I Remember When Artists Used to Live There

AE 800 Traction

800 Traction

Back in November I posted about a protest by Downtown artists facing eviction. I’d been wanting to follow-up, so earlier this month I went to a gathering at 800 Traction to check in with the folks there. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot to report. The artists who’ve been living and working in this building for years, in some cases for decades, still don’t know what the future holds for them. They’ve hired a lawyer, and negotiations with the developer are currently underway. No one had any current news about The Artists’ Loft Museum Los Angeles (ALMLA), which is a short walk away, at 454 Seaton. This is another group of creative people who have called the area home for years. They were served with eviction papers in 2017, and have been wrangling with lawyers since then.

AE ALMLA

454 Seaton

But I wanted to write a post anyway, if only to keep this situation in peoples’ minds. As gentrification continues to spread across LA, the pace of evictions is accelerating. Evictions from apartments covered by the Rent Stabilization Ordinance (RSO) have been increasing for years, with 1,824 units taken off the market in 2017 alone. Over 23,000 RSO units have been lost since 2001. But this only tells part of the story, since there’s no mechanism in place to track the number of tenants who are forced out of non-RSO units. It’s commonplace these days for people living in a building not covered by rent control to find that the landlord has suddenly hit them with an exorbitant increase. If they can’t pay, they have to leave, and no one has been keeping track of how often that’s happened in recent years. If you’re not covered by the RSO, you have no protection. Unfortunately, that’s the case for the artists at 800 Traction.

So many people have highlighted the irony of an Arts District that’s forcing artists out, it seems redundant to bring it up again. The folks at City Hall certainly don’t care. They’ve been actively assisting real estate investors in a massive overhaul of the area. The change in the neighborhood’s vibe is both striking and depressing. Even going back just 10 years, I can remember aging warehouse spaces filled with struggling artists who didn’t have much money, but who had still managed to create a lively community. Most of those people are gone now. And where there used to be cheap dive bars and funky little stores, now the streets are being taken over by clothing shops and chain restaurants. More and more these days the neighborhood seems like a giant outdoor shopping mall.

AE Umami

The people at City Hall keep talking about how they want to create vibrant communities, and insist that the onslaught of high-priced apartments and upscale retail is helping to achieve that goal Downtown. In reality, what they’re doing is creating enclaves for the affluent that automatically exclude anyone making less than $70,000 a year.

If these artists are eventually forced out of their homes, it’ll be one more win for the developers. And a huge loss for LA.

AE Live Work

 

What Does this Building Mean?

Pkr Ctr 01 Vert

What does a building mean?

It’s an interesting question, and there’s no easy answer. Any building is going to have different meanings to different people. But the question is crucial when you start talking about preservation. Maybe we want to save a structure because it’s beautifully designed. Or maybe it held a special place in the community. Sometimes we want to hang on to a structure because of the role it played in the city’s history. Then again, there may be reasons why people want to see a building go away….

Back in 2016 I was at a City Planning Commission (CPC) hearing when Parker Center was on the agenda. The former home of the LAPD, the building has been closed for years. It was built in the mid-50s, and was orginally called the Police Administration Building (also the Police Facilities Building).* It was renamed Parker Center after the death of Chief William Parker in 1966. But it’s been empty since the LAPD moved into its new headquarters almost a decade ago. And since then the City has been trying to figure out what to do with it.

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The marker at the entrance bearing the dedication to Chief Parker.

Actually, it doesn’t seem like there was much debate at City Hall over the building’s fate. A new master plan has been proposed for the Civic Center, and there seems to be general agreement that Parker Center needs to be demolished. But the LA Conservancy argued that the structure should be preserved, both because of its design and the role it played in LA history.

So on the day I was at the CPC hearing there were two speakers on different sides of the issue. One was Jeremy Irvine, who argued for saving Parker Center. He pointed out that it was designed by Welton Becket & Associates, an innovative architectural firm that played a crucial role in shaping the look of mid-century LA. Irvine went on to talk about the building’s place in the life of the city, arguing that it was an important piece of LA history.

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A side view of Parker Center

The other speaker agreed that the building had played a role in LA history, but from her perspective it represented pain, loss and prejudice. Ellen Endo is a journalist with deep roots in Japanese community. She talked about how at the beginning of the 20th century Little Tokyo’s boundaries extended far beyond where they lie now, and how over the years LA power brokers have carved out large chunks of the neighborhood. The site where Parker Center stands now used to be a part of Little Tokyo. Endo said that for many in the Japanese community the building represented prejudice and opression.

Pkr Ctr 40 From First

A view of Parker Center from First Street

So at the hearing in 2016 the CPC heard two very different versions of what Parker Center means. And really, I think the discussion was moot. The Conservancy’s efforts delayed the process, but I believe it was decided long ago that the building’s coming down. The Board of Public Works will be reeciving bids for demolition through February 21. It will probably be gone by the end of the year.

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The main entrance to the building.  The sculpture, by Tony Rosenthal, is meant to depict a policeman protecting a family.

As to what’s going to replace it, I think that’s still an open question. While the City has an ambitious master plan for Civic Center, nobody knows where they’ll get the money to build it. The plan lays out a long-term vision with multiple phases, and it could be years before any real decisions are made. If you want to learn more, check out this article from the Downtown News.

New Civic Center Master Plan

(* Sam Fuller fans may remember that Parker Center is featured in The Crimson Kimono. Shot in Downtown during the late 50s, the film spends a good deal of time documenting life in Little Tokyo. It’s an amazing view of the community at that time.)

Pkr Ctr 90 Side Glare

 

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

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!

 

How Will Communities Stay Connected?

Rafu Shimpo staff circa 1920.

Rafu Shimpo staff circa 1920.

Recently a friend sent me a link to a story about the Rafu Shimpo, a Los Angeles-based newspaper that serves the Japanese-American community. Publisher Michael Komai released an open letter explaining that the paper has been losing money for years and is in danger of closing. Not a big surprise, but still sad news. Newspapers everywhere have been struggling to survive in a world awash in new media options. Technology offers more ways for people to get their news than over before, although I’m often surprised at what folks call “news” these days.

Newspapers may not disappear altogether, but they’re going to occupy much less space in our culture than they did thirty years ago. LA’s major English-language papers, the Times and the Daily News, have seen their circulation and their staff shrink drastically. Our Spanish-language daily, La Opinión, is a shadow of what it used to be. Many of the smaller publications that serve specific communities or cultures have gone on-line or gone away.

The disappearance of these small community papers is troubling. It seems to me we’re losing something important here. These little, independent publications came into being to give a voice to people who didn’t have one. They covered events and issues that were often underreported or completely ignored by the mainstream media. And even with stories that got lots of play in the media, these papers sometimes offered perspectives that weren’t being heard anywhere else.

No question, the internet also gives people a chance to make their voice heard, sometimes far beyond the boundaries of their community. But even though you can reach a huge audience through social media, sometimes it’s hard to figure out who you’re talking to. Two of the key factors that used to bind groups together were place and race. The internet can render both of those things meaningless, or at least effectively obscure their meaning. Is this a good thing? Nowadays people can create their own cyber communities based on the music they like, their sexual orientation, or TV shows they watched as children. You can make friends with people on the other side of the planet, and you don’t even need to speak the same language.

All of that’s great, but every once in a while we have to drag ourselves away from the net and get back to our lives in the physical world. Even if we’re not crazy about the place we live or the people we live with, we still need to deal with that reality. You may be able to fly in cyberspace, but if the sidewalks on your block are buckling, you could fall flat on your face when you go for a stroll. There are a zillion amazing musicians to be found on the net, but the musician who plays at the local bar, who may even be your neighbor, would probably really appreciate your support. And if your community is threatened by neglect or crime or overdevelopment, your only hope of turning the tide is by connecting with the people next door.

The internet can help with that. It’s one more tool we can use to create connections. But small papers like the Rafu Shimpo exist to keep people connected to what’s happening in their own community. Their whole purpose is to bring people together. It may be that advances in technology and market dynamics will slowly bury them. But we will be losing an important resource. Don’t kid yourself that social media is going to fill the void. Sharing kitty videos with a million strangers may be loads of fun, but in the long run you’ll be better off if you take the time to learn what’s happening in your own neighborhood.

Here’s a link to the letter from Michael Komai.

Open Letter from the Publisher of the Rafu Shimpo

Pros and Cons of Expanding Transit

It’s hard to even keep track of all the different projects that the MTA is working on throughout the county. New rail lines are being constructed, old ones are being expanded, and improvements are being made to increase safety and ease of use. The photos below represent just some of the projects that are currently under construction.

In Little Tokyo, work is beginning on the Regional Connector. This will be a 1.9-mile underground light-rail system that connects the Gold Line to the 7th Street/Metro Station. It will also make it easier for passengers to transfer to the Red, Purple, Blue and Expo Lines.

First and Central, future site of a stop for the Regional Connector

First and Central, future site of a stop for the Regional Connector

Material and equipment stored on the site at First and Central

Material and equipment stored on the site at First and Central

Construction on the Crenshaw/LAX Line started last year. This will be 8.5 miles of light rail running from the Expo Line to the Green Line, with below-grade, at-grade and elevated segments.

Crenshaw/LAX Line construction site at Crenshaw and Exposition

Crenshaw/LAX Line construction site at Crenshaw and Exposition

Another shot of the site from Crenshaw and Rodeo

Another shot of the site from Crenshaw and Rodeo

This project could provide a huge boost to businesses along the line, although there are already signs that it could encourage gentrification which may drive long-time residents and business owners out of the area. Click on the link below to see what may be in store for the community once the line is finished.

Plan to Turn BHCP into a 24-Hour Community

There are smaller projects going forward, too. In North Hollywood, a subterranean tunnel will connect the Red Line station to the Orange Line station just across the street. This is a great idea, and hopefully will reduce the number of riders dashing across Lankershim against red lights in order to make a connection.

Construction of subterranean tunnel in North Hollywood

Construction of subterranean tunnel in North Hollywood

Another shot of construction at the North Hollywood site

Another shot of construction at the North Hollywood site

The photos below are a few months old, but they show MTA crews working on the Purple Line expansion at Wilshire and Fairfax. By day, traffic flowed through the intersection as usual. But at night, construction crews would show up with barricades, heavy machinery and blinding lights. This project highlights the problems of constructing a major transit line in a dense urban area.

Crews working through the night at Wilshire and Fairfax

Crews working through the night at Wilshire and Fairfax

Another shot of construction at Wilshire and Fairfax

Another shot of construction at Wilshire and Fairfax

All this sounds great in theory, but this kind of rapid expansion brings plenty of problems with it. I don’t have a car, so I use public transit almost every day. If you ask a simple question like, “Are you glad that the MTA is expanding its transit network?”, I can give you a simple answer like, “Yes.” But if you ask, “What long-term impacts will this expansion have on the City of LA?”, the answers are much more complicated.

In my mind, the biggest thing to worry about is whether or not we can afford all these projects. The MTA is facing a long-term budget shortfall, which could seriously impact its ability to function. Last year they raised the cost of the day pass and the monthly pass by 40% and 30% respectively. But there are almost certainly more increases to come, and it’s uncertain whether riders will pay the higher prices. Here’s an article that LA Streetsblog published in January of this year. It explains that while last year’s fare increase brought revenue up, it may have brought ridership down. If that trend continues, we’re in deep trouble.

MTA Revenue Up, Ridership Down

The MTA is receiving tons of federal funding for these projects, but those funds depend not just on increasing ridership, but also on increasing the share of operating costs covered by fares. If we see a decrease in ridership and/or revenue, we may not be able to count on the money from the feds.

Some people will point to the fact that the LA City Council just voted for a huge increase in the minimum wage, saying that this will enable low-income riders to afford future fare hikes. I don’t buy it. First, the cost of living in LA is increasing at a phenomenal rate. The amount we spend on housing is skyrocketing, DWP rates could easily double or triple, and food is getting more expensive as the impacts of the drought become more pronounced. A significant rise in the cost of public transit will be just one more blow to the bank accounts of minimum wage workers. And there are thousands of MTA riders who don’t even earn minimum wage. LA is the wage theft capitol of the country. Lots of people who work in the restaurant and garment industries are already being paid below the minimum, not to mention the undocumented workers who will take whatever they can get. Many of these people need public transit to get around, and none of them will earn a nickel more after the minimum wage rises.

I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t extend the reach of public transit, but I do question whether this massive expansion is sustainable. I guess all we can do is wait and see.

A Patch of Green in the Grey

LT X05 Pl Trees

Week before last I went downtown to attend a meeting at City Hall. When I got there, the room was packed. It was hard to even find a seat. The zoning administrators started off with the obligatory preliminaries, which went on for quite a while. I looked around me and realized that there were dozens of people besides me who wanted to speak. I knew I was in for a long, dull morning.

So I split. They didn’t need me, and it seemed crazy to sit there waiting for a chance to talk when I knew there were other people who would cover everything I had to say, and probably say it better than I could. I decided to grab some breakfast and find a quiet place to chill. I got some food and some coffee and headed over to the plaza by the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center (JACCC).

LT X10 Pl Guys

I love to hang out there. It’s spacious and usually pretty peaceful. Unless there’s an event going on, it’s unlikely you’ll find more than a handful of people on the plaza. One side is shaded by tall trees.

Opposite me I could see people coming and going at the JACCC. They do a lot of interesting programming. They even offer ukulele lessons.*

LT X12 Pl Uk

Take a look at the web site to find out about upcoming events.

JACCC

I spent a while looking at the kites on the west side of the building, as they rose and fell with the breeze.

LT X15 Pl Kites

Then I was ready to go. But as I was leaving I saw a grove of trees off to one side. I’d never really noticed them before, so I walked over to take a closer look.

LT X25 Pl Gdn Trees View

And as I neared the trees, I realized that they were part of a garden that rested just below the level of the plaza.

LT X30 Gdn Wide

As I stood there by the locked gate, an elderly woman walked past and told me that the garden was open to the public. All I had to do was go to the JACCC and sign in. So that’s what I did.

It was so cool to discover this peaceful patch of green in the middle of downtown. I walked around snapping photos and enjoying the quiet.

LT X45 Gdn Path

I’m sure the sound of traffic was all around me, but I was more focussed on the sound of the stream that runs through the middle of the garden. I would’ve loved to spend a while just sitting on a rock and gazing into the water. Unfortunately, I had other stuff to do, so I moved on after about fifteen minutes. But I will be back.

LT X50 Gdn Water

*
In surfing the net, I noticed this comment by a woman who’s apparently a regular at the JACCC. “It is ukulele heaven in DTLA.” An amazing claim, which I can’t verify. You’ll have to check it out yourself.