How the Arts District Got Its Name

The wall of the old American Hotel
The wall of the old American Hotel
Irving Greines

This week's L.A. Weekly profiles the one of the city's hottest neighborhoods: the downtown arts district. Check out the other stories in our series:

*Tyler Stonebreaker: Curator of the Downtown Arts District

*5 Best Places to Eat in the Downtown Arts District

*6 Developments That Will Change the Downtown Arts District's Future

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Joel Bloom, who moved downtown in 1986 and opened the beloved Bloom's General Store at the corner of Traction and Hewitt in 1994, gave the downtown Arts District its name. The late Bloom, whose now-shuttered store became a community hub, did so unofficially in the 1980s, and then petitioned the city to make it official in the mid-'90s.

But to hear people talk now, you might think the district was new. The L.A. Times recently compared the Arts District to New York City's industrial-turned-trendy Meatpacking District, then suggested artists might not be able to afford to live there much longer.

Residents have heard such speculation before.

"That's been the fear since 1983," says Jonathan Jerald, who curated the recently opened "In Your Face" exhibition, which documents the district's past in an Alameda Street warehouse now owned by Angel City Brewery.

Or it has been the fear at least since 1982. That year, artist Karen Kristin did her "Wolf at the Door" installation in the Art Dock, an 8-foot loading dock at the Citizens Warehouse near the First Street Bridge. Artist Carlton Davis had a studio in the building and staged exhibitions on the dock. Photographs of her installation and others, selected by Davis and taken by photographer Ed Glendinning, hang in "In Your Face."

Before 1982, no one paid much attention to artists moving into downtown lofts. But when a local politician declared artists were "the golden nuggets" who would lead citizens back to the no-man's-land downtown had become, inspectors started stopping by. Artists paying 5 or 6 cents per square foot to live and work in spaces without the proper zoning began to worry.

Channeling their anxiety, Kristin suspended faux marble blocks from the Art Dock's ceiling to evoke an I Ching gateway — because who knew what the future held? — and then suspended a wolf's mask over a bowl of gold-colored nuggets.

The Art Dock stayed open four more years, even after the city passed the "Artist in Residence" ordinance to regulate downtown live/work spaces. Artists would build work for their exhibitions on the street, talking to anyone who walked by. "We used to have lots of dialogue with the homeless," Davis recalls.

"The only difference between them and us was a month's rent," says artist Stephen Seemayer, who also is featured in "In Your Face." He moved downtown in the mid-1970s, when he was 21, and cobbling together a living. The decade's worth of footage of eccentric characters, places and artists around the Arts District he'd shot became part of his film about the downtown scene, Young Turks.

At the brewery, stills from the film are displayed in a series of collages, providing vintage views of haunts like the original Hard Rock Café, a dive bar Peter Morton had to buy out before starting his now-famous chain. "It was the kind of bar you could lose your life in," Seemayer remembers.

Another still shows three views of now-closed Al's Bar at the American Hotel, the punk club where bands like The Jesus Lizard played.

Another view of the American Hotel wall
Another view of the American Hotel wall
Irving Greines

All these haunts are gone, and lately, higher-end loft spaces, boutiques and restaurants have begun to give the area a more polished feel. Jerald, who says "In Your Face" is "part of our subtle political agenda," has been working with the city to ensure that low-income artists' spaces remain available downtown. When the new development One Santa Fe opens in two years, for example, 20 percent of its housing units will be affordable.

Irving Greines, an artist and lawyer, has watched the district change over the past few years. He started coming down to the American Hotel a decade ago, taking the photos of the graffiti and wheat-pasted posters on the building's side that are the newest work in "In Your Face." He'd visit twice a week, sometimes more often, and each time the wall would be different. Images would be altered, messages added to posters.

"Most people despise graffiti, but when it's really happening and very active and people reflect lost love, it's fascinating," he says.

But since two sponsored murals went up, the wall has gone static.

"I hope it comes back," Greines adds.

"It will come back," Jerald says.

"That's the nature of living in an artist's neighborhood," Davis says. Things are always ending and starting again.

Follow me on Twitter at @CGWagley, and for more arts news follow us at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.


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