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CITY TIMES COVER STORY : Lofty Dreams : The Downtown Arts Scene, Once Considered Dead, Is Trying to Revive Its Vision of Becoming the ‘SoHo of the West.’

During the late 1970s and early ‘80s, hundreds of artists and gallery owners searching for spacious lofts and cheap warehouse space moved Downtown to be part of an emerging art scene envisioned as a new “SoHo of the West.”

But by the mid ‘80s, the galleries clustered just west of the Los Angeles River began to languish and artists began abandoning their industrial work spaces to be closer to their wealthy patrons in Santa Monica and other Westside communities.

The Downtown art scene had grown passe.

But now, after years of relative obscurity, a group of artists is fighting back. Convinced that Downtown has the potential to become Los Angeles’ undisputed art center, they have begun an aggressive campaign to draw attention to the strengths of their beleaguered community.

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“We’ve been declared as dead, but we’re not dead,” said Barbara Mendes, a painter and advocate for the Downtown arts revival.

“We’re seen as a pitiful hellhole, but we know that we’re really a groovy neighborhood. We want people to see that.”

Although optimism is strong, the future of Downtown’s art district remains dubious. Despite the vibrancy of the area’s unique art colonies and loft buildings, the streets in east Downtown rarely bustle with pedestrians. Galleries and other small businesses are struggling to stay afloat, and art connoisseurs from other areas rarely patronize local galleries.

“In order to make a living here running a gallery, you need money behind you, you need to have a vision of the future and you need to know a lot of rich people,” said Marc Kreisel, an artist and owner of Al’s Bar on Hewitt Street. “People are creatures of convenience. If they live on the Westside, and can go to a gallery on the Westside, they’ll do it. They won’t come Downtown.”

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However, members of the Downtown Arts Development Assn., or DADA, are convinced that their struggling arts community can realize its second heyday--with a little help.

In December, the 300-member group sponsored its first “Downtown Lives” art show, which involved 400 artists and attracted 4,000 people to its opening reception. The organization expects an even bigger turnout at this year’s event.

In conjunction with the nonprofit L.A. Artcore Center gallery, the association also plans to sponsor a studio bus tour next year to introduce the public to Downtown artists.

“When people come down here, they love it,” Mendes said. “That’s why we’re doing all this. We want the public to come here and enjoy themselves and buy our art.”

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While sipping an espresso at the Troy Cafe, playwright and Downtown arts activist Joel Bloom talked of his plan to open a small magazine and sundries shop on Traction Avenue. “There’s a spark here--hopefully we can light it,” he said. “We’re just going to have to think about how we can make this area more attractive and amicable.”

Bloom, who used to live near Hancock Park, moved Downtown because he said there’s no other place in Los Angeles with as much energy or sense of community. “I get a feeling here I haven’t gotten anywhere else,” he said. “It may look desolate, but it’s not. There’s no place I’d rather be.”

Touting the virtues of Downtown is one thing, but creating an enduring arts scene appears to be a much more elusive goal.

For instance, there is little more to catch the eye in Downtown’s industrial corridor than rows of lifeless warehouses, freight trucks and the homeless hoping for a handout.

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Although the streets are sprinkled with a few hip restaurants and night spots, such as Traction Cafe, Troy Cafe and 410 Boyd Street, old-time hangouts such as Gorky’s Cafe and the Atomic Cafe are gone.

Jon Peterson, a painter and loft building owner, was among the first wave of artists to move into the area in 1976. While lofts now lease for $800 to $1,300 a month, Peterson paid $75 a month for his first 2,500-square-foot studio in Little Tokyo.

By the early 1980s, hundreds of other artists had moved into Downtown warehouses that had been refurbished into apartments. Art dealers also took advantage of the area’s relatively low rents and large spaces and began opening galleries.

It was common for artists to flock to two or three gallery openings every weekend. When Gorky’s opened in 1981, it quickly became a place where artists met to discuss philosophy and their works over bottomless cups of coffee.

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“It was just like New York’s SoHo around that time, except there were less people,” said Kreisel, who moved Downtown in 1971 and opened Al’s Bar eight years later. “There were a conglomerate of galleries, but they’re all gone now. They just couldn’t make a living. I think Cirrus Gallery is the only one left.”

Jean Milant, director of Cirrus Gallery on Alameda Street, said most galleries were doomed after rents rose, the recession hit and Santa Monica became the new, fashionable place for artists and art dealers. Milant said the only reason his gallery endured is because he was able to build a national clientele through contacts and years of successful shows.

“I think it’s possible for galleries to open Downtown, but there’s not a lot of financial incentive right now,” he said. “It’s difficult to run a gallery anywhere in Los Angeles because this town just doesn’t support the arts.”

The 1992 riots also devastated the area by making tourists even more leery about coming Downtown. This summer, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, or LACE, abandoned its Downtown warehouse space on Industrial Street for a leased gallery in Hollywood. Some in the arts community say LACE’s departure marked the end of the Downtown arts era.

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Matt Easton, executive assistant at the nonprofit gallery, said LACE decided to sell its Downtown site because its audience dwindled and it was struggling to pay its mortgage.

“We wanted to cut costs, but we also wanted to be closer to people,” he said. “We now see between 150 to 180 people at our gallery every weekend. At our old site, we didn’t see that many people in a month. The riots marked a turning point. We lost 30% of our audience after that.”

But amid the gallery departures and the talk of gloom and doom, there are signs that the Downtown arts scene may be rebounding.

After abandoning its Downtown location for Universal City in February, the Museum of Neon Art recently announced plans to open a second, larger gallery at a new site on Olympic Boulevard near Grand Avenue. Having received a $415,000 Community Redevelopment Agency grant, the museum expects to open early next year.

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“We think Downtown is a unique place because it’s where a lot of cultures meet,” said Mary Carter, director of the museum. “It may take some time and distance from the riots before people want to come Downtown again, but we were always interested in coming back Downtown because we feel it’s the place to be.”

Also, an Asian American arts complex will open in 1996 at the old Union Church of Los Angeles on San Pedro Street, said Erich Nakano, project manager of the Little Tokyo Service Center. The $4.9-million complex, equipped with a gallery and theater, will house L.A. Artcore, the East West Players and Visual Communications of Asian American Studies.

“It will be the first Asian American multimedia complex in Los Angeles,” Nakano said. “And it should help to revive the Little Tokyo community by increasing foot traffic in the area, especially at night. The businesses in the area should see a positive economic spinoff from that.”

Plans to build a subway station at 3rd Street and Santa Fe Avenue could further revitalize the area.

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“The subway will definitely bring in more pedestrians, and pedestrians will want street lighting and trees,” said Drew Lesso, president of the Los Angeles River Art and Business Assn. “I think by the year 2000, the area will be completely different. There will be more businesses, more commerce and more people.”

Along with those new projects, efforts are under way to improve living conditions in the east Downtown area.

The river art and business association, which was founded two years ago to improve city services, was instrumental in getting the city to install 29 street lights in the area. Neighborhood Watch and graffiti-abatement programs have also been initiated.

Although crime does occur in the industrial corridor, many perceive the area to be far more dangerous than it really is, said Valerie Cardot, a senior lead officer in the Police Department’s Central Division.

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“Burglaries are common in that area, but in general, there’s very little crime,” she said. “There’s more nuisance incidents than anything. People will call to say they’re tired of the graffiti, transients or trash. But the violent crime rate is very low.”

Life in the loft district is also more communal than outsiders might think, artists say.

“I came from the East Village in New York, and moved here because I needed to have huge ceilings and space,” said photo-realist painter Marc Greenblum, who lives at Factory Place. “I also like being surrounded by other artists. It’s definitely the right place to be.”

On a recent Friday evening, Graydon Dyck sat in his Factory Place loft amid piles of his work. Although a painter by trade, Dyck now creates automobile sculptures using everything from broken bottles and oatmeal boxes to scraps of fabric.

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“I find a lot of the stuff from the railroad tracks,” he said. “This area is a gold mine for my work.”

And like most other artists, Dyck came Downtown for the space and to be part of Los Angeles’ only artistic loft community.

“I also love this part of the city,” he said. “I think it’s very energetic and the people here are wonderful.”

In the Downtown area, there are 1,200 to 1,500 lofts, according to a 1993 survey by the Downtown art association. Peterson estimates that about 20 galleries are in the area.

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“In a lot of ways, there’s a lot more happening now than in its heyday,” Peterson said. “We just need more amenities, like restaurants, bars and basic services. When that happens, I think more people will move down here and the area will thrive.”

* CHINESE ARTS: Don Toy has been working to create a center for the Chinese arts in Chinatown. Page 23


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