The smells of sea air and paint thinner mix at the San Pedro studios where a working-class arts scene has grown into its own over the past 20 years.
Perched on a seaside bluff at the southern edge of Los Angeles, the Angels Gate Cultural Center is home to artists who "are not pretending to be anyone else," said Robin Hinchliffe, the center's director.
The local scene, she said, is "never going to be Laguna Beach or the Westside. That precious mentality just doesn't exist in San Pedro."
Photographs in a recent exhibit, "Harbors Own," juxtapose grizzled harbor workers with members of the San Pedro Ballet.
But the struggle to create an artistic identity is being eclipsed by a fight with City Hall.
Angels Gate Cultural Center Inc., the nonprofit group that runs the center's arts and cultural programs, is battling eviction by the city Department of Recreation and Parks, which owns the buildings.
City officials said the group failed to comply with the terms of its operating agreement by not properly maintaining the facilities and by not providing adequate financial records.
"We were very disturbed by how secretive they were about their records," said Keith Fitzgerald, a management analyst with the Department of Recreation and Parks. "As an entity operating on city property, those records should be available to the public. We were told they had been removed from the property."
In the eviction notice, city officials also alleged that "Angels Gate has focused primarily on becoming an artist enclave with a limited commitment to the community."
Angels Gate board members responded with an inch-thick folder of fliers announcing classes and exhibits, reviews and calendar listings.
The two groups reached a temporary compromise recently. Angels Gate can continue operating until an independent auditor contracted by the city reviews the group's finances and programs.
"It is a solution that allows the players to see if they can work together," Hinchliffe said. "The perspective that I felt needed to be raised is how the community can be served. But it certainly bought time."
Barry Glickman, chief of staff for City Councilman Rudy Svorinich, who represents San Pedro, said, "The bottom line is that the community really deserves an arts and cultural program."
Many residents believe the Angels Gate group is providing that.
One evening a month, people wander in and out of 15 downtown San Pedro galleries, chatting with artists and sampling hors d'oeuvres as part of First Thursdays.
Andrew Stanojevich, like many San Pedro residents, was born and raised here. "It's really bringing San Pedro back to life. You see more here on a First Thursday night than you do on an average afternoon," he said.
The downtown restaurants serving Yugoslavian, Italian and Greek food are busier than usual on these evenings, and a live band plays outside.
"It's about real people making works that have some kind of connection to their daily lives," said William Vaughan, who paints California landscapes. His art studio is inside the Loft, a warehouse formerly used to house ship parts. "There's not the hard-core pursuit of theory."
The San Pedro Peninsula Chamber of Commerce officially coordinates the event, bringing in live music and setting up spots for sidewalk vendors. According to gallery owner Karen Alvarado, First Thursday grew out of a desire by artists to display their work, and local businesses seeking new customers.
"It's a wake-up call for San Pedro," said John Olguin, a longtime San Pedro personality. "It reminds me of how it was in the '30s. San Pedro was alive then."
Artist Karl Eysenbach discussed his politically themed collages with visitors at the Radical Craftsman gallery. "People in San Pedro really like challenging art," he said. "You'd think San Pedro is like a Joe Six-pack town. But it was home to [author and poet Charles] Bukowski. People come from places like Germany to see where he hung out."
Anthony Williams grilled Eysenbach about his influences. He is a graphic design student at Cal State Dominguez Hills and works as a longshoreman. "I wouldn't have come here if I didn't like the work," he said. "I love art, but longshoring pays the bills."
"It's a lot like Venice in the '70s," said Maggie Lowe-Tennesen, a painter with a studio at the Loft. "The rent is cheap and it's a small town where everybody knows everybody."
Will the influx of artists drive the neighborhood upscale, as it has done in Venice and Santa Monica?
"It's hard to imagine San Pedro getting too yuppie," Eysenbach said.