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
Locked Up and Condemned to Die
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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Art 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.