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More Than Meets the Eye

The swashbuckling duel with paintbrushes over the mural on the side of the Avenue Liquor store would be downright comical if not for the deeper issues involved.

Should a businessman have the right to repaint a wall if he believes a coat of whitewash will help his business--or for any other reason?

Or should an artist who has created a neighborhood landmark have some say in whether it gets wiped out?

What might have been a lively philosophical discussion turned into a federal lawsuit after muralist M.B. Hanrahan sued merchants Tony Touma and Kamil Yousef for painting over part of a 72-foot-long mural the building’s owner had allowed Hanrahan to paint on what is now their store. A judge ordered Touma and Yousef to pay Hanrahan nearly $50,000 in damages and to let her repaint the whitewashed portion. When she showed up and began chalking outlines for the reconstruction, Touma angrily tried to erase them with a broom.

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Eye-catcher or eyesore, there is more to this particular mural than meets the eye.

To many residents of the area, it is a symbol of a remarkable grass-roots campaign to nurture pride and dignity in a hardscrabble neighborhood. Ventura Avenue has long been the city’s socioeconomic cellar. In recent years, largely through the leadership of the Westside Community Council, residents have organized and worked together in a number of ways to improve their quality of life.

They have encouraged merchants and landlords to spruce up rundown buildings along the Avenue and persuaded the city to put in new curbs, sidewalks and street lights and utility companies to put their wires underground. The landmark Casa de Anza apartment building, long derelict, is being restored and will combine low-income housing upstairs with a relocated and expanded branch library at street level.

This community pride movement sprang from the same spirit that inspired the mural. Titled “Don’t Target Our Kids” and painted in the bold style of Latin American political murals, it is a colorful collage of anti-drug and anti-booze slogans and gangsters burning their guns amid rainbows and sunshine. A county drug and alcohol program paid for it; some 300 Avenue residents--many of them teenagers--helped paint it.

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They did so with the blessing of landlord Ray Ramirez, who still owns the building although he has since sold the liquor store business inside to Touma and Yousef. Ramirez says the mural cut down graffiti and helped inspire community members to turn the rubble-strewn lot next door into a flower-landscaped park. That, in turn, drove away some of the panhandlers and winos who hung out in the lot.

The issue here is bigger than a difference of aesthetic taste. It is bigger than a clash of rights, although if an artwork is to be legally protected then the property owner certainly deserves advance warning of what that entails. Ramirez owed it to his tenants to tell them the significance of the mural. Had he done so, all this ill will might have been avoided.

The issue here is whether new merchants on the block have enough respect for the community to get in tune with what is going on there, to become part of the positive movement to improve the area. Against long odds, good things are happening on Ventura Avenue. We encourage the owners of Avenue Liquor to look beyond their concrete-block wall and try working with, not against, their new neighbors.


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