The Spaces Where We Live: Gentrification, Insecurity, and Experimental Living in LA

Michael Parker, "Steam Egg," 2011. Courtesy the artist.

Four men came to our house because they were interested in architecture. They knew someone who knew our landlord, which is how they got our phone numbers. We welcomed them, hoping they might know something about this place where we live, conceived by a muralist who never built anything other than the five buildings in our courtyard and who kept scant records of his work. They knew much less than we do, it turned out. One man wore a heavy flannel jacket over jeans but the other three were dressed like they’d just come from well-appointed Westside offices. They stepped into our living room, uttering “ooohs” and “ahhhs” as they looked up at the room’s pitched ceiling and the faded seahorses, birds, and flowers painted on the rafters. One man told me he liked my style. “Bohemian chic,” he said, gesturing at the furniture around him. “I don’t have any other way to describe it.” He meant this as a compliment but it sounded to me like he was calling me an artsy eccentric, when I had been trying so hard to make pleasurable, intuitive rooms that echoed the house’s unconventional contours. Their awkward presence in our living room reminded me that, despite all the care and affection we put into this place, we are tenants; it is not fully ours.

We moved into this strange, charming house in East Hollywood at a time when many of our friends, especially those residing in industrial live-work spaces, were facing eviction or being forced to downsize because of rapidly rising rents. Artists were not the hardest hit by the skyrocketing cost of living; working-class communities in or adjacent to gentrifying neighborhoods were struggling much more, and the already-high homeless rate in Los Angeles was rising as evictions increased. However, by 2016, stories about finding lawyers to help keep homes and studios had become common in casual conversation among artists. One friend who had successfully delayed an eviction found herself unable to work in her studio, paralyzed by the fear that she could lose it at any time.

Finding this new home, which was rent-stabilized and built by an artist with enough vision to compensate for his lack of training in architecture, felt like a gift from the universe at a time when I expected more hostility from my city. I wanted housing stability for myself, but as we were moving I was also researching and writing about collective ownership among artists, and thinking about the relationship between sustainable housing and experimental thinking and living, something that becomes much harder to do when you’re unsure that your basic needs will be met. I was also questioning what it meant to discuss the artist’s plight when others were being victimized by and losing more from the housing crises in major cities. Perhaps it was fanciful thinking, but I wanted this house in this courtyard, built for artists a century ago and rented more or less affordably ever since, to help me think all this through.

Interior of the author’s home.

Finished in 1921, our house has an uneven roof with heavy shingles and a loft reachable by a steep, ladder-like staircase, among other quirky features. These improvisatory details now appear old-fashioned because they are genuinely old, but they aren’t so different in spirit from the spatial innovations in other artist-renovated spaces. Artist Michael Parker, who occupied his loft on Seaton Street in downtown Los Angeles for seventeen years, added rooms, ladders, and partitions to meet his own needs, and those of a changing cast of artist-subletters. Sometimes his Steam Egg, a portable egg-shaped sauna that resembles a disco ball and is big enough for six people, occupied studio space. Artists had lived and worked in this building since the 1970s, amidst what was for years a wholesale produce district. The area only became widely known as the Arts District in the 2010s, when coffee shops, galleries, and vintage boutiques were already moving in. “Once they named it, that was the beginning of the end,” artist and longtime downtowner Stephen Seemayer told me in 2017. Parker faced a steep rent increase in 2017, and his new landlord also stipulated that he and his studio-mates could no longer live there, though the space had been zoned for live/work for twenty-five years. They fought this, but settled their lawsuit and moved out in spring 2018. The building’s new owner, Kevin Chen, who never returned my calls when I was reporting on Parker’s predicament, still plans to transform the Seaton Street building into the “Arts District Center,” built “for creatives by creatives” according to a website that features renderings of a graffiti-accented multiplex, which looks like a mix between a shopping mall and business park.

Developers’ ham-fisted, blatant coopting of artist’s identities has become ubiquitous in the neighborhood, as predictable developments and redevelopments erase the weird, distinctive energies that formerly characterized these streets and corners. In 2017, DLJ Real Estate Capital Partners, a firm known for homogeneous mixed-use buildings allegedly made for “creative professionals,” bought a stately building at 800 Traction, just blocks from Michael Parker’s studio. They quickly moved to evict all its tenants, which since the early 1980s, had been a group of Japanese-American artists (Nancy Uyemara, the late Matsumi Kanemitsu, Bruce Yonemoto) who had slowly renovated their lofts into peculiar habitats. In a collectively-issued statement, these artists called the evictions “simply a continuation of forced displacement,” the kind that Japanese Americans have faced for years.

Multimedia artist Bruce Yonemoto, a long-time tenant at 800 Traction Aveneua, says, “We are trying to fight to stay, but I think the writing is on the wall that we are going to have to move.”
Credit: Saul Gonzalez/PRI.

In June 2018, the development agency Fifteen Group bought the Santa Fe Artist Colony, long the only publicly-subsidized artist housing in Los Angeles, and a place where artists had lived affordably since 1986. Fifteen Group began notifying tenants of doubling or even tripling rent and advertised newly high-priced apartments as “endors[ing] and refin[ing] the definition of art” in the downtown Arts District. The building had been owned and stewarded by the now-dissolved Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency, which had ensured its tenants thirty years of rent restrictions. These tenants began raising funds to try to purchase the building before the rent agreement expired (these efforts are ongoing, as California law requires owners to seriously consider an offer by tenants of rent-regulated buildings). But Fifteen Group does not appear interested. “Artists are already saying, ‘last artist out, turn out the lights’,” said Sylvia Tidwell, who heads the Santa Fe Colony tenant’s association, when she addressed the California Arts Council two years ago.

We were concerned about ownership when we moved into the muralist’s courtyard, because cursory internet searches told us the little group of buildings had been sold as recently as 2014, just as the real-estate bubble in LA was reaching new heights. We learned that the muralist had lived on the property until he died in 1986 at the age of 101. His family had secured the property’s position as a Historic Cultural Monument in 1991. When the family decided to sell, longtime tenants considered buying it themselves, but could not agree on whether and how to afford this. Instead, a civil servant with resources and an interest in the courtyard’s aesthetic and history purchased it; half the tenants here now pre-date the purchase, as do their rents.

Our home has often been grouped in with the Storybook Architecture trend, a 1920s and 1930s phenomenon spurred, in part, by the many set designers and professional fantasists in Los Angeles. Loosely based on a whimsical version of medieval Europe, “Storybook” houses had pitched roofs, gables, and exaggerated details (like the decorative, intentionally off-kilter slatted shutters of architect Henry Oliver’s Beverly Hills Witch’s House). But the muralist based his design on the Danish village he came from; it was nostalgia, rather than whimsy, that fueled his choices. The buildings have many wide, large windows, high ceilings, and open floor plans – ours, the oldest in the courtyard, has practically no interior doors. According to Department of Building and Safety archives, the muralist kept adding on: a raised ceiling here, an extra room there, and, eventually, new standalone buildings. A few of the smaller buildings served as studios for decades before being converted into homes. One that stretches over the driveway in the back was once a dance studio for the muralist’s daughter and, with its walls of windows, mixes mid-century California airiness with its Danish-village-inspired beams and windowpanes. Although it is older than many of the buildings around it, the courtyard does not exactly reflect its surroundings.

The “Beverly Hills ‘Witch’s House’.” Photograph by gregobagel, for Getty Images.

Not long after we moved in, my partner met a man who grew up just around the corner from our new home. “It’s all white people in that place, huh?” the new acquaintance asked. Though the neighborhood is over 60% Latinx and over 15% Asian, 88% of those of us living in the courtyard are white, a statistic relevant to the way the artist class can participate in the homogenization and whitewashing of urban neighborhoods. In her book The Gentrification of the Mind, Sarah Schulman describes how the Lower East Side began to change in the late 1980s, acknowledging that artists – even those who had been there for years – were blamed for making the area more attractive to a white bourgeois class, but she also notes that there are multiple kinds of “moving in.” Writes Schulman; “There is a difference to the life of a city between low-income marginalized whites moving into integrated neighborhoods to become part of that neighborhood, and a moneyed dominant-culture white person moving to change a neighborhood.”

As protests over art’s role in gentrification intensified in Los Angeles, so too did disagreements over the battle lines. Some artists who participated in protests and joined picket lines had recently moved into the neighborhoods they were defending; then, some of those targeted by protesters for collaborating with offending galleries had lived in these neighborhoods longer, or grew up in them. Still others, feeling attacked by protesters, have opted to argue that “it is complicated,” and align themselves with neither protesters nor institutions: “complexity” excusing inaction. After anti-gentrification protesters disrupted a political organizing meeting he co-organized at an art space in the Boyle Heights neighborhood, artist Charles Gaines wrote an open letter that frequently mentioned “complexity”: “gentrification is a complex sociological phenomenon that hardly anyone understands,” he wrote, before adding, “I understood the complexity of the issues.” He also targeted another journalist who he felt “failed to report on the complexity of the issue.” The activist group Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement responded with their own open letter, arguing that the issues around gentrification were not too complex for people facing displacement to understand: “Until artists are willing to relinquish their demand for unchecked access to all neighborhoods at their convenience, for their sheer entitlement to space at the expense of others’ homes, artists will not truly honor the intersectional struggles going on right under their noses.”

The art press has treated this issue now named “artwashing” as a concerning new development, perhaps because many of the same publications that later produced probing looks at the problem initially celebrated the arrival of new galleries in gentrifying areas. In 1984, critics Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan wrote an acerbic essay about the artworld’s complicity in the gentrification of the Lower East Side for the journal October. Called the “Fine Art of Gentrification,” the essay castigated the art press for its glib celebration of New York art business’s invasion of “one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.” An Art in America feature romanticized the “unique blend of poverty, punk rock, drugs, arson, Hell’s Angels, winos, prostitutes, and dilapidated housing that adds up to an adventurous avant-garde setting of considerable cachet.” Deutsche and Ryan called the art writers who championed the East Village “not so much critics but apologists,” pointing out how they systematically failed to acknowledge that the boom of the “art scene” coincided with financiers and developers’ strategic interest in the area.

The artworld was not just complicit in the erasures that accompanied Lower East Side gentrification, they were blatantly used. Back in the early 1980s, New York City Mayor Ed Koch introduced the Artist Homeownership Project (AHOP). Five artist groups and two developers were selected to participate in a $7 million renovation of 120 housing units across 16 buildings. The renovated buildings would be sold to artists at a price of $50,000 each. Mayor Koch told the New York Times the venture would “renew the strength and vitality of this community,” and certain artists interviewed by the Times said the plan might allow them to stay in a city that had begun to price them out. Meanwhile, longtime residents of the Lower East Side aggressively, and ultimately successfully, fought AHOP, seeing it as hastening their inevitable displacement. “Artists have placed their housing needs above those of residents who cannot choose where to live,” wrote Deutsche and Gendel Ryan. Artworlders seemed to be treating their new neighbors as the backdrop to their new adventure.

Just days ago, I turned on NPR in the morning and heard a writer talking about how reluctant he’d been to attend a neighborhood block party on the street in South Pasadena where he’d lived for eight years. “In this day and age,” said Joe Matthews over the air, “the most bitter fights I see between Californians are really neighbor against neighbor fights … I thought maybe it’s better I don’t do this.” Of course, once he went, he met interesting people and learned more about the history of the very house he lives in, but the anecdote, framed as a relatable story about unexpected joy of knowing other people, showed just how embarrassingly in thrall to capitalist isolationism we members of the urban creative class can be.

We had neighbors in our kitchen, commenting on our appliances, the day we moved into the courtyard. We often can’t exit our narrow stone driveway without interacting with neighbors, some of whom have lived idiosyncratically creative lives here for decades. Sometimes we all gripe about the property management company – the shared condition of renting brings a degree of solidarity. Other times conversations become existential: one neighbor told me she didn’t care much if her out-of-print books were ever reissued and that she only still paints because doing so pleases her. “We’ll all be gone soon anyway,” she pointed out, matter-of-factly. The doors of every building open onto the single driveway that doubles as a walkway, so the architecture encourages interaction, and nosiness. Our kitchen window looks out over the main gate, and my interest in people’s comings and goings now resembles that of the small-town busybody (“Well, she left very early this morning,” I will say to partner as if that is news).

Crushow, an artist and entrepreneur who lives in a tent on Skid Row, told me recently that Los Angeles does not have true neighborhoods. “Skid Row,” he said, “is the only real neighborhood.” This is because people living on Skid Row, the largest stable community of homeless people in the country, have to know and look out for each other. Crushow spoke on a panel I moderated for the Goethe Institute in October and, in advance of the event, he told me that if I asked him about being an artist he may decline to answer. He did not want his public presentation to be about his murals (of which there are many), but about his activism and his experience on Skid Row. He saw his living situation, though not voluntary, as nevertheless a refusal to participate in a housing system that is racist, classist, and not set up to support people like him; he thought “homeless” was a reductive word, too weighted down with preconceptions to get at the realities of living unhoused. Michele Lancione, a Sheffield-based ethnographer, also on the panel, agreed. Lancione argued that in order to shift our understanding of homelessness we needed to pay closer attention to alternative, resistant ways of living. He told the story of an underground community in Bucharest that had survived off the grid for a decade and a half – an “infrastructure of care” he called it.

The Bucharest community did not survive, as increased press attention made it a target of a local government bent on “cleaning up” the city and privatizing housing. But during its fifteen years of life it was innovative and, according to photos, attractive, with found objects and textiles, and improvisatory architecture defining its underground habitat. Even more conventional, now-canonized inventive spaces began provisionally, and survive only because of concerted, sometimes difficult efforts: Charleston farmhouse, where Virginia Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell and her collaborator Duncan Grant painted walls, ceilings, furniture, and fireplaces, was put up for auction by its owner after Grant died in the 1980s. Neither Grant nor Bell ever owned it. A communal hub home to many artists and writers for decades, it only remains intact because family and friends rallied to purchase it (though it has since become a place for people to gawk at the remnants of experimental living, rather than participate in). As Lucy Scholes pointed out in the New York Review of Books, “there’s something a little uneasy about […] the home of people who pushed so forcefully against the establishment having become a destination for day-trippers, complete with café and gift shop.”

The muralist’s courtyard has remained a modest and relatively obscure enclave for artists and writers, and still retains its permissive, improvisatory energy. At one point, a silversmith, portrait painter, and ceramist all lived beside the muralist. “It was a true art colony,” the muralist’s daughter told the Times in 1985, just before her father’s hundredth birthday. “The artist opposite dad’s place has been here forty-five years.” Her father shot back, “Shows what a good landlord I am.” “Shows how cheap your rents are,” she countered. Affordable rent keeps a place like this from becoming a status symbol – the muralist’s poor record-keeping helped with that too, as a home built by an artist who did not make moves to secure his legacy is unlikely to become a common day-trip destination. But we don’t need destinations. We need space for lives that are not predictable and homogeneous. Equally, we need to ensure that these spaces do not come at the expense of the homes of our most vulnerable neighbors.

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