It Ain't Pretty 

Art and commerce clash in the NoHo Arts District about auto-body shops

Thursday, May 22 2003
Photos by Ted Soqui

A peculiar sculpture sits in the traffic island in North Hollywood where Burbank and Lankershim boulevards intersect with Tujunga Avenue. It’s a bronze ball about 4 feet in diameter on which an iron chair is balanced. Atop the chair stands a phoenix, its wings poised for flight.

Dedicated April 3 at a ceremony attended by Mayor Hahn and other dignitaries, the statue cost $100,000, paid for by city and federal funds, as well as money from the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) and the Rotary Club. According to the NoHo Arts District’s Web site, the figure represents the area’s “resurrection from neglect and decay” and its future as a “destination center.” Unfortunately, its teetering, jerrybuilt appearance also offers an apt metaphor for the hazards of the corridor directly to its east, an unpleasant stretch of Burbank Boulevard choked with auto-body spray-paint shops.

The area’s mix of a renewal district with lofty aspirations butting up against a traditionally industrial corridor that runs parallel to dense residential pockets has cooked up a strange and, some would say, toxic stew.

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“They should call this NoHo’s Love Canal,” says Carl Crew, who, with business partner Robert Ferguson, operates the California Institute of Abnormal Arts, an alternative museum and performance space on Burbank Boulevard, in the heart of NoHo’s prized, but tenuous, arts district. “We’re here so much we’re exposed all the time. I could never open during the day, because of the fumes. It’s cut my business in half.”

Crew and Ferguson claim they’ve suffered due to prolonged exposure to paint fumes from Oxnard Auto Repair next door, as well as from other spray-paint shops. Crew says he spent a month in the hospital for an eye infection that caused temporary blindness and says three pet dogs of his have died suspiciously. Ferguson was diagnosed with cancer in his lower left eyelid last year and underwent surgery to remove skin there. He provided paperwork documenting his illness. The spray booths are poisoning him, he believes.

“There’s a connection,” says Ferguson. “These fumes come in waves from morning till night. It’s worse than any fingernail salon. We called AQMD (Air Quality Management District), but it was a real merry-go-round, being referred from one place to another. It went nowhere.”

Crew and Ferguson are not the only ones raising their voices, though they have helped revive long-smoldering grievances. Myrna Garcia and Lori Bartoshevich are among those who believe the auto shops are hazardous to residents’ health. They live on the same plot on Martha Street, with Garcia’s family occupying the house in the front and Bartoshevich a smaller one in the rear. Bartoshevich’s bedroom window is five feet away from the back of a busy welding shop. She seals it with thick plastic to block sounds and smells. Following years of complaints from Bartoshevich, the shop recently put up iron sheeting to shield the residences behind it. But she’s still worried.

Sign of times

“We’re too close to this shit,” says Bartoshevich, referring to the industrial corridor. “I don’t want to get cancer. I’ve considered moving, but I can’t afford it.”

Garcia, from Guatemala originally, has lived on Martha Street for 10 years with her husband. They have a 2-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl. Her sister’s family lives next door. Both families are tormented by fumes and noise.

“My nephew has terrible asthma,” she says. “It’s so bad, the paint in the air. My sister has a swimming pool in the back of the house next door. All the dust, smoke and paint goes under the water, and you can see a big, thick layer of dust and metal at the bottom. We vacuum it up before we swim in it, but the point is that if it’s there and we’re smelling it, we’re inhaling it. You can feel it in your eyes.”

Garcia says her son was born with neurofibromatosis, a syndrome that often leads to learning disabilities and brain tumors. “I don’t know where it came from, or if there’s any connection. The doctor called it a ‘new mutation.’ We have to do some genetic testing to find out. This residential area being back-to-back to the spray-painting is not good. Why can’t we move them someplace where there are no kids? I have nothing against them personally. They’re doing their job, making their living. But they’re in the wrong place.”

Her sister Blanca Gesell added that she too suffers from asthma, a condition she claims has persisted for the last 13 of 15 years of living on Martha Street. She showed me her pool, the deck of which overlooks an auto-body shop’s back lot filled with cars. A petite woman with an especially sunny disposition, she keeps several birds in a cage outside her house. She believes she’s lost at least six to the fumes from the nearby auto-repair shops. “You just wake up in the morning, and they’re dead on the floor of their cage,” she sighs.

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