Learning to Accept the Swirling Change in the Arts District
I first saw — actually, heard — it all coming in late 2005. A Hollywood-style tour bus rambled down my normally empty street in Downtown Los Angeles (DTLA), and the guide shouted over the loudspeaker, “There’s an artist!”
I spun around to see the person at whom they were pointing. Then I realized I was the hunted prey on their urban safari, and while they bagged the wrong species (at the time, I wasn’t an artist), they seemed satisfied with their trophy and drove away.
This happened shortly after our neighborhood received the official designation of “Arts District,” a moniker long championed by the late Joel Bloom, a beloved community activist and our de facto mayor. Actually, the city got it wrong at first. I recall Bloom’s bellowing groan when he saw signs getting installed, claiming this area as the “Artist District.” It was the butt of jokes for months as everyone wondered, “Which artist?” until the “Arts District” replacement signs went up.
On second thought, I think I may have been the “beginning of the end” when I moved here in 1996 after three years in the Historic Core. It was the “beginning,” because almost all of the 1,500 residents then were working artists and I was not. It was the “end” because, as a non-artist, perhaps I helped make that first crack in the dam leading to this flood of change in my neighborhood. The area now has nearly 6,000 residents, and very few are working artists.
The transition in the Arts District was hard at first, as many of my friends and neighbors quietly left, making it difficult to appreciate any good that was happening. Once I started noticing subtle, then dramatic changes, I began snapping shots of ordinary things and places where I walked daily so I wouldn’t forget. I never thought anyone other than my family would see these images, but then Instagram happened. Looking back, I’m grateful for my still-current obsession, a continuing stream of now thousands of photos capturing this crucial transformative period, which I share online as @DowntownMuse.
When the speed of change evolved from a snail’s pace to a blinding frenzy last year, I decided I needed some distance. I temporarily resided in the South Bay to replenish by the sea and commute to work in my beloved Arts District. The time away allowed me to return this past month on a full-time basis with fresh eyes, renewed energy, a cleansed soul and a new perspective.
What I loved most is still here — the opportunity to create, make and dream. While many of the players have changed, I’ve made new friends, too. By surrounding myself with art by artists who lived here, past and present, my loft is filled with visual reminders of a special time and place.
My focus is now firmly on the exciting newness of the present, while appreciating the past and looking ahead to the future. For the first time, I can walk to over a dozen galleries (my loft overlooks the new Hauser Wirth & Schimmel!) or bicycle over the First Street Bridge to visit 10 more along the Los Angeles River in Boyle Heights. Probably the best use of my car nowadays is to drive to the Santa Fe Art Colony and visit eight more galleries. We have international outposts of larger ones based in New York and Europe, and new locations of former Westside and Downtown art spots.
Yes, I miss Bloom’s General Store and Al’s Bar, but the area has exploded in a few short years. Today the Arts District has 40-plus stores, over 50 bars and restaurants, nearly 30 galleries and art spaces, monthly estate sales and flea markets, two grocers, and as of March, even two bookstores (they carry my photography book!). Several were founded by my neighbors, including Apolis, Bread Lounge, Daily Dose, EightyTwo, Hammer & Spear, Poketo, Pizzanista, Pour Haus Wine Bar, Resident, The Springs, Urban Radish and Woo Souvenir Shop.
Thankfully, the small-town feel remains as the changes swirl around me. The weekly Thursday night farmers market feels like a family gathering. Walking my dogs around Third and Traction can take longer than expected as I catch up with neighbors and friends drinking coffee at Blacktop, eating maple custard pie at The Pie Hole, or sipping a cold brew outside at Wurstkuche. Entertainment is often community-based — there’s the monthly Sound Saturday at the Arts District Co-Op, the weekly Monday night residency of local musicians Vignes Rooftop Revival at Eat.Drink.Americano, and the wildly diverse, ongoing programs at Art Share L.A. Also, in spite of the recent heavy tagging, the Arts District is still a rotating showcase of colorful, ever-changing outdoor murals and street art.
Like life itself, the Arts District has had many endings and many beginnings. While I loved the earlier chapters, I’m looking forward to what’s going to happen next.
© Melissa Richardson Banks / first published in the Los Angeles Downtown News on April 8, 2016