guests, I felt like the room was filled with a kind of giddy energy, but there was also an undercurrent of tension. I spoke with Nancy Uyemura and Jaimee Itagaki, and they gave me the latest news about 800 Traction. The building’s new owners, DLJ Real Estate Capital Partners, had hired a property management firm, Pearson, that seemed intent on sabotaging the gathering. Pearson had called the cops before the party, apparently believing they could shut it down, but it went on as planned. They also sent security guards to keep an eye on the tenants and guests. Harrassment in situations like this is commonplace, and Pearson is doing their best to make things uncomfortable. Uyemura said that the tenants at 800 Traction were told in May that they had to leave, and they were supposed to be out by August. Recently they received an unlawful detainer notice. Their hearing date is in December.

AE 60 Party 1

Protesters gathered at 800 Traction after the parade.

AE 62 Security

I hope the security guards enjoyed the party.

AE 64 Sketch

Artists sketched their take on what’s happening Downtown.

The attempt to evict the artists at 800 Traction is bad enough, but there’s another layer to this story that makes it even more disturbing. DLJ has decided to go through the process of designating the building a Historic-Cultural Landmark, which will enable them to get significant tax breaks for renovating the structure. They hired GPA Consulting to do the research for the nomination. GPA’s report talks at length about the building’s architect and Beaux Arts revival style and the food processing industry. They even mention Al’s Bar and LACE. But somehow they completely avoid any mention of the Japanese-American community that thrived in the neighborhood for decades. They also neglect to mention that the current residents have deep ties to the current Japanese-American community, and that some of them were among the first artists to move to the neighborhood back in the 80s.

In other words, GPA’s report completely whitewashes the community’s history. At the Cultural Heritage Commission (CHC) hearing where the nomination was considered, some attendees pointed this out, among them Dorothy Wong, herself a preservation consultant. Wong was baffled by the fact that the report didn’t refer to Little Tokyo once, and made no mention at all of the Japanese-American artists who had lived and worked at 800 Traction for decades. To their credit, the CHC agreed that the report was incomplete and chose to defer their decision until further work was done.

This may seem like a small victory, but it goes to the heart of what’s happening in Downtown. Ruthless investors are kicking artists and others out of the area so they can turn it into a sanitized, upscale urban destination. The Mayor and the City Council are doing everything they can to help make that happen. The people who have lived and worked in the area for much of their lives, the people who built communities and kept them going through tough times, are being told to leave. And while City Hall makes a great show of preserving historic structures, they’re destroying the communities that gave those structures life.

It’s hard to say whether the artists at 800 Traction and ALMLA will win this battle. They’re a determined group, and they seem committed to fighting til the bitter end. But LA has become increasingly hostile to artists, and the Mayor’s vision for Downtown is all about handing the area over to developers.

What have real estate investors put into this community? Money. What do they want out of it? More money.

What have the artists put into this community? Their lives. And what do they want? To continue working with and for the community, as they’ve been doing for years.

Find out more by following these links.

800 Traction

ALMLA

AE 90 Skel Sun

Bernie’s Norebang

BN 01 Side Car

Bernie’s Coffee Shop, mural by Dionisio Ceballos

Okay, so I kind of have an obsession with Johnie’s Coffee Shop at Wilshire and Fairfax. When I was younger it was one of a number of coffee shops me and my friends used to hang at after movies or shows. It closed in 2000, and for years now I’ve been wondering if it would ever reopen.

Well, it has. Kind of.

Johnie’s isn’t a coffee shop any more. It’s morphed into something else. During last year’s presidential campaign, the owner of the restaurant offered it to a group of Bernie Sanders supporters, and it became the Sanders HQ in LA. After the campaign ended, the group continued to meet there to talk about ways to keep pressing for a progressive agenda.

BN 10 Johnies Corner

Johnie’s/Bernie’s Coffee Shop at Wilshire and Fairfax

I didn’t know about any of this until earlier this year when I was waiting at a bus stop with a friend, and we started talking to a guy about the coffee shop. He told us that it was a meeting place for the Sanders crowd. I immediately wanted to drop in and check it out.

So I was surfing the net in August, and came across a post advertising Bernie’s Norebang at Johnie’s. I knew I had to go.

I showed up at Johnie’s around seven o’ clock on a Friday night. It was early, and nobody was there yet, but the people were really friendly and I was soon deep into a discussion about how we could solve the housing crisis. One of the things that impressed me about everybody I talked to that night was that they all have a genuine desire to change things for the better.

For those of you who don’t know the word “norebang”, it’s the Korean version of karaoke. It was a blast. They asked for a twenty dollar donation at the door, but no one was turned away. Once inside, beer and food were free. I only had one plate of food. I don’t want to talk about how many beers I had.

But rather than tell you about it, let me just show you some pictures….

BN 20 Before

When I first arrived, there were just a few people setting up.

BN 30 Lights Hat

But soon the place started filling up.

BN 32 Progress

Everybody seemed to be having a good time.

BN 40 Singer

A vocalist cutting loose.

BN 42 Young Americans

Another vocalist takes a shot at Bowie’s Young Americans.

BN 60 Mural

I started wandering around, and found this mural in a corner of the restaurant.

BN 65 Counter Bottles

I wasn’t the only one drinking.

BN 70 Silhouettes

A shot taken from the corner by the mural.

I had a great time. I talked to a lot of interesting people. I sang a few songs. The only disappointment was that I didn’t get a standing ovation for my rendition of the Beatles’ Revolution. It could be that the other guests didn’t appreciate my talent. It could also be that I was on my fourth beer, and was having trouble staying on key.

Bernie’s Norebang was hosted by Ground Game LA.  They made it happen three times over the summer. Sorry I only made it to one. It was definitely one of the summer’s highlights.

BN 90 Sign

Visualizing Language: Oaxaca in LA

Oax 01 Head

We may think of images and language as two separate things, but they’re not. They’re bound together in a million complicated ways, and it’s impossible to pull them apart. In a city like Los Angeles, we’re constantly surrounded by a swirl of words mutating into images (think the Hollywood sign, or a street artist spraypainting their name in neon colors) and images with easily recognizable meanings (a green cross, or a peace symbol).

In Visualizing Language: Oaxaca in LA, a series of murals on display at the Central Library, the artist collective Tlacolulokos takes on the endlessly complex relationship between words and images, and at the same time they explore the equally complex cultural landscape of indigenous people who have migrated to Los Angeles.

Oax 05 Crowd

This newly written visual history is meant to be a response to earlier versions of history, specifically the series of murals by Dean Cornwell that decorates the Central Library’s rotunda. Cornwell’s images tell the story that the City’s leadership wanted to hear back in 1933, the discovery of the New World, the spread of Christianity, the march of Civilization. Of course, the indigenous people represented in those murals were generally down on their knees, waiting for salvation.

Oax 10 Old Mural 1

One of the murals painted by Dean Cornwell for the Library in 1933

There’s no point in me trying to write about these murals, because they speak so eloquently themselves. I’ll let the images do the talking. Just a word about the way they’re organized. The murals are conceived as three sets of diptychs, and the title for each set is given in Zapotec, the language of the indigenous people of Oaxaca.

Gal rabenee ladxuu/For the Pride of Your Hometown

Ra galumbanuu xhten guccran nii/The Way of the Elders

Ne guitenala’dxinu ca binni ma cusia’ndanu/And in Memory of the Forgotten

Oax 30 Boy Bus

Gal rabenee ladxuu/For the Pride of Your Hometown

Oax 35 Boy Bus Close

Gal rabenee ladxuu/For the Pride of Your Hometown (detail)

Oax 37 Never Forget Close

Gal rabenee ladxuu/For the Pride of Your Hometown

Oax 40 Cal Wide 01

Ra galumbanuu xhten guccran nii/The Way of the Elders

Oax 45 Cal Close

Ra galumbanuu xhten guccran nii/The Way of the Elders (detail)

Oax 47 St Sign 1

Ra galumbanuu xhten guccran nii/The Way of the Elders

Oax 50 Tattoo

Ne guitenala’dxinu ca binni ma cusia’ndanu/And in Memory of the Forgotten

Oax 60 Corona

Ne guitenala’dxinu ca binni ma cusia’ndanu/And in Memory of the Forgotten

The exhibition, a joint effort by the Library Foundation of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Public Library, is part of Pacific Standard Time. Of course, these photos don’t do the murals justice. Really you should just head on down to the Central Library and see them for yourselves.

Visualizing Language: Oaxaca in LA

 

Commemorating Japanese Internment by Evicting Little Tokyo Artists

Little Tokyo Artists

It’s been 75 years since the US Government issued an order to intern all residents of Japanese descent. DLJ Real Estate Capital Partners is going to commemorate that event in a special way.  The company will soon be evicting the tenants at 800 Traction, another reminder to the residents of Little Tokyo of just how little their lives really mean.

Of course, you hear about evictions all the time in LA, and City Hall has let us know repeatedly that renters are completely disposable when their lives are weighed against investor profits. Mayor Garcetti has used the Department of City Planning like a sharp knife in carving out his radical gentrification agenda, and tenants from Boyle Heights to the beach communities know they have a target on their back.

But still, this case stands out, because of the history involved….

You see, Little Tokyo used to cover a lot more territory than it does now. While 800 Traction is no longer considered part of the district, prior to WWII it fell well within the bounds of the Japanese community. Many Japanese residents lost their homes and businesses because of the internment. City Hall took more land away in the 50s to build Parker Center. More land, more housing, more businesses were lost when (ironically) Japanese corporations moved in during the 70s and 80s. And so over time Little Tokyo has been reduced to a shadow of what it once was.

But there’s another layer to this that makes it even more disturbing. A number of the residents at 800 Traction are Japanese-American artists who’ve been living in the community for decades. They’ve worked with local cultural institutions, creating art for the people who live in Little Tokyo. They have deep roots in the neighborhood and helped create the Downtown art scene when nobody wanted to live there. Many people have pointed out the horrible irony in the fact that real estate interests have spent a fortune on branding the area as the Arts District, all the while kicking out the artists who made the place happen.

The tenants could be forced out by the end of this month. It’s hard to say whether they have any hope of keeping their homes, but it can’t hurt to raise your voice to support them. Please write to Councilmember Jose Huizar, and ask him why he isn’t doing more to protect the artists of 800 Traction against the soulless vampires at DLJ Capital Partners.

Here’s a clear, straightforward subject line.

STOP THE EVICTIONS AT 800 TRACTION!

Councilmember Jose Huizar
councilmember.huizar@lacity.org

And don’t forget to copy Mayor Garcetti, so he understands the damage his gentrification agenda is causing.

Mayor Eric Garcetti
mayor.garcetti@lacity.org

If you want more details, here’s an excellent piece from the Rafu Shimpo.

They Say Gentrify – We Must Unify!

 

Culture Is Community

MM 000 Open Energy

Years ago I worked at The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Downtown. I loved working there, because it meant always being around art. That was very cool. But after a while, I started to realize there was a problem with museums. Just by their nature, they put barriers between the art and the audience. For instance, MOCA had a Rauschenberg combine in its collection. When it was first shown back in the 50s, it was an interactive piece and the artist expected people to touch it. But by the time it was acquired by the museum, the combine was worth over a million bucks, and if you tried to touch it, the security guard would freak out. Unfortunately, that’s what happens when artists become icons and their work ends up in institutions.

So it’s really cool when artists make work that’s always accessible to its audience. Art that’s part of the daily life of the community. That’s why LA’s murals are so important. They’re not sitting in a temperature controlled gallery surrounded by security guards. They’re out there on the street, in the midst of the community. And Pacoima is one community that’s extremely lucky in this respect. The streets there are loaded with murals. They come in all sizes, shapes and colors. They can be poetic, patriotic or political. Many feature pop culture icons, but some of them are all about ideas.

MM 005 VN SF EDITED

Van Nuys Boulevard at San Fernando Road

Once you get to Pacoima, it’s not even like you have to go looking for the murals. Just head up Van Nuys Blvd. and the art starts jumping out at you. This community has actively supported local artists, and it’s important to emphasize that this is a community effort. While individual artists put their names to the finished work, these murals are a team effort, and often they list the names of the many people involved in making it happen.

MM 010 LotV 1

Lady of the Valley by Levi Ponce, near Van Nuys and Arleta

MM 020 Born

Born in East Valley by Levi Ponce, at Van Nuys and Bartee

LA has come to be known as a mural mecca, but City Hall hasn’t always treated these artists well. In 2002, to settle a longstanding dispute with billboard companies, an ordinance was passed to make murals illegal. But it got worse. In the years that followed, the City obliterated a number of these works by painting them over. One article I read said that 300 murals were lost, but it’s probably impossible to calculate the real number. The City passed an ordinance to lift the ban in 2013, and since then artists have been making up for lost time. It’s weird, though, because while the City went after illegal murals with a vengeance, it’s never taken any serious action to crack down on illegal billboards. I bet if the artists had been able to shower our elected officials with campaign cash like the billboard companies have, there never would have been a ban in the first place.

MM 030 Sacrificing

Sacrificing to Protect by STP Foundation, near Van Nuys and Vena

MM 040 FK DR

Pacoima Kahlo* by Levi Ponce, at Van Nuys and Ralston

Many of the murals celebrate pop culture icons, like the two pictured here featuring Ritchie Valens and Elvira.

MM 065 RV

La Bamba/Ritchie Valens by Hector Ponce, at Van Nuys and Amboy

MM 067 RV CU

Closer shot of Ritchie Valens

MM 070 Elvira

Elvira en Pacoima by Hector Ponce, near Van Nuys and Haddon

But they also focus on lesser known names, people whose lives and work have a meaning to those in the community.

MM 060 Artistas

Artistas de la Comunidad by Hector Ponce, near Van Nuys and Laurel Canyon

This isn’t a mural, but it caught my eye. The caricature of Cantinflas, a forgotten star from another age, painted on the front of a shuttered fast-food stand, seemed both funny and sad at the same time.

MM 050 Cantinflas

The theme of freedom comes up over and over again. Sometimes it’s political. Sometimes it’s purely personal.

MM 080 Freedom Fighter

Freedom Fighter by Kristy Sandoval, at Van Nuys and Pala

MM 090 Decol

Decolonized by Kristy Sandoval, at Van Nuys and Bradley

MM 100 La Lady Liberty

La Lady Liberty by Levi Ponce, at Van Nuys and Bradley

MM 110 WO Boundaries

Without Boundaries by Levi Ponce, at Van Nuys and Haddon

There’s plenty of awesome art in Pacoima, but you can find murals all over LA. If you want to see more, The Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles is a great place to start. If you haven’t been to their web site already, you need to pay them a visit.

The Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles


*  This seems to be the second mural featuring Frida Kahlo by Levi Ponce at this same location.  I found an earlier version on the net that had the title Pacoima Kahlo, but I’m not sure if that title applies to the current version.

MM 120 Metro Market

Moving Forward in Reseda

The Reseda Theater

The Reseda Theater

A little over a year ago I wrote a post about how people in Reseda were frustrated. For years the business district in the heart of the community has been struggling, and projects that were supposed to revitalize the area somehow never materialized.

Well, there’s been some progress since then. Just recently a deal was struck to reopen the long vacant Reseda Theater as a multiplex, and to create 34 units for senior citizens adjacent to the building. The multiplex will be operated by Laemmle Theatres, which played a part in revitalizing North Hollywood with its complex there.

This deal is just a first step. Members of the community have been struggling for years to revitalize the neighborhood, and many hope that this project signals a turnaround. The Reseda Neighborhood Council and Councilmember Bob Blumenfield have worked hard to engage the community and rustle up the money to make this happen. For more details, see this article from the Daily News.

Reseda Theater to become Laemmle Multiplex

But redevelopment is only part of the equation. Bringing new life to a community requires a lot more than investment. It’s really about people. Creating community means creating a sense that the people who live in the area are connected, that they share something more than a zip code. This piece from the LA Weekly caught my attention.

Reseda Rising Artwalk Proves the Valley Is Cool

The artwalk was put together by 11:11 ACC and the Department of Cultural Affairs. I’d never heard of 11:11 ACC before, so I took a look at their web site and found out that they’re an artists’ collective operating in the San Fernando Valley. Sounds like an interesting group. If you want to check them out, here’s the link.

11:11 ACC

Seems like things are finally happening in Reseda. Hopefully this is just the beginning.