Downtown Artists Fight Eviction

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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.

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The parade started in Little Tokyo.

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Took a right on Alameda.

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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.

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A momentary pause on Alameda.

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Marching along Seaton.

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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.

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Shop in the Arts District.

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Eat in the Arts District.

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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.

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

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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.

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Protesters gathered at 800 Traction after the parade.

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I hope the security guards enjoyed the party.

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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

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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!

 

Farming on a Sliver of Land in the Suburbs

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I know there are urban farms all over LA, but the last place I would’ve expected to find one was Panorama City. One of the many suburbs that sprang up in the Valley after WWII, the area is a wide, flat expanse of tract homes and strip malls. Initially built in the late 40s, Panorama City was an early experiment in creating a master-planned community, filled largely with pre-fab houses made by Kaiser Homes.

Elliott Kuhn bought this small piece of land near Roscoe Blvd. in 2011, and started Cottonwood Urban Farm (CUF) in 2013. The farm would never have existed had the previous owner done what his neighbors were doing and sold the parcel to developers. Roy Peterson had owned the land since the 60s, and lived in a small house that sat on the back of the lot. It would have been easy for him to take an offer from the investors who were buying up the neighborhood during the last decade, filling the surrounding lots with big, nondescript, stucco boxes. But Peterson didn’t want that to happen to his property, and so when Kuhn approached him about buying the parcel to create an urban farm, he took less than he could’ve gotten elsewhere. The idea appealed to him.

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The home formerly occupied by Roy Peterson.

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Right next door you can see houses built during the construction boom of the last decade.

Kuhn had worked for a while as a teacher, and finally decided it wasn’t for him. He put in some time on farms in Austin, and also did a stint with Tree People. Buying the property in Panorama City was the first step toward starting his own farm, but it took a while to get the land in shape. One of the biggest challenges was clearing the property, which involved hauling off 15 tons of trash.

The farm is small, and the layout is compact, so it didn’t take long for Elliott to walk me through it. Toward the back there’s a tiny grove of fruit trees that produce peaches, plums, and nectarines. As we moved toward the front we walked past patches of lettuce, kale, and chard. A crowd of noisy ducks were splashing around in a tiny water hole, and off to one side there were stacks of boxes that serve as bee hives.

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You can find all kinds of things growing on this farm.

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You can see bees gathered around the opening in the box toward the back.

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The ducks try to keep cool on a hot summer day.

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A grinning statue of Buddha surrounded by greenery.

The farm gets its name from the giant cottonwood tree that rises high above it. Elliott believes it’s at least a hundred years old. I took a number of photos of the tree, and didn’t get a single image that really captured its beauty, but maybe this one will give you some idea.

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Elliott explained that the produce is not certified organic, but he tries to rely on organic principles. Crop diversity and rotation help make the farm sustainable. I asked if he made his living just by farming, and he said no. He’s hoping to eventually make the farm economically self-sustaining by moving into specialty produce that he can sell for a higher profit. Right now he makes ends meet by patching together a few different gigs, including doing presentations for groups and also working as a gardener.

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Elliott tending the farm.

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Sunflowers are amazing.

When it was time for me to leave, Elliott opened the front gate and I stepped from the soft soil of the farm back onto the hard pavement that covers so much of suburbia. I walked back down to Roscoe Blvd. where rush hour traffic was speeding past in both directions.

I know there are a lot of good reasons to make farms a part of the urban fabric. They can foster a cleaner environment, reduce CO2 emissions and offer communities healthier food. But besides all that, it seems to me that in a sprawling metropolis like LA, it’s also important just to have a place that’s peaceful and green.

If you want to learn more about Cottonwood Urban Farm, here’s the link.

Cottonwood Urban Farm

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Speaking Out on the Housing Crisis

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Housing is the hottest issue in California right now. Here in LA housing costs continue to climb, the pace of evictions is quickening, and the number of homeless is increasing by leaps and bounds. The folks at City Hall talk a lot about taking action, but nothing they’ve done so far has had any significant impact. The situation just keeps getting worse.

So a group of housing advocates, homeless advocates, and renters’ rights advocates decided to stage a protest on Fairfax last Friday. They put up a line of tents along the curb to dramatize the plight of those who are currently homeless, and also the thousands more who will likely become homeless in the next few years.

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Protesters lined up on Fairfax.

The media showed up with their cameras to cover this tent city press conference. The organizers called on Mayor Garcetti and the City Council to develop a plan to create affordable housing, ensure responsible development, and expand rent control.

A number of people spoke about different aspects of the crisis. Victor García, a recent graduate of UCSB, talked about the invisible problem of student homelessness. He told the crowd about UCLA students living in their cars because they couldn’t afford student housing and apartments in Westwood were way beyond their reach. García would like to see an end to California’s Costa-Hawkins act, which the limits the expansion of rent control.

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Victor Garcia speaks about student homelessness.

Emily Martiniuk told her own story, a harrowing account of being evicted at age 59 and having nowhere to go. Contemplating suicide, she had the presence of mind to check herself into Olive View Medical Center, and eventually was able to move into a permanent supportive housing facility. She escaped long-term homelessness, but there are tens of thousands of people on the streets of LA right now who weren’t so lucky. Martiniuk has travelled the US in recent years, speaking about the importance of creating more permanent supportive housing.

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Emily Martiniuk is a vocal advocate for permanent supportive housing.

As cars drove by on Fairfax, protesters stood at the curb holding signs and chanting slogans. Just before I left I heard them shouting, “Tent city! Do something, Garcetti!” Hopefully somebody at City Hall is listening. It would be great if the Mayor and the City Council finally did decide to do something about this crisis.

HP Tents

The Hollywood Rip-Off

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The other day I picked up a copy of the LA Weekly and came across Besha Rodell’s review for Tao in Hollywood. Clueless loser that I am, I’d never heard of this popular mini-chain before, and had no idea it had been a huge success in New York and Las Vegas. Tao’s latest location is tucked into the just-opened Dream Hotel in Hollywood, and it seems to be doing big business. But Rodell wasn’t impressed. At all. You can read his review here.

Worse Than We Imagined from LA Weekly

Reading Rodell’s description of the decor’s garish excess and ridiculously inflated prices, I felt like his review could apply to a lot of what’s happening in Hollywood these days. The Dream Hotel and Tao just seem like the latest in City Hall’s efforts to wreck the community.

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Tao on Selma in Hollywood

Does that sound extreme? And does it sound strange to be railing against garish excess in Hollywood? Hasn’t that been Hollywood’s game all along? Certainly if you look at the movie industry’s output, from the lurid spectacles of the 20s to this summer’s CGI-fueled action flicks, you’ll find plenty of outrageous, vacuous entertainment. You could also point to the sumptuous nightclubs and decadent nightlife that flourished during the studio era, when gossip columns were filled with the shameless antics of movie stars.

But the studio era ended decades ago, and over the years the place called Hollywood has grown into something very different. For a long time now it’s been a low to middle-income community with a fairly dense mix of residential and commercial. The movie stars are long gone, but there are lots of hardworking people here, people who run small shops and family-owned restaurants. Would-be actors and actresses who knock themselves out waiting tables while trying to get auditions. Kids who walk to school on streets where they have to learn early to look out for themselves.

And these people are struggling harder than ever because the City seems to be doing everything it can to push them out of Hollywood. What these people need more than anything is housing they can afford, and instead the City keeps approving high-end mutli-family projects that most Hollywood residents could never hope to move into. Yes, some affordable units have been created in recent years, but the wave of evictions continues, and we’re still losing scores of rent-stabilized apartments.

And with all this going on, the City decides we need over a dozen new high-end hotels? With multiple bars? Rooftop decks? Live entertainment? In some cases right up against apartment buildings? Really?

The City has long said that one of the key components to its plan to revitalize Hollywood is to boost the night life, but how’s that working out? I like a drink as well as the next guy, but last time I counted there were 67 places that serve alcohol in Central Hollywood. It’s not hard to get a drink here. And still the City continues to approve new liquor permits, even though violent crime and property crimes have been rising steadily in the area since 2014. Are you wondering if there’s a connection? Actually there are years of research that show a strong connection between alcohol and crime. Check out this report from the Department of Justice if you’re skeptical.

Alcohol and Violent Crime

And then there’s the traffic. Every time the City approves one of these projects, planners insist it won’t have any significant impact on congestion because Hollywood is a transit hub. The hotel guests and the partiers won’t need to drive because they can ride the bus instead. Well, take a look at these photos I snapped in front of the Dream Hotel around seven o’clock on Saturday night.

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Cars lining up in front of the hotel.

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The line of cars continues west on Selma.

And now let’s take a look at traffic a half a block away on Cahuenga.

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A shot of traffic on Cahuenga, facing Hollywood.

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A shot of traffic on Cahuenga, facing Sunset.

Remember, this is not a weekday at rush hour. This is early evening on a Saturday. Somehow I don’t find the City’s claims about people taking transit to be completely credible.

It used to be the club scene in Hollywood was mostly concentrated on Cahuenga. But the City wants to change that. Selma used to be a fairly quiet street running through a largely residential neighborhood between Vine and Highland. There’s a senior center about a block and a half away from the Dream Hotel. And there’s an elementary school about two blocks away in the other direction. But the City doesn’t seem too concerned about the elderly or the children living in the neighborhood. Our elected officials are going to turn Selma into a party corridor. A few years back Mama Shelter opened up, now the Dream, and the City Planning Commission (CPC) recently approved the tommie, an eight-story hotel featuring 2 bars, a rooftop deck, and live entertainment. It didn’t bother the CPC at all that Selma Elementary is less than 500 feet away from this latest project.

And you haven’t even heard the best part. Just blocks away, a developer is planning to build the massive Crossroads Hollywood project, and they’re asking for a master alcohol permit to allow 22 establishments to serve alcohol. You read that right. Twenty two. And not only is Crossroads Hollywood in close proximity to Selma Elementary, it’s right across the street from Hollywood High School.

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The front of the Dream Hotel.

This is the City’s idea of revitalizing Hollywood. We need low-cost housing. They give us high-end hotels. We need relief from violent crime. They keep pouring on the alcohol. Meanwhile traffic is worse than ever, transit ridership continues to decline, and the number of homeless keeps growing.

City Hall keeps saying they’re trying to bring Hollywood back to life. Why does it feel like they’re trying to kill it?

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Skyscrapers Keep Rising in Downtown, and So Does Crime

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There were a couple of articles in the Downtown News that caught my eye this week. The first was a piece about a 67-story residential tower that’s been proposed for a parcel near Figueroa and Seventh. Developers are falling all over themselves in the rush to build high-end high-rises in the area, and City Hall has been bending over backwards to help them along. The article also mentions a few other skyscrapers that are currently in the pipeline, as the the Downtown development juggeraut keeps rolling along. While it’s conceivable that a few affordable apartments will be tacked on to some of these projects in the course of the bargaining process, the vast majority of these new units will be far beyond the reach of the average Angeleno. Here’s the article if you want to take a look.

Brookfield to Build 64-Story Condo Tower

The other article was about the sharp increase in crime Downtown. For those of you who haven’t been following this issue, crime has increased in many of LA’s neighborhoods in recent years, and Downtown is one of the areas hardest hit. Violent crime in the LAPD’s Central Division is up 8.3% through June 3 compared with the same period in 2015. This includes a 15.7% increase in aggravated assault. Property crimes are up 14%, with a 64% rise in burglaries and thefts from vehicles.

The article acknowledges that rising crime is at least in part due to the fact that the area is seeing an influx of well-to-do residents at the same time that the homeless population continues to rise. In Downtown these days the gap between cozy affluence and desperate poverty is glaringly, disturbingly obvious. As City Hall continues to approve one gleaming skyscraper after another, and takes every opportunity to advertise the booming Downtown scene, its efforts to deal with the growing homeless population are still outrageously inadequate.

It’s not just the current crowd at City Hall that’s to blame for LA’s ongoing homeless crisis. For decades our elected officials have preferred to ignore the problem rather than take steps to address it. Fifty years ago the City’s approach was to try to herd the unsheltered population into Skid Row and keep them contained there. In recent years our elected officials tried more aggressive tactics, confiscating the belongings of people living on the streets and criminalizing homelessness. City Hall only backed off on this approach after losing a series of legal challenges to these practices. And in the meantime, homelessness continued to rise.

Last year it seems the Mayor and City Council finally realized how serious the situation was and how bad it was making them look. There’s been a lot of fanfare about the passage of both Measure H and Measure HHH, which will build permanent supportive housing (PSH) and provide services to treat those with mental health and addiction problems. Certainly this is an important first step, but it’s only a first step. It’ll take years to put the housing and services in place, and it’s hard to say how many units will actually be created. Meanwhile, the 2017 homeless count shows that the population increased from last year’s record high of 28,464 to a new record high of 34,189. A staggering 20% jump.

It’s great that H and HHH passed, but this is far too little, far too late. And still City Hall continues to approve endless luxury high-rises, luring more upscale residents to Downtown. They say they’re concerned about rising crime in the area, but adding more police and encouraging the formation of neighborhood watch groups isn’t going to solve the problem.

City Hall needs to start doing some planning. It needs to step back from the mad rush to build luxury skyscrapers, and start thinking seriously about how to reduce homelessness in Downtown. By now it should be obvious that the “Build, Baby, Build” approach isn’t working. Filling the urban core with high-rises for the rich while people wallow in abject poverty on the streets below has created an unsafe environment for residents and stretched the LAPD’s resources dangerously thin. The Mayor and the City Council need to accept the fact that this strategy is seriously flawed, and scale back further construction until they’ve found a way to create a safer, more equitable environment for EVERYONE who lives Downtown.

You can access the article on rising crime by clicking on the link below. I should point out that the link will take you to an on-line tabloid version of the Downtown News, and you’ll have to flip forward to page 10.

Is Downtown LA Getting More Dangerous?

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Help Koreatown Hang On to Liberty Park

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Los Angeles is notoriously behind the curve when it comes to providing public parks for its citizens. In rating 100 US cities on their park systems, The Trust for Public Land put LA at number 74. And while the city as a whole is lacking in public space for recreation, there are some neighborhoods where the need is especially acute.

Like Koreatown. This dense urban community has plenty of asphalt and concrete, but not much green space. So it’s disturbing news when a proposed project threatens to take away one of the few parks available to residents.

Liberty Park was completed in 1967 as part of Beneficial Plaza on Wilshire Blvd.. Designed by Peter Walker, its graceful curves and striking contrasts make it a unique experience. Walker was just starting his career in the 60s, but has since been become an internationally recognized landscape architect.

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A view of the park facing away from Wilshire.

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The park provides much needed green space in Koreatown.

 

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Liberty Park provides a quiet space in the middle of a busy urban area.

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The park sits at the foot of the former Beneficial Plaza.

But even more important than the park’s design is the place it holds in the community. In an area where parks are scarce, this is one of the few places where people can escape to relax on the grass or read in the shade of a tree. It’s also been a gathering place for the community, whether to celebrate Earth Day or to rally behind the South Korean team during World Cup Soccer.

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A tall grove of trees provides much-needed shade.

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Looking through the trees toward the building that now houses Radio Korea.

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The park’s design offers some interesting contrasts.

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Looking up from beneath the trees.

The proposed project is a mixed-use complex rising 30+ stories, and if approved in its current version it would reduce Liberty Park to nothing more than a few scraps of green space. It’s frustrating that the City of LA only required the developers to prepare a Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) for this new complex, allowing them to get away with a relatively low level of environmental review. It’s even more frustrating that the MND concludes that this project will have no impact on historic resources. This is ridiculous. Beneficial Plaza as a whole holds in important place in the area’s history, and there’s nothing else like Liberty Park in all of LA.

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A view of the park facing Serrano.

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A view of the park from the Oxford side.

But it’s not too late to preserve this beautiful and unique public resource. A group called Save Liberty Park has been working hard to raise awareness, and hopefully they can get City Hall to change course on this. They need your help. Here’s the link if you want to get involved.

Save Liberty Park

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