Monthly Archives: January 2019

Pickle Works/ Citizens Warehouse Epic

This is the third of five articles about the 130 year old Pickle Works/Citizens Warehouse, an artist loft building demolished in January 2019 after a fire in November 2018

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Burned at the Stake – Holders

cw-1jpgThe Burned Citizens Warehouse, November 9, 2018, with Firefighter outside The Art Dock

The Citizens Warehouse went up in flames two weeks after it was saved. “Why did it burn?” the fire chief was asked, “Was it arson?” “Not likely,” the chief replied. “Homeless people have been setting fires inside for a long time. The blaze was probably caused by them trying to cook within and heat their squat against the cold.”  I was suspicious.  If fire wasn’t caused deliberately, it certainly fit the description of a purposeful calculation.  Could it have been arson by neglect?  I thought about my previous visit to the boarded-up artist studios.

My belief that the building was vacant when it was locked up in un-openable steel barriers was erroneous.  I let the impression of an empty building buttoned up in forbidding grillwork, and further marked with warning signs that any trespass or even parking on the street would be prosecuted, led me to a visual conclusion that the pull down was intended and purposeful.  I didn’t acknowledge what I had seen and hadn’t accounted for.   The Potemkin-like prison presented to the public street obscured a breach that hid behind. The fire chief’s assessment of a random blaze, not arson, caused me to reconsider an alternative conclusion.

After the release of the DEIR for public comment, I made a final visit to say goodbye to the home of the Art Dock, which had a pivotal role in my life as an artist.  The demolition of the barricaded structure seemed inevitable. The formidable steel coverings over every window, door, and loading dock along Center Street screamed the warehouse’s planned elimination, but I overlooked a jarring visible piece of evidence.

Going around the end of the structure to the rear façade, I saw a flimsy chain link fence with no gate or lock.  A filthy green sheet and worn paisley coverlet were draped over the barbed wire on the fence top.  Hesitating for a moment to see if a down-and-out inhabitant might confront me, I stepped inside the barrier. Along the façade I could see that no provision had been made to seal up the openings. The width of the space between the wall and a second chain link fence that defined the existing rail lines was narrow, perhaps just ten feet wide. The area was strewn with mattresses, soiled clothes, abandoned shoes, boxes, and assorted wrecked possessions.  I was within a sizable but linear homeless encampment. There was no one in the camp. It was creepy. I backed out.  Peering across the empty space, which once was the south end of the Citizens Warehouse, I could clearly see a guardhouse at the primary access to Metro’s existing yards and shops beyond the First Street Bridge.  Situated in the shade of the overhead structure, the guardhouse was occupied.  The occupant could see anyone enter this homeless zone.  He looked at me; I looked at him. He stood and started to emerge from the hut. I scurried away and forgot about what I had seen.

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              Homeless Encampment Behind the Pickle Works/Citizens Warehouse, 2018

24 hours a day, a security guard can watch people meandering along the street, and their comings and goings into the encampment behind the building. Anyone entering could be reported and driven away. They obviously weren’t.  Putting together what was revealed on the site, what the approved plan described, and the timing of the destructive blaze that turned the historic context to ash, I came to the opinion that what had transpired was a brilliant solution to the trouble that would soon appear.  The homeless residents provided a convenient scapegoat for the demolition of the envisioned   preservation project, which I thought was doomed to failure from the first demolition event in 2007.  The fire could be attributed to their careless inhabitation. Arson need not investigated.  No conspiracy is provable; however, the blaze provides Metro with what it really desired.

My assessment is based on these factors.  Allowing the Pickle Works/Citizens Warehouse to be accessible from behind made the site vulnerable to occupation by homeless people. These uprooted often mentally ill people can be relied upon to create havoc in an inadequately policed building. The approved plan called for preservation of a very diminished structure. The extent of demolition would leave only a small remnant of the once long and large warehouse.  Finding a funder willing to undertake the many improvements needed to make a viable project of the segment remaining would be very difficult. Efforts to locate a developer or institutional buyer were unsuccessful before, when there was more building available. After Metro sawed off the south end of the building, the project’s financial viability became nearly nil.  For this preservation project to be profitable was a long shot at best. In the revised environmental impact plan Metro committed itself to protect and preserve the materials that defined the vernacular construction, if an appropriate developer or institutional owner could be found.  The fire destroyed that possibility and most of the historic material. The wood column, beams, and flooring were incinerated. All that remained was the masonry shell that enclosed the interior. The masonry, contrary to claims of its importance, was pretty ordinary stuff. In my opinion, the fire cleared the site giving the Metro planners what they originally wanted, a large rail storage yard.  In January 2019, Metro began total demolition of the structure.  As of January 21, most of the structure was demolished. The Art Dock was gone. The bricks and the charred interior wood were being shoveled into a trash hauling trailer.

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Demolition of The Citizens Warehouse as of January 22, 2019

I am not surprised by what took place.  A restoration/preservation project could never be built profitably on the ruins, but I didn’t take into consideration the tenacity of the local arts community.  They had an agreement with the city and Metro to utilize the part of the site that they had agreed to relinquish in the revised DEIR for community use.  They propose holding the stakeholders to their commitment. The properties across the street from demolished building are for sale. If these properties are combined with the area of the Pickle Works/Citizens Warehouse slated for reuse, a large site for artist space can be assembled. This site, including air rights over the ruins, might make a profitable development, that could include affordable artist housing and community uses. Evidence that the affected parties are considering the deal is reflected in stockpiled bricks and salvaged wood beams in the hole in the ground where the vats once were.  The concept is not a done deal.  Attempts to create affordable artist spaces have been proposed in the past, to not avail, but a new Pickle Works/Citizens Warehouse provides hope that Arts District will actually include artists in the future.

What I find interesting at this point is how the fire was reported, and how that reporting speaks to the demise of the downtown art community as it was and how it reflects what it is today and will become in the future. This is the subject of the next article, “Making Myth of the Pickle Works/Citizens Warehouse and the Art Dock.”

 

 

 

 

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Pickle Works/ Citizens Warehouse Epic

This is the second of five articles about the 130 year old Pickle Works/Citizens Warehouse, an artist loft building demolished in January 2019 after a fire in November 2018

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Saved by the Vats

The artists living in the Citizens Warehouse never understood what the huge vats were in the building’s basement. The illegal artist community was more amazed that anyone would rent the low-ceilinged space, where a grid of channels surrounding pedestal-mounted large redwood columns spaced about 14 feet on centers ran between the thick brick foundation walls.  In the warehouse’s center on the area’s south edge the channels ended at the pits. The channels were valleys in which a tall person could stand upright next to flat concrete surfaces that provided only a height of five-plus feet to the ceiling joists. Only short people could occupy this huge space; and this was possible for the artist, his French wife, and their four-year old son, Will. Using big black plastic tarps, the family partitioned off the vats and subdivided the rat-shared space for living and working.

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Will in the Basement of the Citizens Warehouse, 1980

The artist was paying three cents per square foot for 4,000 square feet ($120 per month), but the family didn’t last long in the basement. For maybe a year, they toughed it out. The shared inhabitants were noisy and fast, darting across the studio at all hours of the day.  The basement didn’t provide light and ventilation for the artist’s fabrication of painted vacuum-formed 5-foot-tall half penguins. The artist, family, and penguins moved to Hollywood. Another artist tried to construct an airplane in the part of the basement next to the bridge, but fire inspectors ended that project when they uncovered flammable paint. The artist and his homemade flying machine were evicted. For most of the Artist in Residence (AIR) history the basement was a place where artists stacked their unsold works.

A building with a basement is a rare phenomenon in Los Angeles. This partially subterranean space with small clerestory windows that provided a soft dull light around the perimeter. I humorously referred to the area as a weird columbarium, where the anonymous were buried beneath the higher platform grids above the valley paths. The brick tubs could have been where the dead were washed. No one in the art community knew these vats were employed to ferment cucumbers into pickles until the LA Conservancy, in its effort to preserve and prevent the south end of this prime example of vanishing Victorian era vernacular industrial architecture with hand hewn redwood square columns and beams covered with milled maple flooring, identified the building as the Pickle Works.

When the first section of the building was constructed in 1888, it was called the “California Vinegar and Pickle Company.”  The spot was ideally situated next to the cucumber fields of the Los Angeles pueblo and river, not far from the ocean with its infinite supply of required salty brine for pickling, and conveniently located along the new railroads for transportation of fermented pickles. As the city grew and the railroad expanded, the Pickle Works grew.  In 1905 and again in 1909, the building was elongated, a second story was added, and it changed use. Pickle-making ended, and the building became a paper box-making plant employing 200 people.

As the years past, the building then became a storage facility. The Pickle Factory became the Citizens Warehouse. Finally, in the late 1970s the empty structure became artist housing. In 2005, the Pickle Works Building was determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places as a rare-for-Los-Angeles surviving 117-year old brick industrial building.  In 2006, The Library of Congress described and made a photographic survey of the structure. The black and white photographs showed the unique character of the building, then occupied by the downtown art community.

Yet registration as a historic place didn’t take place.  The City of Los Angeles bought the building, evicted the artists, and demolished the southern 75 feet for construction of the Gold Line expansion into East Los Angeles, and the widening of the First Street Bridge to accommodate the light rail line down the center of the bridge. The initial proposal called for only 35 feet to be destroyed, but that number was increased to allow for a construction staging area.  Pressured by the art community, the City agreed to resurface the lopped-off end and seek a developer to restore what was left. It didn’t happen. For ten years the warehouse remained vacant as the Los Angeles Conservancy and the art community struggled to find an investor to restore and reuse the Citizens Warehouse. Community advocates finally got the reluctant City to fulfill its promise to refinish the eyesore plywood-surfaced south elevation. The effort was a pathetic parody of phony windows and shutters made of thin sheet metal pinned to the façade. The sheet metal distorted and twisted exposed to the sun.

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         South Wall of the Citizens Warehouse before and after Restoration

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Draft Environment Impact Report (DEIR) released for public comment in March 2018 called for total demolition of the remaining part of the warehouse. The authority’s planners stated the warehouse area was needed for storage of rail cars for the Red and Purple Lines. During the allotted time for public comment, the MTA received 49 comments regarding the project’s plan. The majority of the comments were about the intended destruction of the Pickle Works aka the Citizens Warehouse. The preservationists reiterated the arguments for keeping the building because of its construction character and it long 130-year history.  Judith Randall in an email, April 27, 2018 wrote:

“How could anyone even think of demolishing a structure called the Pickle Works Building? From its vintage shutters still proudly adorning the windows after all these years to its rough knobby stucco walls and its floors worn down from the souls of boots of workers who couldn’t possibly conceive of today’s electronic age.  And that is why preserving as much of Pickle Works Building is so vital to our connection to the past. Its not just Los Angeles history, it’s hanging onto and protecting the innocence of that period when things were so much more on the human side.”

 The importance of the Pickle Works to the culture of Los Angeles was referenced in several comments. Artist George Herms lived in the structure, Paul McCarthy exhibited there, and Michael Blake, the author of “Dances with Wolves,” frequently visited the building to shower, since the abandoned gas station, now gone, where he resided was nearby. Adrian Scott Fine, Director of Advocacy for the LA Conservancy, wrote a long letter in support of saving the building. He states, mentioning the artist and writer of these comments:

“By the 1970s, the building was known as the Citizens Warehouse. As is typical of buildings in this district, this one was left vacant as a manufacturing moved out of the center city. The large, empty spaces were ideal for artists, who bought the building and rented out space to other artists for studios. Citizens Warehouse, … has a particularly noteworthy connection to the Arts District. It was the location of the Art Dock, an ever-changing feature of the neighborhood from 1980 to 1986, in which local artist Carlton Davis used the loading dock of his rented portion of the building as an innovative drive-up gallery space.”

The effort to save the warehouse was successful. The Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) was altered to preserve part of the building, and on October 25, 2018, the report was accepted by the Metro Transportation Authority’s Board. The report’s Mitigation Measure CR-3 was “expanded to not only protect and preserve portions of the building not needed for the proposed project, but to also preserve the opportunity to restore portions that were removed by a prior project.” The qualifiers are important to note in this decision.

The Metro team also concluded that the location of the storage yard and the geometry required to connect the tracks made it infeasible to avoid demolition of the warehouse’s east wall. Metro would saw-cut through the first floor, second floor and roof along the eastern and northern sides of the structure. They would salvage and store the original materials to rebuild the previously-demolished 75 feet of structure, if the reconstruction were proven to be financially viable, and an appropriate use could be found that meets the approval of the local community.

The usable space remaining to this lopped and sliced off building would be minimal compared to what it originally was — just 26, 000 square feet would be left or recreated on three levels: a second floor, first floor, and an uninhabitable basement, which conceivably would still include the vats. Finding an entity to invest in such a bastardized building would be difficult. The preservation and restoration project for the Citizens Warehouse sounded good. Everyone celebrated a community and preservationist victory, but the win was Pyrrhic, more elusive than feasible and more a feel-good political stunt than good faith possibility. Sabrina Nucciarone summarized her take in an email comment dated April 27, 2018 regarding the Pickle Works Building:

“In the words of the writers of the movie La La Land, Los Angeles has the long-suffering personality of being the city that “worships everything and values nothing.”  It is a long-standing joke even in commentaries in movies, television, shows, and documentaries. Don’t be the one that says, “Tear it down.”cwdemo&vats011319 copy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Pickle Works/Citizens Warehouse Epic

This is the first of five articles about the 130 year old Pickle Works/Citizens Warehouse, an artist loft building demolished in January 2019 after a fire in November 2018

Article 1

Locked Up and Condemned to Die

Preamble

The Pickle Works/Citizens Warehouse, perhaps the oldest brick warehouse in the city of Los Angeles had a long history. Since its construction in the 1880s, the two-story structure with mysterious large open tanks in the low-ceilinged basement stood near the railroad tracks next to the river. Over its 130 years’ existence, the building was enlarged and served many different uses. It was most associated with the railroad, for which rail cars were unloaded and filled through the loading docks on the building’s east and west sides. The second Los Angeles railroad terminal, Santa Fe Station, called Le Grande Station with its Moorish central dome, was a block away across First Street. Goods shipped on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe were stored in the warehouse When the station was demolished in 1946, the warehouse went into decline. The new freeways ended the demand for rail spur-accessible storage; and concern arose about the earthquake safety of unreinforced brick buildings. In the late 1970s, the vacant structure became illegal loft spaces for artists. Legalization by the “Artist in Residence,” ordinance made live/work spaces popular. Residential use continued through 2006, when the city purchased the facility, evicted the artists, and demolished the south end for construction of the expansion of the Gold Line light rail line over the 1920s-era First Street Bridge. Afterwards, for more than ten years, the Citizens Warehouse remained vacant and was constantly threatened with demolition.

Destruction seemed inevitable after the March 2018 Draft Environmental Impact Report (D.E.I.R.) for the Division 20 Portal Widening/Turnback Facility Project by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority (Metro) was released. The report recommended the demolition of the Citizens Warehouse in order to accommodate the new train facility’s rail car storage. A final decision would be made by the transit board October 25, 2018, , after a period of public comment.

The following article was written in support of the effort to save the building instigated after publication of the D.E.I.R. The article was published on Esotouric LA’s blog on October 17, 2018. Kim Cooper introduced the guest post written by Carlton Davis, the proprietor of the 1980s Art Dock Drive-by Gallery in the historic building in Downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District, stating:

“What a tragedy that the City of Los Angeles is actively erasing the history and culture of the Arts District, a neighborhood that no longer supports working artists, while capitalizing on their reputation.,,  The final decision on its fate will be made at the Regular Metro Board of Directors Meeting on Thursday, October 25.”

This article is the first of five articles written by Carlton Davis about the fate and the meaning that can be attributed to the Citizens Warehouse epic.

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artdock2018 copyArt Dock and Doorways, Citizens Warehouse aka Pickle Works, Los Angeles, CA, August, 2018

Steel bars, angles, and heavy mesh imprison the Art Dock, all the ground floor openings, and doorways of the Citizens Warehouse. No Trespassing signs declare violators will be prosecuted for parking on the street. The once-vibrant artist residences and studios are vacant and have been since the city of Los Angeles purchased the building in 2005 for construction of the Gold Line light rail extension into East LA. A 75-foot section of the old warehouse next to the First Street Bridge was demolished for bridge widening and construction staging. The extensive destruction was needlessly large. By October 2018, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) eagerly awaits planning permission to demolish what remains of this 1880s brick warehouse with its hand-hewn redwood columns, beams, and oak plank floors. The Division 20 Environmental Impact Study (DEIR) has declared demolition necessary. This is after the city’s earlier promise to preserve the building.

The City and MTA lied for almost 18 years about their intentions. After the 2007 demolition Community and preservationist pressure caused LA City’s Bureau of Engineering to promise to “restore” the south end of the building as part of a good faith effort to save the historic structure as one of the few, if not the only remaining, brick warehouses dating from the 19th century, and to make it usable by the art community because of its significance in the flourishing art community of downtown Los Angeles from the late 1970s to 2000. The Potemkin Village reality that hid the true intentions of the Metro’s transportation planners is obvious from what was ultimately created on the south end of the structure. The wall was given a plaster veneer, and included in the stage set were sheet metal “windows” with shutters flanking and flower boxes below bolted to the wall. The phony windows became curled and bent from the sun because of the shoddy method of their construction and installation. The few bolts attaching the painted sheet metal resulted in a strange tableau of twisted metal like crushed pieces of chewing gum slapped to the façade. It is comical, but revealing.

The proclivity of Los Angeles development is to disregard the past as impeding process to the future. While mass transit is desperately needed in a city choked with traffic, it too often comes with the price of bulldozing the city’s existing context. This is nothing new. The fate of the Citizens Warehouse follows the honored stance of development over everything else. Now locked up inside steel bars, the empty building seems haunted by the ghosts of wild spirits it once held. The warehouse/pickle works is condemned to death for being too full of creative energy. Once an important element of a burgeoning art community, the lost lofts become a metaphor for the loss of the art community in the Los Angeles Arts District. A neighborhood of rambunctious energy turns into a tame zone of cell phone-preoccupied and latte-sipping crowds of wannabe artists and fashionable professionals.

Designated the “Arts District” by the City, the area east of Alameda celebrated and declared Los Angeles’ rise to be a world class center of multi-faceted culture. More than just a cinema capital, LA matured into an art Mecca rivaling New York, London, and Paris. The Arts District, however, is no longer a realization of art’s importance in LA; it is now a very profitable real estate venture. The district became a developer’s dream. Cheaper land close to the government and business centers of the metropolis invited capital investment in new apartment buildings replacing the low-density lofts. A few lofts remain, but the monthly square foot cost rose from 12 cents paid in 1980 to an estimated 2 dollars or more currently. Artists can no longer afford to live in the Arts District. Many of the loft warehouses have morphed into restaurants and chic shops. Others warehouses have been demolished or soon will be. This is the fate of the Citizens Warehouse. The change is inevitable.

In New York City, what was once a viable loft scene, affordable live/work spaces have become the habitats of the rich.  Soho has galleries and fancy restaurants, but not many working artists. Galleries pander to the acquisitive desires of the well-off who can afford the rents. LA Artists have dispersed into other neighborhoods and cities. The Arts District became attractive to others. Where there once few restaurants, the area now has some pretty expensive eateries. Internationally-renowned gallery Hauser & Wirth established itself on Third Street in the heart of the Arts District. It is the punctuation mark on the change that is and will become the icon of another reality about art zones. It’s all about money and who gets it. Except for a few, most artists don’t get the money, but many artists attract the money to where they were. Culture evolves from creativity to financial gain.

The Art Dock installations in the 1980s. Karen Kristin’s “Wolf at the Door” and Drew Lesso’s and Neal Taylor’s “Means to a Natural Order,” the last of their five installations. “Wolf at the Door” created a visual statement of the precariousness of artists in the neighborhood, where wolves in various guises could bar entry through the gateway I ching that represented the beauty of change. “Means to a Natural Order” resurrected another I ching that asked the question, “How can mankind find peace within itself?” Neal Taylor’s other pictorial elements included a pile of leaves in the dock and a broad line of coal dust in the street. The musician Drew Lesso composed a synchronized score played as a continuous loop in which a piccolo sounded like the passing wind and wood blocks and horns provided a counterpoint crescendo of burning coal fireworks. The installation emphasized the temporal nature of art.

 

 

 

 

 

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