Pickle Works/Citizens Warehouse Epic Essay 5
The Pickle Factory/Citizens Warehouse and Art Dock Demolished Site, February 23, 2019
All that remained of the Citizens Warehouse were the concrete covered brick buttresses of the foundation wall and a masonry nubbin of the Center Street façade obscured behind a Caterpillar Variable Boom Excavator. The big backhoe is silent and the site empty on a Sunday waiting for Monday to remove and bury the last evidence of the 130-year old pickle factory, paper box plant, storage facility, and artist housing building. The Art Dock with its roll-up metal door, wood freight car bumper, and the piled-up rubber buffer truck fenders are a memory. In a week there will be nothing here but a flat pad of earth ready to be covered with train yards. Another chapter in Los Angeles’ destruction of its history will be closed. Once again in the City of Angels, the evidence of old dreams and their possibilities, will be erased to celebrate the opportunism of now. However, if you’re imaginative, you might see the gold ghost of Joan of Art on her gilded stallion parading across the site, declaring by her heroic presence the bold, vibrant, and innovative creative forces that once were the Downtown LA Art Community. Like Jeanne D’Arc, the icon of French history, today riding her golden horse near the Louvre, signifying something greater than economics: the human struggle for culture and value in history and in art. The efforts to survive the lucrative real estate deals will go on here in the Arts District.
The Arts District, a node of newness in the abandoned oldness, is dying of its own success. This is an old story, played out in every place artists have colonized as they seek opportunities to live inexpensively and do their imaginative thing. The capitalists buy the land. They know a good investment when they see it. Artists are generally too poor to exploit the conditions they create. The life-stylers seeking genuineness rent a sanitized rendition of the original. Eviction of the artists begins and the originality is destroyed. Surrounding the vacant nighttime high-rise office core, the center of Angeles is following the same trajectory. Gentrification happens. It is considered good thing for most cities, but the peripheral — the poor, the disfavored minorities, and the artists — are pushed aside. This case of reuse and replacement is changing Los Angeles. The city that was described as having no center, nor a downtown population, has developed one, but authenticity is the victim. Where there were no Starbucks, no classy restaurants, fancy retailers, or big-name art galleries, the chic and the similar are appearing. Before it was the Atomic Café with its drug addled waiter; Vickman’s, where produce market truck unloaders, politicians, and artists, mixed for lunch in the cafeteria lines served by surly waitresses; Al’s Bar, a graffiti-plastered hole in the wall in the railroad era African-American friendly American Hotel poured beer for bohemian artists and punk rock bands; the original Hardrock Bar edged to Skid Row, which harbored bikers, the rootless, and transvestites; and the homeless, often naked, mined the dumpsters. There wasn’t much else, but an alternative ethos flourished in the shadows.
The Citizens Warehouse was one of principal locations of the original illegal art community. The prohibition of living and working in old warehouses and factories gave the community a social edge. Almost every form of contrary behavior was allowed by a political blind eye except habitation. When a law enforcement raid was anticipated the beds went to Venice or were obscured beneath ping pong tables. Performance art occurred in the lofts and streets. A female artist lay on a bed in a scruffy unmarked venue surrounded by six-foot walls and invited the attending artists to climb over the wall and have sex with her. Only a few had the courage to lever over the barrier. From a crane, an artist dropped a ton of bricks on a mocked-up typical American bedroom. These actions were never done with approved city permits. Near the Art Dock on a ruined freight platform, Ulysses Jenkins created his outdoor event “Without Your Interpretation,” illuminated by parked car headlights and drawing the power for the musical instruments from one outlet within the warehouse. The commotion drew the police, who threatened to arrest the artist. Ulysses, standing on the concrete podium in his pajamas, explained to a patrol officer that what was happening was art. The police drove away.
Frame from the video, ”Without Your Interpretation,” by Ulysses Jenkins
Female artists, seeking a place where the male art community wasn’t predominant, flocked to the secret buildings east and south of Alameda and Little Tokyo. They were the backbone of the community. Working straight jobs in the Asian restaurants, bartending in Al’s Bar and a few of the other seedy liquor joints, and operating fork lifts in the markets, they could afford the cheap rents and big spaces the soon-to-be Arts District provided. A few had fancier jobs, but all came home to rough living. The legend of the two female artists confronted on a dimly lit street and accused of prostitution by the police, whom they backed down by declaring demonstratively they were artists and lived here, was the shared story of occupying this forbidding zone. In this unrecognized area the Woman’s Building appeared featuring feminists: Sheila De Bretteville, Judy Chicago, Rachel Rosenthal, and many other notable women artists.
The Young Turks, the initial group of the artists to establish a community in area around Traction Avenue, Hewitt Street, and Third Street, which included entrepreneur, artist, and impresario of Al’s Bar, Marc Kreisel; Stephen Seemayer, performance artist and film maker; Andy Wilf, the painter and artist, who gained the first notoriety for the Downtown Arts Community, by his recognition as a young talent from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and his subsequent death by a drug overdose, also included three significant female artists. These pioneers were: Linda Burnham, poet, multi-discipline artist, and founder of Exile Gallery, and the magazine, High Performance, the preeminent voice of Performance Art on the West Coast; Monique Safford, word and image collage artist; and Coleen Sterritt, sculptor, whose work with sharpened stakes created an instability and a threatening tension, which confronted the attitude of the art world toward women. Sterritt states in the film the Young Turks, “People…when I tell them that I’m an artist, or that I’m in downtown, ………, they immediately don’t take me seriously, or if they do, it’s like I paint pink pastel paintings or something.”
Downtown didn’t attract pink pastel painters. It drew women who were tough, resilient, and insightful. The Citizens Warehouse and the Art Dock were havens for women like this. I remark on two, whose strength and leadership saved the Citizens Warehouse artist community, and a third, Monique Safford, an Art Dock exhibitor. When the law allowing artist to live in warehouses and factories was passed, a developer bought the building and the leases had to be renegotiated. The artists faced significant rent increases, which potently would drive them out. Ellen Fitzpatrick, dancer and sitar player, had a day job in the corporate offices of Mattel Toys. To build her space, Ellen, returning from work, dressed in flowing designer clothes, would buff her maple floor with a large industrial sized circular sander. Ellen and Karen Kristin, fine artist, who made her living as a sky painter in Hollywood and casino malls like the Venetian in Las Vegas, became the force behind a tenants’ association. They found a willing lawyer, directed his efforts, and marshalled all the artists together in an unbreakable coalition to keep the rents low. For five additional years the Citizens Warehouse remained an affordable loft location, while others started to fall to sale and skyrocketing rents. In 1990, the low-cost reality ended, as it pretty well had ended everywhere else in the Arts District. Complete Gentrification took another 10 to 15 years. Only a few determined survivors remain.
Karen Kristin at the Citizens Warehouse, 1981
The fate of the Arts District was forecast and protested in the installation in the Art Dock by the self-described “Romantic Pessimist” Monique Safford. Within the 10 foot by 10-foot doorway of the Art Dock, Monique placed a huge photographic transparent image that she had salvaged from the trash bin outside a public advertising venue. The picture was a land and sea scape of the last illumination after the sunset. Inscribed over the photograph were the words “Less Ennui in ’83.” Only seen at night, as was often the case with Art Dock installations, the piece was haunting and beautiful. Situated in the dark part of town where poor street lighting and un-lit structures were the norm, “Less Ennui” glowed. The aesthetic statement in the façade of an old brick warehouse, whose other openings were mainly small windows illuminated by artists at work in their studios, was at once a marvel of and a warning for the artist community. 1983 passed with minimal ennui. The community dramatically rose and gradually shrank. Monique Safford moved to New York. Linda Burnham and Karen Kristen moved out of state. Ellen Fitzpatrick disappeared. The Citizens Warehouse is demolished. Let us not grieve in vain. Let us not give in to total weariness. Joan of Art is still around to inspire. Less Ennui in 2123.
Less Ennui in’83 by Monique Safford