At the Artists' Loft Museum, Longtime Arts District Residents Are Refusing to Be Erased

The ALMLA sign in a street-facing window
The ALMLA sign in a street-facing window
Michael Parker

“Please don’t let the Arts District become unlivable for actual artists,” Michael Parker pleaded on Aug. 10, addressing the City Planning Commission and the developers behind the Camden Project, a mixed-use development slated to go up on Industrial Street downtown. Just 5 percent of the complex's residential units are required to be affordable housing, which Parker doesn't think is adequate. “There should be much, much, much, much, much, much, much more affordable housing and larger units so that dozens and dozens of 25-year-old artists from the CSU can afford it,” an effusive Parker said. He also mentioned the Artist Loft Museum of Los Angeles (ALMLA), the museum he started out of the Seaton Street studio in which he's lived and worked since August 2001.

“What’s the name of your museum?” asked Planning Commission president David Ambroz.

“The ALMLA,” repeated Parker. “We have our first opening on Aug. 31, the last day of my lease, before I will be facing —"

“Now you're slipping into testimony," Ambroz interrupted. "The name of the museum I got.”

When ALMLA opened to the public last Thursday, it featured work by 25 artists who have lived at 454 Seaton St. since the 1980s. The majority of them either lived or often stayed in the very studio Parker has occupied for 16 years, built out so that now it has a personality all its own: a sleeping loft with a skylight, a black-box studio, a handmade bathtub. Black-and-white streetscape photographs Lisa Anne Auerbach took when she lived downtown in the early 1990s, when freshly out of school, hang on one wall. On the opposite wall there's a framed painting by Nicole Capps of a couch with a stucco surface and white metal fence growing out of its cushions. A side bedroom has been turned into a screening room featuring videos by George Stone, one of the building’s longest-running artist residents (he moved out a few years ago, after the new landlord, Kevin Chen of Capital KCS, bought the building). Stained glass that Rochele Gomez made to look like bricks has been installed along high windows. Gomez’s work is perfect, says Parker, “if you’re thinking about architecture down here, romanticizing downtown bricks. Now all these new buildings, like that giant mall being put up on Mateo, have faux-brick surfaces. It’s done immaculately.” But it’s still a facade.

Parker recently received notice that, upon the start of his new lease, his rent would increase by $2,050 a month — a 43 percent increase from what he's been paying, and about 200 percent more than what he was paying six years ago — and that he would no longer be able to live in his studio, though the space has been zoned live-work for at least 25 years. He is working with lawyer Elena Popp of the Eviction Defense Network to fight these new terms, something a number of other artists in this city are doing, too. Parker also spent last Wednesday morning in court, after his landlord's lawyer sent Popp a temporary restraining order against ALMLA's opening. The judge ruled that the opening could legally go ahead, as long as Parker kept attendance under 49 people at a time. "You've wasted enough of my time," Parker recalls the judge saying after she emerged from her chambers with a decision.

Artwork by Nicole CappsEXPAND
Artwork by Nicole Capps
Michael Parker

The artist-tenants of nearby 800 Traction, who received notices to vacate after DLJ Real Estate Partners purchased their building, pledged their support to ALMLA on Thursday night. Across the street, on the green fence in front of the cold-storage building where Parker has done numerous installations over the years, the Traction contingent hung a banner that said “Stop Artist Evictions.” Sustainable Little Tokyo, a coalition committed to preserving Little Tokyo’s cultural history in the face of new downtown development, postponed its monthly meeting to attend the ALMLA opening.

Little Tokyo and the Arts District blur into each other geographically, and many of the artist-residents at the Traction building, an old structure that was home to the Ben-Hur Coffee & Spice factory in the early 1900s, are Japanese-American. Painter and sculptor Nancy Uyemura moved into the building with printmaker Matsumi Kanemitsu in the early 1980s, not long after the 1981 city ordinance allowed artists to convert then-desolate downtown warehouses into live-work lofts.

“Whatever made the Arts District the Arts District before is no longer really here,” Uyemura reflects. She and her neighbors staged a protest outside their building on July 29, hosted a party in late August to raise awareness of the living situation for artists in L.A. and met with Councilman José Huizar’s office last week. “So what’s happened is we decided that we would at least take a stand and we would fight and we’d make a little noise.”

Much like Parker, she learned to renovate and rewire living spaces, turning her loft into something functional yet still cozy. The notice to vacate felt like a blow. “Being an artist, being a woman of color and being evicted, it’s sort of very painful to me; you just sort of want to run away and hide, but I can’t do that,” she says. “I think we’re speaking for other people who are in a similar situation and for whatever reason can’t speak for themselves.”

Mark Masaoka of the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council helped organize the July 29 protest. “Unless something is done, it’s just going to become another hipster sort of neighborhood,” he said. “This is part of a worsening crisis.” He notes that Arts District residents have been raising concerns about unaffordable new developments for at least six years, and also points out that DLJ Properties have applied for Historic Monument status for 800 Traction, potentially securing a 20 percent rebate on restoration costs. “Those are some substantial public subsidies that would argue for some corporate responsibility, and it would be nice to see if they can keep some of the residents in the building.”

“Where is the balance and what kind of neighborhoods are going to come out at expense of the old guys who made it what it is?” Uyemura asks. “Maybe it’s our fault because we did too good a job.” She doesn’t know what plans DLJ has for her longtime home, but she knows the Taft Building, which DLJ renovated in Hollywood, is now a multipurpose office space occupied by tech and entertainment professionals.

Kevin J. Chen, the owner of 454 Seaton St., runs the fashion line Frankie, which announced early last week that it would be hosting a party on Seaton Street, making it difficult for ALMLA attendees to park. Chen also recently began working to get city approval for a new development called Arts District Center, which will stand approximately where the Seaton Street studios are now. A promotional film on the Arts District Center website depicts its future residents as high-class pioneers. A woman in a terry robe whips open curtains, models walk down runways and wine glasses get filled as the narrator says, “Pull back the curtain, cut yourself from your ties. You are a rarity, never compromising and conforming.” The center will be a 12-story tower with graffiti art on all exterior walls, a boutique hotel inside, and live-work and multifamily residential units. The website doesn’t mention affordable housing, though it may include some affordable units in addition to market-rate spaces, which currently go for $2,500 to $4,000 for one- and two-bedroom spaces. Chen has not yet responded to requests for comment.

Parker and his two roommates each paid $750 a month when they first moved to Seaton Street. “I don’t think my work could have become so freewheeling, risk-taking, if I hadn’t had a place like this,” he says. “Artists need time to develop, and I would have felt those commercial pressures so much earlier.” When the terms of the lease changed this spring, he and artist Alyse Emdur, his longtime studio mate and partner, discussed at length what to do.

“We’ve kind of had it ingrained in us that an eviction is a mark of death for your future credit," Parker says. "If you have an eviction, you're not going to be able to rent a new place, you’re not going to able to buy a new car. But after doing all this research, we just sort of realized that the risk for us, having done our due diligence, was worth taking. It’s definitely not a no-stress endeavor. But it’s worth it.” Early this week, his rent check was returned to him, undeposited, as were the checks sent in by the tenants at 800 Traction.

The night of the first ALMLA show, lawyer Elena Popp stayed for hours, talking to other artists worried about their leases. Guests from the downstairs fashion party eventually wandered up the stairs. “When people walk in here at 6 o'clock and the lights are on, it’s like magic,” Parker says. “It’s the epitome of people’s vision of what an artist loft is.”


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