Exiles On Main Street 

Portraits of downtown's endangered artists. Case study: The Canadian Building

Wednesday, Sep 12 2007

The hookers downtown don’t look anything like they do in movies. No fishnets or pushup bras. They are in their 50s and 60s and look like little grandmas — which is why they’ve become known as the abuelas. They dress like secretaries and keep bankers’ hours, working days to cash in on a little lunch and rush-hour action. For years, they were fixtures at the perpetually C-rated greasy spoon known as El Trouble but whose real name nobody seems to recall. It was part of the Canadian, a building on Skid Row’s Main and Winston streets, which also held a XXX movie theater, an adult bookstore, a few empty storefronts and, on its two top floors, a collection of crumbling lofts. The Canadian used to be called the Birdhouse, because pigeons had come through broken windows to roost in a few of the vacated lofts; they covered the floors with bird shit and flapped their wings through the wide hallways.

By 1996 only three people were living in the building.

That same year, the owners began to advertise for tenants to fill the lofts. The raw spaces were dirty, most of the fixtures were broken, there was no heat or gas, and bathrooms and showers were in the hallways. The people who moved in were starving artists picking up the scraps from the boom and bust of downtown's earlier art-loft era in the '80s and early '90s. Living an often overly romanticized hand-to-mouth existence, struggling from painting to painting, freelance job to freelance job, no sign of a steady paycheck in sight, they came for one reason: cheap rent. At first, there were a few residents, basically functioning drug addicts, who were able to hold on to a job, at least for a little while, between benders. One, from a wealthy Santa Barbara family, was a severe alcoholic with a crack addiction, habits made worse by a slight mental illness. He’d often pass out in the hallways or hang from the banisters. Occasionally he brought home male crack whores. Then there was the bona fide nut case — he was paranoid, delusional and occasionally aggressive, particularly toward the female residents. He’d corner them in hallways when no one was around or while they were in towels, skin still wet, fresh out of the shared bathroom showers, to interrogate them about some imagined conspiracy. In his calmer moments, he'd show up in the doorways of male residents, swishing red wine around in a wineglass and making small talk in an attempt to gain allies so that he wouldn’t get kicked out of the building.

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What follows are the stories of some of the current residents of the Canadian and about a way of life that’s become increasingly threatened ever since developer Tom Gilmore began packaging “the artist’s life” down the street with a series of luxury lofts now known as the Old Bank District, and other developers followed his lead. Before downtown echoed with jackhammers and cranes filled the skyline, residents of the Canadian spent a decade living with the constant interruptions of film crews shooting car chases, explosions and murder scenes. There were bonfires in the middle of the streets, bicyclists riding through empty thoroughfares in their pajamas, knife-wielding neighbors, clouds of crack smoke, homeless fights, underground art galleries and record stores, and parties that went on for days.

To hear them tell it, downtown L.A. circa 1998 was like Montmartre, the epicenter of bohemian Paris, in 1898. And if downtown L.A. was Montmartre, the Canadian was Le Bateau-Lavoir, the squalid tenement that housed the likes of Pablo Picasso and Amadeo Modigliani in the late 1890s. Before the current attempts to turn it into a yuppie playground, downtown's Main Street was the kind of petri dish of hunger and humanity that artists crave and thrive on. Right in the middle of it all was the Canadian, where crack and abuelas became absinthe and courtesans, and the party never ended.

The Brothers Banales

Back in the late '90s, you could roll a bowling ball down the middle of Main Street and not hit anything. Shadows moved, street lamps illuminated nothing but lonely stretches of sidewalk and deserted buildings. In 1998, whatever functioning businesses that were left would close for the day and silence would descend. Often, the unmistakable hum of a Banales brothers party would rip through that silence. Ground zero was the brothers’ 2,000-square-foot vaulted loft in the Canadian, where a dense graffiti forest thrown up by local artist Vynl wrapped around a stage with pro speaker cabinets and a manned mixing board. The source of the commotion? Maybe it was Deerhoof, or the Minutemen, the Centimeters, the Adolescents or any of the 50 bands that played for free to a packed crowd in the brothers’ loft. The parties usually lasted till the wee hours of the morning. The average bash drew 400 bodies, some of which were still around come morning, sleeping it off in a hallway. The Banales brothers’ parties became the stuff of legend.

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