Construction of the Art Dock loft, 1980
All the stories concerning the loss of Pickle Works/Citizens Warehouse verge on fiction. They project a history that if not yet, soon will be fantasy. Reading the various reports and opinions, I found myself laughing, but not because they were funny, rather because they implied attributes to the Arts District, the Pickle Works/Citizens Warehouse, and the Art Dock that weren’t real. As Sabrina Nucciarone, paraphrasing the writers of the movie “La La Land,” states in her letter to Metro protesting the proposed demolition of the Pickle Works/Citizens Warehouse, “Los Angeles…is the city that worships everything and values nothing.” The statement is basically correct but misses what Los Angeles worships most and values the greatest: box office. To put it another way, profit. The path that leads to the gold mine starts by instilling myths in events, places, and populations. Myths are useful in many ways. They enhance economic value. They foster illusions that can be exploited. They fashion qualities that are best when sanitized and normalized. Creativity is a prime example. I see the blockbuster film, “Springtime for The Arts District,” coming soon, giving the audience tragedy, the fire in the warehouse, and resurrection by the intrepid artists. Maybe it’s a musical like “LA LA Land.”
The path starts with small inaccuracies: the Arts District as powerful cultural force about to be destroyed, the Pickle Works/Citizens Warehouse as the first building to become artists’ lofts in Downtown, and the Art Dock as an innovative artists’ collective, the first drive-through art gallery. All three of these ideas are fabrications. The Art Dock was neither an artists’ collective, nor a drive-through art gallery. I ought to know — I started and ran it. I started it as a joke. The joke took on a life of its own. Never was it a collective, which is a description that implies group control and perhaps aesthetics. To be a drive-through gallery was an impossibility. A vehicle would have to use my studio as a passageway. The gallery, if you stretched the word enough, was drive-by, more like a sign, a billboard, or a creche, like a lawn display, Jesus’ birth in the manger with the three kings standing worshipping the baby. The only way I could get official recognition of one installation was to say to the City that a sukkah created in the loading dock was a holiday installation. The definition allowed me to keep open the installation and not fireproof the dry stakes surrounding a hammock.
Margaritaville, a sukkah by Miles Forst, Art Dock, fall 1982
The Pickle Works/Citizens Warehouse was definitely not the first warehouse or building in the Arts District to become artist lofts. In actuality, the building was never in the fuzzy boundaries of the Arts District as defined by the City of Los Angeles. Rather the structure was converted in a second surge after a first band of artists discovered that the cheap often-vacant structures could be rented or held through master leases. Part of the group called themselves the Young Turks. They began the swell. The artists included: Marc Kreisel, John Peterson, Steven Seemayer, Linda Burnham, and others. Marc Kreisel was the impresario of Al’s Bar, a run-down hang out that more than any other place defined the Bohemian flavor of the area. He. along with other artists, and some fearless investors bought the Pickle Works/Citizens Warehouse for not much and rented out spaces to other artists willing to risk building out a space in the building without permits for an illegal use. John Peterson, painter and sculptor, gained media attention at the time through creation of bum shelters that he placed in the district. With wit about housing and a sense for profit, John and a partner similarly was able to buy another building and lease it out to other artists. His building also lay outside the boundary of the Arts District. What was and still is the Arts District remains without an actual limit.
Los Angeles, Bum Shelter #4, 1979 by John Peterson
If there is a definable first artists’ building in the Arts District, it is the American Hotel. The American was a shabby tiny railroad-related hotel that began as the only place African-Americans could rent a room. The hotel was the overnight place rail conductors and porters were welcome in racist Los Angeles. This little three-story structure with small rooms and toilets down the hall was the place artists seeking space in the warehouse district found rooms to explore and find more permanent studios. Many artists stayed in the hotel making it their home. Stephen Seemayer, artist and filmmaker, with his wife Pamela Wilson, who lived in the American and tended bar in its drinking establishment, have told the hotel’s story in their film “Tales of the American” www.talesoftheamerican.com. This was where the gritty American Los Angeles Bohemian Arts District began, and where it will die, if it hasn’t already. The American Hotel has been refurbished into a boutique hotel. One night in the hotel costs $150. In 1980 you could probably stay in the hotel for a month for $150.
Refurbished American Hotel, Arts District, Los Angeles, 2019
The Arts District is a place without an association with any art movement, without an edge, and without definition. Arts District is an advertisement providing the area with cachet. The area east of Alameda, west of the Los Angeles River, south from 1st Street, and with some vague outline around 7th Street, has no buildings in it other than the American Hotel that are essential to its definition. No Left Bank of Paris with its avant-garde Impressionism or Cubism define it. No Greenwich Village or Soho of New York with its Abstract Expressionism or Pop Art make it essential to a certain cultural expression. The Arts District could be said to be the center of 1970s-1980s Performance Art. Linda Burnham, the poet and founder of High Performance magazine, and Rachel Rosenthal, the startling artist who appeared often enough with her rat, Tattywaffles, on her head, and started Espace DBD, lived in the district, but the association is tangential as Performance Art erupted all over the city at the time.
The Arts District came into existence though the diligence of one man, Joel Bloom, who established the artists’ convenience store. His store was in the American Hotel, and he was a committed promoter of the community. Nonetheless the Arts District had already changed by the time he appeared. Bohemia was fast disappearing. Artists were becoming more a poorly paid professional class, and the developers had moved in. Rents were escalating. Alternative galleries were beginning to disappear, and restaurants were established. No one complained at first. At the very least, you could go out to dinner in the neighborhood, even if the best thing was octopus ink noodles with shrimp. When the trend toward gentrification became a tidal wave, protests began. The artists were being driven from the zone they had established. Martyrdom was declared. The situation brings to mind the myth of Jeanne D’Arc, the saintly heroine of the French resistance to the English occupation, whom noble collaborators burned at the stake in 1456.
The last article in this series is titled “Joan of Art” and looks at what the Downtown LA Art Community as expressed by the Pickle Works/Citizens Warehouse and the Art Dock signified.