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Ventura's Tortilla Flats Mural May Soon Be History

VENTURA COUNTY NEWS | VENTURA COUNTY LIFE

October 25, 2000|Steve Chawkins

A college friend of mine has created what will probably be the world's longest-lived art. His work is carried aboard the Voyager spacecrafts, which have sailed beyond our solar system and won't run into another for 400 centuries. Beyond the stresses of atmosphere and humanity, it could drift through the cosmos intact for millions of years, awaiting discovery by alien critics.

That's not the case with more earthbound art--particularly plywood murals pelted with rain, baked by the sun, corroded by salt air and raked by winds whipping off the ocean just yards away.

The wonderful mural commemorating the vanished Ventura neighborhood of Tortilla Flats has been up for all of five years now.

But sometime next month, all 500 feet of it is to be taken down. Its 4-by-8-foot panels will be ripped from a wall across from the county fairgrounds, leaving in their place only a beige cinder-block graffiti magnet.

An order from a city official concerned about code violations?

A lawsuit from a business that really loves its blank wall?

Hardly.

The drive behind the dismantling of Tortilla Flats is headed by one of the two artists who organized the massive project in the first place.

"I'm one who believes that murals have a lifetime," says Moses Mora, who spent his childhood in Tortilla Flats. "The lifetime for this one is up."

It's easy to see why.

The Tortilla Flats mural looks as if it's been up since the early 1950s, when the Tortilla Flats neighborhood was bulldozed and burned to make room for the Ventura Freeway.

After Mora and artist M.B. Hanrahan led dozens of volunteers in painting the mural five years ago, what emerged was a fresh and vibrant collection of everyday scenes from the past: butterflies fluttering over a sparkling blue Ventura River, neighborhood people dancing at the Green Mill ballroom, shoppers picking out groceries at the National Market.

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Today the panels are peeling. A few splotches of graffiti have appeared. Someone has used a blade to etch Xs over many of the mural's darker faces. In some places, the paint is so faded you can't read the mural's narrative. You still get the general idea of joy and music and struggle, but a good winter's rain could wipe out the detail as surely as the state wiped out the neighborhood a half-century ago.

This will be Mora's second attempt to deconstruct his work.

Last year he put out word that the mural had not aged gracefully and had to come down. People who had grown up in Tortilla Flats met with him, each hoping to take home a panel that depicted someone in their family, a favorite restaurant, any memento of the old neighborhood.

But a few people spoke out for keeping the mural intact, and history alive. Would a city in Mexico dismantle the works of the great Diego Rivera? they argued. Surely, some foundation somewhere--some wealthy art patron, some government agency, some benevolent museum--would be happy to help.

They haven't.

Mora and other Tortilla Flats veterans formed the inevitable committee. They held fund-raising barbecues, and came up with $500 for a consultant to confirm what they already had figured: Restoring the mural would cost a pile of money.

Even storing the massive work would be pointless, unless the group could find a climate-controlled space so big that each panel could stand alone instead of being stacked.

"The committee didn't have the experience or the talent to chase grant money," Mora said. "Essentially, we were a group of well-intentioned homeboys."

What will happen now is hazy. The plywood panels might buckle like potato chips when they're unbolted from the wall, Mora said. And it's uncertain who will patch the wall to keep it from becoming an eyesore.

Meanwhile, a school has expressed interest in lining its parking lot with the panels and having students repaint them as a school project. But that's far from definite, Mora said, and may be technically impossible.

Once again, interested families are lining up to claim their piece of Tortilla Flats. And once again, someone will probably make a case that history must remain whole, that the neighborhood's richness will be lost forever if the mural is parted out like an old Buick.

But restoring it or repainting it on weather-resistant materials could cost as much as $50,000.

"For that kind of money, we could rebuild the whole neighborhood," Mora quipped.

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Steve Chawkins can be reached at 653-7561 or at steve.chawkins@latimes.com.

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