Category Archives: Architecture

Michelangelo’s Twisted Light of Day & Secret Shadow of Night

“The world has many kings, but only one Michelangelo”

In 1537, Pietro Aretino, poet, critic, and public relations advocate, offered his alliance to the artist in a letter. Michelangelo, irascible and often uncommunicative, gave a brief cordial reply declining the offer. Michelangelo never worked with others as an equal. Michelangelo was an independent contractor with higher aspirations than his class. Aretino was perhaps the first to the declare an artist to have powers that “rivaled those of God.” Michelangelo acted as if he were the equal of God’s emissary of earth, Pope Clement VII. The pope, a Medici whose noble family ruled Florence off and on during the 16th century, conversed frequently with the artist, a tradesman, whose social status was far beneath the Roman Catholic Church’s leader. Cardinals and kings thought the familiarity unwise. Aretino created the myth of supreme artistic genius.

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Pope Clement VII, by Sebastiano del Piombo, before 1527

satin DProbably using a contract specifying a cost and a time limit, Pope Clement IV engaged Michelangelo to carve tombs in Florence’s San Lorenzo Basilica to commemorate the two of the Medici family’s lesser members: Lorenzo II, Duke of Urerbino, and Giuliano de Medici, Duke of Nemours. For ten years, 1524–1534, Michelangelo labored, delayed, complained, and controlled the fabrication of the project down to the smallest detail. The pope grumbled he wished the artist would pay a bit more attention to the jobs the pope had given him. Michelangelo’s enemies said of him that he never completed anything while monopolizing the best projects for himself and never used the assistance of others. The wall tomb for the Duke of Nemours was never finished.

The tomb is a powerful composition, oddly discordant, yet imbued with energy at once distinctive to the artist and evocative of his client’s family’s authority. The sculpture, Day, is male with a highly polished body, but its head, partly obscured behind a mammoth shoulder, appears roughly chiseled and unfinished, contrasting with Night, a polished female with a rather masculine body whose breasts seem strangely appended. Day is twisted backward in tension, and coiled in frustration, perchance a partial statement of the artist’s outer persona. Night is bent and turned forward in melancholy, and stilled by grief, perhaps capturing the artist’s hidden homosexuality layered under a spoken spirituality that contemplates death, the tortured fate of sodomites. Day, the time of light, is turned away from illumination, and Night, the time of dark, is turned toward the shadows. Both sculptures, balanced at the two ends of the sarcophagus, appear to be sliding off its bowed surface, while the figure above seems unengaged and remote to what is below.

The figure above that stands for the Duke. This sculpture embodies the glory and authority of Rome, which the Medici’s saw as their heritage. Obliged by agreement to glorify the powerful family, the artist composed a vault that incorporates a duality. The duke doesn’t look like the duke and isn’t dressed like the duke. Michelangelo recreates a heroic leader with his sword balanced across his knees and expressing a gaze of disinterest. He turned Guiliano de Medici into a type. A writer later remarked the artist gave the duke “a size, proportion and beauty,” because “in a thousand years nobody would know they had been different.” The artist fashioned a dynamic assembly of contradictions that are a testament to his own genius. Michelangelo will be known forever, the Medici dukes will fade in an obscure past. The artist accomplished his aspiration to be more than the ruling aristocracy. The Medici Tomb, along with the Pieta, David, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and the Last Judgment, marks the artist’s place among the gods of art.

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Tomb of Giuliani de Medici, Duke of Nemours, by Michelangelo

in San Lorenzo Basilica Florence, 1524 – 1534

Artists like Michelangelo’s acclaimed challengers — Leonardo Da Vinci, Raffaello Santi (Raphael), and Sebastiano del Piombo — were highly paid employees for their work with brush, mallet, and chisel by the rulers in France, Spain, Florence, and the Papal States. Their jobs were to legitimize the rulers. The dukes, the kings, and the popes needed portraits, tombs, glorifying sculptures, libraries, and residences to reflect their status and make them comparable to the Roman ancestors. They needed art that made them heroes and that gave them metaphors immersed with Christian theology. The artists made visible the power, glory, and ethics of the age. This is what artists did long before the Renaissance. This role extended back in time to the Romans, Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, and to the dawn of human hierarchies. In the distant past only a few had identities. Many weren’t even free. They were slaves doing the bidding of rulers who were often the religious elite. The Renaissance artist rattled the role, but they didn’t break it.

Three centuries would pass before the subservient position of the artists changed, and it only changed in means, not in value. The French monarch in1648 established the French Academy to control cultural production for the benefit of the crown. The concept was to insure that art in terms of its content and its quality serve the sovereign’s power equal to its political dominance. Neo-classicism founded on the veneration of Greeks and Romans became the prevailing style. “Theth of Horatii,” 1784, by Jacques-Louis David is a telling example. The British crown not to be out done by the French, established the Royal Academy. Portraits of distinguished nobility became the English obsession. Thomas Gainsborough’s 1777, Portrait of Anne, Countess of Chesterfield, 1777, comes to mind. Academies in Vienna, Berlin, Stockholm, Madrid, and St. Petersburg follow. Painting and sculpture supported the values of the upper classes. In America, The Philadelphia Academy of Art was founded in 1805. Its goal was to promote the Odemocratic values of the new democracy. This ideal faded by the late 19th Century, when the Robber Barons sought cultural validity through acquisition of the aristocratic approved art.

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Oath of Horatii, 1784, David, Louvre, Paris

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Gainsborough, 1777, Portrait of Anne

The only blip to national academy dominance of art production was the French Revolution, where the royals died by the guillotine. The revolutionaries declared the elite arts to be of no use to the nation. This verdict didn’t last long. Napoleon, quickly learning the importance of the arts in supporting a regime, reversed the situation. Not until artists established an individual status often connected to alternative political philosophies did the situation start to alter. In France, it was Realism, whose two champions Millet and Courbet rocked the arts establishment. Courbet, a political radical with a supreme ego, formulated the concept of “Realism,” which others philosophers, poets, and writers gave intellectual heft. The artist stated, “Realism would not imitate the art of ancients.” Realism would “represent the customs, ideas,” and “the appearance of my own era according to my own valuation.”

Gustav Courbet, like Michelangelo, saw himself the equal if not superior to his aristocratic clients. His painting “The Meeting,” 1855, is an excellent example of both the artist’s realism and his egoism. On a country road, the artist is greeted by his patron, Alfred Bruyas, and his servant Calas. The servant bows his head to the great artist, while Bruyas, doffs his hat. The artist, dressed like a workingman with his painting supplies hung off his back, accepts the adulation with head raised in a regal pose. Bruyas, son of a wealthy financier, had a 30-year career as a serious collector of art, and he believed art could change lives and promote social progress. He championed Courbet, who fancied himself a rebel against the prevailing concepts of art and the aristocratic rulers of France. Courbet refused to accept the Legion of Honor award from Emperor Napoleon III. His fame and his wealth came from the patronage he viewed as inferior to his genius.

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Courbet, 1855, The Meeting, Musee Fabre, Montpellier

When Paris became the socialist commune in 1871, after France’s loss to Prussia, Courbet joined the communards and proposed a significant role for artists, in which they would participate in the running of and selecting exhibitions for Paris’s public museums. The fine arts section of the Institute of France and the French Academy would be closed. Metals and decorations would be abolished. Artists have not been the clearest thinkers about management or governance. The plan for artists’ control of the French art institutions quickly broke down. The commune didn’t last long and Courbet paid a heavy price for his involvement. He was briefly imprisoned and accused of initiating the destruction of the Napoleonic Column in Place Vendome, for which the new right wing state demanded that he pay the price for its reconstruction. The artist escaped into exile in Switzerland. The artist inflated to enormous size by disappointments of his fortune, died a drunk. In his characteristic self-important manner, Courbet claimed he was the foremost drinker in the Canton of Vaux, Switzerland. He colluded in the fraudulent creation of paintings by others that he signed. His reputation was vastly diminished.

The contradiction of his political views and the reality of his situation as a supplier of luxury objects for the rich and the nobility never troubled his conscience. He considered himself a great artist beyond the ordinary human. Current art historians and subsequPlaent collectors, especially American capitalists of the late 19th century, have honored that assessment. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York abounds in Courbet paintings. Many of the landscapes are marvelous. The world of legitimized art returned to its prior status. Yet Courbet began the great shock of Modernism that ended the culture academies when the next generation of artists — the Impressionists, and Post-Impressionists — demolished classicism, romanticism, and realism with a new way of seeing. They ended the old context, but not the reigning social value of art.

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Gustave Courbet, Artist, 1819-1877

Art of that Day, like Michelangelo’s unfinished sculpture, squirmed in a new light revealed in a transient, engaging, enticing, and ultimately very accessible way to the minimally visually knowledgeable, while the late 19th century Night, like Michelangelo’s enigmatic creation, remained the veiled, but unspoken force as it has always been. The luxury product held by the elite, which expresses their cultural hegemony. Look for Article Three in the art and economics series: Cezanne to Warhol – Pissing in the Photo Booth.

 

 

 

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Filed under Architecture, Art, Article, Courbet, Jacques Louis David, Michelangelo, Thomas Gainsbourgh

The Collapsed American Republic

Thomas Jefferson worried that the new American Republic would collapse. Eighteenth Century political theorists thought that republics were prone to failure when predatory powers overwhelmed the democratic state and its citizens lacked the interest to sustain liberty. His fear has come true. Tremendously unequal wealth and corporate capitalism have corrupted the United States. The buffoon, President Donald Trump, is the figurehead for what has already come true. He is the TV personality who, like in the movie “Network,” has become the lightning rod for hatred and dissent that deflects our attention from what has actually happened. When the power elites have subdued the population completely, they will jettison this idiot, but their power will be supreme unless Armageddon or revolution changes the situation.

Television is saturated by ads for drugs and for technology that neither improves the quality of life nor increases awareness of what is really transpiring. The watcher is narcotized in front of the boob tube for hours on end. The news is not fake as claimed by screaming president; it merely isn’t news. What it represents is a conscious regurgitation of endless irrelevant positions deflecting attention away from reality. Huge capitalist corporations own almost all sectors of the economy, and they serve the hidden rich and the financial manipulators. From the food consumed to the clothing worn, there is hardly any local supply. There is some, but it has an artisanal quality that is not significant to the overall economy. American cities are a mess. Look at the smaller towns like Terre Haute, Indiana, or Grand Island, Nebraska. They have dying and half-demolished downtowns, while strips of fast food joints, chain restaurants, and chain stores line their entry and departure routes. Much of the old housing is dilapidated, even burned out, while the development of apartments and too-expensive homes in outlying suburbs empties the pockets of a diminishing working class. Or take a new development city like Temecula, California, an endless string of commercial development with low paying jobs interspersed with undistinguished single family homes where the teenagers are so bored they are addicted or stoned. Their parents use up their days in unrelieved auto jams to afford this American dream; or is it a nightmare?

The land no longer supports the independent farmers Jefferson saw as the backbone and sustenance of the American republic. Farms are now corporate entities funneling the corn, the cotton, and the hay to other corporate entities. Jobs in industry are not coming back to the American Rust Belt, as the demagogue promises. Why would they leave lower wage countries like China and others in Southeast Asia to put up with the demands for a middle class wage? What is coming and will continue to come are low wage jobs in warehouses for forklift operators to whom no union benefits or pensions will accrue. Careless capitalists like the Koch Brothers, whose concern is only for profit and despise regulation that would preserve the planet, own the mineral wealth. What interest do they have in climate change? None – for them the land is not to be cherished but is merely a commodity to be exploited. The Indians and the environmentalists are not focused on what is worthwhile to these capitalists. Only money matters.

Exxon Mobil’s CEO is now Secretary of State. He’s there to seize the world’s oil resources. The senator from Oklahoma will gut or close the Environment Protection Agency (EPA). He will kill the Standing Rock Indians without mercy. Sacred lands mean nothing to the success generated by more imported fuel. More corporate billionaires fill out the criminal developer’s cabinet. They will attempt to ensure the American hegemony of international capitalism that has won the globe and will continue to foment racism that is on the rise worldwide because it serves the purpose of monetary gain for the privileged few, and because there is no longer an governing alternative to self interest. Germans, French, Dutch, and British are reverting to the antipathy to the foreign that World War II ended with the creation of their union, which tried to circumvent shortsighted nationalism. The Middle East is racist too, disguised as Islamic radicalism. The Arab, a fraternal culture, splits down Sunni/Shiite lines making them vulnerable to resource imperialism. India and Pakistan, darker Hindu against lighter Islamic foe, will fight over the assets and riches of the larger part of the oriental subcontinent. African tribes will continue to slaughter each other over faiths holding different pieces of mineral treasure making military adventurism easier to justify. China’s Hans will challenge the USA for dominance in the Pacific, for their communist capitalism is pressed against international capitalist dominance, presenting growth opportunities for all stockholders. Remember WWI spurred the growth of Wall Street capitalists and American, German, French and British war industries.

The military industrial complex that Eisenhower warned against has taken place, slowly growing from the turn of the 20th century to victory in the decades after WWII. Bombs, planes, drones, and killing hardware provide profitable business to countries where making refrigerators is no longer profitable. Military might is a salve to the xenophobic, whose opportunities to express their superiority have been limited by the increase of less fortunate immigrants and refugees from economic and internal strife. For the mantra of the post-communist world is that every man (and woman to a lesser extent), should be for himself. Each should provide for self at a profit because that is the philosophy of capitalism. There is no us. There is no togetherness. Government gets in the way. There are no shared values for each have something that is theirs. Forget Leviticus (19- 2, 9-18), “When you reap the harvest of your fields, do not cut the grain to the very edge of the field, or gather in all the gleanings. Nor are you to completely strip your vines or pick up all the fallen fruit. Leave extra grain and fruit for the poor people and foreigners to gather for themselves. I am your God. Do not steal. Do not lie; do not cheat your neighbor. Do not swear by my name with intent to deceive, for if you do, you profane my name.” Profit and instilling fear is the blessing of those who seize power. The other is not your friend. They are the wrong color, have the wrong beliefs, and will take from you what is rightly yours. You must kill them for the profit of all who subscribe to rightfulness. Republics are the fiction of idealists.

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Terre Haute, Indiana, 2016

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Houses in Terre Haute, Indiana, 2016

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Filed under Architecture, Article, Capitalism, Culture, Eisenhower, Grand Island, Nebraska, Indiana, Leviticus, Military Industrial Complex, Nebraska, Racism, Temecula, California, Terre Haute, Indiana, The Movie Network, Thomas Jefferson, Trump, Wall Street

LA’s Heart Attack

tomkellycalendargolden-dreams                                                                     Golden Dreams Calendar 1954

LA’s heart and soul is having an attack. The real heart is not Tinseltown, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Culver City, or Burbank, those centers of glitzy, glamour, and celebrity, which are the world’s image of Los Angeles. The blood-pumping center is the place of its diversity, its founding history, and creative spark. The area is ringed by four freeways with the Arts District nestled within, epitomizing its soul. Rapacious development is killing this essence.

Gentrified developments threaten to Manhattanize LA’s heart, making it solely a place of corporate uses and the abode of the wealthiest citizens. Diversity of people and use plunges. This is to the detriment of the vibrant place that was long the unrecognized center. Economic value increases, but cultural variety and mixture lose. The Grand Central Market, once a wonderful paseo between Broadway and Hill Streets, where cheap produce and products abounded for all, is now half empty, its grocery stalls priced out. Isolated food stands await pricier wine and cheese boutiques, while across the street the glass-atriumed Bradbury Building, LA’s seminal 1893 office building, is being considered for condominium apartments. Boyle Heights, once the neighborhood where Jewish and Japanese settlers could prosper, and Mexican Americans established their Southern California homeland amid “Iowa by the Sea,” where anyone not white wasn’t accepted, is vulnerable to house flippers buying up the Victorian homes.            meteor_brand_lemons_crate_label-courtesy-oviatt-library-csun                                         Fruit Crate Label by Western Lithograph Company

The Arts District established in the early 1990s is losing the artists who populated this once depressed warehouse zone and gave a new creative energy that recaptured the mythic forces in LA’s history. These warehouses and service structures stored the products moved into and out of the agricultural paradise that drew people west in the manifest destiny of America. Oranges and lemons shipped out of the sector’s railroad sidings. The emblematic fruit crate labels by anonymous artists were printed at Western Lithograph on Rose Street in the Arts District. Pianos and furniture brought by immigrants were stored in buildings like the Citizens Warehouse on the other side of the LA River Bridge from Santa Fe Railroad Depot. The depot was demolished in 1939 to be replaced by the Art Moderne masterpiece Union Station. These storage structures and the printing shop became the cheap studios for creative people in the last quarter of the 20th century. The printing shop in the early 21st century was demolished for apartments. The Citizens Warehouse was partially demolished for mass transit over the river, and what remains lies vacant.

tractionandthird               Apartments at the corners of Rose, Traction, and 3rd Street in the Arts District

In the center of the Arts District, near the location of the original Santa Fe Terminal, is a small hotel called the American. Often representing discrimination, it nevertheless embodies the spirit, the rich, and multicultural history of Los Angeles. After many years of neglect, The American is preserved, but the remodeling has turned an icon of possibilities into a fashionable nightly rental. Artist Stephen Seemayer created a film, “Tales of the American,” which tells the story of this hotel built in 1905 for African American railroad conductors and porters, who wouldn’t be allowed into LA’s larger and more prestigious hotels. Over 111 years of existence this small transient lodging with a bar on the ground floor has passed through many transformations while retaining it affordability and strange allure. During Prohibition it was a speakeasy. Japanese Americans took over the facility as Little Tokyo arose. World War II saw the Japanese internment and the hotel was sold to other ownership. The lodgers were workers in the produce district arising along Alameda, when trucks supplanted railroads as the primary commercial transportation.

deeprivergallerywithdanielmartinez-2                                      Deep River Gallery with Daniel Joseph Martinez

As the area around the hotel declined, its warehouses gradually vacated, and artists discovered the area. The American became access to the district. The bar became Al’s Bar, an internationally known venue of the punk rock scene, and art flourished on and in galleries of the American. Dustin Shuler erected his plane with a monumental nail to the façade of the building. “Two Ton Common” was used to attach the sculpture “Pinned Butterfly,” declaring the ascendency of an art community. A hotel gallery, Deep River, showed the work of provocateur, Daniel Joseph Martinez and allied artists to European acclaim. But as the 20th Century passed into the 21st Century, developers sensed money and descended on the area, newly proclaimed by the city as The Arts District. Gone are: Al’s Bar, Pinned Butterfly, the galleries in the American, AAA Art Gallery that showed drawing by Paul McCarthy, The Art Dock, the Drive-by Gallery in the Citizens Warehouse, Deep River, The Galleria by the Water, the Spanish Kitchen performance space, and the Waldenboyd Theater. The District Gallery, which showed the work of many Art District artists, fights to save and fund its lease in the new development, One Santa Fe, which lies where the old railroad terminal was, from the new owners who have raised the rent to a prohibitive level.

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The American about to become gentrified 2016

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The American in 1980 with “Pinned Butterfly”

Change driven by money always been LA’s mantra, but the shortsightedness discounts the creative and diverse cultural inclusiveness that flourished in the past, and could still flourish in the future, if not destroyed by unaffordability. Artists can’t compete with the money of the new urban settlers, nor could the big inexpensive creative spaces survive. This transformation is inevitable. Huge developments are planned in the expanded district. A 30-story development called Mesquite Place extending from 6th Street to 7th climbing over the railroad tracks to edge the river is in the approval process. All that can be hoped is that the Arts District is not swallowed up in towers and ersatz “loft” compounds. What might be demanded of the city is that it restricts the size of developments in old Arts District, perhaps by selling air rights. And perhaps some miracle might happen like what Michael Connelly imagined in his latest Harry Bosch detective novel, “The Wrong Side of Goodbye.”

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Proposed Mesquite Development at the 7th Street Bridge and the River 2016

“The Wrong Side of Goodbye” is an apt metaphor. The wrong side of progress is kissing goodbye to the artists, along with the outside the system galleries. The art market exemplified by the Hauser Wirth & Schimmel Gallery has descended on the Arts District. The chauffeur driven limousines of the collectors are not far behind. This is could be a good thing or a bad thing, but it will precipitate the loss of other artist-sponsored spaces. Michael Connelly spoke to this condition as detective Harry Bosch investigated the reality of a multi-billionaire heir hidden in the Arts District. The conclusion of the story imagines the creation of an organization that sponsors artists and artists’ affordable workspaces. If only Los Angeles, with its surfeit of multi-millionaires, were to make places for functioning artists and not concentrate only on the market value of the art they produce, the heart of Los Angeles would be a Mecca of cultural inventiveness that isn’t just media and movie driven.

Or we could hope that Hollywood history would remember The Arts District printing company building on Rose Street, which became the studio, where photographer Tom Kelly shot the calendar image of a nude, young starlet, named Marilyn Monroe. But do not expect it to happen. Miracles only happen in the movies. Time to pull down the Arts District signs.

OMR Downtown Hotel

Map of the Heart of Los Angeles

 

 

 

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Filed under Architecture, Art, Article, Arts District, Capitalism, Culture, Los Angeles

Art Washing in East Los Angeles

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A response to Los Angeles Times articles of November 3 and 4 on protests in Boyle Heights over gentrification by white artists and art galleries.

Art and artists washing clean city sections and neighborhoods for gentrification is an old story. Artists and art galleries created value in places previously undervalued. What is new is the awareness of neighborhoods that art is mainly a monetary subterfuge and not a stimulus to improving real communities. The American story begins in New York City in the 1940s, when artists seeking inexpensive places to create their work discovered Soho, a largely abandoned industrial district, then known as the Cast Iron District, after its distinctive cast iron-fronted warehouse lofts. They moved in and established the homeland of Abstract Expressionism. The galleries followed– Leo Castelli, OK Harris, and others. The bohemian free lifestyle of the artists attracted the life style wannabes. Soon enough, the developers, sniffing profits, moved in. Now it is hard to find a struggling artist in this fashionable neighborhood. The same tale happened in Los Angeles. Venice, the slum by the sea, afforded another generation of artists an inexpensive place to create their light, space, and west coast pop creations in the old storefronts of the destroyed amusement park zone. In came the lifestylers and the property speculators. The majority of the not famous artists were priced out. Then it was downtown’s turn to be the washing machine of gentrification.

In the abandoned and unreinforced buildings of downtown LA east of Alameda, young and not-so-young artists in the late 1970s and ‘80s found amazing cheap and large space that they could inhabit and work in. It was illegal to live there initially, but art promoters, like Joel Wachs, then an LA city councilman, saw the potential. (Wachs moved on to become head of the Andy Warhol Foundation in New York City.) The A.I.R. (Artist in Residence) ordinance was approved. Some artists and their supporters opposed the ordinance because they had seen what had happened in New York and Venice. Approving artist living and working in industrial zones was the preamble to gentrification and soaring property values. The ordinance was approved and later modified to make it easier to speculate in downtown property to become the Live-Work Ordinance. Property values soared and artists were gradually priced out of what the city proudly declared was the Art District.

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                Low cost artist housing by Watts Community Housing on Myers Street,

                                                    East Los Angeles designed in 1985

 The Boyle Heights Alliance Against Art Washing and Displacement protested in front of the new Nicodim Gallery in a building near the Los Angeles River in an area of old industrial lofts. Someone anonymously painted graffiti on the gallery’s roll-up metal gate “White Art.” The Los Angeles Police Department declared the vandalism to be a “Hate Crime.” The story and the response are misdirection. The protesters are partially right and partially wrong. The police action will only benefit the wrong groups. The graffiti artist apparently knows nothing of the history of Boyle Heights.

Artists had lofts in the area of old warehouses and industrial buildings between the LA River and the 101 back in 1980s. The truth is that this area isn’t Boyle Heights. Boyle Heights exist on the ridge above what was the bottomland on both sides of the river. The 101 Freeway cut it completely off from Boyle Heights in the 1950s. A cluster of lofts existed by 1984 at the east end of the Third Street Bridge. Because the river and the railroads separated this sliver from the zone of the Arts District speculation, it is the last area of lofts to be gentrified at the perimeter of Downtown LA. There were even a few forlorn galleries off Third Street East of the river.

In 1985 there was some political support for creating low cost artist housing to mitigate the inevitable already happening west of the river. Development of downtown Los Angeles was a political goal of elected officials and real estate promoters. The East LA portion of the growing art scene was too far removed to stimulate interest. However, The Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA/LA) funded the design of a low cost artist housing project on Myers Street in East LA. The project promoted by The Watts Community Housing Corporation never got beyond the design stage, however, as financing for the purchase of the building and re-construction could not be obtained. The timing was too early. Major real estate speculation had yet to begin. Also the construction of low cost housing for one specific group, mainly white, with a smattering of black and Latino artists is not a popular concept. It wasn’t then nor is it now.

Today the situation, with the saturation of Live Work spaces and the almost complete displacement of artists from the Arts District, has changed. Galleries, part of a worldwide art community selling artifacts for tens of thousands of dollars, like the Nicodim Gallery, have moved in. The threat isn’t to this area between the 101 and the river. What will happen is already a done deal. The threat is to the real Boyle Heights lying to the East. Around Hollenbeck Park are many late Victorian homes and early 20th Century dwellings survivors of the historic Boyle Heights before it became the center of Los Angeles’ Latino, generally Mexican-American, neighborhood. Boyle Heights before the decline of downtown was the center of Los Angeles’ Jewish and Japanese-American communities. From First Street to Whittier Boulevard, including the wonderful Hollenbeck Park, later sliced by the freeway, lived the core of discriminated-against communities.

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Boyle Heights tract, 1889

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Hollenbeck Park, 2009

After blatant discrimination crumbled with the move westward of the Jewish community, and the concentration of the Japanese community in Little Tokyo, Boyle Heights became largely Hispanic. A vibrant community came into existence with a distinctive Latin flavor. Its murals became a hallmark and the precursor to a larger mural movement that is the most significant public art in Los Angeles. Self-Help Graphics created a world-renowned and affordable art print center. Defenders of this community and its culture are right to protest vehemently the gentrification that will creep up the hill eastward from its downtown edge along the river. What is different here is that there was and is a significant population with a divergent ethnic interest in Boyle Heights. It is working class and middle class with a strong sense of community identity that occupies a zone with attractive and large houses. These Victorian and early 20th Century edifices are strongly attractive to gentrifiers and house flippers. If allowed to come in unchecked, a neighborhood that is significant to the broad diversity of Los Angeles will be lost.

Art washing is analogous to cleaning your sheets of the grime and smell. You end up with nice white bed linen, but all the character of their use is gone. In downtown Los Angeles in the early ‘80s, artists reveled in the fact they shared a similar passion for dumpster diving with the filthy homeless, who were generally never a threat of violence. They gave the area a certain allure and drove away the fearful. With gentrification, the wandering, often naked, homeless are gone, but crime is the big community concern. Crime depresses property values. If gentrification comes to Boyle Heights, the sights and smells that made this decidedly Latin community wonderful will disappear. Crime maybe lessened. The terrific and inexpensive taco stands that draw citywide favor will be replaced by fancy nouvelle cuisine eateries. The man with the umbrella cart on the sidewalk selling fresh papaya slices will be illegalized.

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Victorian House in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles

 

 

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Filed under Architecture, Art, Article, Culture, Los Angeles, Racism

Cairo Killed, the American Nightmare 2016

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Cairo, (pronounced Kay-ro), Illinois, lies at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. This town was murdered. White right wing racism killed it. The ruin is testament to the negative forces of American history. What I saw, quite by accident, reminds me of our situation in 2016 with the candidacy of the demagogue Republican Donald Trump.

We were lost after crossing the two bridges between Missouri and Kentucky on our trip across the United States in April. After visiting the Kentucky mounds of the ancient Indian civilization from long before there was an American republic, we took the wrong road toward our destination of Harrodsburg in bourbon country. Our backtrack landed us in the southern tip of Illinois, in an area called Little Egypt, where we saw four wrecks of 19th Century buildings off the main highway at the intersection of Commercial and 7th Streets. Elegant old street lamps lined the streets. The biggest structure, the Famous-Barr building, was vacant. A large pile of bricks could be seen through an open doorway and the destroyed back wall. The second building, its ground floor boarded up, had two old battered air conditioning units projecting from upper story and an older model panel truck parked at the curb. The third building was a seedy looking nightclub, its exterior painted pale blue. The gap of a demolished building separated the nightclub from the fourth, a three-story empty structure. We drove over to have a closer look. I was shocked. Neither side of street that extended six blocks north had any buildings, yet the lovely old street lamps remained in place on a broad sidewalk in front of grass or rubble-covered properties. I photographed the ruins while elderly man in a power-operated wheelchair rode down the eerily empty street.

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Cairo, Illinois, in the 1970s already an nearly dead city

After reaching our final destination in Pennsylvania, I researched the history of Cairo. What I found was a devastating history. Cairo was destroyed by racism. The town’s commercial buildings and industries were owned by white people who refused to hire the black population of the city. In the 1960s, Little League baseball was canceled to keep black children from playing. By 1969 black people were not allowed to gather for sports, to march, or to congregate in local parks. A racist white man rammed his pickup truck into a demonstration protesting a whites-only swimming pool, severely injuring a young girl. The vigilante group called the White Hats policed the town. In 1969 the African-Americans formed the United Front of Cairo to end segregation and boycott white businesses. The white business owners refused to give in, choosing instead to close up their shops. They abandoned their businesses and fled town. Slowly most of the idle buildings were demolished. By 2010 the population was 2,800 persons of whom 72% were black.

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Civil rights protesters in the 1960’s

Cairo-12-1ps.jpg                                             White marchers barring the stores

This sad story typifies the long history of a city that was once, before St. Louis arose, the main terminal of shipping and crossing on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. In 1838 Cairo was booming, growing to 15,000 at its largest by 1900. A grid of four by six blocks defined the center of this metropolis-to-be located on land near where Lewis and Clark first camped to begin their exploration of the upper reaches of the Louisiana Purchase. A quay along the Ohio River edge serviced the ferries and the steamboats that paddled up from New Orleans and across the two big rivers. During the Civil War General Grant used Cairo as his supply and troop headquarters for the invasion of the South. During this period slaves sought freedom by escaping to the protection of the Union stronghold at Cairo. The town was an important transfer point on the Underground Railway.

cairoplan1838-1ps .                                                                      Plan of 1838

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Postcard of mid-20th Century with automobile bridges

This was the beginning of a large African-American population in the city, much to the annoyance of the white inhabitants. The railroads finally killed the boom in Cairo when the Eads Bridge, completed in 1874 and the longest arch bridge in world at the time, crossed the Mississippi, directing river traffic north to St. Louis. In 1905 the decline was complete when a new railroad bridge crossed the Mississippi at Thebes, a town northwest of Cairo, ending the ferry traffic. After the automobile bridges bypassed the city in the 20th Century, the capitol of Little Egypt became an isolated backwater controlled by a white majority. Yet throughout the late 19th and 20th Centuries Cairo had a large African-American population that was routinely discriminated against. The population of Cairo by 1909 was approximately 13,000 of which 5,000 were African American, a high percentage for a small town that considered itself a place with white traditional southern white heritage.

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November 11, 1909 Lynching of Will “Froggie” James

On November 11, 1909, tensions exploded, a lynch mob hung two men. The first was the African-American Will James, accused of murdering Alla Pelly, a young white woman. The mob strung him up below the arch of new electric lights on Commercial Street at the corner of 8th, one block down from the surviving remnants of the town. Will “Froggie” James didn’t die as intended. The raging population pulled the hung, but still living, James, down from the rope strung across Commercial Street. They burned him, dismembered him, and mounted his head on a pole. James, before he died, implicated another man whom the town pursued without success. They did find a white man, Henry Salzner, who had been on the run for nearly a year for slaying his wife. The mob strung him up too, but didn’t inflict the savagery on him that they did to “Froggie.” He was white, after all.

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Will “Froggie” James, November, 1909

101 years have passed since the racially inspired slaughter. “Kayro’s” KO-ed center is a total ruin. What’s left is an outlying ring of poor black people’s homes, a few imposing monuments of the past glories: the United States Customs House, the mansion Magnolia Manor of 1872, and a sad commercial strip on the highway north. Donald Trump would probably call this a ghetto, as he famously referred to African-American neighborhoods in bigger, more northern American cities. However the last time a grassroots conservative Republican presidential candidate with southern states’ rights and anti-civil rights views visited Cairo in Little Egypt, there were a lot of white people still around. They have mainly gone now to warmer, more hospitable places, like the aptly named Phoenix, Arizona. Here racists rising from Cairo’s ashes can rail against “Mexican rapists.”

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Barry Goldwater in Cairo, Illinois, 1964

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