Category Archives: Culture

Pity the Pieta

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Michelangelo’s Pieta, 1500

Michelangelo’s Pietá came to the New York World’s Fair in 1964. I was 20 years old when I saw it, and knew little about art but the required college art history course I took made me aware of this genius artist and his sculpture of 1500 for the old basilica of St. Peter’s. Michelangelo was 25 years old, and the Pietá made him famous. The sculpture was the sensation of the fair. I had to see it. Enormous crowds lined up for hours to get into the Vatican Pavilion. I stood in line on a hot and humid day for three hours to see it.

A three-tiered conveyor belt moved us past a gigantic fabric-draped cross hovering above and the blue illuminated young Mary and the dead Jesus below. Mary holds the crucified Jesus across her thighs with his right arm falling slack over one of her knees, his head bends back face upward behind a raised shoulder, and his two lower legs dangle over Mary’s left knee. You could see the beauty of the softly rubbed white marble, the deftly shaped folds of Mary’s cloak, and the stable yet dynamic composition of the two figures. However, this theatrical placement, more like a movie-opening extravaganza, was not how the sculpture should be seen. The Pieta’s white surfaces were meant to resonate in the half-light from the basilica’s rotunda windows above. They needed no enhancement by the blue light shadows cast over the bodies. Nor was the Pietá to be seen from below as the three moving walkways positioned the visitors. The sculpture’s full effect of the glorious death could only be appreciated by the viewer being on the same level; otherwise the upturned face of the soon-to-be-resurrected Christ was obscured. I didn’t know that when I visited, but what I did see was unsettling; something wasn’t right.

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The Vatican Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair 1964-65

The image stayed with me as a troubling benchmark for the art experience for decades. Since living the artist’s life starting in the 1980s and crossing into the new millennium with visitations to galleries, museums, and other spectacular art locations, where dissonant sensations became more pronounced, reasoning for what I first felt 50 years ago emerged. Art is being stripped of meaning. It has become an amusement park for the consumer-driven and authenticity-barren culture. The Pieta positioned in a pavilion as a destination for ogling of those briefly passing by, who can mark it on their list as seen and therefore recognized. It loses it’s meaning, but maintains its historical reference by keywords: Renaissance Art, Great Artist, Michelangelo, Florence, Italy, Gone-but-memorialized as a marker of significance.

The Pieta was mined of the capacity to inspire spiritually or to generate passion by several means. The experience of seeing didn’t allow the viewer to halt and contemplate either the sculpture’s ecstatic refinement, its composition, or its inclusion of spiritual importance. The Pietá became a thing seen on an endless itinerary of things needed to be seen that validate the viewer. In this sense it was no different from another great attraction of the fair, the “it’s a small world,” boat float by Walt Disney that provided an amusing, but totally irrelevant ride through models of toy soldiers and sunny animated flowers. Disneyfication is an apt metaphor for the displays at the New York World’s fair.

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“it’s a small world” at the New York World’s Fair, 1964-65

The Pietá was elevated, made precious, and removed from close experience. The Madonna and dead Son of God were diminished as art, but reinterpreted by the soft blue illumination as an important statement of western culture. In this sense it relates to another great attraction of the New York World’s Fair, the IBM pavilion, where Charles and Rae Eames installed the immensely influential Mathematica Exhibition. The Eameses were masters of enhancing information. The New York World’s Fair made them master communicators of the new American-driven computer culture. The Pietá installation was heavier handed, but the principle of enhancement is similar. The purpose was more emotive. Nonetheless the emotion was hollow based on allegiance, either as a Catholic or an admirer of art as learned in a college textbook, collected on a postcard, seen through TV, or in a toured visitation to an identified monument.

 

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IBM’s Mathematica Exhibition at the New York World’s Fair 1964-65

This is what the art world, its institutions, and many of its monuments have become: an amusement park for sanctioned culture. Driven by visitation counts, money received, and justification of the elite, art drifts toward emptiness teetering on the abyss of irrelevance. Pity the Pietá, marred by fame and overfamiliarity, which later in 1972 was badly damaged by a deranged man and now lies isolated behind a bulletproof glass in the Vatican, removed forevermore from anyone to experience close at hand its majesty and the inspired vision of the artist who chiseled it. There is residue of wonder in the Pieta, but much has been drained away. Similar diminishment has happened to other great works and other great locations. This sorry circumstance is perhaps inevitable, when art becomes a rich persons collectible, a financial asset, and celebration of celebrity. Art shouldn’t need augmentation. More on this in the next installment: jewel boxes, gift shops, and restaurants.

 

 

 

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Filed under Art, Article, Charles and Rae Eames, Culture, Michelangelo, New York World's Fair 1964-65, Walt Disney

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.

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Map of the Heart of Los Angeles

 

 

 

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

Donald Trump’s Naked Lunch

 

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Trump is trumped by William Burroughs, who in 1959 invented Islam, Inc.

Islam Inc. was forbidden to meet with five miles of Interzone, a hallucinatory city that sound very American.

In Naked Lunch, William Borroughs wrote:

“I was working for an outfit known as Islam Inc., financed by A.J. the notorious Merchant of Sex, who scandalized international society when he appeared at the Duc de Ventre’s ball as a walking penis covered by a huge condom emblazoned with with the A.J. motto: They shall not pass.” …………. every conceivable Arab party make up the rank and file and attend the actual meetings from which the higher-ups prudently abstain. Though the delegates are carefully searched at the door, these gatherings invariably culminate in riots. Speakers are often doused with gasoline and burned to death, or some uncouth desert Sheik opens up on his opponents with a machine gun he concealed in the belly of a pet sheep. Nationalist martyrs with grenades up the ass mingle with the assembled conferents and suddenly explode, occasioning heavy casualties……….Interzone has an ordinance forbidding a meeting of Islam, Inc. with five miles of the city limits.”

Burroughs knew you shall not let those Radical Islamist pass, but then again he was a Harvard boy, heroin addict and a notorious queer.

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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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