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Revived Mural to Again Draw On Old Ventura

August 13, 2003|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

Call it the resurrection of Tortilla Flats.

Not the Ventura neighborhood bulldozed in the early 1950s to make room for U.S. 101, but the colorful wood-plank mural once posted across from the fairgrounds to memorialize the west-side community of farm workers, oil roughnecks and Dust Bowl refugees.

Nearly three years after the original Tortilla Flats mural was taken down after falling into disrepair, Ventura artists Moses Mora and M.B. Hanrahan were commissioned to re-create the popular wall painting as part of a downtown improvement project along lower Figueroa Street.

The project will incorporate elements of the original work, which Mora and Hanrahan painted eight years ago with help from former Tortilla Flats residents and community volunteers. It also will work in fresh scenes and images, providing a new life for a public art project fondly remembered by local residents.

"We knew this project was too good to go away," said Mora, who was born in Tortilla Flats and conceived the mural as a way to keep the community's memory alive. "Everyone knows about that neighborhood as a result of that first project. It was truly a community effort."

Before it was erased from the map, the square-mile beachfront neighborhood was considered Ventura's first true community, a tightknit place where residents, bound by tough times, supplied the muscle to build the foundations of the modern-day city.

Back in 1995, the artists set out to capture the essence of the old neighborhood, inspired by old photographs and interviews with former residents.

On dozens of wooden panels that stretched 500 feet along a cinder-block wall near Surfers Point, they depicted the old Green Mill Ballroom, the National Market and Salad Bowl Curve, where produce trucks often spilled their loads. They captured a legendary Seaside Park match race between Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens and a quarter horse known as Shorty T.

Legions of displaced former residents and other volunteers turned out to help, drawn by a desire to create a lasting memorial to Tortilla Flats.

But the memorial did not last. Subjected to years of sun and salt air, the paint began to peel and the wood panels cracked and rotted. Troubled that the mural was not aging gracefully, Mora and Hanrahan decided in late 2000 to take it down, dispersing the panels to former residents and others.

"It was dismantled, not for lack of popularity, but out of poverty," said Hanrahan, one of the area's best-known and busiest muralists.

"I'm very pleased [about re-creating it]. Here's a public art project that has a proven track record and history."

City officials last month awarded the artists a $36,000 contract to design, paint and install the new mural under the Figueroa Street overpass.

Along with reviving the mural, the city plans to install bike lanes, new lighting and better sidewalks along that stretch of Figueroa.

"It was not about my vision or Moses' vision; it was about the community coming together to do something that needed to be done," Hanrahan said. "That's why people responded to it."

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