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A Los Angeles Primer: The Arts District

Call it cynicism if you must, but if I went to someplace called the "Arts District" in most North American cities, I wouldn't necessarily expect to find art; in most cases, I'd expect to find nothing at all. The name smacks of official desperation, bringing to mind last-ditch efforts to rebrand blocks you'd never even walk through with an absolute minimum outlay of money or effort. You can envision the meetings: what revitalizes tired, dangerous industrial areas? Why, artists. And what do artists do? Arts, of course. And up go the signs. That an influx of artists in the sixties and seventies actually did bring Manhattan's Lower East Side back from the brink of more or less literal destruction has put ideas into the head of other cities across the continent ever since. It brings to mind the Melanesian "cargo cult," whose members supposedly built imitation airstrips out of wood and radios out of coconuts in hopes of therefore receiving the same deliveries of goods as did their departed World War II occupiers. The cargo cultists staffed their bamboo control towers and waved their semaphore leaves as imitatively as they could, so the story goes, but nothing ever happened.

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It thus comes as a surprise that, in Los Angeles' Arts District, something has actually happened, and, more to the point, continues to happen. Yet for quite some time, it seemed unclear whether it had or would. "Downtown was doomed," says the narrator of Thom Andersen's documentary "Los Angeles Plays Itself" of the city's faltering core in the immediate postwar era. "In the eighties, it went vertical, and there was an attempt to promote loft living on its eastern margins, an effort advertised in a few films, but even artists found the new urbanism daunting." We now know this area, between downtown proper and the Los Angeles River's west bank, as the Arts District. Back in 2004, when Andersen's film came out, the neighborhood already had its name, but evidently it still lacked its current regard. Less than a decade before that, the Arts District didn't even merit an entry in Leonard and Dale Pitt's encyclopedia "Los Angeles A to Z", though the law that put artists' residences in formerly industrial buildings above-board goes back to 1981. You may even now venture into the Arts District and find yourself unimpressed, but bear in mind the way we've framed so much of Los Angeles today: don't look at what it is; look at what it's becoming.

Even at the moment, though, several features mark the Arts District as distinctive. Most obviously, it lives up to its name with an almost comic literalness by offering at least one mural to look at from most anyplace you happen to stand. This large-scale visual art, usually of an impressive level of craft, tends to take up the sides of mildly dilapidated structures dating from the time, wistfully evoked by opinion columnists, "when America used to make things." Whatever you think of these pieces' aesthetics — and whether or not you feel menaced by the fact that so many of them seem to include staring pairs of eyeballs — you can't help but feel from them a charge of urban vitality. Each one appears to have gone up relatively recently, suggesting that in the Arts District we may have that all too rare place where an idea for the built environment (if only a two-dimensional one) can go from concept to execution on a reasonable scale of time. I explain my interest in Los Angeles to bemused out-of-town friends by pointing to the changes in its form, both recent and imminent, but though I've noticed these changes all across the city, the Arts District counts as one of the few areas in which I feel change.

Coming from my home in Koreatown, I have to pass through Little Tokyo, a journey which puts me in the mind of big Tokyo. "In Europe a building was built for a century," writes film critic Donald Richie in an essay about walking the Japanese capital, his longtime home. "In Tokyo a building, it often seems, is built for but a season. They go up and come down at an almost alarming rate. In the Shinjuku and Ikebukuro sections, if you miss a month, you might well next time get lost, so fast and frequent are the metamorphoses." Most American cities, save for parts of New York, look utterly static static next to Tokyo's "permanent state of construction." "Like life," Richie observes, "it is always in flux." If I admire Los Angeles, I admire how it has of late become more lifelike; if I have a hope for Los Angeles, I hope it comes still more fully alive. Richie in 1979 observed that "the Western city assumes immortality," that it assumes "anything made must be made for the ages" in "a denial responsible for some architectural wonders." "It is also," he added, "responsible for Los Angeles."

That characterization may strike you as unfair, but thinking about permanence and impermanence, cheapness and lavishness, sheds light on some of these architectural differences. The most iconic (and icon-filled) European cities built lavishly and permanently. Tokyo builds lavishly (or at least flamboyantly), impermanently, and perpetually. Los Angeles, which once built cheaply yet permanently — think of the whimsical hotels and jet-age coffee shops once dismissed as frivolous, now seriously considered for historical preservation — today finds itself a crossroads. The Arts District, with its disused warehouses and shells of factories built with little in mind but the bottom line, looks like a suitable grounds for this quandary to play out, as several strong development personalities have realized. Alissa Walker not long ago profiled one of them, real-estate broker and "neighborhood curator" Tyler Stonebreaker, in the Weekly. That article raised a few hackles by focusing on the businessmen rather than the artists, but I would submit that the Arts District runs less a risk of ignoring artists themselves than of ignoring what I might call the artistic method. What do artists do? They create art, sure, but they also discard art. They experiment, scrapping the last set of rules and making a new one whenever necessary. More freely than the rest of us, they try things out.

The opposite behavior, cautiousness, has rarely served Los Angeles well. (The city's transit situation alone illustrates that.) Bold enough though they appear, the efforts of Stonebreaker and others have already attracted to the Arts District a group somewhat more affluent but considerably more cautious than out-and-out artists. I speak of the nebulous "creative class," we whose demands include high-grade espresso and properly rough-hewn live-work spaces. My last walk through the Arts District, on an afternoon in which it had fallen strangely silent, led me to a small oasis of human presence called Handsome Coffee Roasters. Its very presence ostensibly the fruit of smart neighborhood curation, the shop displayed a purist's rigor: I could order only a coffee or an espresso, with or without milk — and then only whole milk. Having applauded this, I then discovered another facet of Handsome's purism: you can't get an internet connection there. This opened up time to reflect, right there at ground zero of the Arts District's reinvention, on my own undeniable desire for high-class coffee and semi-renovated lofts as well as the self-loathing those desires raise. Admittedly, I may just need to get out of town for a while. I'll return with one hope for this neighborhood: that it will have undergone such fast, frequent, metamorphoses that I get lost in it.

Photos by Colin Marshall.

About the Author

Colin Marshall hosts and produces the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. These columns present essays adapted from his book-in-progress, "A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City."
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