It's the first Thursday in November, which means, in San Pedro, it's art-walk time. A four-block area that's usually the picture of shuttered downtown decay springs to life. Seemingly vacant storefronts open their doors to reveal the live/work spaces of painters, photographers, sculptors and potters.
Artists, collectors, families and college students stroll Sixth and Seventh streets, clutching plastic tumblers of Two-Buck Chuck and buttery seafood rolls from the Lobster Truck. A live band rehashes oldies near Senfuku, the locals' favorite sushi restaurant, where you might see Linda Bukowski — widow of poet Charles, who made this port city his final home. A petite teen in a zoot suit demonstrates parkour moves, while a dark-skinned transvestite with a tousled, electric blue wig stumbles by in platform heels — like characters in a Bukowski poem. “The place comes alive,” Marylyn Ginsburg, one of San Pedro's leading art patrons, says.
Art walks have become declaratory acts in the process of gentrification, providing temporary safety in numbers for yuppies otherwise wary of neighborhoods in transition. But, as with so much else in Pedro — by sea, the gate to the City of Angels; by land, L.A.'s appended dead end — this walk is a little different.
Instead of goateed art-school graduates in search of the next Mike Kelley, surfers ogle Ray Carofano's epic photos of the Salton Sea, military brats play vintage pinball games at the Mantiques store, longshoremen (and -women) finger the handmade crafts of female artisans at the fiNdings Art Center, retirees admire the intricate, medieval bestiaries of Wendy Milner, and drifters from one of the city's many rehabilitation centers ponder Angela Washko's video-game interventions.
Seventh Street feels more like an eclectic Main Street than trendy Sunset Junction. For an emerging artists' mecca, San Pedro offers a refreshingly hipster-free zone.
“The people here are very nice and friendly. They say hello to you. It doesn't seem like there's that attitude that you might experience in some other part north of here that I have been privy to,” says Laurie Steelink, who last year opened an exhibit space called Cornelius Projects on Pacific Avenue. By day, the painter works for Track 16, the respected Culver City gallery. “There's something very small-town, very quiet. When I get off the freeway, even though this is part of the city of L.A., I feel like I'm in a different town.”
The welcoming embrace of a credentialed curator such as Steelink shows that Pedro (pronounced Pee-drow by locals who cling to the town's European-immigrant accent) is having a change in 'tude and rep.
Lured by low rents and the visual juxtaposition of the industrial port and the Point Fermin cliffs, artists — including Eric Johnson, Eugene Daub, Michael Davis, Philippa Blair, Slobodan Dimitrov, Danial Nord, Ted Twine, Gil Mares, Debbie Marr and Jon Nakamura — are increasingly joiners of a city long shaped by immigration.
The savviest newcomers are attempting not to colonize but to connect: to tap Pedro's unique cultural identity and respectfully move it forward.
Deference to history is the guiding principle of “Second Thoughts San Pedro,” the exhibit opening Jan. 11 at Cornelius Projects.
German photographer Tim Maxeiner spent months unearthing photographic treasures from the San Pedro Bay Historical Society's archives. He hangs them on the walls at Cornelius alongside shots taken during the last few years he has spent in the area, seeing the iconography of this American life with the fresh eyes of an outsider. A vintage black-and-white image of the entrance to the now-defunct auto ferry stands next to a recent color shot of a pedestrian bridge arching over the Harbor Freeway on-ramp. Cabrillo Beach then is dotted with tents and umbrellas; now it's dotted with roaring bonfires.
Maxeiner's urban landscapes are serendipitous and strange, not quite noir but not sunny, either. After all, as recently as August, this very newspaper named Pedro Los Angeles' surliest hood. Since its early rough port days, the city has been known for brawling and boozing. The dive bars open early; men with neck tattoos roll down Pacific in tricked-out rides. Provincial Pedrans still enforce the surfer slogan “Locals Only” on the city's beaches and breaks.
But at such civic-booster organizations as the San Pedro Arts & Culture Entertainment District and the new visitors center, and in the offices of hometown political heroes Janice Hahn and Joe Buscaino, surly San Pedro is getting a makeover. With the once-booming canning and fishing industries mostly silenced, the area is trying to recast itself as a cultural and tourist center.
More than $38 million is being pumped into redevelopment of the waterfront. Abandoned wooden warehouses have been refurbished into a crafts market, and opening next summer is Brouwerij West, a brewery and restaurant.
Palos Verdes–based Marymount University has moved its art college to downtown San Pedro, thanks in part to the support of art patron Ginsburg.
Those recent developments are just what the money and power people are doing. While many of the artists themselves are happy to see San Pedro getting attention, they don't necessarily want change. “I like it here a lot for what it is, not what people want to make it,” says Ron Linden, a painter who, as curator of the exhibit series Trans/Vagrant at Warschaw Gallery, has been instrumental in raising the town's artistic visibility and standards. “I like it here because of the people here.”
San Pedro has a rich labor history and remains proudly populist. In the town where, 100 years ago, Joe Hill became a leader of the union Industrial Workers of the World (aka the Wobblies), culture rises up from the people more than it is handed down from the bosses.
Misha Rabinovich is keenly aware of this legacy. As a Ginsburg-Klaus fellow at Marymount College, the Russia-born, transmedia artist curates shows at the Arcade Gallery. The November exhibit included works by Andy Fedak exploring anarchism.
Aware of the historic connections between anarchism and the American labor movement, Rabinovich reached out to local unions. “I'm really interested in that blue-collar history of San Pedro and the desire to have a vibrant art community, how those two overlap, that nexus,” he says. “The best of both worlds: What can that look like?”
In San Pedro, art is part of the social fabric, not just something rich people put on their walls. Hill didn't only organize workers but he also wrote songs; flannel-flying '70s punks the Minutemen crafted an anti-“mersh” (i.e., commercial) aesthetic that guided Amerindie rock; the new local high school is named after an activist/artist and his painter widow, John and Muriel Olguin. Coffee hangouts Sacred Grounds and the Corner Store sell paintings and ceramics by such locals as Logan Fox, Delora Bertsch and Frank Minuto alongside pastries and sandwiches.
Gabie Strong's studio is in the back corner of one of the converted military barracks at Angels Gate Cultural Center. The center's hillside perch offers breathtaking views of Catalina, the harbor and Palos Verdes Peninsula. Strong lives farther north but grew up in the South Bay, and much of her work is about the region: photos of abandoned military installations, or images of albums by the Minutemen and Saccharine Trust.
Seventies punk continues to empower South Bay art. Works by Joe Baiza, the Saccharine Trust guitarist whose album cover is captured in one of Strong's pieces, were featured in the last show at Cornelius; Pedran punk-flier artist Craig Ibarra was Steelink's inaugural show. Former Minutemen bassist Mike Watt has an Angel's Gate studio.
“Twenty to 30 years prior to this moment, artists were doing the same thing as today,” Strong says. “Their work did what art does — make people question what's going on — but they were taking a dialectical approach to meaning, not didactic.”
If there's a defining San Pedro medium, it's photography. Watt has a book of photographs he's taken while kayaking in the bay. Carofano has been shooting portraits of the local barflies and frightwigs. Their pictures hang on a brick wall of Gallery 478, where he and wife Arnee live and create. They were San Pedro art pioneers, moving from Redondo Beach in 1998.
“These are people on the fringe of society,” Carofano says of his portraits of San Pedro. “You can't find that out in Redondo, where it seemed like everyone came out of a duplicating machine. Pedro has color to it.”
TIM MAXEINER: SECOND THOUGHTS SAN PEDRO | Cornelius Projects | 1417 S. Pacific Ave., San Pedro | Jan. 11-March 1 | 2nd-thoughts-sp.tumblr.com
See also: San Pedro Galleries: A Quick Guide
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to an artist as Joe Ibarra. He is actually Craig Ibarra. In addition, the article referred to an organization as the San Pedro Historical Society. It is actually the San Pedro Bay Historical Society. Danial Nord's first name was also misspelled. We regret the errors.