Low Price, High Value

A local artist's take on pennies, Skid Row and ancient geometry

Sarah Mero, known by her alias $¢mero or simply initials $¢, lives and works at an underground artist collective at 5th and Wall called Catalyst. Mero (pronounced “marrow”) thinks of herself as unknown, though her street art is visible around the Historic Core and Skid Row. Pennies are the common material between her more permanent oeuvre- mosaics made of copper coins - and her street installations, hats, and site specific works, like a sculptural piece depicting SWAT team officers and protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement shown at Roy Alexander Gallery last January. Her full-scale penny mosaics have yet to be shown in a gallery, but I viewed some at Catalyst and in storage. Depicting mythology related to Downtown and the plight of the penny, her honeycomb arrays of treated coins mounted to wood are named for their actual cent value. Mero’s largest and most ambitious piece, an installation that pays homage to a woman who was found dead in a water tank atop the Hotel Cecil (photo on opposite page), is titled “$111.15.” That’s 11,115 pennies, hand-manipulated by Mero alone. Mero moved to Catalyst less than a year ago after ditching her second job as a waitress and deciding to focus on her art full time. Her discipline and physical strength stem from an athletics-focused upbringing in a Minneapolis suburb. She doesn’t own a bed, opting to sleep on a couch in her studio or on the floor. And she considers her dog, Nala, to be her in a purer form. She took us on a tour of Catalyst and her studio in July.


PU: Why pennies?

SM: After 1982, pennies were made of only 2.5 percent copper, just a coating on them. So on this piece, all these [post-82 pennies] are stripped, and the blue ones are pre-82 coins that I sandblasted and then applied patina. Originally I didn’t know that you could do that because I’m not trained in art so I was just fucking with chemicals like vinegar and hydrochloric acid and stuff like that.

PU: In 1982, did the penny compound change because of the rising value of copper?

SM: I think so, because there’s no reason why pennies should be around. Not to go too into conspiracy theories, but I go to the bank and pick them up and there are still pre-’82 pennies in there, but maybe like 5 for every 50. And because money’s arbitrary, you know, it’s whatever you want it to be…but when it comes to raw materials and metals, copper is so valuable. One solid copper penny—-that’s worth way more than a current penny, and if everyone figured that out, it could’ve been bad. So now these are all like fake pennies, you can tell just by holding them.

PU: Is there a distinction in your work between pre and post 82 pennies?

SM: Oh yeah, absolutely. That’s like the number one thing I have to sort through. In fact if I don’t have time, I’ll just go online and buy the pre-82 ones. You can buy sorters that do that, but yeah, it changes what I am able to do. Chemicals aren’t going to react to [post-82 pennies] — even the ones that are coated in copper, they’re too shiny so they don’t take chemicals as well, and when I strip it or sandblast it, it takes it off, so I have to use the pre-82 coins to get certain effects.

PU: The style of the work seems similar amongst the different artists who live here - a lot of sculptures using mannequins in different ways. Do you think it’s more based on material share or just time spent together talking about your ideas?

SM: You know, both. A lot of it is material share because you use what you have here. Here’s a blueprint for “the Girl in the Water Tank.” I built it when I lived at the [Pacific Electric] Lofts and I could see the water tank from my room, so I tried not to think too much about it when I was doing it but looking back, it was crazy because I would take [my dog] out to go to the bathroom at 4 in the morning because I work through the night and I’d look over and the water tank is like right there. So for the original design, I started with this blueprint, then I do the math for it and it becomes about choosing which pennies are going to work. Honestly, the artistic process, in a sense, finishes here. And then the rest is crafting, trying to bring it to life.

PU: It seems like for you, a lot of the artistic process is in the choosing of subject matter to depict. You know, the Downtown-specific nature of your work.

SM: Yeah. I have a piece I call Hipster v. Homeless with one guy doing cocaine at The Lash, and then  guy on the right is a homeless guy smoking crack on the east side of Main. They’re not so different. And with the girl in the water tank, even though this person might seem so crazy, she’s not that different from me. I feel like this art piece is a self-portrait on a mythological level. We’re all kind of drowning in our own minds sometimes…why did she go in there? How did she get there, was what she was running from even real? That’s even more terrifying than thinking she’s murdered, that she went in there by her own will because she conceived something that wasn’t true. Modern mythology is all around us.

PU: Especially in this neighborhood. That came out in the tree project you recently worked on—the symbolism of you trying to beautify the neighborhood with green. (Mero disassembled a tree that had been hit by a truck and fallen, setting up the branches in Skid Row so they looked like new trees in a neighborhood lacking green. She continued putting up art at the site where the tree fell).

SM: I was walking down the street last week and I saw that a tree had fallen over and I just stopped. I literally ran back to Catalyst because I didn’t know how long it was going to be there and grabbed a cart.

PU: Where was the tree?

SM: In front of the Rosslyn Lofts, on 5th. And I just went there and I started fucking box-sawing it up and I came home and I felt great and people were loving [the little tree sculptures] and then I thought, that tree is still there and it might be gone tomorrow. I was like I have to go so I went back out with the cart and loaded up the whole tree [to use for more installations]. And though it’s really seedy at night, you know everybody, they know I don’t judge them so they treat me with respect. I couldn’t have done it without their help. There were homeless people helping me load stumps into [the cart] because i couldn’t pick them up.

PU: Do you get responses from homeless people to your penny work?

SM: Oh yeah, well first of all they don’t get to see art anywhere so anytime they get to see that it’s really exciting for them. It breaks the whole whatever-there-is between us when they know you’re an artist because it’s like they look at you like you’re one of them and I feel like I am kind of one of them, I feel like I too have fallen off of society, I haven’t had a computer in over 2 years.

PU: Do you feel like living and working in Skid Row enables you to do that?

SM: Yeah, I could talk all night about the symbolism of the penny but it is on par exactly with Downtown. That’s not something I planned for, that’s something above me, but totally. [The penny] was once something that was valued, that went to shit, that is making a comeback. It’s very on par with downtown, what’s going on around me.

PU: I feel like the pennies must know about you.

SM: You know, they’re not as dirty as people think. See, it goes to homeless people again…homeless people won’t even pick up the pennies but you know what’s dirtier than a penny? A hundred dollar bill and people just put it up their nose no fucking problem. That bacteria goes straight to your brain.

PU: Besides the fascination of the mythology, why is Downtown so important to you? 

SM: Because you have to have a center to go back to! Some people think, “Well what makes LA LA is that it’s all [secluded] parts.” I’m not trying to take away the pockets, but we need to have a soul. This city needs to have a soul and a soul is where it comes from: where it started, where it began, the history.

PU: How do you think Skid Row fits into the soul of the city?

SM: Well, it’s forcing us to look at the truth and you can’t escape it in a city. All the problems are so apparent, like that there is a third world country right down the street from here. That has implications beyond LA. Living in the city makes you notice that. If you’re living in all these little pockets and doing your own thing and driving around, it’s easy to avoid.

PU: Looking around your studio, a lot of the images involve a magnetism of a central point.

SM: Yes, they’re based on geometry that has been around since the beginning of time, depicting that everything is going towards the point of the all knowing eye at the center. You have different perspectives here that are looking at the same thing. I feel like the generation I came out of is very postmodernist and nihilist, [championing] the idea that everything is relative. They think truth is whatever it is to you. But that’s not what relativity is trying to say. All it’s saying is truth is relative to your position from it and thats a big misunderstanding.

PU: So the misunderstanding is that they think there’s no such thing as one truth?

SM: Yeah. It’s like saying, “Well, different countries have different beliefs, so there is no moral right, no truth.” That’s like saying, well, because there are different colors, there’s no light. The fact that variation exists shows that there’s something to vary from. It’s all the same center, but it looks different from over here than it does from over there. But we’re all looking at the same thing. I just think that postmodernism spawned art with no center. I feel like I’m a renegade for saying that I believe in God. I feel like people are going to make me up to be stupid when I’m not. There is a truth and it is important that we can recognize it, because that’s when people realize we’re the same. If you’re over there and I’m here I’m never going be able to get over there exactly, but if you make art  and I see your art, it transcends reality. That’s what art can do that nothing else can do.


For you, Flâneuse

by Andrea Alonso

The flâneur was a familiar face of 19th century France: white, bourgeois and male, languidly consuming the cityscape on foot, clouded romance and wonder in his eyes. A glorified idler in time where cities were gendered spaces — seemingly unfit for the amblings, gazes and inspired musings of women. Confined to the private sphere, women were barred from entering the patriarchal writings on modern city life — dwelling in the shadowed corners of history; silenced by social construct, but ever-present. The feminine equivalent of the word, flâneuse, did not exist until 1985 when Janet Wolff unveiled these forgotten women in her incisive essay “The Invisible Flâneuse: Women and the Literature of Modernity.” Wolff argues that these flâneuses had not been forgotten, but rather masked with duplicitous identities: a woman walking the streets was assumed to be a “whore, widow or murder victim” — an anomaly to the norm, a tainted figure in a city’s lacquered memoir.  

A flâneuse, then, could not have existed in the strict sense of its masculine definition. Whereas flâneurs were marked by ennui, ambivalence and a general detachment from the cityscape, flâneuses were rooted in action and color. They took to the streets defiantly, to engage and be engaged within the public sphere, grasping, pushing and pulling the city beneath them. With their experiences left unwritten, I imagine these invisible flâneuses sweeping through the city, tenaciously forging paths and transforming space into place on their own accord. These streets, these sights, this sun-drenched light have always been for you, fllâneuse.


The Human Pyramid

by Bea Kilat

 Painting by Clairfoster Josiah Browné titled  The Village.  See more of the artist's work on Instagram @clairfosterjosiah

Painting by Clairfoster Josiah Browné titled The Village. See more of the artist's work on Instagram @clairfosterjosiah

A pyramid is a solid with a base and a face and a face and a face that fall into each other, meeting at a singular point: the apex. What you are reading is a lesson: remember this.

Pyramids are series, collections of flat surfaces joined at their edges to form the strongest geometric shape. Mathematically, the edge is defined as the line where two faces meet.  Our edges are trifold, and our pyramid is you and me and you and them and me again. Or, it’s the peak of rooftop tents sheltering outdoor bars, or the very particular shape of our bodies at three in the morning, arms linked, heads bowed.

Consider the individual; consider individual bodies. Consider the shapes we make and the figures we cut. 

Picasso believed we were recognizable insofar as we repeat the geometry of each other, people replicating circles, squares, sharp lines and soft edges. I recognize you as a person because you are shaped like me and I am shaped like you.

Do you see it?

Let’s look at it from the street level.

In a city individuals meet at their edges, limb upon limb, and form human pyramids. It’s five floors to the top, but your stop is the first landing. Say hello, say hi to singles in your area.

The human pyramid is a triumph, an example of what can only exist if we create it together. You can get there from anywhere. Bottom to the top, load in, twist up, ready and set. Go.

And so it mimics us, the city does — grows and expands and exists as something larger than it is. The winding staircase of baroque midtown buildings, the slope toward infinity as you ascend and descend toward and past reams and reams of books. There’s a magic geometry here: We form it, cover the surface area of town after town and fill it with our voluminous selves. And when we grow, we grow in concert with the edges of everything around us, or we collapse, we spill over the edge and stop existing as solids and bases and faces and exist as flat lines waiting for something to define us.

And it’s simple, really. It’s a first Friday, alone and disembarking and searching and finding, if only by accident. It’s repurposed shell casings from Midwestern bullets cut into gold shapes with your birthdate carved on either side. Shells from Cleveland, the land of your father and brothers and you for a summer, and Lebron forever, and this metalsmith, too. 

It’s St. Patrick’s Day and an Irishman asking who you are with and realizing the answer is everybody. It’s my story, but it’s yours too. It’s always been yours and ours, and we are not magic, but we can create it because the thing about the apex of any pyramid is that it’s the center. It’s where we collect, coalesce and combine. 

Do you see now, see how it’s always been happening? I am not you and you are not me, but I am defined by you and you by me and where we are only exists because we make it and hey, Mama, I made it.


Downtown in 600 Words

by Richard McDowell

The alley on Fifth, between Spring and Main, still smells of urine, I thought to myself as I walked past the other day. That is, on the south side of the street. How strange. It was some years ago that I formulated a plan, had an idea, and told myself that, as a gauge, when the allure of this pungent smell was gone, when this scent was cleansed from the corridor of humanity passing to and fro as you transition from skid row, when it was erased from the passageway (while that which is real was replaced with translucent, Walt Disney-like caricatures, like life itself), the absence of this stench would mark the epoch of revitalization, the beginning of the end, and Downtown was finished. Anyway, I hope some day it is officially designated the Nickel, as this stretch of road is sometimes called. From it, I make my way to the woman sitting here at the La Café. She is wearing a pair of dark blue shoes, and at the right angle its surface mirrors (replicates) a small part of this street, the beauty of cornices above, marble columns distorted like the dream of arriving downtown just in time. And it’s just a floating microcosm that makes up inner city living. Wouldn’t you agree? The Flower Market, The Jewelry District, toy stores, old banks line the boulevard, and I walk almost everywhere. I will never own a car, or maybe as a collector’s item. As part of my collection, it would do more to help infer who I am, who we all are, and when you drive past look for me…in Chinatown, or sometimes completing an installation near MOCA, or taking in an opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. I ate sushi last night in Lil’ Tokyo, but the Arts District seems like the place to be. While buying art supplies I can contemplate the skyline, and the Cecil Hotel is sometimes just down the street. The Biltmore will never be what the Baltimore was. While I stare at it, and take in a drink at the King Eddy Saloon. You can sometimes find me here, or in St. Vincent’s Court talking to a friend. Someday, I hope we get it right, and Spring and Main are turned into one large park…just a solitary footpath with lots of trees and gardens that leave a little less of an imprint. Give back Broadway its trolley car, and help reopen some of the greatest movie theaters in the world, but leave it as it is. Can you tell me how to get to that little deli again? Why do they give parking tickets to Federal Express, UPS, and the Postal Service. How many sweatshops are left? Standing here, I look my best, and something smells good, I thought to myself. And stepping out into the street, and crossed as fast as the Craby Joe’s was gone, and I wish would have gone there, but most will say we’re making progress, slowly moving forward. I can still remember when Bert Green’s art gallery was an ailing hat store, and from another time, but considered by many to be the best in LA. The Fashion District is not so far away, and I sometimes wish Bunker Hill had remained unchanged. Who remembers the name of the Banquette three owners ago, and before Pete’s Café? Whose name is etched in the concrete? Whose legend will rise above? Who was the first to suggest Downtown needs to change? Before my memory fades, Downtown was a backdrop. Who ever loved a homeless man as much as I have, yet can’t imagine digging through the trash, except when I drop something into it that I deem to have value, yet but which is probably worth less than a bag of cans.

Originally appeared in dtlax Magazine Fall 2009; reprinted with permission.


Hustlers, Scores, Queens and Pharoahs

A look into the history and legacy of Downtown's forgotten gay pioneers

By Ian Gabriel

 Two young men in drag detained at what was likely the Lincoln Heights jail known as the "fruit tank." Photo originally printed in a 1946 edition of the Herald Examiner with the caption "Franke Goode, 17, left; Francis J. Socwell, 18. A couple of 'girls' who landed behind bars."  Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Two young men in drag detained at what was likely the Lincoln Heights jail known as the "fruit tank." Photo originally printed in a 1946 edition of the Herald Examiner with the caption "Franke Goode, 17, left; Francis J. Socwell, 18. A couple of 'girls' who landed behind bars."

Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Like many old city centers, Downtown Los Angeles has the oxymoronic quality of being both stagnant and in flux. The historic buildings are the constant. The ones that remain have seen much of Downtown’s history, surviving earthquakes and the irrepressible growth of the city. They are the unchanging shells that house the flux: the ever-morphing jumble of people and animals, scenes and communities, bars and cafes, attitudes and movements that have passed through Downtown. 

Today’s prevalent historic narrative of Downtown flippantly ignores the 60-year gap between its economic heyday in the early 20th century and its more recent real estate-fueled comeback. The historic character of the buildings has been commodified, and many who live Downtown are not aware of communities that flourished here during that perceived decades-long gap — groups of people who lived, drank, created and loved in the same buildings we occupy today. One example is the gay community, which had a significant presence in Downtown between World War II and the mid-1960s. For many gay men, Downtown offered liberation in a time when homosexuality was both a cultural taboo and completely illegal. 

I first learned about Downtown’s gay history when a friend, knowing that I had studied and written about 1950s social movements, lent me a copy of queer history book Gay L.A. by Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons. As a resident of Downtown and a history nerd, I was mortified that I had never heard about the gay bars, cruising spots and homophile organizations that existed in my neighborhood. People here love to talk about how Downtown has changed in the last five or ten years, but I had never heard stories about the 1950s. As I continued to research the subject, I came to realize that gays in that era inhabited Downtown for the same reason that I do: its strong sense of community and acceptance.

Gays found community and liberation Downtown by frequenting the bars, theaters, parks and hotels that tolerated and catered to them even when homsexuality was a crime. Especially during the post-war period, paranoid and accusatory government authorities like Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee recklessly persecuted social deviants who were deemed threats to the patriotic status quo. While they primarily targeted communists, their persecution of nonconformist minorities also extended to gays, African Americans, Native Americans and others. In this climate of public shaming and outing, both the FBI and the notorious LAPD Vice Squad routinely monitored, harassed, entrapped and arrested men and women who exhibited any sort of proclivity toward gay life and culture. This targeting forced homosexuals to either hide their desires or escape to places like Downtown, away from their families and jobs, where they could both express their true sexualities and find a community of others doing the same thing.

I discussed this sense community with Faderman, co-author of Gay L.A. “It was so easy to be totally closeted as far as your neighbor was concerned and then get in your car and drive to where you could find other gay people either for cruising or camaraderie,” she explained. “Los Angeles offered anonymity — which was very important for gay people — and it offered community.” 

The 1963 novel City of Night by John Rechy aptly illustrates this coexistence. In the novel, he vividly details his nameless protagonist’s daily life as a young gay hustler in seedy 1950s Downtown. The main character, based on Rechy himself, flees the constraints of his family in rural Texas for New York, where he first delves into the gay underground. Later, he relocates to Downtown Los Angeles, where nobody knows him, and quickly notes the existence of gay life in his new city. Walking past dingy bars and theaters on Main Street for the first time, he narrates: “Instantly, I recognize the vagrant youngmen dotting those places: the motocyclists without bikes, the cowboys without horses, awol servicemen or on leave…And I know that moments after arriving here, I have found an extension, in the warm if smoggy sun, of the world I had just left.” Rechy found a world familiar to him on the same city blocks where I walk every day.

To better understand the geographic landscape of Rechy’s story, I met up with Rick Mechtly, a specialist in the history of Bunker Hill and gay activity in Downtown. He took me on a tour of the locations of the very bars and neighborhood hangouts Rechy describes. We began at Pershing Square, undoubtedly the anchor of gay activity in Downtown. Its proximity to bus terminals, a metro stop and the train station made it a place where people like Rechy, escaping their pasts, ended up. Prior to a series of renovations starting in the late 1950s, the square was a park replete with banana groves, underbrush and secluded pathways that offered hidden places for sexual activity. Male prostitutes and their clients, known as “scores,” frequented the park, as did men cruising for free sex. Rechy described the scene in Pershing Square: “malehustlers (‘fruithustlers’ / ‘studhustlers’ : the various names for the masculine young vagrants) like flitting birds move restlessly about the park — fugitive hustlers looking for lonely fruits to score from, anything from the legendary $20-up to a pad at night and breakfast in the morning.” The high density of bars and gay-friendly venues off the park was no coincidence — bar operators and hotel owners recognized the financial potential of setting up shop next to an established cruising zone. 

 The dense flora of Pershing Square, pictured here in 1956, provided shade for park-goers and privacy for men cruising for sex. In 1994, the city demolished and redesigned the park, stripping it of most its plant life.      Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

The dense flora of Pershing Square, pictured here in 1956, provided shade for park-goers and privacy for men cruising for sex. In 1994, the city demolished and redesigned the park, stripping it of most its plant life.    

Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

From Pershing Square, Mechtly led me to the locations of some notable bars. Each venue had its own shtick; each catered to different sectors of the gay population and provided a different type of experience. For the sophisticated and more conservative crowd, there was the subterranean Crown Jewel at 8th and Olive, which, unlike most other gay bars in the neighborhood, had a fancy dress code and an elegant interior. Those who preferred touching over talking went to another underground bar called the Metropolitan, at 5th and Hill, where patrons stood in the dimly lit bar and groped each other over drinks. For those looking to move their bodies, there was the Brass Rail at 3rd and Hill, “one of the only places where people could go and dance,” Mechtly explained. Men interested in a more loud and crowded setting went to Maxwell’s, on 3rd between Broadway and Spring, which was popular among men who worked in the nearby department stores and among military personnel. The Waldorf and Harold’s, two long-established gay bars on Main between 5th and 6th, attracted gays across the spectrum.

Around the corner from Maxwell’s on Spring Street was the 3-2-6, commonly known as the Numbers. This bar attracted drag queens, including Destiny, a real person and a character in City of Night. Faderman knew Destiny personally and told me about a time when they ran into each other Hollywood in the 1950s: “I remember Destiny once telling me that he was through with Hollywood Boulevard, that people were too phony and uppity there and that he was going back Downtown to the Numbers — that’s where his kind of people were.”

And after the bars closed, the flop houses swelled. Mechtly showed me the site of one, a mother-son operation at 6th and Hill whose basement was filled with cots separated by glory-holed partitions. The clerks at the front desk of the Lankershim Hotel at 7th and Broadway provided horny truck drivers and traveling salesmen with cheap rooms. Men also used all-night movie theaters for sexual contact. One of Mechtly’s friends had his first gay sexual experience in the dark upper balcony of the Paramount Theater adjacent to Pershing Square, and Rechy writes about the burlesque theaters on Main Street, “where along the dark rows, in the early jammed hours of the morning on weekends, men [sat], fly open, pulling off.”

In a way, merely visiting a gay bar was a form of activism — standing up to the homophobic authority by refusing to stay in the closet, even if it meant risking arrest or abuse. In late 1959, that liberation morphed into rebellion at a late night doughnut shop on Main Street. Cooper’s Donuts, located between Harold’s and the Waldorf, stayed open after the surrounding bars closed for the night, serving coffee and pastries to what Rechy calls “the scattered army” of post-bar drag queens, hustlers and revelers. Because of its largely homosexual and deviant nighttime clientele, Cooper’s was also a frequent target of police scrutiny and harassment. One night, LAPD officers entered the doughnut shop and demanded to see the IDs of three customers without providing a reason. Cooper’s patrons responded in a humorously ironic fashion by throwing doughnuts and coffee at the cops. Police backup arrived after further escalation and found a riot that would shut down Main Street until the next day. The Cooper’s Donuts Riot was an organic act of defiance toward the police in which the rioters, emboldened by the strong sense of community that existed in gay Downtown, banded together to fend off injustice.

In addition to fostering uprisings in the streets, Downtown also played a central role in the conscious, intellectually driven movement for the improvement of gay rights helmed by early homophile organizations like the Mattachine Society and ONE Inc. These groups convened and operated in Downtown, using printed publications, manifestos, organizing techniques, research and legal efforts to advocate on behalf of homosexuals. While their numbers were few — by Faderman’s estimate, no more than several hundred members nationally at any given time — the impact of their political action was significant.

The Mattachine Society was formed in 1950; its seven founding members were Harry Hay, Bob Hull, Rudi Gernreich, Dale Jennings, Chuck Rowland, James Gruber and Konrad Stevens. They were a group of intellectuals, musicians, and writers — a few of them communists — who came from a wealthier social class than the down-and-out hustlers of Main Street. Meeting clandestinely at private residences in Silver Lake, Echo Park and Bunker Hill, the founding members, or the “pharoahs,” as Faderman described them, intended to be secret leaders, drawing inspiration from communist theory and cell structure. In 1951 they produced a manifesto that outlined their purpose: “Only a Society, providing an enlightened leadership, can rouse the homosexuals… one of the largest minorities in America today… to take the actions necessary to elevate themselves from the social ostracism an unsympathetic culture has perpetrated upon them.” 

That necessary action came into play in 1952, when a plainclothes vice squad officer arrested innocent Mattachine member Dale Jennings in a public restroom in MacArthur Park, baselessly charging him with lewd conduct. Instead of pleading guilty and paying a fine to keep his arrest quiet, Jennings decided to fight back in court. His Mattachine colleagues raised legal funds by organizing the Citizen’s Committee to Outlaw Entrapment and were able to hire attorney George Sibley to represent their comrade. The jury at the ensuing trial acquitted Jennings even after he confessed his homosexuality, marking a successful retaliation against police intimidation and entrapment and victory for the Mattachine Society.

Jennings would later help to form ONE Inc., a Mattachine offshoot organization also devoted to securing rights for gays. Starting in 1953, ONE began to print ONE Magazine, a monthly publication sold in the streets of Downtown that was one of the first in the nation to openly discuss homosexual issues. Its editors and contributors included Mattachine founders Jennings and Rowland, as well as Don Slater, Jim Kepner, Dorr Legg and lesbian couple Joan Corbin and Irma Wolf. The magazine ran pieces about police entrapment, scientific research on sexuality, criticisms of homophobic articles in other publications, poetry and personal anecdotes about being gay in 1950s America. In late 1953, as the publication grew, ONE Inc. established offices at 2nd and Hill Street, a couple of blocks from Pershing Square. The FBI methodically monitored the office and the publication, including the names of the editors, their physical descriptions, home addresses and workplace locations in its reports. Attempting to link the magazine to both communist activity and sexual obscenity, one declassified FBI report refers to the publication of ONE Magazine as a “security matter” and states that “further review of the Publication indicates that it is written for Sex Deviates.” Publishing ONE Magazine was incredibly risky, but that did not stop its editors and contributors.

 The cover of ONE Magazine’s July 1955 issue, drawn by the publication’s primary illustrator Joan Corbin, better known by her pseudonym Eve Elloree. Her girlfriend, Irma Wolf, also known as Ann Carll Reid, was ONE’s chief editor from 1954 until 1957.  Courtesy of the ONE Archives at the USC Libraries. 

The cover of ONE Magazine’s July 1955 issue, drawn by the publication’s primary illustrator Joan Corbin, better known by her pseudonym Eve Elloree. Her girlfriend, Irma Wolf, also known as Ann Carll Reid, was ONE’s chief editor from 1954 until 1957.

Courtesy of the ONE Archives at the USC Libraries. 

In October 1954, the Los Angeles postmaster Otto Oleson, with the help of the FBI, confiscated the copies of that month’s ONE Magazine that had been mailed to subscribers, stating that they contained obscene content and were therefore illegal. With the help of young attorney Eric Julber, ONE Inc. contested the confiscation in court. After four years of dismissals and rulings in favor of the postmaster, the case ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court which reversed the lower court decisions, deciding that the confiscation of the magazine was a violation of the First Amendment. This was a major victory in the gay rights movement and marked the first time in U.S. history that the Supreme Court had heard a case involving homosexuality.

ONE Inc. also organized yearly conferences called the ONE Mid-Winter Institutes, which took place at different hotels Downtown, including the Biltmore on Pershing Square. Dorr Legg was the primary organizer of these conferences, which consisted of speeches by activists like Mattachine co-founder Harry  Hay, workshops and lectures. In one of these speeches, according to Faderman, Legg called for a homosexual bill of rights that demanded “the right to full first-class citizenship, the right to be free from discriminatory statutes, the right to be free from police surveillance, the destruction of all government records of any citizen’s homosexual behavior, the right to equal treatment before the law...” Legg’s proposal was ahead of its time, and many of his contemporaries deemed it ridiculous and impossible. According to Faderman, Legg’s radical ideas were “so far-reaching. It’s what [pro-gay-rights members of congress] Bella Abzug and Ed Koch presented in 1974 and 1975 to Congress and they could get no support then. It’s what we still don’t have.”  

Legg’s bill of rights never materialized, but today the police no longer raid gay bars, the FBI has stopped censoring homosexual magazines, and the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of same-sex marriage. In fact, three new gay bars have popped up in Downtown over the past year: Redline at 6th and Los Angeles, the Precinct at 4th and Broadway and Bar Mattachine at 7th and Spring. The owners of these bars sensed a resurgence in the gay population of Downtown that made the neighborhood a fitting location for their businesses. I spoke with the owners of Redline, Zachary Beus and Oliver Alpuche, about how these new bars fit into the context of Downtown’s rich gay history. Beus explained that when the two were scoping out locations, “We truly wanted to go historic. The Historic Core, I still believe, will always be the location where gay life will thrive.” Alpuche echoed Beus’ desire to pay homage to history: “Downtown was a very vibrant area [for gay life]. When we were going through locations we definitely took that into consideration because Main between 5th and 6th was a huge part of history that not a lot of people know about.” 

Although there are far fewer gay bars here than there were in the ‘50s, those that exist are as diverse in their approaches as their post-war counterparts. Alpuche explained that Bar Mattachine will offer a sophisticated and refined atmosphere, reminiscent of the Crown Jewel. Redline, by contrast, is more geared toward neighborhood residents and offers a relaxed, inviting feeling, similar to Harold’s or the Waldorf. The Precinct is comparable to Maxwell’s with its crowded and energetic party scene. Another bar, the New Jalisco at 3rd and Main, which has been Downtown for years, is known for its clientele in drag, like the 3-2-6. 

Downtown has always attracted gays and other socially ostracized groups because it is distinctly nonjudgmental. It is a neighborhood that does not necessarily conform to the societally constructed standards of what it means to have a job, a family, a house or a relationship. And even though Downtown changes so quickly, residents here have always appreciated the constant collision of opinions, cultures and ideas that propels Downtown forward. It lets people live how they want to, and that will never change. 


The Broad Rises

Poised to forever alter Los Angeles' art landscape, Eli Broad's museum opens September 20

by Julio Guadalquivir


From atop the white veil of his honeycombed compound — days before it opens to the public — Los Angeles’ cultural caliph Eli Broad looks out across his empire as the sun begins to sink towards the Pacific.

It’s his Gotham; he has rescued its arts reputation from crumbling irrelevancy, kept its museums safe from bankruptcy and reimagined its public arts education system. Inaugurating his personally stocked and financed museum will be the latest and most self-aggrandizing step in solidifying Downtown as Los Angeles’ art center.

But it’s the places in the periphery of Broad’s view that made him a billionaire. He can barely make out the sprawling grid of the Inland Eyesore, blurred by distance and haze. He turns northwest, gazing toward the hills of Valencia and Santa Clarita, the wind whipping his red necktie. Maybe on a clearer day he could see Simi Valley, way out there. These suburbs are where his company KB Homes capitalized on the early ‘80s American obsession with McMansions, denuding the city center. 

Closer, following the lights of Wilshire, he can see LACMA. Where would LACMA be without the $60-million museum-within-a-museum he donated? County tax dollars couldn’t have yielded a Renzo Piano. Who else could have given them the chance to amass the Giuseppe Panza di Biumo collection? 

Scanning the sky closer to his perch, he sees the LAUSD headquarters and the unmistakable towering steel spiral of the Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts. He encouraged LAUSD to build the school as a flagship for specialized arts education, donating $250,000 and making demands about its direction. 

He’s been criticized for the strings (or “ropes that could moor an ocean liner,” as the New York Times called them) that are always attached to his money. But why should that matter? His brand of billionaire philanthro-vigilantism — making huge donations to traditionally publicly-funded institutions to make his visions realities — might seem overly controlling, but it has allowed for the creation and sustainment of many of Los Angeles’ great cultural landmarks.

Peering down now at the rest of Bunker Hill, he sees his new neighbors on a Grand Avenue he helped concoct. The Walt Disney Concert Hall, MOCA, Grand Park — all icons of culture in Los Angeles bankrolled or negotiated by Broad. Would MOCA still exist had it not been for his $30 million bailout in 2003? 

He is the Los Angeles art world’s most prolific and least anonymous donor, the city’s patrón de arte y cultura. As the last pinkish hues disappear from the sky, he descends into his museum.

Pacing through the darkened third-floor gallery, he inspects freshly installed works by Jeff Koons and Richard Serra, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Damien Hirst. He wanders to a room of Warhols, and the smallest print in the room brings a grin to his face. His wife Edythe had wanted to buy that print of a soup can in the 1960s for $100 but passed up the opportunity. In 2006, he bought it for her at auction for $11.8 million.

He takes the central spiral staircase down one floor and pauses near the building’s oculus, the eyelike window in the exterior pattern. Here, he stands in the museum’s brain, the level where his team has been working to reinvent how a museum operates.  He knows it will only be a matter of time before other museums begin to emulate the clever desk-free concierge system where employees use only mobile devices.

Broad continues his descent, which lands him in the vault, lauded as the museum’s most innovative feature beneath the veil. It’s where 99 percent of Broad’s collection will live, protected by 36 million pounds of concrete — the opposite of the decentralized string of anonymous warehouses across LA where he used to keep his treasures. If the Big One ever comes, he, Edythe and his collection will be safe inside this art bunker.

Visitors can view the vault through glass inside the museum, but only serious buyers and select museum staff will have the privilege of entering his subterranean lair. Deep below Grand Avenue, it is the core of his fortress; the practically impenetrable yet highly visible crux of his art world prominence.

Sitting deep within his high-security cave, he marvels at his collection — now large enough to rival that of any contemporary art museum. Who’s to scrutinize the source of his money if he funnels it back into the arts and the center of the city? All his hard work has paid off; he has spent decades amassing these great works and now he’s inviting the world to Downtown Los Angeles to enjoy them for free. Los Angeles’ thriving cultural landscape undeniably has him to thank.

Leaving now, he turns off the lights and locks the door to the vault while pondering the future. With the Broad opening September 20, what will he save next? Perhaps he’ll invest in Skid Row, building housing for the homeless. Maybe he’ll donate to the understaffed Los Angeles Public Library so it can properly archive and display its rare book collection. Will he fund research on ways to curb California’s historic drought? Whatever it is, Broad will dutifully continue to watch over his city, to shape his ideal Los Angeles.


The State of the Art Gallery

The State of the Art Gallery

By Joe O'Donnell

Photos by Trevor Baker

The entrance to Peace Yoga Gallery gives little clue as to what the space encompasses. From street level the Downtown Los Angeles storefront looks like little more than a funky juice bar — albeit one hung with exceptional visionary art and graced with a six-foot Buddha sitting sentry on the sidewalk. But the facade gives way to a sprawling multipurpose space combining art, yoga, and food, and represents the diverse design — by necessity, whim, or calculation — of Downtown’s galleries.

The last decade saw a remarkable upsurge in Los Angeles’ status as an art destination, and no part of the city has embodied that boom more than Downtown. More notable than the sheer number of galleries is the way they redefine what a gallery is. They are converted basements, live-work spaces or refurbished rescue missions. They are dedicated single-purpose enterprises or adjuncts to retail businesses. And they demonstrate that serious dedication to artistic purpose does not belong to a single model of gallery form or function.

Peace Yoga Gallery — the brainchild of Cheri Rae Russell, a former professional ice skater, current yogi, chef, and gallerist — demonstrates one of the more imaginative gallery configurations, marrying a raw food kitchen, a 4,000-square-foot basement yoga studio, and an art gallery. 

The dual-purpose gallery and yoga space represents the deliberate implementation of Cheri Rae’s Yoga Art idea — that people are more receptive to art while being calmed by yoga. The artwork in the gallery, typically paintings by fantastic realist and visionary artists like Amanda Sage and Shrine, is displayed and lit to be viewed and enjoyed during yoga practice, complete with professional musical accompaniment. The result is a sort of active gallery in which everything that occurs is part of an integrated artistic experience. “This gallery is not about selling art, it’s about changing people,” Cheri Rae declares — a conceit made possible by the multifaceted nature of her enterprise.

Peace Yoga Gallery’s mandate for personal change is its own, but a model that de-emphasizes sales in favor of more personal motivations is one of the hallmarks of the redefined Downtown art gallery.

“It’s passion-driven,” says Qathryn Brehm, executive director of Downtown Los Angeles Art Walk, who identifies a supply and demand in Downtown that exists outside the formal art market. “There are more artists in LA than ever before in the history of the city. So how do all of those artists get recognized? Where do they show their work?”

They show their work Downtown because its artist-driven scene lacks the barriers to entry that more formal galleries adopt. “If you want to be experimental, unless you have a real following, an established gallery like Bergamot is not going to want to show you,” Brehm explains. 

And while Downtown may not attract as many serious collectors as well-established gallery enclaves like Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station will, it draws a wider, if less formal, audience. “Downtown has grown to the point that it’s become a destination,” says Brehm.

Pointing to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and REDCAT, Bettina Korek, a Los Angeles arts advocate and founder of the independent arts organization ForYourArt, notes that Downtown has long had a draw for art lovers. “You have a great range of different kinds of presenters, so Downtown gives people who want to experience art a lot of possibilities from different perspectives.”

The same sense of experimentation that draws artists inspires gallerists to reimagine what an art gallery looks like. Korek attributes this innovation to Downtown’s geography. “There are interesting spaces available Downtown and these proprietors are embracing that and working it into their model. They’re responding to the situation rather than having a preconceived notion of what a gallery should be.”

One such proprietor is shoe designer Paul Kaufman, owner of Downtown’s PSKaufman shoe store. For him, marrying a gallery to an existing business allows for a degree of freedom from the constraints of gallery-as-sole-enterprise.

Tucked away in a back corner of Werdin Place alley, PSKaufman’s bright seafoam green storefront under a boot-shaped sign is enough to entice curiosity. “The space really dictated its possibilities as a gallery,” Kaufman explains. The entrance stairs land in a basement retail showroom as whimsical as some of the shoe designs it features, including a fuchsia stairway to nowhere and vintage elevator-shaft-turned-boot display. The displays themselves look like a curated exhibition. A cartoonishly off-kilter, five-sided doorway leads beyond the show room to a snaking series of dramatically lit antechambers, still exhibiting PSKaufman shoes, before finally giving way to a spacious gallery. 

Kaufman typically shows emerging artists who value exposure as much as or more than sales, taking away the financial pressure that limits collaboration for its own sake. It’s a tradeoff made possible by the fact that PSKaufman is primarily a shoe store — albeit one that benefits from the exposure its art events bring.

PSKaufman’s Downtown location is a key facilitator of its community-minded mission. “There’s obviously something happening down here. I think there’s not so much this crazy competitiveness that there is in established retail areas. People here feel, ‘Hey, we’re all struggling; we’re all independent,’” says Kaufman. 

Photographer and photo book publisher Nick Haymes also credits the West Coast tendency toward collaboration over competition as one of Downtown’s draws, describing a pioneer spirit among the new galleries that are springing 

up. “LA still seems very open and experimental,” he says. “People could try, fuck up, and then try something else. I think if you’re an artist it’s very freeing.” 

Haymes’ Little Big Man Gallery, at the eastern foot of the 4th Street Bridge, is a photography gallery distinguished by its narrowly defined mission. Noting the current vogue for concept-based and process-based photography, Haymes felt a lot of work was being overlooked. So he developed a space to exhibit the sort of straight, unmanipulated photo work that he creates, and that wasn’t being shown elsewhere. His own role as gallerist seems almost incidental: “It’s content-driven. I’m a working photographer trying to show my peers those that I admire.” 

Nearby MAMA Gallery is one of the newer Arts District galleries that exemplify Haymes’ point about the area’s pioneer spirit. “Right after we signed a lease we learned that all these major galleries were moving down here, and that’s exciting,” says Adarsha Benjamin, MAMA’s curator. “It still feels wild down here.” 

As a single-purpose, self-sustaining gallery centered on art sales, MAMA more closely fits the orthodox gallery model. Yet, as Benjamin is quick to point out, she would never put the word orthodox in the same sentence as MAMA Gallery. MAMA has shown site-specific work that wilted, deflated or rusted over the course of an exhibition, toying with the intersection of visual and performance art. Benjamin’s attention to curation makes MAMA feel more like a museum than a commercial gallery space.  

“We knew we wanted to be downtown, specifically in the arts district, because of the architecture here and the vastness of space. That was the defining reason — space.” 

MAMA’s artists are encouraged to fully utilize the gallery’s bright, open 4000-square-foot space, which is built around a house from the late 1800s, allowing the architecture to interact with the installations. “We didn’t start small because our ideas are big and the space needed to represent that,” says Benjamin.

If there is one commonality among Downtown’s gallerists, it is the inclination to be uncommon. The area allows each gallery to develop organically into its own best form while responding to the situation of Downtown Los Angeles. As Paul Kaufman explains, “The chances are better we will all succeed if we maintain that which makes us different.”