Interview with Daniel Ruiz: Muralist, Theater Actor, Set Designer, Construction Worker

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Boulevard Voices is a series of interviews conducted by Occidental College students, assisted by the Keck Grant, for Professor Jan Lin's Los Angeles Field Research course. Each interview highlights an individual who has made an impact in their communities in Northeast L.A.

Subject: Daniel Ruiz
Occupation: Artist, muralist, theater actor, set designer, construction worker
Boulevard: Figueroa Street


Daniel Ruiz is an artist, muralist, theater actor, set designer, and construction worker born in raised in Highland Park. He first began his volunteer work at the Hathaway Family Resource Center, and has since been serving the community through a wide range of organizations such as the Los Angeles Therapeutic Art Center, North East Trees, St. Ignatius Church, Ramona Hall, Franklin Continuation High School, Highland Park Heritage Trust, and Avenue 50 Studio. For the last twelve years Ruiz has painted murals throughout the community (as depicted in the photo of Ruiz next to Luther Burbank Middle School mural), and has become increasingly involved with the current revitalization project on York Boulevard. The following interview exhibits Ruiz's thoughts on the current gentrification of Highland Park and his role as an active community member.

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You're involved with many projects. Do you think people view you as a public figure, and how is that impacting the community?

Perhaps, yes. The entities I've worked with have presented to me that I have that "people presence" or personality where I should run for council and all that. I don't see that, but perhaps in the distant future. I think it's honorable to be mentioned. I am a people person and I love people and I love all that's happening. If you're new in the area, I like to befriend you, so that's what I have done and am doing. It makes an impact, and it's very important to me because I'll probably be dealing with newcomers on a regular basis [and]... I like connecting people. To me, it's a joy when I can say, "You know what, so-and-so needs someone," or "Go to so-and-so and talk to them," and then see what sparks.


What is your current impression of the neighborhood identity?

You know I've been pondering that question for some time now. I really feel our surroundings -- the nature, the hills, the green, and the trees -- would be a very big part of what distinguishes Highland Park. I think Occidental College -- [the fact] that we have a university distinguishes it as well. Yet a lot of people don't know about Highland Park. I mean you go outside the outskirts of the city and you say, "I live in Highland Park," [and people say] "Where?"

What's happening is it's becoming trendy, it's becoming cool, it's becoming like what Melrose and Silver Lake were before. Before they got all big, before they got all trendy, before they got all busy, before they got to be somewhere to go.

I like to talk to the locals to get their input and a lot of people are saying that we're the spillover. We're like Silver Lake, we're like Echo Park, Melrose and what not. Why it's very important to have the distinction of this park [on York] is to show we're not Silver Lake, we're not so-and-so; we are Highland Park. And Highland Park has its own artists, and its own vibe, and its own feeling, and its own energy. And yes, the outsiders are people that come in from all these other cities or spillovers or whatnot, [and] have influenced it, are influencing it, and will influence it. So it's important to have some sort of foundation of original people who have created or worked on it. It's very interesting [to see] what will happen and is happening in that whole revitalization project. But it's awesome and it's really neat. I think it's on and it's going to be cool.


How do you feel the community is receiving this "outsider" influence?

I've been here all my life and a lot of people have moved out. I feel a lot of the older businesses or long term businesses have a lot to say and want to give a lot of input, but they haven't had a lot of opportunity to be outspoken and to put their two cents in. So these new entities are coming in, they're probably bringing the idea that they have come up with it because they're the ones that are forming this group or groups. Not speaking bad or bad-mouthing anyone; I just feel that a lot of people here never had the opportunity; it never presented itself. And now that the revitalization is coming, like I said, there's another group that is establishing themselves as the ones that are creating this movement.


Do you think the older businesses and residents are going to feel as though the neighborhood's changing without them or as if they're getting pushed out?

Yes, I think a lot of people do feel that it's not their scene, and a lot of people perhaps are taking advantage of "well, if it's coming up, lets take advantage of what they're giving us and what we can get." Then others are moving onto somewhere where they feel more comfortable, or they can feel at home in a sense. I do want to say that a lot of them probably perhaps feel pushed out. For the most part growing up here, [there are] low-income families, not the least educated people but working-class, more like construction job kind of labor. They are not people who have the means to just be there, enjoying what's happening.

I think that whole strip from Eagle Rock/York to Figueroa/York is really going to have some exciting things happen. I think a lot of investors are seeing that there is a capability and there is something here, like a gem, something's happening. One of the storefronts for many years was a pet shop; unfortunately this owner passed recently. And what I've heard is that someone from Santa Monica got it and it went up for millions, and that's pretty impressive for that one strip. So, what's going to be there? And I've been asked that and it's kind of challenging -- do we want a chain? A chain would be awesome, but at the same time we don't want a chain, we want to keep it small and whatnot, but a chain would be awesome. I can only say, speaking for myself because I live around the corner, that it would be cool because I could go eat there and shop there and everything else and then come home. I mean, instead of going into the city to spend and buy and partake there in a sense.


Do you think these changes, like the chain stores, would change Highland Park into a place for people to come visit and leave, or into place that people would move into?

I think it would be a little bit of both. I think mainly because it still hasn't gotten to that, I think it's a place to come, a place to buy and establish something here. We're not quite there, but we will be. But it is a place that I'm experiencing the, "I've never seen this person before." I could sit at the coffee shop or sit on the bench at one of the storefronts and say, "I've never seen that person here," or "they're totally not from here," and that kind of stuff. But it's great that people are coming and visiting. And I'm sure Occidental college has an impact because I'm sure the students go to the local places and they're thinking, "this is a pretty cool spot and there are cool people around here." I would say that eventually some of them would stay.

The little businesses are popping up left and right. There are still some things that are way beyond what should be here now, but I think these guys are leading the way. It's still fresh territory so it's been very exciting and I'm looking forward to see future of it. But again, how do we keep some sort of character that has existed before?

Danny Ruiz in front of his mural at Luther Burbank High School in Highland Park

How do you see the changes playing out in your role as an artist? Are you working with both the newcomers and older businesses, or are you focusing mostly on one group or the other?

I feel that I was targeting those that have lived here before and the challenge that presents itself to me now is: how do I track what I can do to those that are coming in? Being part of this change, this growth, this York parklet, and the art that I'm working towards producing here; [I hope] it would be received with some positive feedback. I know there are a lot of different trainings and different ideas of what art is, so that's a challenge that presents itself. It's something that I haven't had the bulb in my head spark yet, but I'm working on it.


How has the role of public art and art galleries affected the neighborhood?

It has brought a lot of energy to the area. It has brought a lot of eclectic, interesting, and very artistic and creative people to the area. The Northeast Los Angeles Art Walk (NELA) and the gallery on Avenue 50 have attracted a different vibe and more affluent people are coming to the area, so more people know about the area of Highland Park. It has brought life, color and energy. That's something that I very strongly believe -- it's brought some energy. It's a way to distinguish ourselves as well because in the past it has been said that the York was once all kind of galleries and whatnot, so it's coming back to that. I think we could use more of it, and more of a range because some of the stuff that is coming now is still not attracting people who are from here. I also strongly believe that we need some performing arts presence such as a theater company, a theater group, or theater performances.


How do you feel about the youth's involvement in the community identity?

One thing that intrigues me about those second Saturday NELA Art Walks is that's when you see the youth come out. That's when they're around. But where are they before then and where are they after? I don't see the youth really participating in the movement of Highland Park just yet. And that's something that I would love to tap into. How can we collaborate, and how can something be established where the youth feel good about doing, identify with, and embrace. That'd be something interesting to work out: bringing the youth in.

So no, I don't see the youth out much. You're looking at your late twenties, maybe mid-twenties, early twenties and the thirty year-olds, people that are local coming mainly to the bars on that strip. You see the older thirty-five and forty-year-olds for the coffee -- that kind of crowd. Starbucks is where you see all teenagers going to get their fix, but you don't see them at these coffee shops just yet. The youth need a couple of things here that attracts them, and calls them out. Other than the head shops I guess. That's something too that's an issue. There's just so many of them in just one spot. I have nothing against it; I just feel that that's not the only thing that we should have here, as well as the bars.


When you talk about involving and collaborating with the youth, in what ways do you plan to do that? What sort of programs do you think are effective in that sort of collaboration?

It was mentioned in one of our meetings about doing an amphitheater in one of these parks. I strongly want to encourage that because I think that would be a center of attraction. I think it would be an area where one could speak their voice and I think it's where you could hold many events and it's a universal space. So that is what I would like to develop for the youth to have more involvement in the area; to have people be able to come and create more views and skills and abilities. By doing some theatrical work, doing some mural workshops, gardening workshops, upkeep of their homes or different do-it-yourself projects. Just making this place a lot richer in culture, rich in creativity, rich in the energy that you feel just by being here.

Everybody has gifts and everybody has talents, and so we can hold these workshops where people can teach what they know and share with others. That's more powerful than just keeping all that knowledge to yourself. It was mentioned in the York project, but it was not drawn out as a final project so I hope there's still room to mold that. If we don't get that I think that there still should be some place, or somewhere we can do that. I'm not sure where or when, but I think that would be a powerful thing and I think that would distinguish us from any other little city.


Would it be directed more towards middle school aged, or high-school aged youth?

All ages, to be honest. The college could be involved there, the elementary could be involved there and so could the high school. And when you put all those entities together plus the community? That's powerful. It's not just targeted to just the high school, or just the college, it should be where everybody could meet. With all those second Saturdays and all those people and all the foot-traffic that's coming there, it could be a very, very vital and vibrant and powerful place. You could have spoken word, you could have concerts, theater, gallery events, live paintings, you could have the farmer's market. All these things that exist throughout the city, but can you imagine all in one place? Oh come on, that would be powerful! It's a great place where sculptures and art can exist, a great place to meet, a great place to visit. It's going to be very powerful. I'm very, very excited about it. I'm fortunate and blessed to be a part of it.


Click here to read more interviews with Northeast L.A. community members.

Top: Danny Ruiz in front of his mural at Luther Burbank High School in Highland Park

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I have lived in the area for 53 years. I am not pleased with the murals that are going up in the area. To me they seem to be for a certain group of people and not a general mural for all. Some of the faces on the murals are scary and not peaceful at all. If a mural is to go up I would prefer to see( especially in a neighborhood) maybe modern art or something like that not only certain heritages. A mural that teaches
and gives a positive view on life.

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I have lived in the area for 53 years. I am not pleased with the murals that are going up in the area. To me they seem to be for a certain group of people and not a general mural for all. Some of the faces on the murals are scary and not peaceful at all. If a mural is to go up I would prefer to see( especially in a neighborhood) maybe modern art or something like that not only certain heritages. A mural that teaches
and gives a positive view on life.