People of Lincoln Heights: Brett Goldstone


Brett Goldstone. This is Lincoln Heights. This is near the corner of San Fernando Road, Pasadena Avenue, North Broadway, and Alameda. The original city started right here. They say Portola came across this property on his meandering walk up the river. It goes back a long time. This was the genesis of the city of L.A., this little crossroads right here.

I was at a studio in Chinatown, my next-door neighbor was a Chinese realtor, and he saw me fixing a door on my studio where I rented out a couple of studio spaces. He said, "If you need to buy something, I have perfect place for you."

It was this little house that was $40,000 and I put $5,000 down that I didn't have. I borrowed some from the owner of the LA Weekly, some from a friend of JPL, and some from an old Chinese businessman. I put money together and I've been here ever since.

I bought this place in 1984. There have been some dramatic changes over the last 10 years. It was pretty rough here. It was a high-crime desert wasteland. I chose to live in this areas because I was doing guerilla art at the time and it was a great location for doing anything you wanted without being observed by authorities. Back then, you could do anything down here. You could do anything and it was amazing. It was just empty. Downtown was essentially an empty space. It was awesome.

There have been dramatic changes over the past 10 years.

Silver Lake and Echo Park kind of filled up during the 80s and 90s. Then we started to see this overflow coming down. We saw loft dwellers wanting to get a house with a yard and a tree, and so they would move into Lincoln Heights and Highland Park. There was a guy down on Spring Street, Tom, trying to get the artist thing going the whole time, but the artists never had enough critical mass to really make the change. It was when Palmer did the Orsini, and put hundreds and hundreds of residential units for non artists, just anybody, that's when this place took off. You could see it. It was palpable, it still is.

Without the reintroduction of residential living, I don't think the city would be paying attention to the river. My friend, Lewis McAdams, was the founder of the Friends of the L.A. River. He fought for a long time and they just thought he was a kook. But now they're all sharing his vision. In fact, some people in the city have probably a greater vision than what he started with. You can see the whole thing come around. They've started hiring visionaries down there at the city, believe it or not; insane, but true.

I went up the river, stayed down at Chinatown, and returned here. When they had the kids, we got a place further up Highland Park by the rose bowl, but I always gravitate back here. Now my wife's got a place in Malibu. I go out once a week, but you can't leave once you're hooked on this place, it's so diverse. I spent three years hitchhiking around the world and did the South American thing. I can't go back and live with a bunch of rich white people. It's just not possible.

When I first came here we didn't really pay much attention to the river. It was a wasteland. It was a place where you could do an art show, invite 400 people, and not have permits or insurance, and no one would say anything. We got stopped a couple of times by the cops, and I almost got a few misdemeanor charges, but I was doing these grand shows. I did the L.A. River Festival and the LA Experimental Works. I organized these big events with huge numbers of artists and crowds, and it was all underground. There was no money, no insurance, and no permits. We would do them around town once a year on July the fourth. I'd work the whole year and do a big show.

At this point I was 39 and had two kids with the third one on the way. We had a little house, but I was broke all the time. I was putting everyone through so much pain and discomfort, and it was young man's art. It wasn't the kind of art you could grow old gracefully doing. It was high energy, very physical, very, very demanding. So I said I should retire, just stop.

I was friends with Lewis, the founder of the friends of the L.A. River, and he said, "I don't know if you're interested but we just got twenty grand to do a gate entrance to the river." So I had a meeting with him, a Harvard educated town planner, and a designer. I took him aside and said, "You know, if you really want the best thing, give me all the money and get the rest of these guys out of here because they're all architects, they want to put solid things in there." I said, "I'll just give you a steel fence that you can see right through. There will be no solid masonry, just elegant and clean."

I'd never done anything like it. Actually, yes I had. I have a friend in Hollywood who asked me to do a fence for his new recording studios. He was a super rich sound recording guy, and he gave me like thirty grand and he said, "You can do whatever you want. You could do a cheap fence, keep the money for your art show, or you can do something awesome."

It was time for a change, so I did this mural on Vine Street. It's big and it's still there, I think. He won an award, I didn't get the award, but the owner of the building got the art award. Lewis saw that and said, "Gosh, you can do something for the river."

That's how I got started. I gave him a sketch and the money came from the MRCA. Back in the old days I used to deal almost directly with the head guy, but now it's all filtered through these different offices of control.

The second gate I did was on the Fletcher Bridge, the big one with the waves. It was different from the first one which was beautiful and peaceful. Come the second gate project, I was like "watch-out" because I thought this was the other side of the river, and everyone had to know about it.

The sad thing is that if I was asked by those people to do those gates today, I wouldn't be able to physically do them based upon their own restrictions.

We got those through, and they felt almost like guerilla art. It was nice doing those projects between the guerilla shows I did and the more formal contracting public arts work I'm doing now. They were like the transition point. We put one of those gates in with no permits. We just made the gate and stuck it in. There was this kind of that outlaw thing still in the work at that point. But now the list of demands and requirements are unbelievable. I have got to guarantee these things for five years. I mean, that's not unreasonable, but it's just petty and stupid. Why would you want to say that to an artist? You don't say that to an artist, it's unbelievable.

Anyway. I think I'm going to become a commercial fisherman in Alaska now. I've had this epiphany this last summer. It doesn't relate to this area because you can't fish in the L.A. River, that's the only downside to it. I would be here forever if I could fish in it.

It's changing, there's more educated people living here because of the housing. There are more young professionals of all ethnicities, but now the housing prices apparently are going crazy in Highland Park, I've just heard. That's just unbelievable. It's past what it was when it collapsed.

So it's all going to be young professionals who start with apartments in the city. West refugees and valley refugees, who come because it's just so dull and boring up there. They come down here for a bit of fun. So they get the flats, get married, have a kid, and then they want a house with a tree that is still in the area.

This valley is fantastic. It's between old town Pasadena and Downtown and it's perfect. The schools are getting better, and if you use the magnet programs you can do pretty well.
Downtown L.A. has huge open spaces. It is probably the biggest accumulation of open space in the city, besides the beach, which we never went to because we were too scared to drive through the west side since we never had car insurance. It was outlaw land. It was like if you're a young kid in your 20s and you want to be an outlaw and have a really exciting life and not have anyone hassle you, Downtown L.A. was open. It'd be like setting up shop in the Gobi desert. It was just open. It was what burning man is trying to do, but it was real. It was awesome.

So why would you leave that? I mean, even at my age, 55, my kids, they're all Berkeley educated, smart kids who could've been on a career track, they love it here. They just can't leave this place. They try to, but they always come back.

I had to leave, and that's what I've done. I just left. I went to New Zealand for six months. I just try to stay out of the way. I can tell when they want me to go, and they were like that with me when I had enough of them. They could tell when it was time to go and see Mom or get out of here. And now the roles are reversed. Now I can tell when it is time to go back up to Malibu when they are sick of me. It's pretty funny.

The above interview is transcribed and edited from the following interview:

Story continues below

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading