Whatever Happened to Downtown Artists? The Experiences of Three Creative Souls Who Survived

by on August 31, 2012 · 19 comments

in Activism, Arts, Editor's Picks, Politics

By Jim Bliesner

©Juliette Mondot

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.

Razing of Pythias Building © Juliette Mondot

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”.

Gloria Poore © Juliette Mondot

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.

Horton Grand Being Dismantled © Juliette Mondot

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.”

©Juliette Mondot

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.

Artplex Bldg © Jim Bliesner

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 Harty © Jim Bliesner

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.”

Editor’s Correction:  The images of the Artplex building and Lila Harty were taken by Jim Bliesner.

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Jim Bliesner

Jim Bliesner is the Director of the Center for Urban Economics and Design at UCSD, a lecturer in Urban Studies at UCSD, resident of City Heights and an urban artist in sculpture and painting.
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avatar Anna Daniels August 31, 2012 at 11:18 am

Conservatives repeat ad nauseum that government doesn’t create jobs. Jim refers to the federal Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) in his post- “Coincidentally, the federal government was distributing billions of dollars nationally to non profits to hire people in an effort to curb double digit unemployment.”
CETA money resulted in a flourishing vibrant cultural renaissance in San Diego. Remember Diamanda Galas? Whoopi Goldberg? Theater, art, music…
CETA was indisputably effective in reducing unemployment. We blew into town in ’78. Scoured the downtown State Employment Office’s job board every day. My Beloved found a temporary CETA job listing for UCSD. In that job he literally moved books from one stack to another in the undergraduate library. He retired from UCSD this past June with 33 years of library service–as a computer tech.
It is not difficult to imagine what could be accomplished with public investment in job creation. But “government never created a job….”

avatar bob dorn August 31, 2012 at 11:50 am

Jim, Lynn Schuette more than deserves a salute in this history. Her gallery in the 800 block of Eighth Ave. in the late 70s became home to San Diego’s huge performance art movement, giving space to major appearances of Phillip Galas, Diamanda’s brother, who was a pioneering radical art brother, and to Whoopie Goldberg herself. As well, major installations were built and torn down there in the space of a few days, and Schuette was a master at writing grants and helping others out. She was a real mama in the arts world here, and a great designer. Also, and a few years later the old Carnation factory was a huge asset artists could exploit.

avatar Jim Bliesner August 31, 2012 at 12:14 pm

Yep she does. Lots of folks had a role. Just had space for three this time but more should be done later. She may be a partner with Gloria or was. But the performance stuff came later but is another example of great art being replaced by development. The ReIncarnation Bldg done by Wayne Buss is also a legendary story ending in tragedy. That was a swinging place for maybe two years. He may also have been a possible investment partner with Gloria

avatar bob dorn August 31, 2012 at 5:50 pm

Yeah, I was trying to think of Wayne Buss’ name and my wife wasn’t here to remind me. One place that continues to happen, after all these years, is Barrio Logan, which may be the most successful example of art meeting life and life meeting art.

avatar Brent E. Beltrán January 12, 2013 at 4:29 pm

Art will always be happening in Logan. We will be here forever.

avatar marilyn Tate August 31, 2012 at 8:13 pm

Jim,Interesting ! I moved to San Diego 1999. Lived in Point Loma for 1 year before settling in the Cornerstone Lofts on Market and 3rd. I walked the place-settled at Brokers Building for a studio after looking at many other spots before Petco Park took over. I was a witness to the exodus of local artists-other than the Arts College International on G st.(Stuart Burton’s place). I actually had no problem with the homeless who were there then…I did many scenery backdrops with San Diego City College theater productions and walked there at 10 p.m. at night sometimes….the good old days!! I just wish I met more local artists -my loss!

avatar Jim Bliesner September 3, 2012 at 5:37 pm

Thank you Marilyn. I remember the lofts at 3rd and market. Before that it was a hippie commune dealing in community organizing. Oops. They missed a great opportunity. Love your work!

avatar Naomi Nussbaum September 1, 2012 at 1:01 pm

I would like to subscribe to your publication. Great work Jim. Thanks for all you are doing for the San Diego arts community.

Thanks,
Naomi

avatar Patty Jones September 1, 2012 at 1:29 pm

Hi Naomi,

You can subscribe to the SDFP by signing up via the form in our sidebar. Look for “Get SDFP Updates by Email”. This form will subscribe you to our feed, you will get an email everyday that new content is posted. We are currently working on ways for folks to subscribe individual columns or authors.

avatar Jim Bliesner September 3, 2012 at 5:35 pm

Keeping in mind that the Synergy Art Foundation funded the investigation and publication of these ten principles and continues to invest in them.

The 10 principles under which bl/ev was designed to operate should remain alive and continue towards fruition: “1) provoke and nurture creativity; 2) achieve economic development for artists, business and residents; 3) encourage educational opportunities; 4) facilitate live/work development for artists of all disciplines; 5) establish independent financial resources for artists; 6) support cross-cultural creative dialogue; 7) establish new venues for the display, production and marketing of art; 8) protect and promote existing public and private art; 9) strengthen the production of light industrial art-oriented business; and 10) establish mutual benefit marketing, distribution and production strategies.” That’s the positive part of my reaction to your article.

avatar Remigia (Remy) Bermudez September 2, 2012 at 5:23 pm

Jim, Thank you for all that you have done and continue to do for humanity in: The Arts (locally and globally), job creation, non-profits creation, financial institutions’ re-investments into our communities, higher level educational institutions and a host of other avant-guard ideas and ideologies that enhance our livelihoods in the San Diego-Baja California transnational region!
Your article about the three resilient artists, forced to become nomadic artists thanks to the City of San Diego’s redevelopment work, is an in-life true tribute, much to the artists’ credit! Many times tributes such as yours for Gloria, Lela and Juliette are written as postmortem pieces. It’s quite fitting to give credit where credit is due while they are still alive. [By the way you should get credit for the last photo (Lela giving an art lesson) and Lela for the ARTPLEX photo. Hmm, credit where credit is due comes to mind again…corrections are due.)
I took your article as a call for action through example, not as a historical “look-back when; who did what.” You reactivate the dream of so many to develop art live/work spaces and districts by featuring Gloria’s, Lela’s and Juliette’s plights and successes in spite of numerous attempted derailing stumble blocks. Honoring all Past and Present Relations of art work/live spaces and art districts supporters, we must make their dream our reality while honoring Future Relations to come. The article tracks historical strides for the artists’ survival in their attempts for permanence in a place they could call “home” as well as their “work place.” Thank you for keeping the faith alive, “believing that it can be…que sí se puede.”
This article definitely serves as incentive for a stronger push for artists and supporters of The Arts in our communities to create artists’ live/work space sectors such as the one you and your colleagues promoted not too long ago, “Barrio Logan/East Village (bl/ev) Arts District.” The 10 principles under which bl/ev was designed to operate should remain alive and continue towards fruition: “1) provoke and nurture creativity; 2) achieve economic development for artists, business and residents; 3) encourage educational opportunities; 4) facilitate live/work development for artists of all disciplines; 5) establish independent financial resources for artists; 6) support cross-cultural creative dialogue; 7) establish new venues for the display, production and marketing of art; 8) protect and promote existing public and private art; 9) strengthen the production of light industrial art-oriented business; and 10) establish mutual benefit marketing, distribution and production strategies.” That’s the positive part of my reaction to your article.
But I have to say that it also brought sad memories of past injustices:
1) Juliette’s photo of Mario Torero’s shadow and remnants of his “The Eyes of Picasso” piece on the partially demolished Pythias Building clearly marked an impression on me. I equate it to Maestro Torero’s ouvre d’art remaining eye steadfastly connecting with the eyes of its master for one long last farewell or perhaps an “hasta pronto/see you soon/arriverdeci…” Try tear-wrenching. “The Eyes of Picasso” met up with its master again for another adieu. This time Torero’s work faced downtown having been painted on the exterior west wall of, what I believe was, the Re-Incarnation Building (former Carnation Building) in Center City East (now East Village). Only to be once again demolished by the jaws of redevelopment.
2) A second sad memory as a point of contention is towards downtown redevelopment as it pertained to what was Centre City East prior to being renamed “East Village,” as induced by the area’s redevelopment for a private for-profit entity, PETCO Park, partly funded by our property taxes and public funds. Prior to the Padres’ ballpark (PETCO Park), the area once called Centre City East was earmarked for community revitalization per California Redevelopment Act and earmarked for low- and moderate-income housing deemed by HUD. By law redevelopment law, 20% of the tax increment (derived from property taxes earned post redevelopment area designation) collected was madated by law for low-and moderate-income housing developent. Therefore, these three courageous artists and others had the right idea to call Centre City East their home as their live/work space. But as the old Mexican saying goes, “Con dinero baila el perro” (when money is flashed, even dogs will dance – not a literal translation but rather a contextual one), when rich developers (the $$ flashers) started negotiating with CCDC and the City of San Diego’s government officials (the willing dancing partners), the area was intentionally, totally forgotten to the point that it deteriorated, therefore becoming a blighted area, which I often refer to as “blight by design.” That’s exactly how CCDC and the City of San Diego Redevelopment Agency justified transferring all development rights to PETCO Park proponents, allowed the gentrification of all residents and business operators/owners (artists and others) and allowed the eradication of Centre City East’s community fabric and cohesiveness, including razing historically-designated sites (which are supposedly protected by law from any modification let alone being demolished). Wayne Buss’s Re-Incarnation Building (the former Carnation Building) comes to mind.
All of us of responsible thought and justice enactors need to be active community promoters of all that enhance(s) our lives and vigilantes of all that take(s) away from our livelihoods not just for ourselves but for future generations. The reason why Barrio Logan and the 5 communities in the Greater Logan Heights Community are still desirable areas for art districts is because we have such cadre eternally fending off redevelopment take over of our, to date, somewhat “virgin territory.”

avatar Bejo December 22, 2012 at 5:11 pm

Of course I need to ammned the story The problem with getting old, one forgets the details. Thanks to Sarah C. for reminding me that I was told the story at the Dublin Square Irish Pub not Gaslamp Tavern. Of course I’m pretty sure it was retold at the Gaslamp Tavern later that week.

avatar Jim Bliesner September 3, 2012 at 5:33 pm

It would be a miracle and an economic tsunami if the City and County adopted these simple principles for art and creativity. We would become the Paris of the western hemisphere.
Thanks Remi for filling in the gaps of my article. Wonderful narrative.

The 10 principles under which bl/ev was designed to operate should remain alive and continue towards fruition: “1) provoke and nurture creativity; 2) achieve economic development for artists, business and residents; 3) encourage educational opportunities; 4) facilitate live/work development for artists of all disciplines; 5) establish independent financial resources for artists; 6) support cross-cultural creative dialogue; 7) establish new venues for the display, production and marketing of art; 8) protect and promote existing public and private art; 9) strengthen the production of light industrial art-oriented business; and 10) establish mutual benefit marketing, distribution and production strategies.” That’s the positive part of my reaction to your article.

avatar Remigia (Remy) Bermudez September 3, 2012 at 10:49 pm

Don’t I wish that San Diego were the “Paris of the western hemisphere.”
Jim, there were no gaps in your article. I happened to have a copy of the BL/EV brochure at hand. Your superb article made me look for it, and there it was waiting on my coffee table as if it was waiting for a second phase to be re-born.
Your writing (subject matter knowledge, background details and person to person interviews) and photos in your article are amazing. It certainly raises the bar for some of us potential SDFP writers. I know it does for me.
My reaction to your article went full force as it jotted my memory down a path in which there are a lot of things waiting to be achieved for our communties. The potential is there; and we need the forces.
Thank you for keeping the dream alive until it becomes a reality!

avatar Jim Bliesner September 4, 2012 at 9:07 am

Sure. No problem.

avatar Jesus Papoleto Melendez January 12, 2013 at 5:39 pm

Don’t forget the San Diego poets movement that brought poetry readings to the downtown Gaslamp Quarter with weekly readings by local poets. They too helped to shape the artists’ movement in San Diego.

avatar Jim Bliesner January 12, 2013 at 9:09 pm

So true Jesus. The poets added the soul to the whole thing. We need those poems now ready to go on SDFP. Can you imagine a show of art, building space and poems about the emergence of art in the downtown hemisphere? Cannot create anything new until the bottom floor is complete.

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