There Goes the Neighborhood: Is a Futuristic New Development the End of the Arts District as We Know It?

Christine Wang and Sally Spitz perform How to Have a Wet Dream at "The Privilege Show" at Control Room.EXPAND
Christine Wang and Sally Spitz perform How to Have a Wet Dream at "The Privilege Show" at Control Room.
Courtesy the artists

Three years ago, late in June 2013, bodies filled Control Room, a small, artist-run storefront space near the corner of Seventh and Mateo. At the center of the main room, artists Christine Wang and Sally Spitz performed a frenemies routine, complaining about one another’s privilege while wearing matching halter-top dresses over T-shirts.

“Sally Spitz is a total user,” Wang said.
“Oh, shit,” Spitz said.
“Guess who she’s dating?”
“Oh, oh, oh, the guy who gave her a show!”
“All I know is that Christine needs to get her green card,” Spitz said later.
“I fucking hate immigrants,” Wang agreed.
“Such hypocrites, you know what I mean,” Spitz said. “I mean, I won’t generalize all immigrants, but Christine ...”

They went on, approximating with perverse skill the cattiness that can follow when anyone, artists included, vies for seemingly scarce resources.

This work at Control Room, “The Privilege Show,” loosely explored the positions artists hold in an art-world economy — they’re often first-wave gentrifiers or barely making rent while attending expensive receptions.

For two years, Control Room remained under the radar. But by summer 2013, William Kaminski and Evelena Ruether, the artists at its helm, had received visits from concerned cops. Downtown’s rapid development had suddenly made scrappy, underdog gatherings liabilities. In 2014, Kaminski received an eviction notice informing him that the building would be sold to a group of investors.

A few weeks ago, on Monday, Dec. 11, valets stood under a black umbrella outside the warehouse where Control Room had once been. Inside, groups of people in business suits and ties mingled around a catered spread and open bar as Danish architect and rising star Bjarke Ingels’ new design for the Arts District was unveiled.

Ingels’ proposed complex has, at its highest point, 30 stories of glass and steel, plus open-air courtyards and a sculpture garden. It will rise up right near the river, between Sixth and Seventh streets at 670 Mesquit, and include 250 apartments, some of them affordable; two hotels; and about 800,000 square feet of office space. In the elegantly Photoshopped rendering, greenery drapes over various balconies and trees grow on the roofs. The building itself appears entirely removed from the gritty, dusty character of the industrial neighborhood, and its “arts” elements, a gallery over the river and a sculpture garden, are exponentially more polished and proscribed than the artists' studios and exhibition spaces that have occupied the area. This polish prompts some questions: Who exactly is this for, and what does the title “Arts District” actually mean these days?

Rendering of Bjarke Ingels' proposed design for the Arts DistrictEXPAND
Rendering of Bjarke Ingels' proposed design for the Arts District
Courtesy BIG

670 Mesquit St. has long been home to the Gallo family’s Rancho Cold Storage facility. In recent years, the Gallos have received numerous buyout offers from developers, all of which they've turned down. “As a family, we sat down and decided that our legacy to the Arts District means too much to just sell the property off,” Frank Gallo said at the December reception. Instead he teamed with Zach Vella of real estate firm VE Equities and enlisted Ingels, a 42-year-old Copenhagen native who emanates market-savvy idealism. Rolling Stone described the architect as having charisma that “one minute suggests a Silicon Valley wunderkind and the next a president of a frat house.”

When Ingels took the microphone that evening, he went on at length about his recent projects: the angled, futuristically brash, tetrahedron-shaped apartment building on the New York City waterfront; and the in-progress Copenhagen waste-to-energy plant with a 7½-acre ski slope on its roof.

After he finished recounting his résumé, he said of the Arts District, “Essentially, this has become a canvas for a lot of different inspirations of contemporary culture.

“The generosity and the freedom of these old warehouses” was inspirational, he explained. So was “the feeling that a lot of things are possible because these buildings have been built for making things.”

Warehouses, he seemed to be implying, become romantic blank slates once they’re obsolete.

The Gallos and VE Equities are working to secure initial rights to build before March, when a ballot measure that would make development more difficult, backed by the Coalition to Preserve L.A., goes before voters. But Ingels explained that his development, with its “flexible framework,” was “not just typical gentrification but something rooted in the unique character that’s already in the Arts District.”

A New York Times article published Dec. 19 describes Ingels “bristling” when asked about gentrification, and then saying, “We wanted to embrace and enhance the kind of architecture that is there, to build something with flexibility and the raw quality of manufacturing buildings.” The “unique character” and "raw quality" he’s referring to seem mostly aesthetic, distanced from the people and purposes that have defined the Arts District over the years.

Rendering of Bjarke Ingels' proposed design for the Arts District
Rendering of Bjarke Ingels' proposed design for the Arts District
Courtesy BIG

Kaminski, who ran Control Room with Ruether, remembers how quiet his stretch of Seventh Street was when he moved in around 2009. Shops and restaurant began to open gradually: first Pizzanista in 2011, then Tony’s Saloon across the street, then more bars and restaurants. “Once the Arts District boomed, it struck me as the most hyper-real place because there’s no innate value to it,” Kaminski recalls while sitting in his Boyle Heights studio, a seductive mock-up of Ingels’ complex on the computer screen behind him. The change seemed anticipatory at first, a service industry rising up to attract and curate its own clientele, or to draw out the professionals.

“It’s not as though it’s serving more people; it’s serving different people,” Kaminski says. “What is this future that everyone is charging toward?”

The Arts District had been home to artists for two decades before it officially got its name, thanks largely to the efforts of Joe Bloom, neighborhood advocate and proprietor of Bloom’s General Store. He wanted the area to be its own Business Improvement District, and thus petitioned the city. The area officially became the Arts District — a much more commercially attractive name than, say, “Warehouse District” — in 1994.

“Once they named it, that was the beginning of the end,” says artist and filmmaker Stephen Seemayer, who began working in the district in 1976, when artists could still secure studio spaces for 5 cents per square foot. “It began to get balkanized,” he recalls, talking by phone while sitting at Hewitt and Traction, the Arts District’s heart. “Now you have the upper and lower Arts District.” Hauser, Wirth & Schimmel, the impressive gallery complex on Third Street, is in the upper half. Ingels’ new development along Seventh would be in the lower. “It used to be much more of the Wild West,” Seemayer says, acknowledging he’s seen at least three big waves of change over the years. Already, in the 1980s, rents were rising and he and his friends began saying, mockingly, “There goes the neighborhood.”

Seemayer started documenting the history of the Arts District as soon as he moved in, but by the 1980s he’d realized the culture he knew wouldn’t last. “Los Angeles has a knack for destroying its history,” he observes. That, along with the absence of affordable housing, is the danger he sees with these costly new developments. If artists can’t continue to afford the area, and the open-endedness of the warehouses that once allowed them to work with low overhead gets co-opted, will the history of the area's artists become more or less invisible?

Artist Michael Parker has lived and worked in the same Seaton Street building since 2001, staying as investors purchased the property and raised rents. In early November, Parker put a hand-painted sign in his street-facing window that reads “The Artists’ Loft Museum Los Angeles,” or ALMLA. He wanted to visibly mark disappearing studios such as his. Initially, he thought of calling his project “the Museum of the Last Artists’ Studios in the Arts District,” but pairing the word “last” with “museum” made artists' workspaces sound depressingly archaic. He prefers to document a living history and plans to invite other artists in the Arts District to put ALMLA signs in their windows, identifying themselves as holdouts against development and speculation. For the time being, the signs themselves will be the museum’s exhibit.

Parker refers to his own street as the “wholesale produce district along the Alameda Corridor” — wordy, maybe, but factually and historically accurate. He and artist Lisa Anne Auerbach have discussed renaming the Arts District with some other, more representative name — the “Luxury District,” perhaps.

Auerbach lived downtown, on Third Street, in the early 1990s, and then again circa 2013, when she shared studio space with Parker. “You moved there not because you were a pioneer,” she says, but because that was where you could have the kind of space and equipment you needed. “As artists, we like to think of ourselves as outside of the market,” she observes. “We’ve decided to be used, so the market is going to dictate our movement.”

During her recent tenure downtown, she found the change — a dog park down the street near Urth Caffé, the Barker Block lofts, and the renovations so close to home a contractor once fell through her ceiling — “mentally claustrophobic.”

“It feels like there’s a rebalancing that need to happen,” she says, suggesting artists may need to slow down and adjust the ways in which they participate in L.A.’s economy. Maybe the fact that new art school graduates now often expect to acquire studios right away has contributed to the scarcity of affordable space.

Erica Mahinay moved to her current studio, west of Seventh Street, four years ago. “In the few years that I have been here, I have seen more and more coffee shops pop up and more ‘aspirational living’ or lifestyle boutiques,” she says via email. “An art supply store moved in just down the street. So it’s pretty hard to deny that the development has something to do with artists.” Mahinay has a landlord who wants to rent to artists and doesn't angle to raise prices, but developer Nick Hadim, notorious for buying up and then upsetting artist studios, owns a building across the street. “I think one way for artists to resist development is to pay attention to how they exist in their communities as consumers,” she says. “Support small businesses — especially ones that have been a part of the community for a long time.” Ask yourself, “Who is your rent going to?”

The facade of Control Room, formerly at 2006 E. Seventh St.
The facade of Control Room, formerly at 2006 E. Seventh St.
Control Room

When he spoke on Dec. 11, Bjarke Ingels pulled up slides of work by artists that inspired his project, specifically Donald Judd and Sol Lewitt, canonical minimalists with little connection to L.A. He said he liked the way these artists used “rational repetitive structure to form the backbone [of their work] and how repetition can attain a whole variety of expressions.”

You had to wonder what he would think of Control Room’s anarchic exhibitions, never rationally repetitive, or of Michael Parker’s studio, with its handmade ceramic bathtub, makeshift loft and irregular rooms, built out, instinctively and gradually, over 15 years.

“For 25 to 30 years, artists have come here to work," Parker says of his Seaton Street building. "If it all just looks like the fucking Grove ...” He trails off. “If there aren’t places for artists to develop, there won’t be artists.”


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