Tag Archives: Al’s Bar

Joan of Art Ghosts The Arts District

Pickle Works/Citizens Warehouse Epic                                                                            Essay 5

CWwJoanofart-3.jpgThe Pickle Factory/Citizens Warehouse and Art Dock Demolished Site, February 23, 2019

All that remained of the Citizens Warehouse were the concrete covered brick buttresses of the foundation wall and a masonry nubbin of the Center Street façade obscured behind a Caterpillar Variable Boom Excavator.  The big backhoe is silent and the site empty on a Sunday waiting for Monday to remove and bury the last evidence of the 130-year old pickle factory, paper box plant, storage facility, and artist housing building. The Art Dock with its roll-up metal door, wood freight car bumper, and the piled-up rubber buffer truck fenders are a memory. In a week there will be nothing here but a flat pad of earth ready to be covered with train yards. Another chapter in Los Angeles’ destruction of its history will be closed. Once again in the City of Angels, the evidence of old dreams and their possibilities, will be erased to celebrate the opportunism of now. However, if you’re imaginative, you might see the gold ghost of Joan of Art on her gilded stallion parading across the site, declaring by her heroic presence the bold, vibrant, and innovative creative forces that once were the Downtown LA Art Community.  Like Jeanne D’Arc, the icon of French history, today riding her golden horse near the Louvre, signifying something greater than economics: the human struggle for culture and value in history and in art. The efforts to survive the lucrative real estate deals will go on here in the Arts District.

The Arts District, a node of newness in the abandoned oldness, is dying of its own success. This is an old story, played out in every place artists have colonized as they seek opportunities to live inexpensively and do their imaginative thing. The capitalists buy the land. They know a good investment when they see it. Artists are generally too poor to exploit the conditions they create. The life-stylers seeking genuineness rent a sanitized rendition of the original.  Eviction of the artists begins and the originality is destroyed. Surrounding the vacant nighttime high-rise office core, the center of Angeles is following the same trajectory. Gentrification happens. It is considered good thing for most cities, but the peripheral — the poor, the disfavored minorities, and the artists — are pushed aside. This case of reuse and replacement is changing Los Angeles.  The city that was described as having no center, nor a downtown population, has developed one, but authenticity is the victim. Where there were no Starbucks, no classy restaurants, fancy retailers, or big-name art galleries, the chic and the similar are appearing. Before it was the Atomic Café with its drug addled waiter; Vickman’s, where produce market truck unloaders, politicians, and artists, mixed for lunch in the cafeteria lines served by surly waitresses; Al’s Bar, a graffiti-plastered hole in the wall in the railroad era African-American friendly American Hotel poured beer for bohemian artists and punk rock bands; the original Hardrock Bar edged to Skid Row, which harbored bikers, the rootless, and transvestites; and the homeless, often naked, mined the dumpsters.  There wasn’t much else, but an alternative ethos flourished in the shadows.

The Citizens Warehouse was one of principal locations of the original illegal art community.  The prohibition of living and working in old warehouses and factories gave the community a social edge. Almost every form of contrary behavior was allowed by a political blind eye except habitation. When a law enforcement raid was anticipated the beds went to Venice or were obscured beneath ping pong tables. Performance art occurred in the lofts and streets. A female artist lay on a bed in a scruffy unmarked venue surrounded by six-foot walls and invited the attending artists to climb over the wall and have sex with her. Only a few had the courage to lever over the barrier.  From a crane, an artist dropped a ton of bricks on a mocked-up typical American bedroom. These actions were never done with approved city permits. Near the Art Dock on a ruined freight platform, Ulysses Jenkins created his outdoor event “Without Your Interpretation,” illuminated by parked car headlights and drawing the power for the musical instruments from one outlet within the warehouse.  The commotion drew the police, who threatened to arrest the artist. Ulysses, standing on the concrete podium in his pajamas, explained to a patrol officer that what was happening was art. The police drove away.

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Frame from the video, ”Without Your Interpretation,” by Ulysses Jenkins

Female artists, seeking a place where the male art community wasn’t predominant, flocked to the secret buildings east and south of Alameda and Little Tokyo. They were the backbone of the community.  Working straight jobs in the Asian restaurants, bartending in Al’s Bar and a few of the other seedy liquor joints, and operating fork lifts in the markets, they could afford the cheap rents and big spaces the soon-to-be Arts District provided. A few had fancier jobs, but all came home to rough living. The legend of the two female artists confronted on a dimly lit street and accused of prostitution by the police, whom they backed down by declaring demonstratively they were artists and lived here, was the shared story of occupying this forbidding zone. In this unrecognized area the Woman’s Building appeared featuring feminists: Sheila De Bretteville, Judy Chicago, Rachel Rosenthal, and many other notable women artists.

The Young Turks, the initial group of the artists to establish a community in area around Traction Avenue, Hewitt Street, and Third Street, which included entrepreneur, artist, and impresario of Al’s Bar, Marc Kreisel; Stephen Seemayer, performance artist and film maker; Andy Wilf, the painter and artist, who gained the first notoriety for the Downtown Arts Community, by his recognition as a young talent from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and his subsequent death by a drug overdose, also included three significant female artists. These pioneers were: Linda Burnham, poet, multi-discipline artist, and founder of Exile Gallery, and the magazine, High Performance, the preeminent voice of Performance Art on the West Coast; Monique Safford, word and image collage artist; and Coleen Sterritt, sculptor, whose work with sharpened stakes created an instability and a threatening tension, which confronted the attitude of the art world toward women.  Sterritt states in the film the Young Turks, “People…when I tell them that I’m an artist, or that I’m in downtown, ………, they immediately don’t take me seriously, or if they do, it’s like I paint pink pastel paintings or something.”

Downtown didn’t attract pink pastel painters. It drew women who were tough, resilient, and insightful. The Citizens Warehouse and the Art Dock were havens for women like this. I remark on two, whose strength and leadership saved the Citizens Warehouse artist community, and a third, Monique Safford, an Art Dock exhibitor.  When the law allowing artist to live in warehouses and factories was passed, a developer bought the building and the leases had to be renegotiated. The artists faced significant rent increases, which potently would drive them out.  Ellen Fitzpatrick, dancer and sitar player, had a day job in the corporate offices of Mattel Toys. To build her space, Ellen, returning from work, dressed in flowing designer clothes, would buff her maple floor with a large industrial sized circular sander.  Ellen and Karen Kristin, fine artist, who made her living as a sky painter in Hollywood and casino malls like the Venetian in Las Vegas, became the force behind a tenants’ association. They found a willing lawyer, directed his efforts, and marshalled all the artists together in an unbreakable coalition to keep the rents low. For five additional years the Citizens Warehouse remained an affordable loft location, while others started to fall to sale and skyrocketing rents. In 1990, the low-cost reality ended, as it pretty well had ended everywhere else in the Arts District. Complete Gentrification took another 10 to 15 years. Only a few determined survivors remain.

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Karen Kristin at the Citizens Warehouse, 1981

The fate of the Arts District was forecast and protested in the installation in the Art Dock by the self-described “Romantic Pessimist” Monique Safford. Within the 10 foot by 10-foot doorway of the Art Dock, Monique placed a huge photographic transparent image that she had salvaged from the trash bin outside a public advertising venue. The picture was a land and sea scape of the last illumination after the sunset. Inscribed over the photograph were the words “Less Ennui in ’83.” Only seen at night, as was often the case with Art Dock installations, the piece was haunting and beautiful. Situated in the dark part of town where poor street lighting and un-lit structures were the norm, “Less Ennui” glowed.  The aesthetic statement in the façade of an old brick warehouse, whose other openings were mainly small windows illuminated by artists at work in their studios, was at once a marvel of and a warning for the artist community.  1983 passed with minimal ennui.  The community dramatically rose and gradually shrank. Monique Safford moved to New York. Linda Burnham and Karen Kristen moved out of state. Ellen Fitzpatrick disappeared. The Citizens Warehouse is demolished. Let us not grieve in vain. Let us not give in to total weariness. Joan of Art is still around to inspire. Less Ennui in 2123.

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Less Ennui in’83 by Monique Safford

 

 

 

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 A Gold Mine of Myths in the District of Vats, Docks, and Deals

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Loft112CenterSt.2psConstruction 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.

Succoh 3psMargaritaville, 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.

Bum shelters-1psLos 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.

AmericanHotelexin-1psRefurbished 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.

 

 

 

 

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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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