People often refer to the heart of East Los Angeles, but it never seems to be in the same place. In newspapers, the term turns up all over the map. That’s because the area is more identified by its busy arteries -- Whittier, Atlantic or Cesar Chavez -- than by any essential center.
Finding the heart of this sprawling Latino neighborhood was on the mind of artist Linda Arreola when she won her first public art commission recently. Her task was to design a sculptural piece for the expansive new courthouse plaza at the East Los Angeles Civic Center, a refurbished and repurposed government complex that will be dedicated next month. Her design started with the idea of a public square that would serve as a focal point for residents.
“I really wanted to create a space for gathering of the community,” says Arreola. “I felt our community really needed that.”
The result is “Meso-American Dream,” a tranquil network of gardens and water fountains leading to an open space defined by stone blocks laid out in a square. The 1,300-pound blocks, made of red and gold travertine from New Mexico and Peru, are stacked two and three high, to create seating areas that evoke the shape of a pyramid.
Arreola is one of several East L.A. artists commissioned to beautify the park-like complex that once was a foreboding, military-like compound used primarily by law enforcement. Near the intersection of the 60 and 710 freeways, the Civic Center features a new bilingual library with a mosaic mural by Jose Antonio Aguirre, a pristine lake with two leaping fish sculptures by Jose Rude Calderon and two inviting gateways marked by Michael Amescua’s towering steel sculptures carved to recall papel picado, the traditional Mexican folk art of intricate designs on colored paper.
The complex is now an urban oasis connected to Belvedere Park. The center still includes a sheriff’s substation and probation office, but the SWAT team has been relocated and a playground stands where helicopters used to land. An old courthouse building, left standing long after being gutted by fire, was finally demolished, and a former library was converted to a county office where residents can get building permits and other services. It’s all anchored by the familiar Roybal clinic on the corner of Third Street and Mednik Avenue, an older building wrapped in rows of brightly colored tiles that foreshadowed the center’s new welcoming design philosophy and color scheme.
After more than a decade of tearing down, moving and erecting new buildings, the county is planning a grand dedication for the center on May 10, including a concert with Tierra and singer Little Willie G, stalwarts of the East L.A. sound. The day also marks the unveiling of the Dionicio Morales Transit Plaza, a hub for bus riders and future light-rail passengers of the Gold Line, currently under construction along Third Street.
The renovation, managed by the county’s Department of Public Works and designed by Gruen Associates, cost more than $30 million, including $450,000 for the art. The improvements coincide with a trend toward greater business investment in an area where not long ago Starbucks balked at going in. Today, a commercial center across from the project features a Quiznos and a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.
“Unfortunately, East L.A. has had a bad reputation, and we’re cleaning all that up,” says Supervisor Gloria Molina, who spearheaded the improvements. “We’re creating and expanding services for residents of the entire Eastside and making it a beautiful location. It’s about a sense of worth and history and bringing unity to a community.”
In the 1980s, I used to own a record shop in East L.A. but never even knew the Civic Center was nearby. Apparently, I was not alone. A random survey of residents taken by the county showed that people didn’t recognize the complex by that name. By unfortunate experience, some knew the Sheriff’s Department had a jail there, and others made regular visits to the probation department.
“The Civic Center was the place where just the bad people went,” recalls Carrie Sutkin, a consultant who was Molina’s former planning deputy.
Sutkin still sounds excited about the process of transformation. She remembers public meetings like they were birthday parties. And she gushes about the residents who got involved and gave direction on the changes they envisioned.
Public art was a priority for residents, she says. A neighborhood committee was formed to review proposals from local artists and help select the winners, with guidance from Self-Help Graphics, the fabled East L.A. arts and culture group.
Arreola, the plaza artist, had just about given up on applying for public art commissions. When she heard about the Civic Center project, she decided to give it one last try.
“When I was accepted I couldn’t believe it,” says Arreola, who grew up in the nearby El Sereno neighborhood. “Being a Chicana artist, it’s hard to get opportunities of a grand scale like this. So I’m totally overjoyed.”
Arreola was raised by her single father, a teacher and activist. She was a latchkey kid who walked home after school with her house key hanging around her neck. She became interested in art as a teenager, but her work never fit the typically Chicano model of culturally explicit or figurative art, such as Aguirre’s library mural, “Our Legacy: Forever Presente,” which heroically depicts Cesar Chavez, Oscar de la Hoya and Ruben Salazar, The Times columnist who was killed while covering the 1970 Chicano Moratorium.
Arreola was just starting high school that year. Although her father taught her about her Otomi Indian roots, she was not an active participant in the Chicano political and cultural movement. From the start, she was always more interested in three-dimensional art and the beauty of basic geometric forms (“There’s poetry in the elemental”) and how they fit together. Her show at Tropico, fittingly titled “Vaguely Chicana,” features pieces that play with repetitive patterns of colors and shapes, but with no explicit message.
Arreola, who holds two master’s degrees, one in architecture from UCLA and another in sculpture from Cal State L.A., says she spent most of her $65,000 county commission on the travertine stones for “Meso-American Dream.” “I wanted to make it happen, and I didn’t care if I wound up with zero,” she says with a soft smile and gentle tone.
The work was inspired by the ancient architecture of historic sites such as Teotihuacan, a civic and religious center outside Mexico City. Her travertine pyramids are arranged in a square, with the taller red-stone structures at the four cardinal points and the smaller yellow-stone stacks on either side, for a total of 12 units. They are arranged to invite visitors to sit facing one another around the square.
“If you sit there quietly one evening,” she says, “you might feel some of the power of the elemental forms and maybe even the cosmic forms above us.”
And if you stay, you might finally discover the heart of East L.A.
“Vaguely Chicana,” a solo exhibition by Linda Arreola. Through May 17 at Tropico de Nopal Gallery, 1665 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 481-8112. www.tropicodenopal.com
East Los Angeles Civic Center Grand Dedication, 9 a.m.-10 p.m., May 10, at 4801 E. Third St., Los Angeles. (323) 881-4601. molina.lacounty.gov