By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
She was staring at the black-screened iron gate of the Canadian when she heard the lock turn from inside. She couldn’t see who was on the other side, but as the door opened, a blast of whiskey slapped her in the face. It was coming from a man with stringy hair wearing women’s bell-bottomed, cuffed trousers that flared out about a foot too high at his calves and a way-too-small child’s size flannel shirt. He was nearly falling down drunk. She explained to him that she was there to see the manager, and, teetering a little on his heels, the building's resident trust-fund crack addict made a big swooping bow and slurred, “Wellll, come ’n in!” To Bolles, that pretty much summed up the Canadian in the late ’90s, and downtown in general.
Bolles was one of 17 people who responded to the for-rent ad in the L.A. Weekly, but she was the only one to actually fill out an application. “I had a hard time finding a loft back then,” says Bolles, who paints full time and takes on production work to pay the bills (including a few episodes of Scrubs). “So I wound up renting a postage stamp in the Hollywood Hills.”
Then she found the Canadian, and with some elbow grease and about 20 cans of white paint, settled in to her 1,500-square-foot live/work loft. Bolles’ loft is neat and homey. The kitchen has a European farmhouse feel, with an old enamel stove, enormous windows and a rustic, wooden table. Huge canvases hang in each of the three divided rooms. On an exposed-brick wall in the sitting room, illuminated by a set of 1930s billboard lights, hangs a giant, moody photograph of low-lying fog thick above crossroads that seem to stretch an eternity in either direction. The lights were found on the street, and the photograph was taken by her live-in love of six months, Fridgeir.
“For me, downtown was normal,” says Bolles, who came here from New York City. “The buses, the grime — it was more normal to me than, say, Westwood. That’s a foreign concept to me — security guards and pool boys? That I don’t understand.”
Though the boundaries of normal were often pushed. One night when Bolles had invited a friend over, and they sat on her living room couch sipping wine and catching up, a giant fireball of red and orange light exploded without warning in front of her seven-foot-tall window, filling the loft with heat. A movie was being filmed in the alley. Film crews still shoot in the alley now and again, but with more people living downtown, full-on pyrotechnics have become harder to pull off.
There were loftwide parties every few months, where residents invited friends and sometimes close to a thousand people hopped through the building in a single evening. Some of them were still there the next day. The neighbors rode their bikes down to Al’s Bar, the local crusty punk club, or went on pizza runs. If you needed to bum a cigarette, even at 2 in the morning, you could find someone in the building, door open, awake and painting. The shared bathrooms and showers were not an inconvenience but another chance for community. Though most times it was peaceful, that community was not without drama. Particularly when it came to romances.
“Oh, my god,” declares Bolles, “it’s a crisis when somebody in this building breaks up. You wouldn’t believe it. There have been breakups where the whole building was involved. You’ll know because the chalkboard will have a big note on it: ‘Do not let him in the building!’?” The chalkboard is sort of the MySpace of the Canadian, a rectangular slate at the landing of the main staircase. Often, passive-agressive anonymous word wars are carried out in multicolored chalk.
And if there was drama inside, it didn’t compare to the performances going on nightly among the homeless outside Bolles’ door. Grown men clucked like chickens, puffing up their chests, winning imaginary arguments. Women who were worse for wear, toothless, with bad skin and matted hair sashayed down the street as if they were Gisele Bundchen. Artists generally have a live-and-let-live ethos, and Bolles didn’t view the people on the sidewalk outside the building as something to fear, get rid of, or even feel sorry for; they were merely participants in the street theater.
“It was almost performance art,” Bolles says. “People knew they were performing. They were trying to climb street poles, the most outrageous things. We called it ‘the nightly entertainment.’?”
Fridgeir moved from Iceland (he went to high school with Björk) in 1986. He briefly settled with his mother in Pacoima, but the pair left for downtown a year later. Fridgeir was 20 and not really sure what he wanted to do with his life yet, so he followed his fashion-designer mother, Stella, to a 3,000-square-foot warehouse off of Santa Fe Avenue, which cost about $800 a month at the time. That was back when Al’s Bar was really happening, when the first wave of artists ran around downtown before real estate speculation priced them out and galleries started moving west, when life down there consisted mostly of parties and underground gallery openings — when Danny Elfman occupied an entire floor of the Canadian.
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