As for Landesman, reached by phone in Washington, D.C., he said he based his positive impressions on a slide show by Arceneaux as well as a tour of the block, "and it all looked good." He also talked to one enthusiastic 107th Street resident, Rosa Gutierrez, whose home received a bright flower mural as part of the program.
He said he was not told she was on staff at Watts House Project. And he didn't have the chance to talk to residents of the three main homes promoted as renovation projects.
He didn't talk, for instance, to Moneik Johnson, whose home on 107th Street has not been remodeled, despite 2009 plans by architect Mike Niemann that would add a new bedroom, two new porches, and sleeping lofts to accommodate 10 family members then living there.
The residence was dubbed the Love House, after artist Alexandra Grant drew sketches showing a large metal sculpture spelling the word "love" in a loopy sort of cursive planted on the roof of the house.
Now the nickname seems ironic. Niemann was replaced by another architect, Roberto Sheinberg. The idea of a Love sculpture -- too heavy for the house -- was ultimately reconceived as a Love bench. Grant, who raised about $32,000 toward the house renovation through sales of a Love necklace and other limited-edition artworks, left the board in January 2011.
Construction on the Love House has not begun.
"They did a new garden in front and paved my front yard so we could park there without getting a ticket for parking on the grass. But that was about it," said Johnson. There is no Love bench.
Jose and Maria Garcia, longtime Watts residents who own two adjacent houses on the block that they share with their adult children and grandchildren, have a similar story.
At the end of 2009, Arceneaux lined up artists Mario Ybarra Jr. and Karla Diaz and the architecture firm Escher GuneWardena to rehab the property. According to the architects, who said they pulled permits last summer, plans included adding two rooms and a bathroom to one home, remodeling the kitchen and bathroom, fixing an uneven foundation and replacing some plumbing. They also planned a two-car carport in back that would double as "a dining pavilion" for the whole family.
LACMA, which signed on to sponsor the Garcia project in 2009, reports that it has provided a total of $67,000 in funding, including a $27,000 payment in January. According to an accounting sent to the museum in December, the architects have been paid about $15,000 and the artists $6,500. The Watts House Project website ran a banner this year heralding "all the improvements" at the Garcia house: "Progress!" it said.
Yet the most noticeable addition to the Garcia property has been a series of colorful mosaic murals in front designed by Augustine Aguirre, an artist in residence with Watts Towers Arts Center across the street who is not affiliated with Watts House Project. Aguirre alleges that Arceneaux's group has used images of his murals without his permission in its own promotional photographs and videos. "They've been using my work to promote the project," he said. (After he discovered a Watts House Project video last year on the LACMA website featuring his mosaics without credit, the museum took it down and sent him a letter of apology. An image of the murals on the Watts House Project website now credits Aguirre.)
In an interview at their home in March, the Garcias reported that nearly three years of renovation discussions and plans by Watts House Project have led to about three days worth of work by them. "They did paint the outside of the house, and they did the stucco around the back. But originally the plans were much bigger," said Jose Garcia.
His wife, Maria, who was sitting near a pile of tiles on her porch that have yet to be installed in her kitchen, said she is ready to walk away from the project altogether and would rather do any home repairs on her own whenever she has the money. "I don't want to talk to Edgar or see him again."
A few doors down, Noemi Madrigal said she would not let Watts House Project work on her family's house again. The first house to be renovated under Arceneaux's vision with the help of a $30,000 grant from the Hammer Museum, before the nonprofit was officially founded, the property gained a new wooden shed in back, a walkway and wrought-iron fence in front, and a lamp for the porch.
But Madrigal called that phase of the remodel "horrific" and said the shed alone "ended up taking over six months" to build, destroying the grass in her backyard in the process. When Arceneaux came back to the family in 2010 to discuss the more extensive renovation, she said she insisted on his putting into writing a timeline for completion. It never materialized. "If he can't build a storage shed in six months, why would we allow him to tear down the walls of our home?"
Delays and departures