LOS ANGELES — Over the past 18 months, the debate over arts and gentrification in Los Angeles has largely focused on the neighborhood of Boyle Heights, where local activists have taken aim at a recent influx of galleries and artist-run spaces that they claim are hastening displacement of long-time residents. Meanwhile, another struggle has been taking place just across the LA River from Boyle Heights in the Arts District, this time between developers and the artists who have called the area home for decades.
Last Thursday, a new arts space, the Artists’ Loft Museum Los Angeles (ALMLA), opened in the Arts District studio of artists Michael Parker and Alyse Emdur. The couple has shared the studio, where they also live with other artists, for 16 years. However, a major rent hike might force them out; according to Parker, with this increase, their rent has grown 200% over the past six years. (Unlike many residential properties, “live-work” spaces in LA have no rent control.) Parker came up with the idea for ALMLA as a way to bring attention to “tenants’ rights and the politics and policies of eviction and involuntary displacement,” according to their website. The first exhibition features the work of 35 artists who have lived in or been associated with the studio since the pair moved in a decade and a half ago.
Even before the rent increase, Parker says his landlord, Kevin Chen, made it clear that he wanted them out through a pattern of harassment and threatening emails. Parker thinks he is being targeted because he has complained to Chen about illegal construction that he has undertaken, in part to convert other units in the building into Airbnb rentals. (Chen did not reply to email and phone requests for comment.)
The day before last week’s opening, Chen took Parker to court to try to get a restraining order to stop the event on the grounds that the space was unsafe, even though the housing department had inspected the unit on July 27, and it passed inspection, according to Parker. The judge ruled that the opening could proceed as long as the number of people inside was capped at 49.
Although Parker’s lease was up on August 31, he’s not planning on moving. “We’re going to argue in court, if the landlord tries to evict him, that the action is retaliatory,” Parker’s lawyer Elena Popp, executive director of the Eviction Defense Network, told Hyperallergic.
On the same night as the opening, Chen held a private reception at his fashion boutique Frankie, located downstairs from ALMLA. A black stanchion roped off the entrance, while four security guards stood watch. At one point, they congregated in front of the door leading up to ALMLA — not blocking the entrance, but not exactly welcoming people in either — until Popp went downstairs to introduce herself. As drivers dropped off well-dressed guests, artists and activists put up a banner on the green gate of the storage facility opposite the boutique that read “STOP ARTS DISTRICT EVICTIONS!”
Chen has his own plans for 454 Seaton, the building that houses ALMLA. He is president and chairman of an ambitious plan to convert the building into “innovative live-&-work condos, retail stores, restaurants, entertainment, and a world class hotel,” dubbed the Arts District Center. According to the architect Togawa Smith Martin, Inc’s website, it will be covered in murals by local artists, and will have over 10,000 square feet of gallery space as well as an open-air “Art Plaza” — homages to the artists who gave the area its name, but who are struggling to stay.
In addition to the artists and friends who came to support Parker and Emdur, a contingent was present from 800 Traction Ave, one of the first artists-in-residence buildings in Los Angeles, whose tenants are experiencing their own eviction struggle. (The 1981 Artists-in-Residence ordinance legalized live-work spaces for artists in formerly industrial buildings, paving the way for the area’s official designation as the Arts District in 1990.) The 16 people who live there, many of whom are senior citizens, were told recently they had to move out by the end of August, after the building was sold to DLJ Real Estate Capital Partners, a New York-based firm that has purchased other historic properties in LA, converting them into luxury condos or retail spaces. “We’re supposed to be out today,” said Nancy Uyemura, an artist who has lived at 800 Traction for 34 years, and is planning to fight the eviction. “We’re just holding our breath.”
The Artists’ Loft Museum Los Angeles (454 Seaton Street #1, Los Angeles) is open to the public by appointment.