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CITY TIMES COVER STORY : Lofty Dreams : The Downtown Arts Scene, Once Considered Dead, Is Trying to Revive Its Vision of Becoming the 'SoHo of the West.'

August 14, 1994|DIANE SEO

During the late 1970s and early '80s, hundreds of artists and gallery owners searching for spacious lofts and cheap warehouse space moved Downtown to be part of an emerging art scene envisioned as a new "SoHo of the West."

But by the mid '80s, the galleries clustered just west of the Los Angeles River began to languish and artists began abandoning their industrial work spaces to be closer to their wealthy patrons in Santa Monica and other Westside communities.

The Downtown art scene had grown passe.

But now, after years of relative obscurity, a group of artists is fighting back. Convinced that Downtown has the potential to become Los Angeles' undisputed art center, they have begun an aggressive campaign to draw attention to the strengths of their beleaguered community.

"We've been declared as dead, but we're not dead," said Barbara Mendes, a painter and advocate for the Downtown arts revival.

"We're seen as a pitiful hellhole, but we know that we're really a groovy neighborhood. We want people to see that."

Although optimism is strong, the future of Downtown's art district remains dubious. Despite the vibrancy of the area's unique art colonies and loft buildings, the streets in east Downtown rarely bustle with pedestrians. Galleries and other small businesses are struggling to stay afloat, and art connoisseurs from other areas rarely patronize local galleries.

"In order to make a living here running a gallery, you need money behind you, you need to have a vision of the future and you need to know a lot of rich people," said Marc Kreisel, an artist and owner of Al's Bar on Hewitt Street. "People are creatures of convenience. If they live on the Westside, and can go to a gallery on the Westside, they'll do it. They won't come Downtown."

However, members of the Downtown Arts Development Assn., or DADA, are convinced that their struggling arts community can realize its second heyday--with a little help.

In December, the 300-member group sponsored its first "Downtown Lives" art show, which involved 400 artists and attracted 4,000 people to its opening reception. The organization expects an even bigger turnout at this year's event.

In conjunction with the nonprofit L.A. Artcore Center gallery, the association also plans to sponsor a studio bus tour next year to introduce the public to Downtown artists.

"When people come down here, they love it," Mendes said. "That's why we're doing all this. We want the public to come here and enjoy themselves and buy our art."

While sipping an espresso at the Troy Cafe, playwright and Downtown arts activist Joel Bloom talked of his plan to open a small magazine and sundries shop on Traction Avenue. "There's a spark here--hopefully we can light it," he said. "We're just going to have to think about how we can make this area more attractive and amicable."

Bloom, who used to live near Hancock Park, moved Downtown because he said there's no other place in Los Angeles with as much energy or sense of community. "I get a feeling here I haven't gotten anywhere else," he said. "It may look desolate, but it's not. There's no place I'd rather be."

Touting the virtues of Downtown is one thing, but creating an enduring arts scene appears to be a much more elusive goal.

For instance, there is little more to catch the eye in Downtown's industrial corridor than rows of lifeless warehouses, freight trucks and the homeless hoping for a handout.

Although the streets are sprinkled with a few hip restaurants and night spots, such as Traction Cafe, Troy Cafe and 410 Boyd Street, old-time hangouts such as Gorky's Cafe and the Atomic Cafe are gone.

Jon Peterson, a painter and loft building owner, was among the first wave of artists to move into the area in 1976. While lofts now lease for $800 to $1,300 a month, Peterson paid $75 a month for his first 2,500-square-foot studio in Little Tokyo.

By the early 1980s, hundreds of other artists had moved into Downtown warehouses that had been refurbished into apartments. Art dealers also took advantage of the area's relatively low rents and large spaces and began opening galleries.

It was common for artists to flock to two or three gallery openings every weekend. When Gorky's opened in 1981, it quickly became a place where artists met to discuss philosophy and their works over bottomless cups of coffee.

"It was just like New York's SoHo around that time, except there were less people," said Kreisel, who moved Downtown in 1971 and opened Al's Bar eight years later. "There were a conglomerate of galleries, but they're all gone now. They just couldn't make a living. I think Cirrus Gallery is the only one left."

Jean Milant, director of Cirrus Gallery on Alameda Street, said most galleries were doomed after rents rose, the recession hit and Santa Monica became the new, fashionable place for artists and art dealers. Milant said the only reason his gallery endured is because he was able to build a national clientele through contacts and years of successful shows.

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