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Young Latino artists envision an arts district in East Los Angeles

On a cool summer Friday evening, in a former furniture store whose iron shutter has been painted powder blue, Abel Salas' literary salon Brooklyn & Boyle plays host to an event fairly rare in Boyle Heights until recently: an art opening.

A bald cholo with a backpack wanders wide-eyed past trays of cherries, cheese and wine, while a young couple, Jennifer and Mario Duarte of Alhambra, note the transformation brought on by night. "We didn't even recognize it," marvels Jennifer.

She used to drive through the neighborhood daily on her way to work but is only now getting out of the car to browse an eclectic selection of pieces with names like "Cinco de Bud" and "After Delacroix." Across the way, retired city administrator Janet Erwin plunks down $100 for a piece as local artists sip Negro Modelos and wonder whose work will move next.

Sandwiched between an underpass and a new police station, this part of Boyle Heights may not seem like anyone's pick for L.A.'s next cultural hot spot -- but then again, neither did Spring Street when some rather precocious signage declared a gallery row on the edge of skid row a few years ago. But these days if you brave the crowds of families, hipsters and party-seekers every second Thursday of the month in downtown L.A., you'll encounter one of the city's most popular art walks with 45 galleries, a tour bus and, the surest sign of success, illegal street vendors.

Now, as the Gold Line extension prepares to open, young Latino artists in Boyle Heights want to craft an arts district of their own. Eager to make a cultural destination out of the region's rich yet often overlooked heritage, they are offering a vision of galleries, studios, theaters and cafes along 1st Street between future Gold Line stations at Mariachi Plaza and Soto Street. Yet, they know that playing with the fires of revitalization can lead to the ashes of gentrification, so they're asking themselves how to promote a community's artistic identity without losing its soul.

An arts district has long been part of the city's community plan for Boyle Heights -- and something of a no-brainer to Councilman Jose Huizar, who grew up admiring the famous Estrada Courts Murals in the district he now represents.

"There's so much history for the arts in Boyle Heights, from the mariachi music to the Chicano rock 'n' roll scene to the murals," Huizar said in an interview.

But the area's artistic bona fides have more often been overshadowed by a reputation for gangs and economic stagnation. Changing that was one motivation for "Real Women Have Curves" playwright Josefina Lopez when she started her theater/gallery space Casa0101 on 1st Street in 2000.

"Growing up, I couldn't walk to the theater and to the gallery, I wanted to create that for the youth and for the people in the community. . . . I want people to know there's more than just gang violence," she said.

Others followed: Salas moved Brooklyn & Boyle out of his El Sereno house and next- door to Casa0101, and Lilia Ramirez took up residence in her gallery/studio space Liliflor Studios nearby. Suddenly, an area whose sole arts mecca had been the nationally renowned but perennially fighting-for-its-life Self Help Graphics, was experiencing a renaissance.

All this activity caught Huizar's eye: "You've got the Gold Line, you've got a new high school, Mariachi Plaza is now going to be reopened, I thought to myself, this was the beginning of a corridor."

So last fall at the beginning of the school year, he asked UCLA professor Leo Estrada's graduate class in urban planning to study it. The study revealed something about a possible arts district that was already obvious to Ramirez: "Organically, it's already happening." The students' report to Huizar described a community with the assets and interest necessary to justify cultivating an arts district -- but one fearful of gentrification and the rising rents that could change the conditions that make it possible.

No one appreciates that trade-off more than John Carlos De Luna, whose work was on display at Brooklyn & Boyle that Friday night. De Luna grew up in Estrada Courts beneath the legendary murals, painting ones of his own in the L.A. River. Art allowed De Luna to find peace amid the poverty and violence of his youth, but for his children, he'd prefer something different.

"I want my kids to grow up in this community, see that change and live through a time where they don't have to be fearful of walking down the street -- and have the opportunity for art and theater," he said.

So, De Luna moved back to Boyle Heights and opened his house as an art space for local youth, all with the help of his fiancée and fellow artist Kristy Lovich, a self-acknowledged gringa from the Valley. She smiled at the idea that she and De Luna put a human face to the changes Boyle Heights is bound to undergo, but she took seriously her role in protecting the neighborhood's fabric: "You can be here, but you got to do the work to appreciate the community."

This spring, after Estrada's students finished their project, a group of local artists who had participated in the study formed an organization called A.R.T.E.S. (Artists for Revitalizing the East Side) to build on the momentum. In addition to Lopez, Salas and Ramirez, A.R.T.E.S. recruited Boyle Heights artistic godfather Ruben Funkahuatl Guevara; former Self Help interim director Rose Ramirez; poet Linda Gamboa; and sticker artist Rosanna Esparza-Ahrens. A.R.T.E.S. has crafted a mission statement, coordinated with Huizar's office, formed a committee structure and held community meetings whose success surprised even ardent advocate Esparza-Ahrens.

"I had a swarm of people asking questions, wanting information," she noted. "It puts a fire under your feet to follow through with getting people's dreams to come to fruition."

A.R.T.E.S. is currently assembling a design team for their first proposed project, Art Squache, which will create installations in the windows of local businesses (starting with a 99 Cents Only Store across from Liliflor) to beautify the strip for the Gold Line's imminent arrival. The group also plans to create banner designs for the street lights along First Street and has hopes that one day Boyle Heights will host an art walk of its own.

A.R.T.E.S.' other motivation, however, is to temper the ills of possible gentrification. For, as Boyle Heights has begun to pop up on the hipster map, especially with the increasing popularity of local wine bar Eastside Luv, the rising rents and transformative capital of outsiders may not be far behind. Annie Lapin, an artist and alumna of UCLA's graduate arts school, has a studio just north in Lincoln Heights. She says she already knows ex-classmates pushing into Boyle Heights in search of cheap rent.

The members of A.R.T.E.S. are well aware of these dynamics and their role in them. As Guevara acknowledges, "It's a fine line between development and cultural integrity."

In fact, artistic success is often part of the draw -- when Lopez had to renegotiate rent with her landlord for Casa0101, she discovered that "because my theater was so successful, a lot of kids from the [downtown] artists' district were looking at Boyle Heights . . . and because of that he could charge more money." A.R.T.E.S. hopes that by working to assert the region's identity, educate residents and take an active interest in the Community Re-Development Agency's plans for the area, it can have some influence over whatever change outsiders may bring.

Notes playwright Lopez, "We want to make sure that people who come to Boyle Heights come to contribute and not just take. The community deserves an arts district, deserves these beautiful, wonderful things, but they don't deserve to get kicked out for it."

Still, even Ramirez must acknowledge, "It's unavoidable, an arts district is definitely going to change the demographics."

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