Arts District, Los Angeles
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|Neighborhood of Los Angeles|
The Arts District
|County||County of Los Angeles|
|• City Council||José Huizar|
|• U.S. House||Xavier Becerra|
The Arts District lies on the eastern edge of Downtown Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California, United States. The gritty area has given new life to old industrial buildings whose history often dates to the early 20th century. While much of the early creative art was done behind closed doors, the street scene has slowly been activated in the early years of the 21st century as more and more factories are creatively reused with some new construction interspersed. Art galleries have opened and given recognition to the area amidst the entire downtown where Art museums and additional galleries can be found. The city community planning boundaries are Alameda Street on the west which blends into Little Tokyo, First Street on the north, the Los Angeles River to the east, and Violet Street on the south.
Vignes Street winds through the northeastern edge of the Arts District, parallel to and a couple of blocks west of the broad cement trench that memorializes the L.A. River. It is named for Jean-Louis Vignes, an aging adventurer and vintner who arrived in Los Angeles in 1831 by way of the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) and Bordeaux. He planted grapes on 104 acres where Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc vines imported from the south of France thrived, and by 1849 El Aliso, as the Vignes vineyard was called, was the largest producer of wine in California The grapes are gone, but the San Antonio Winery just north of the community is a reminder of the area’s past.
By the late 19th century, oranges and grapefruit had replaced grapes as the principal agricultural products of the area and the property west of the riverbank was thick with citrus groves. The groves provided a location for filmmaker DW Griffith who filmed parts of Hollywood’s first feature film (In Old California) there in 1909. A single grapefruit tree remains, towering over the Japanese American Plaza off San Pedro Street and Azusa. Somewhere near Third Street and Alameda, a print shop became the area’s first commercial arts enterprise, employing artists from around the region designing labels for the boxes of citrus fruit shipped across the country.
The growing Santa Fe Freight Depot and warehouses created to serve the citrus industry’s shipping needs determined the area’s economic character for most of the next century and were responsible for the architectural flavor of the Arts District structures that have survived earthquakes, flood and fire. The single room hotels for rail workers to the northwest and the growth of Little Tokyo to the west and Chinatown to the north created a mix that was working class and cosmopolitan.
By World War II, the citrus groves had been replaced by factories and the rail freight business was giving way to the trucking industry. The area had taken on an industrial character that was growing seedy around the edges. Over the next twenty years, many of the independent small manufacturers had either been absorbed by larger competitors, grown too big for their quarters – or simply failed—and an increasing number of vacant warehouse and former factory spaces contributed to a dingy, decaying urban environment typical of many aging big American cities of the era.
In the mid-'70s, a handful of artists, including Joel Bass, Dan Citron, Woods Davy, Marc Kreisel, Jon Peterson, Stephen Seemayer, Maura Sheehan, Coleen Sterritt, Sydney Littenberg, Peter Zecher, and others saw opportunity in the empty buildings and began colonizing the area, converting former industrial and commercial spaces into working studios, sometimes renting space for as little as a three cents a square foot and carving out living quarters. This resulted in a surge of artistic activity, culminating in the highly controversial "Downtown L.A. in Santa Barbara" exhibition, organized by Betty Klausner for the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum, which is now known as the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara. By the mid 1980s, the following artists were also living downtown: Linda Frye Burman, James Croak, Merion Estes, Joe Fay, George Herms, Mary Jones, Constance Mallinson, Paul McCarthy, Margaret Nielson, Richard Newton, Margit Omar, Lari Pittman, John Schroeder, Judy Simonian, Andy Wilf, and Takako Yamaguchi. Stephen Seemayer's film The Young Turks(2012) documents the 1979–1981 years.
In 1979, Marc Kreisel opened Al's Bar opened in the American Hotel on Hewitt just off Traction. This legendary punk rock venue was the training ground for Sonic Youth, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beck, the Fall, the Residents, introducing generations of Angelenos to dozens of emerging groups. The popular sound band "Party Boys" played the bars and art events.Also known as the downtown artists' central meeting place, Al's Bar occasionally hosted art exhibitions. Al's Bar, the west coast's oldest punk club, finally closed in 2001, and the American Hotel received a facelift in 2012 and was renamed the American Apartments.
LA Artcore, founded in 1976 by Lydia Takeshita with the purpose of exhibiting local artists, exists today in locations at the Brewery Art Colony and in Little Tokyo. The Atomic Cafe on 1st Street at Alameda was an artists and musicians haunt in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) created exhibitions at its gallery space, located in the late 70s on Broadway St before moving to Industrial Street in the 1980s. Several commercial art galleries, including Oranges and Sardines, Kirk DeGoyer Gallery, the Downtown Gallery, Vanguard Gallery, Exile, and Galleria by the Water opened in the late seventies, only to close in the early eighties. Cirrus Editions, the first gallery to open downtown, remains open.
Around 1980, Jon Peterson and Stephen Seemayer opened “DTLA," a club that had exactly one show before it closed, adjacent the Atomic Cafe. High Performance Magazine used DTLA as its performance space until its one-year lease was up. During that year, Paul McCarthy performed Monkey Man during the Public Spirit Performance Festival, Part 1. The name DTLA was later adopted by the neighboring coffee house where Beck got his start.
In 1981, the City of Los Angeles passed its "Artist in Residence" or "AIR" ordinance, which allowed residential use of formerly industrial and commercially zoned buildings; artists had long used such spaces as living quarters illegally, and the AIR law sought to bring this practice into legality and regulation. Art galleries, cafes and performance venues opened as the live/work population grew. During the '80s, Bedlam, created by artist Jim Fittipaldi, on 6th Street (and later, briefly, in the former premises of Al’s bar) was a salon with drawing workshops, art installations, theater, live music and a speakeasy. Dangerous Curve, on a dangerous curve of 4th Place between Mateo and Molino, put on exhibitions of artists whose work was often difficult to categorize. The Spanish Kitchen, a warehouse space on Third near Traction, was home to series of happenings, events, raves, installations and blowout parties. It now houses the 3rd Steakhouse and Lounge, an eatery that hosts community events and exhibitions of works by local artists. Cocola (later known as the 410 Boyd St. Bar and Grill), the legendary artists’ bar just west of the Arts District, lives on as Escondite.
In 1985, Fritz Frauchiger curated "Off the Street," a "one-time art exhibition" sponsored by the Cultural Affairs Department in the Old City Print Shop, which featured paintings, sculptures, photographs and installations by 48 Los Angeles artists, most of whom lived downtown.
In 1994, the nonprofit group Downtown Arts Development Association (DADA) was formed as a spinoff of LARABA by several artist members of the LARABA board of directors in order to provide a platform for the burgeoning downtown art scene; DADA hosted exhibits of more than 400 downtown artists in 1994–1998.
After 1994, the heart of the Arts District was Bloom’s General Store, presided over by Joel Bloom, a veteran of Chicago’s Second City, who became an advocate for the community and who is remembered as The Arts District’s once and only unofficial mayor. Bloom died in 2007, but his memory is honored with a plaque from the city declaring the triangle around Third, Traction and Rose to be Joel Bloom Square. Cornerstone Theater, an enterprise that brings community theater to locations all around the country, still resides on Traction Avenue. Around the corner, on Hewitt at 4th Pl., the non-profit ArtShare offers lessons in art, dance, theater and music to urban youth and features a small theater often used by Padua Playwrights. Padua stages plays around the city, often in non-traditional environments, and hosts play-writing workshops.
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The real estate history of the Arts District in Los Angeles doesn't fit the usual definition of "gentrification." In the 1970s there were millions of square feet of empty commercial and industrial space in downtown LA. Around 1970, artists began to colonize these spaces illegally and use them for live in studios. In 1980, in order to legalize these ad-hoc and unsafe residences, the City of Los Angeles created the "Artist in Residence" zoning variation ordinance. The ordinance necessarily included mandated upgrades to the artists spaces, many of which had fire/safety/health issues endangering the (artist) occupants. It also enabled developers who wished to rehab or create new or old studios that were now legal. These developments, with their increased building and safety requirements, raised the retail rental rates from 10–30 cents per square foot to about 65 cents per square foot in the early to mid-1980s.
In the late 1980s and through the 1990s several (about 20) large artist loft projects were developed from empty industrial buildings, including The Brewery, 900 East 1st St, Citizens Warehouse, 2101 E. 7th St., and Long Beach Ave Lofts, with rents ranging from 65 to 75 cents/ sq ft.
After 2000, developers started converting large office buildings in the area west of the arts district under a new "Live/Work" ordinance. These apartments were marketed as lofts, although they bore little resemblance to the much larger lofts in the industrial district east of Alameda St. Rents in these live/work spaces started in the early 2000s at about $1.10 / sq ft, and over the next 15 years climbed to about $2.50/sq ft, due mainly to the high demand for the apartments and the increasing purchase price for the undeveloped buildings.
The rapid "loft" development west of Alameda, in which hundreds of thousands of sq ft of heretofore unused commercial space has been converted to live/work apartments, has led to a renaissance in downtown Los Angeles, an area long considered uninhabitable by middle class Angelenos. The increased popularity for downtown residences has continued to put upward pressure on loft rent in the Arts District, pushing rents in some of the older, more authentic artists loft buildings upwards towards $1.50- $2.00/ sq ft., pushing many longtime artist/tenants out of their lofts.
The city community planning boundaries today are Alameda Street on the west, First Street on the north, the Los Angeles River to the east, and Violet Street on the south. Challenges facing the Arts District today include the loss of affordable live/work lofts, loss of artists, and loss of historically significant buildings. Community leaders are struggling to create balance amidst the economic issues brought about by gentrification and the need to preserve the character of the Arts District as a creative community that has made contributions to the cultural and economic well-being of Los Angeles for decades. In 2014, the average annual income for neighborhood residents was $120,000. While the initial decades saw the conversion to residential and commercial uses of low-slung warehouses and industrial spaces, downtown zoning laws could be rewritten to permit the heights of buildings to double, allowing up to 1,500 new residential units to be built in 8-story, one hundred feet (30 m) edifices.
The Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), resides in a quarter-mile-long (0.40 km) former Santa Fe Freight Depot built in 1907 that has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Across the street is a 438-unit apartment complex, "One Santa Fe," that opened in 2014 and was designed by Michael Maltzan Architecture (MMA).
The century-old Coca-Cola manufacturing plant at 4th and Merrick streets, just around the corner from the enormous Santa Fe railroad dock that houses SCI-Arc, is the latest in adaptive reuse into creative spaces. The three-story brick-clad building was described as the "headquarters for the company's Pacific Coast business and for its export trade in the Hawaiian Islands and Old Mexico" when it was built in 1915. The complex has been renamed Fourth & Traction after Traction Avenue. The Hauser Wirth & Schimmel complex opened in 2016 in buildings that date from the 1890s to the 1940s that occupy an entire city block on East 3rd Street.
The district continues to be a popular location for filming due to the historic vibe. In 2016, the head of the neighborhood’s business improvement district commented that “There’s not one day where there’s not shooting.” The popular TV sitcom New Girl takes place largely in their apartment loft located in the Arts District. Filming has become complicated due to the development of the retail sector, coffee shops, and residents who will be disturbed by filming at night. Also many formerly empty lots and desolate streets are now under development where crews used the space to park trucks and trailers.
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- Fritz Frauchiger. Off the Street. City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department. 1985
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- Los Angeles River Artists’ & Business Association
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- "The New Girl Apartment Building". January 31, 2017.
- Ng, David (December 25, 2016). "'La La Land' looks beautiful, but gentrification makes it harder for old Hollywood to play itself". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 27 December 2016.
- Media related to Arts District, Los Angeles at Wikimedia Commons