By Jim Bliesner
It is a familiar story to hear about how artists settle in unwanted areas of major cities, occupy unused space, and begin to create excitement and a sense of uniqueness and a creative spirit. Eventually developers arrive to capitalize on the aura. What happens to the artists who were the urban pioneers? I interviewed three artists who are downtown or were there in the past. Their experiences cover a period of twenty or thirty years and provide lessons for artists today. The lessons apply to current events in North Park or even downtown yet again in East Village with discussions about “creative districts”. They apply as well to artists living in warehouses in Barrio Logan.
Gloria Poore and Lila Harty are both artists who live downtown, Gloria since 1978 and Lila since 1985. Gloria is a fashion designer and light artist. Her work can be seen on the exterior of the Baltic Inn designed by Rob Quigley. Lila is a painter and has also trained thousands of artists how to paint in her various downtown studios. Both artists are survivors of the live/ work redevelopment process, maybe the only two survivors still there.
According to another veteran of downtown artists’ diaspora , Juliette Mondot, the artist migration to downtown started about 1978 when a woman by the name of June Gutfliesch got permission from CCDC to occupy the Knights of Pythias Building slated for demolition to build Horton Plaza. Famous muralist Mario Torero, son of Guillermo Acevedo marked the building with his first in a series of “Picasso’s Eyes” images. His father had provoked the formation of SOHO with a catalogue of ink drawings of antique structures in Golden Hill. He partnered with Golden Hill artist Ellen Lucero.
Coincidentally, the federal government was distributing billions of dollars nationally to non profits to hire people in an effort to curb double digit unemployment. June Gutfliesch hired a ton of artists who could be seen crawling in and out the windows like “the little old lady who lived in a shoe and had so many kids she didn’t know what to do”. The artists also started inhabiting warehouse space in what is now called East Village (Center City East back then) and living in the Gaslamp before it was a district. One artist, Gary Ghirardi occupied a site at 5th and Island slinging chemicals– only he knew their toxicity.
Gloria occupied four different art studios before she advocated and achieved the approval of the SD live/work ordinance that legalized everyone in 1985. “I worked for six years on that ordinance.” It started when she was occupying an illegal space on 7th and Island. An article appeared in the newspaper titled “Gloria Poore is a Code Violator with a Vision”.
She occupied a large space in the Candy Factory, now a relic façade framing the ballpark in period chic. Shortly thereafter she moved to a space at 7th and Island and began to renovate it as a complex of live/ work spaces. One day she received a visit from Assistant City Planner Mike Steppner who told her “I like what you are doing down here. Keep it up.”
He asked how to draft an ordinance. “I got copies of the ordinances in L.A. and San Francisco, as well as a piece of state legislation, a senate bill (SB812)authorizing “living and working space for artists and artisans only. There was a fear that you couldn’t let artists occupy because it (Center City east) could not be declared blighted”.
While Gloria was pushing for the ordinance things were happening around her. Mike Steppner got the Gaslamp District designated an historic area qualifying for historic tax credits. At least four developers began to acquire warehouse spaces throughout what is called now the East Village, Bud Fisher, Jim Ahern, Chris Mortinson and Bob Sinclair. They were working on the Church Lofts, Library Lofts, The Lions Building and others. Tom and Dorothy Hom bought a building or two, one of which is now enshrined as the Western Metal Supply façade in Petco Park.
The architectural firm of Dick Bundy and Thompson began to specialize in retrofitting old buildings for occupancy. Bundy had the first trompe l’oeil mural (still there) painted in the Gaslamp. There were renegade developers who bought a building and let artists in for reasonable rents and the requirement to install a toilet and kitchen to create artist based live/ work spaces. Sudah House, a recognized photographer and professor at Grossmont College, occupied a space in the Gaslamp.
Kit Goldman and Dan Pierson had a whole building dismantled and reconstructed to create the current Horton Grande Hotel and Gaslamp Theatre. But most important of all the City had declared a new redevelopment area and named it “East Village.” Mike Steppner moved from Assistant City Planner to City Architect under Mayor O’Connor.
Gloria Poore proposed rent subsidy for low income artists who were meant to occupy the many spaces that were being developed by the handful of developers who were driving up the prices for glamorous-lifestyle-loft-living. “I wanted the artists to develop their own complex for the formation of an arts district so that ownership would create longevity. If you are going to have a live/ work ordinance, it has to provide a way for the artists to own their spaces.” The live/ work ordinance went forward, moving through the system, getting trimmed and cut and, as Gloria states “boiled down to a fire code.”
She pressed the Housing Commission to develop a funding stream for low income artists to buy their spaces. The City said, ”Artists choose to live in poverty therefore they are not low income.” She went to meeting after meeting repeating her mantra “Artists need to own their spaces or they will disappear. They will become the typical vanguard toward gentrification and hyper development.” She took her own advice and bought at 9th and Island and developed a model live/work environment. It has kept her downtown since.
Somewhere in the background negotiations were happening to build Petco Park in East Village. A whole new layer of speculators had entered the picture. Gloria told herself, “I have to stop going to meetings because the genie is out of the bottle.” As a last resort she took to passing out poetry at the meetings decrying the demise of the art world in an urban capital struggle.” When the developers wanted the ordinance, it passed.”
The Community Video Center opened in the Knights of Pythias bringing artists Greg Calvert and Juliette Mondot to the Gaslamp in 1978. They resided on the top floor of the Spencer -Ogden building at Fifth and F Streets and began a floor to ceiling rehabilitation. Juliette was elected to the Gaslamp Quarter Project Area Committee. They met in the vacant commercial and industrial buildings in what was to become the Gaslamp Quarter and East Village.
Juliette made art from gritty life on the streets which included being assaulted. She and Greg had the “first legitimate baby” in the Gaslamp in 20 years. By the time their daughter was two, the Gaslamp had already changed. So they bought a house at 13th and Island with a yard. Two more kids followed while the mixed use neighborhood had only five resident drunks and no drug addicts. That changed when the City directed forty new social services to locate in Center City East: prison half way houses, homeless shelters, drug and alcohol group homes.
Then the City pushed all the homeless from the Gaslamp and the redeveloping bay side into Center City East. The streets of Center City East were overrun with the homeless outnumbering residents 100 to 1. The few residents were outnumbered by strangers with nothing to lose. Juliette is an urbanist and understands the vagaries of urban pioneering.
She and her husband struggled to maintain a media business from their home. Finally the homeless won and she bolted from East Village to rural Colorado. The final straw was her daughter; a budding teenager was daily accosted by a homeless crack addict living on the sidewalk in front of their home for eight months. Despite being a founding member of Citizens Patrol, the Police Department refused to evict a verbally abusive crack addict and alcoholic from their sidewalk.
Lila Harty arrived downtown in 1985. She had been working in advertizing in Chicago and New York and and studied painting at the Chicago Art Institute. She opened a studio to teach in the Artplex Building at 9th and K. The entire building was leased by a husband /wife team of artists, Jim and Diane Bess. The “landlords” then rented out five spaces to other artists willing to sub- let for work space. Lila had full classes with students from throughout the County, five days a week. Eventually, the building fell to redevelopment. The Besses moved to Connecticut.
Lila moved to the Candy Factory and leased space there. The building was shared by a gallery, other artist lofts and the owner was going to keep it that way. But that changed with the emergence of the ballpark. She then moved to a space in the Pannikin Building owned by Bob Sinclair. One of her up and coming students was so enthusiastic about what she had learned from Lila and the work of the other students they teamed up to open a gallery at 4th between Market and Island.
The previous three tenants had been galleries as well. Lila attended meetings of the Gaslamp Quarter Association and became disheartened because artists had no say. The opportunity to buy any space anywhere downtown was a dream in spite of the large success of the classes and sale of her own work. She pushed the work of other local artists in her gallery as well. “I have many, many very successful students selling their work for thousands, but very few can stay in San Diego to do it.” Eventually the gallery closed and her classroom space changed use.
In the interim, Arthur Skolnick of the Gaslamp association had negotiated with the Rattner Clothing Company to convert their factory on 13th and Market into a live/ work space under the approved City ordinance, 20% live/work and 40 work only spaces for artists. Lila moved into a large live/work space and has taught classes and painted there for about ten years. “I love it here but my career has always been determined by other people’s real estate decisions and one can never ever be sure of anything having to do with live/work.”
Lila says that the potential for artists to survive downtown is inhibited by at least three things, 1) the loss of parking to big events and the ballpark, 2) the homeless, and 3) the extra assessments that improvement districts charge. “I can’t attract students if they have to wade through the odor of human excrement and harassment by the homeless. It took us a long time to get them removed from 13th Street. It wasn’t until a staff person from the Mayors office paid a visit and ended up stepping in a pile of it that the police responded. If they ever build the Chargers stadium near Barrio Logan it will be the end of small business, especially artists and creative people.”
Jim Bliesner is the Director of the Center for Urban Economics and Design at UCSD, an adjunct professor of Urban Studies, resident of City Heights and an urban artist in sculpture and painting.
Editor’s Correction: The images of the Artplex building and Lila Harty were taken by Jim Bliesner.