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Tunnel Vision 

The battle over the Belmont graffiti walls

Thursday, Nov 25 2004
Photos by Ted Soqui

When word got around last April that Meta Housing Corporation was planning to tear down the famed Belmont graffiti walls to put up a $55 million apartment complex, you could smell the spray paint a hundred yards down Glendale Boulevard. Graffiti writers "from the old school to the new school," as one artist named Duce put it, flocked to the old abandoned Pacific Electric subway terminal at the bend in the road where Glendale merges into Second Street just west of downtown. By early summer a memorial timeline of L.A. graffiti had gone up, beginning in the northeast corner of the yard with new work by some of the scene’s founding fathers and stretching chronologically south and west around the walls, past the old tunnel portal and electrical substation and back on the other side, the lettering getting less blocky and more lean and wild with each step toward the present.

All of that is gone now. New work covers every inch of the Belmont walls in a riot of blue, gold, brown and red, letters so highly abstracted that they start to feel almost representational: here like an earthquake, there like a gunshot, there like a city in flames. You can date the piece closest to the street — a cuddly-menacing sprawl of pink and white letters and fanged, cleaver-wielding bunnies painted by the female artist Sherm — by its inscription: "Rest In Peace Old Dirty." (A.k.a. Russell Jones, rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard died last week.) But a bulldozer sat dormant in the middle of the yard for most of last week, and Meta hired guards to patrol the chainlink boundaries of the site, so Sherm’s will likely be one of the last murals to grace Belmont’s aged concrete. The very last one may be the smaller inscription on the pavement on the other side of the fence where unadorned white cursive letters spell "RIP Belmont 11.16.04."

Last Monday marked a turning point in the battle over the future of what was once known as the Toluca Yard: The bulldozer began actively chewing through the center of what has over the last two decades become an impromptu neighborhood park and one of the world’s best-known open-air graffiti galleries. It didn’t harm the graffiti-covered outer walls, but the bulldozer tore up the retaining wall supporting a long ramp which once allowed Pacific Electric to haul commuters from downtown, through the innards of Bunker Hill, out onto Glendale Boulevard to Echo Park and beyond. And most of last week, the odd coalition of neighborhood residents, graffiti artists and transit buffs that have been fighting Meta’s planned development for months were out on the sidewalk along Second Street to protest. They won a brief but exhilarating victory on Wednesday when the bulldozer accidentally reversed into the hole it had been digging, and, before it could right itself, an inspector from the city’s Department of Building and Safety forbade the workers from proceeding until they secured the proper permits.

Northwest Gateway, as Meta’s 276-unit apartment complex will be called, is a small part of an enormous overhaul of the long-neglected neighborhoods just west of the 110 freeway. You can’t drive through Crown Hill, Temple-Beaudry or the northeastern corner of Westlake without seeing bulldozers and cranes climbing giant ziggurats of dirt. Eagerly razed by developers in the 1980s only to be abandoned when the market collapsed, the area once again smells like money. LAUSD is building two new high schools within blocks of the Belmont site. G.H. Palmer and Associates has begun construction on the Visconti, a 300-unit stucco blemish at Third and Bixel streets which — along with the Medici, the Orsini and the Piero — will complete the developer’s quadrilateral assault on the aesthetic future of downtown’s western fringe. Smaller developments are going up everywhere — some affordable and some decidedly not, but all guaranteed to profoundly change the dynamics of a working-class, Latino neighborhood that has just begun to get on its feet after years of violence and institutional neglect.

All of this, of course, has happened with little input from or notice of the people who currently live in the area, which is what spurred Amy McKenzie and Robin Nelson independently to begin fighting Meta’s project when they heard about it last spring. McKenzie, an artist who moved across the street from the old train yard a year ago after getting priced out of her neighborhood downtown, began looking into having the site declared a historic landmark by the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission, and in the process met Nelson, another artist who bought her house on Columbia Street in 2002. The two teamed up with Stash Maleski, whose graphic-arts company ICU (In Creative Unity) saved the graffiti walls in Venice Beach from destruction and who envisioned turning the Belmont yards into a city-sanctioned "art park." Other neighborhood residents, graffiti artists and train buffs soon joined in the effort, and a small opposition was born.

The obstacles, they knew, were formidable. Despite its decades of use as a de facto public park, the land was privately owned. Meta would not be eager to part with land for which it paid nearly $4.6 million. "That’s a lot of bake sales," Maleski acknowledged. But the projects’ opponents have not been easily deterred by hard political realities. They talk about the site in almost mystical terms, as a gateway to L.A.’s past and a model for a rooted, empowered urban future. And it is an extraordinary place, the graveyard of an L.A. that could have been, a ruin ignored for decades by its owners and by the city, which, without any help from officialdom, has come alive with art and life. Not a speck of concrete has been allowed to go uncovered with color. Kids play and families have barbecues on weekends. For years, immigrants from Michoacan have converged every Sunday to turn the old subway terminal into a court for tarasca, a pre-Colombian Mexican ball game played, they say, nowhere else in the United States. McKenzie and Nelson call the yard a "monument of abandonment" and a symbol of urban survival.

So the activists met in living rooms and canvassed door to door. They posted fliers, distributed petitions and scoured city records. Nelson’s neighbor, Norisol Ferrari, recruited dozens of students from Belmont High to join the effort. In meeting after meeting, they spoke passionately from the floor of hearing rooms in City Hall. The one thing they failed to do was convince Councilman Ed Reyes.

Originally, Meta Housing planned to build an entirely market-rate, 360-unit, 14-story tower on the site. "They were going to build the hell out of this place," Reyes says. A longtime advocate of inclusionary zoning and affordable housing (see last week’s cover story), Reyes prevailed on the developers to scale down the project and rent 20 percent of the apartments at rates affordable to low-income families. Meta also agreed to devote another smaller building the company is constructing on top of the hill on Emerald Street entirely to affordable units. In the end, the development’s opponents were unable to sway the councilman. "We could not accommodate the purists in the graffiti world," Reyes says. "For every room full of artists and graffiti advocates, I probably get two rooms of people who want housing. And they’re all right."

Lacking Reyes’ support, the opponents lost a key battle in front of the Cultural Heritage Commission in August. The subway tunnel portal and the power station were declared historic landmarks (Meta will be required to preserve them, but is free to do so out of public view behind the development’s gates), but not the yard itself or the graffiti-covered outer walls, which leaves Meta free to tear them down — almost.

In late September, the Central Area Planning Commission granted Meta several zoning variances it had requested, clearing the way for construction to begin. But McKenzie has appealed that decision, and will have a final chance to argue the case for preservation before the City Council on December 15. Until then — despite the bulldozer’s false start last week — Meta will not be issued permits to start construction.

John Huskey, Meta’s president, is confident that the project will move forward. "Unless there’s been some major change in priorities that’s been announced by the city of Los Angeles, we will be approved." His opponents, though, are not giving up. They’re consulting with lawyers and hoping to pressure Reyes to shift sides. "We’re planning a huge mobilization of people," Maleski says. And, he adds, they’ll be on the sidewalk every day until the 15th, fighting while they can.

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