Vignes Street winds through the northern edge of the Arts District, parallel to — and couple of blocks west of — the broad cement trench that memorializes the Los Angeles 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. Hardy Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc vines imported from the south of France thrived 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 Wolskill 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 (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 3rd 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 vision of the State that continues produce a false nostalgia for good old days that never really were.
The growing Santa Fe freight depots and brick and cement-walled 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 a century of earthquakes, flood and fire. The many 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 western coastal urban centers.
By the end of World War II, citrus groves were replaced by factories and the 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. In twenty years, many of the independent small manufacturers had been absorbed by larger competitors, grown too big for their quarters or had 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 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 such groups as Pearl Jam, among other names that have become legend. The Wolfskill Theater was a pioneering theatrical troupe whose veterans have spread throughout the L.A. theater community. The Atomic Cafe on 1st Street at Alameda was a popular artists haunt in the late 60s and early 70s. Los Angelos 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, the legendary artists’ bar just west of the Arts District, lived on for years as the Boyd St. Bar and Grill in its original location on Boyd Street at San Pedro.
The one 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.
For nearly 20 years, Cornerstone Theater, a nationally celebrated enterprise that brings community theater to locations all around the country, resided on Traction Avenue. Around the corner, founded in 1997 on Hewitt Street at 4th Place, the nonprofit ArtShare L.A. offers art, dance, theater, poetry readings, and music by emerging artists. Its theater was formerly used by Padua Playwrights, one of the most distinguished theater enterprises in the U.S. Padua continues to live on elsewhere, staging groundbreaking plays around the city in non-traditional environments, and hosting playwriting workshops to nurture rare and exquisite new talents.
Today, the Arts District remains the home of many artists, arts enterprises, theater design professionals 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 Avenue between 3rd 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 is helping to 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. Movies such as Meet Me in St. Louis, Ed Wood, Terminator 2 and Monster-in-Law, as well as TV shows such as NCIS-LA, Castle and The Office, 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 many former loft and studio buildings into condos. Community leaders lost the struggle to balance 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. Early in the new century, the internationally acclaimed Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein moved into the Arts District (he has since returned to his castle in Ireland). When he was asked why he chose to live and work here he said, “it is because this is the image capital of the world.”