Vignes Street winds through the northeastern edge of the Arts District, parallel to and a couple of blocks west of the broad cement trench that memorializes the L.A. River. It is named for Jean-Louis Vignes, an aging adventurer and vintner who arrived in Los Angeles in 1831 by way of the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) and Bordeaux. He planted grapes on 104 acres moistened by the seasonal river, ocean mists and sparse rains. The hardy Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc vines imported from the south of France thrived there and by 1849 El Aliso, as the Vignes vineyard was called, was the largest producer of wine in California The grapes are gone, but the San Antonio Winery just north of the community is a reminder of the area’s vinous past.
By the late 19th century, oranges and grapefruit had replaced grapes as the principal agricultural products of the area and the property west of the riverbank was thick with the fecund, darkly green citrus groves that became a potent icon of Southern California. The groves provided a location for filmmaker DW Griffith who filmed parts of Hollywood’s first feature film (In Old California) there in 1909. A single grapefruit tree remains, towering over the Japanese American Plaza off San Pedro Street and Azusa and occasionally dropping an undersized grapefruit from branches thirty feet high, creating a rare urban citrus hazard.
Somewhere near Third Street and Alameda, the area’s first commercial arts enterprise was born. It was a print shop that employed artists from around the region who vied to create the most intriguing labels for the boxes of citrus fruit shipped across the country. The idealized images of Southern California landscapes cultivated an impossibly sylvan and romantic vision of the State that was part myth and part PR.
The growing Santa Fe freight depots and warehouses created to serve the citrus industry’s shipping needs determined the area’s economic character for most of the next century and is responsible for the architectural flavor of the Arts District structures that have survived earthquakes, flood and fire. The single room hotels for rail workers to the northwest and the growth of Little Tokyo to the west and Chinatown to the north created a mix that was distinctly working class, cosmopolitan an a bit exotic in a manner similar to other West Coast urban centers.
By World War II, the citrus groves had been replaced by factories and the rail freight business was giving way to the more flexible trucking industry. The area had taken on a distinctly industrial character that was already growing seedy around the edges. Over the next twenty years, many of the independent small manufacturers had either been absorbed by larger competitors, grown too big for their quarters – or simply failed — and an increasing number of vacant warehouse and former factory spaces contributed to a dingy, decaying urban environment typical of most aging big American cities of the era.
In the late 60’s and early 70’s, a handful of determinedly urban-minded artists saw opportunity in the empty warehouses and began colonizing the area, converting former industrial spaces into roomy working studios, renting space for as little as a nickel a square foot and carving out living quarters, literally inventing the concept of live-work spaces. The City of Los Angeles eventually acknowledged the reality of the situation and in 1981 passed the Artist in Residence ordinance, which allowed artists to legally live and work in industrial areas of downtown Los Angeles.
Art galleries, cafes and performance venues opened as the residential population grew and although they are mostly a transient phenomenon, they have assumed mythical status among the urban pioneer population. Al’s Bar on Hewitt just off Traction, in particular, served up groundbreaking punk rock from the mid-70s through the beginning of the new century, introducing generations of Angelenos to dozens of emerging groups (among them, Pearl Jam). The Atomic Cafe on 1st Street at Alameda was a popular artists;’ haunt in the late 60s and early 70s. Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), created pioneering post-modern exhibitions at its gallery space on Industrial Street. Riverrun, on Traction, created a regular series of challenging conceptual installations.
Bedlam, on 6th Street (and later, briefly, in the former premises of Al’s bar) created one of the most successful and long-lived true salons on the Left Coast, featuring drawing workshops, art installations, theater, live music and a much celebrated speakeasy that is still sorely missed. Dangerous Curve, on a dangerous curve of 4th Place between Mateo and Molino, was a particularly engaging venue that offered exhibitions of artists whose work was often difficult to categorize. It was truly a pioneer in pushing the boundaries of gallery exhibitions. The Spanish Kitchen, a warehouse space on Third near Traction, was home to series of happenings, events, raves, installations and blowout parties. It now houses e3rd Steakhouse and Lounge, a celebrated eatery that regularly hosts community events and exhibitions of works by local artists. Coccola (later known as the 410 Boyd St. Bar and Grill), the legendary artists’ bar just west of the Arts District, lives on as Escondite.
The institution that was for many years the heart of the Arts District was Bloom’s General Store, presided over by the colorful and irascible Joel Bloom, a veteran of Chicago’s Second City, who became an early advocate for the community and who is remembered as The Arts District’s once and only unofficial mayor. Bloom passed away in 2007 – but his memory is honored with a plaque from the city declaring area around Third, Traction and Rose to be Joel Bloom Square, which is, appropriate to the eccentric nature of the community, actually a triangle.
Cornerstone Theater, a nationally celebrated enterprise that brings community theater to locations all around the country, still resides on Traction Avenue. Around the corner, on Hewitt at 4th Pl., the non-profit ArtShare offers lessons in art, dance, theater and music to urban youth and features a small theater often used by Padua Playwrights, one of the most distinguished theater enterprises in the U.S. Padua regularly stages groundbreaking plays around the city, often in non-traditional environments, and hosts playwriting workshops that continues to nurture rare and exquisite new talents.
Today the Arts District remains the home of artists, arts enterprises and many employed in L.A’s vast film and television industry (“Turn left on Traction” a character shouts at a climactic moment in the animated Pixar film, The Incredibles). The celebrated Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), now resides in the 110 year old, quarter mile-long former Santa Fe freight depot that stretches along Santa Fe between Third and 4th Streets. SCI-Arc’s reputation as an experimental anti-establishment school of architecture is a perfect fit with the community’s somewhat rebellious self-image and its student population helps preserve the areas youthful character.
The Arts District is one of the most filmed locations in the world, hosting as many as 800 filming days a year. Meet Me in St Louis, Ed Wood, Terminator 2, Monster in Law, the TV series NCIS LA, Flash Forward, Castle, Numbers, The Office, House, are just a few among the many projects shot here. So much filming activity has created new challenges, particularly as a more upscale population began to take root. Community leaders, city officials and representatives form the film industry have created new local filming conditions that have made the Arts District a model for preserving a community as a renewable resource for filming. Location productions also make regularly donations to community non-profits. Those funds are used to support local arts activities and to create a community arts center, a practice that has done much to preserve the peace between residents and production companies.
Many challenges face the Arts District today, not least of which is the loss of inexpensive lofts to developers who have converted some former loft and studio buildings into condos. Community leaders are struggling to balance the economic opportunities offered by gentrification with the need to preserve the essential tone and character of the Arts District as a true creative community that has made significant contributions to the cultural and economic well-being of Los Angeles for decades. The artists George Herms, Paul McCarthy and Shepard Faiery, writer filmmaker Frank Miller, singer Meshell Ndegeocello, actors Forrest Whittaker and Jenna Fischer are just a few among the many whose talents were nurtured here early in their careers. McCarthy has recently returned and opened a world-class gallery (The Box) in the community and early in the new century the internationally acclaimed Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein took up residence in the Arts District. When he was asked why he chose to live and work here he said, “because this is the image capital of the world.”