The Arts District farmers' market in Los Angeles is a recent addition to a small but growing community wedged between Little Tokyo and west of the L.A. River. Since June of last year, local sellers, artisans and patrons gather at what is known as the Triangle, or Joel Bloom Square—within sight of what was once legendary West Coast punk venue Al’s Bar.
Al’s opened its doors in 1979 to a sparse population of artists who had been working, and often living illegally, in the decaying warehouses and factory spaces abandoned following the post-WWII period of industrial boom in the early 1970s.
Manufacturers either moved on or went out of business, leaving industrial space that was rented for only pennies per square foot. A vast surrounding area contributed to a seedy, crime-ridden urban landscape that was not yet appealing to profit-driven investors. This scene was described to me by Mark Walsh, sculptor, video artist, and owner of Downtown Artist Space, a creative workspace for artists of all mediums to rent located in the AD along Skid Row.
MaRS, Museum as Retail Space, Anderson Street. Photo: Lauren McQuade
By the time Walsh moved to the district in 1987, the City of Los Angeles had already passed the Artist-in-Residence ordinance in 1981, which allowed artists to legally live in the vacant buildings.
“No one cared what you did just so long as you didn’t burn [the building] down or maybe hoping you’d burn it down because it’s worth more as a parking lot,” said Walsh.
Artists first trickled, then flocked to the AD, during the time Al’s Bar was becoming a well-known venue across the Southland—upcoming bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Misfits, and Sonic Youth played there throughout the 80s and 90s. While Al’s Bar was the early pulse of what would later become the AD, as most would attest, it was Joel Bloom who brought the district its soul.
Bloom arrived in 1986 a year before Walsh—who witnessed his reign as first official Arts District advocate and revered curmudgeon. Bloom’s General Store was founded in 1994 in the same building as Al’s Bar. Today, the AD still benefits from his efforts and countless victories. The pioneer and activist passed away in 2007, but his recognition of the Arts District as a separate entity, a place with its own identity, was something he took upon himself to foster and maintain, and remains a sentiment long-time residents remember and still work to uphold.
Photo: Lauren McQuade
The DJ at the farmers' market is set up nearby under an E-Z Up in a line of tented vendors selling natural sponges and handmade jewelry, turning the music volume up as the sun sets. Walsh is there getting tacos from a food truck vendor, and pulls up a chair at the far end of a long communal table where Laura Velkei is sitting.
“I’m kind of the voice of the Arts District because I’m the one who does communication for most of the boards,” said Velkei, who will periodically catch eyes and wave at an old neighbor, or someone else she knows from serving as board member for several AD organizations, including as founding member and Treasurer of the non-profit Arts District Community Council LA and Historic Cultural Neighborhood Council. She formally served three years on the LARABA board, Los Angeles River Artists and Business Association, where Walsh sits as a current board member.
A farmers' market in the Arts District signals that the 52-square-block neighborhood has reached a population and economic tipping point—a fact Velkei is all too aware of.
Velkei has been a community activist for over 30 years and evokes a brazen self-confidence that demands attention. She lived in the AD for four years and today operates her non-profit out of the Toy Factory. She continues to channel her community activism toward helping the neighborhood she loves for its passion fight against “cagey” developers and works hard to keep its quiet legacy alive and well.
The tenacious philanthropist has encyclopedic knowledge of both finished and upcoming developments planned for the AD—good and bad—that include everything from outdoor malls to mega-complexes for hundreds of pricy live/work lofts with indefinite hoards of uppity residents to match.
“We’ve literally seen huge cars roll up, people get out of the car, and realtors standing next to a purchaser saying, do you want that building or that building?” said Cheyanne Sauter, Executive Director at Art Share. She sat down next to Velkei with a bag full of fresh produce after making her round at the market vendors.
Photo: Lauren McQuade
Art Share is a non-profit creative art center in the AD that operates as a two-story, 28,000-square-foot safe haven for emerging artists, offering them creative space for rent at below market value (the only low-income housing option in the AD) with exhibition space and a theater to engage the community.
“Artists are getting priced out 100 percent of this neighborhood,” said Sauter, “It just doesn’t matter if it’s a 500-square-foot micro-loft or 750 and above, three dollars a square foot prices them out 100 percent.” Only established artists can afford to both live and work in the AD—the rest scatter to the fringes of Downtown to Boyle Heights, or to Culver City East, she said.
The skyrocketing price of land in the AD has also meant developers prioritize cost-cutting over sustainability, in order to increase profit from their original investment.
The previous night’s Arts District Community Council meeting bubbled up some long brewing tensions between community leaders and the Los Angeles Department of City Planning. The conflicting entities have been at odds since developers started cashing in on properties in the AD three years ago, constructing new apartments and live/work lofts, transitioning from a long period of adaptive reuse of existing structures to the construction of new buildings.
Community leaders have spent hours with the Planning Department hashing out how best to evolve the neighborhood’s defined ethos and to facilitate viable population growth by establishing some ground rules such as an affordable housing bracket that must be tailored to artists as defined by HUD guidelines, which defines "Artist" as an income discriminated group—considering how to put brakes on the transformation of a once affordable, low-key community of artists and creatives into a walkable retail and restaurant mecca for professional. It’s a balancing act, according to Thed Jewel, designer and AD business owner.
Jewel’s high-end retail store 12345 is getting priced out as the AD struggles to find that balance between residents who have little disposable income and retailers that must rely on those residents for business. The neighborhood is not “retail friendly,” according to Jewel, who explained business has remained stagnant since he opened the store at 811 Traction three years ago.
“Now, I can understand if it was jumping over here and it was very retail-heavy and I was making money, yes, you raise my rent I completely understand that but it’s like we’re polishing shit right now,” explained Jewel. “I’m not making money, [the building owners] are just making money off of me.”
As of August 1, rent for the storefront would have more than doubled based off of what the building owners consider the market value. Jewel suspects they are “trying to capitalize on something that the papers and everybody is saying is the new jumping spot.”
“It’s like fake fame,” said Jewel. “I’ve just found that it’s a cheap way of making money—I’m of the understanding that clout is expensive too.”
Photo: Lauren McQuade
Behind 12345, in the early 19th century old flour mill building on East Third Street, will be the location of the new Hauser Wirth and Schimmel Arts Center, spanning an entire block of the AD, or 100,000-square-feet, opening early next year.
“It’s probably just a next step,” said Brant Ritter, artist and furniture designer, of the moneyed mega-galleries like Hauser Wirth and Schimmel moving into the area. Ritter has lived in his live/work loft in the AD since 2002, and plans to open his own pseudo-gallery space in September of this year at his studio, taking full advantage of the ample foot traffic Urth Caffe provides across the street.
“It’s either you get in or get out. You either monetize what you have or just go, just leave now, because this wave is coming,” said Ritter.
Brant Ritter's live/work space, Photo: Lauren McQuade
Across the Sixth Street bridge just outside of the AD is MaRS, Museum as Retail Space, on Anderson Street, the next developer-decided creative hub, according to Ritter. Demolition on the upcoming Sixth Street Viaduct Replacement Project has already begun and investors are buying up properties on the desolate street in anticipation of its completion in 2019, which will provide space underneath for community programming.
Ritter hopes to counterbalance the commercial galleries that are moving in by providing an exhibition showcase to feature underrepresented artists. The idea is to put on interesting shows without worrying about feeding the machine of a traditional art gallery.
“It’s just by dumb luck that I’m here,” said Ritter. “If I’m not actively participating in the neighborhood, what’s the point?”
Living in this once tiny community of artists felt akin to living on a desert island, according to Walsh. He recalls a few “false starts” of gentrification throughout the 80s and 90s, and before the economic crash in 2008, but he recognizes that it is now fully underway. “You could feel the ground shaking and the peak smoking then the volcano hit; it happened really quick but it wasn’t unexpected,” he said. “We’re just trying to ride the wave instead of getting swept up with it.”
The first interim ordinance written by city planners missed the mark, according to Velkei. “It was a lot of bullshit and stuff that catered to developers who had bought into the community and couldn’t get their projects built because we were cock-blocking them.”
The community regrouped and together drafted their own ordinance to provide a real-world framework for the growth of the Arts District as a productive, mixed-use neighborhood. They presented it to Planning, but despite their efforts working with the City, the draft (along with hundreds of signatures urging the City to adopt the Community Ordinance) remained largely unchanged.
“The core of what we think would drive and make sense for sustainable growth for [this district] they left out and blatantly so,” said Velkei.
The Planning Department’s second draft also altered the original name of the ordinance from Arts District Interim ordinance to the Hybrid Industrial ordinance and now not only affects the AD, but also what turned out to be an industrial district in Boyle Heights.
“I think it’s important that we keep fighting. I think we might just have to embarrass these guys,” said Velkei.
Garey Street, Arts District, Photo: Lauren McQuade
Amid recanting a heated discussion from the previous night’s community meeting, Velkei sees Yuval Bar-Zemer, partner and real estate developer at Linear City, LLC, arrive at the farmer’s market.
When asked if he would like to give a statement regarding the other developers in the Arts District, Bar-Zemer responded, “Suspicious.”
He followed up with a question for Velkei, “Are you sure she’s not sent as a spy for the Planning Department?”
“I’m pretty sure,” Velkei laughed.
“This is a guy who I’d lay down for any day of the week,” said Velkei. Bar-Zemer is a long-time Los Angeles resident who lives in the AD and has committed to the preservation of the neighborhood since the establishment of Linear City in 2001. He is a “good” developer who has worked with the Historic Biscuit Company Lofts and Toy Lofts under the adaptive reuse ordinance.
At this point, the City is not bending, and neither is the Arts District community. What’s at risk for the AD? According to Velkei: The OC.
“Orange County is what we don’t want and we don’t go down without a huge battle and there will be a huge battle that will ensue—I don’t know what it’s going to look like but it will get much bigger than it has been,” Velkei said.
Image at the top: MaRS, Museum as Retail Space on Anderson Street, Lauren McQuade
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