Thursday, February 15, 2007


and in NorthEast LA...What the past has to tell us about ourselves

Preface: This is going to be a long introduction folks, but I invite you to come with me as I wind my way to the lofts of downtown LA by way of Washington, D.C.

On a visit to the nations capital, I found myself in the embrace of a snowstorm, or as those of us from snowy regions know, more of a "sleet" storm. Sleet is Snow's ugly cousin, like mud is to water and earth. Then there is sleet and its byproduct: slush.

Slush regardless, I ventured out and found refuge in the 2nd Story bookstore; which was, incidentally, perfect. Complete with the smell of pipe tobacco smoke (and of course no pipe in view). Inside were rows of used books, punctuated by beautiful glass encased antique offerings (oh if only I could afford a vintage copy of Alice in Wonderland).

I was momentarily overwhelmed by the prospect of choosing a browsing topic. Cardboard signs handwritten in black marker offered categories such as "the Kennedy's!", the other signs (Civil War, Ancient Greece, etc. were not appointed with exclamation points; as if the writer was unable to contain his passion for the Kennedy section.

My own exclamation points would have been for "Pop Culture!", "Modern Furniture!" or "the Sixties!" Eventually, I ended up somewhere between "Sociology" and "Art History" and picked out a copy of "SoHo: The Rise & Fall of An Artists' Colony".

Inside I found a snippet from a 1977 article that could have been written about downtown LA in 2007. Thirty years and things are really the same (only the names have been changed...)
" is a SoHo heresy: Space, open space, is the whole thing: the reason people suffer the broken boilers and pour vast amounts of money into leaky roofs, and rotting lintels; the reason to put up with the tourists who displace locals in the old neighborhood haunts. Space. And the atmosphere created by people who needed it to work and who rescued a neighborhood only to find that they're beginning to need even more space to breathe." Ellen Bilgore, Town & Country, 1977 (from Richard Kostelanetz's recent effort "SoHo: The Rise & Fall of an Artists' Colony"
Although this is not a review of Kostelanetz's book, I have to say that reading about SoHo gave me pause. He painted a picture. To live in a building zoned only for manufacturing, to live without heat, to live without garbage pickup, to live having to hide your bed from an occasional inspector...took heart. No casual poseur would go through that much actual suffering. He made me believe there was real artistic integrity there, not just a romantic nod.

I know I wouldn't have the courage. I know that once I saw the rats or once I had to live somewhere that the elevator didn't run at night or once I had to go discretely disperse my garbage among many bins so as not to call attention to living in a place not zoned for living...that I wouldn't or couldn't go through with it.

Although it IS true that some of my friends won't visit me in my neighborhood, that I have NO elevator, that it is sometimes noisy or cold, it just isn't suffering to park my Porsche in my gated parking space and drive off to a job every morning and do my writing on a laptop over an espresso.

The other distinctive difference was that the SoHo artists weren't displacing anyone and thus didn't have to contend with the ugliness of gentrification. Even drug dealers and homeless did not live where the artists ventured.

It's true that all changed and that in a decade or two SoHo had become SoHo and it was never the same. A moment to be retroactively romanticized. But even a romantic such as me has to acknowledge there was something special there; and I know that something isn't what's happening in the gigantic developed lofts selling for $500K. That even amidst a backdrop of skid row and drug deals, that these seem to only add the impression of grit. That these buildings have doormen should be a tip off.

I know that poverty is not all it takes to be noble, but that no amount of money can buy it either.

1 comment:

  1. Two things:
    1) I don't think anyone thinks its a good thing for accountants to 'suffer' for their art;
    2) I keep trying to envision the illegal lofts along Los Angeles Street through a sleety veil (btw it was 85 here today) and it just isn't La Boheme. LA Mission and the homeless population notwithstanding. Maybe the sunshine gets in the way.