Exiles On Main Street | Features | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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Exiles On Main Street 

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

Wednesday, Sep 12 2007
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Page 10 of 11

On Fridays, Chang and her friends would play a game called Hipster or Hobo. They’d guess whether the stringy-haired skinny dude was homeless or a hipster from Silver Lake who’d come down in his beat-up old Benz to score his weekend crack. They’d pour a drink and sit there watching doctors pull up in BMWs; once they spotted a tow-truck driver, with a car still attached, stopping to make ?a score.

“I’ve seen every type of person smoke crack underneath my window,” Chang laughs.

The Mayor of Main

Richard McDowell, with the worried look of a mild neurotic, is leaving the Canadian. He’s already moved out of the loft he shared with Valerie Davis, who is a photographer, but he was still toying with the idea of keeping his art studio, the 800-square-foot space that was once his bedroom. McDowell sits in a big wooden chair, leaning back with his feet on the type of big metal desk you’d expect to see in a police station. A cloud of black paper bombs are suspended from the ceiling on invisible fishing line, in a frozen state of attack, threatening to rain down from above.

McDowell had wanted to live at the Canadian for the past five or six years. Every six months, he’d call the manager, looking for an opening. He was living at the Baltimore Hotel, a Skid Row SRO, where he paid $270 a month. He stayed in the Baltimore, even though he had a job that paid him enough to live decently in the most gentrified of neighborhoods. He remembers the roaches. “Ah, man,” he says, still shivering, “it took a long time to get rid of those bastards. When I moved in, I slept in the middle of the bed, and I didn’t turn on the light, ’cause whenever I did, I’d see they were right near me.”

He wasn’t staying out of necessity. He actually liked living there. He got a kick out of his 74-year-old neighbor, Art, a retired engineer with a 20-something girlfriend.

“I’d hear the funniest conversations through the wall. I’d hear her say, ‘No, no, no, don’t do that, Art, you’re dancing in my underwear!’ And he’d be singing, ‘Doodle-dee-doo!’?” Then, there was the night McDowell was smoking outside the building. Someone tapped his shoulder. He turned, and it was a petite, blonde bombshell in a halter top and a little skirt with a pink-and-purple floral pattern and just enough of a black eye for McDowell to notice how the maroon color matched her outfit. McDowell knew who she was. She came down on the weekends from the Westside, where she lived with her boyfriend during the week, to shoot heroin. She’d let a few of the guys, the ones she either trusted or even liked, have sex with her. For most of the guys, McDowell says, “She’d take off all her clothes and let them do what they do as men without touching her.” She passed out the sexual favors in exchange for a place to “do what she did, as a human being, away from the streets and the jeers and catcalls,” says McDowell softly. “I wish I’d taken her upstairs that night, but I didn’t.”

McDowell came downtown in the late ’90s seeking human interaction. He found shelter in an abandoned bank and opened up a little gallery in the ghost-town streets around Santa Fe Avenue. It was cold and desolate, something out of the movie Silent Hill. People came out of the woodwork to check out Gallery 835. Early Cannibal Flower shows were held there. After getting kicked out of his squat in the bank building, he moved into the gallery to live. He paid only $200 a month for the 6,000-square-foot space. McDowell proudly boasts of how he received a letter from the Mayor’s Office saying he and his gallery were pioneers.

“I don’t know if I was the pioneer of anything,” McDowell says. “But I felt like I was in front of a massive wave.”

McDowell’s gallery caught the attention of the owner of the Spring Arts Tower, on Fifth and Spring streets, a building that housed artists for either cheap or free back in the day. The owner sent him a Christmas card saying he liked what McDowell had going on and should he ever need a place, he was welcome to stay in his building. Eventually, McDowell took him up on the offer. He lived on the third floor of the 12-story building, which was convenient since the plumbing only reached that level. No one ventured above the eighth floor. “It was a real community,” he says. “Everyone was an artist or a writer or a musician, minus a heroin addict or two.”

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