March 8, 2001
A Boil is Lanced in Boyle Heights
The call came in last Wednesday from one J.R. Durrer, an Encino resident who works in Boyle Heights. Durrer had been heading west up Seventh Street, where he caught a red light at the corner of South Boyle. A glance at the mural on the wall surrounding the auto maintenance shop to his right put him face to face with what he characterized for The Journal as "an unflattering caricature of a Jewish landlord."
Pulling up to this work-in-progress the next morning, I came face to face with Durrer's propensity for understatement.
He had described the mural as a kind of timeline chronicling the Hispanic presence in California. Sure enough, it begins with the bucolic image of a peasant tilling the fields. The scene quickly segues into a more urban setting, though, culminating with a Latino mother in her apartment kitchen who is feeding her baby in his high chair. Outside her door, alas, a pot-bellied, hook-nosed Chassidic Jew lifted straight out of Der Sturmer hammers on her door, demanding "la renta."
The mural had gone up in a part of town that, since its foundation in 1880 until its decline following World War II, had been renowned as a center of L.A. Jewry.
Carved up by the freeways, the neighborhood subsequently lost much of its cohesion, character and charm. Although reminders of better days still echo faintly from some of its still-distinctive architecture, Boyle Heights has largely been sucked up by the blobopolis now known as "East Los Angeles." Today, by virtue of the gangs and drug trade in its streets, Boyle Heights virtually epitomizes contemporary urban blight.
Despite this, however, many current and former residents have refused to write it off. This discordant mural, for instance, went up a scant mile and a half from a joint effort by the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council, and the East Los Angeles Community Corporation to create a community center within a restored Breed Street Shul, whose circa-1923 structure at 247 N. Breed St. has endured as the area's last surviving synagogue.
Nor is this the only such current attempt at revitalization. Along with the Jewish Historical Society, the International Institute of Los Angeles, Self-Help Graphics, Theodore Roosevelt High School, and an advisory group of scholars and community experts had also come together in an initiative called Neighborhood Sites and Insights. This is an attempt to foster community-based, interdisciplinary research, an exhibition, and public programs designed to promote intercultural collaborations and exchanges among organizations, scholars and community members.
I was still clicking away at the mural with my camera when a jeep pulled up. The window rolled down and the driver, a bright-eyed Anglo woman in her mid-to-late 30's, peered out at me and smiled. "I assume," she said, "that your interest is in the right-hand side of the mural?"
Her name, I learned, was Dawn Pentecost. An artist and illustrator, she lived a few blocks west, where she manages a building of artists' lofts. A week ago Friday, she recounted, she had been driving up the 5 when the mural, then still a sketch, caught her attention.
"I saw this figure bellowing, 'La Renta!' and then noticed he had a circle on his head," Pentecost said. "I grew up in Muskogee, Okla., but even I knew -- or at least I thought I knew -- that this was a yarmulke. I couldn't believe it. The next day, I brought my sister to the site, and she not only validated what I thought I was seeing but pointed out that the figure had sidecurls as well."
That Monday, Pentecost called the office of Los Angeles County First District Supervisor Gloria Molina. The people who took her call, she said, were incredulous and suggested she speak with one of Molina's field deputies, Rorie Nazareth, due in the next day. Meanwhile, they pointed Pentecost to 14th District Councilman Nick Pacheco, chairman of the Housing and Community Redevelopment Committee.
Pacheco's office dispatched its own representative, Juan Rocha, to look at the mural. He called back to inform her that he could see "how this could be seen as offensive." Rocha said the wall was privately owned, however, and therefore was governed by a whole set of ordinances different from the ones applying to city property.
"Rocha told me he would send a building inspector to see if there might be a code violation that he could use to 'coerce the owners into painting it out,'" Pentecost said.
Reached by The Journal, however, the inspector, Henry Ojeda, reported that he could find no obvious grounds for taking this route. "It's not graffiti," he said, "so it's up to the city -- and not the county -- to determine what kind of art can remain and what can't." Rocha subsequently informed the city's Cultural Affairs Office, which most people consulted believed most likely to have jurisdiction in this matter.
As Pentecost and I spoke, we were approached by a woman who identified herself as Rorie Nazareth. The three of us decided to call on the folks at the Llantera Soto Inc. auto-maintenance and tire shop at 976 S. Boyle, hoping they might help us track down the artists. Here, we made the acquaintance of Carole, a Latino woman who runs the business with her sister.
Carole had already spoken with building inspector Ojeda, and had concluded that the mural was problematic, insofar as it purportedly attacked someone's religion. Carole said the artists were two Latinos in their late teens or early 20's. They had approached her some weeks earlier, asking for permission to paint the wall. She said that she could see no reason not to comply -- that is, as long she didn't have to pay for the privilege.
Carole said she signed some forms and gave the young men some of her business cards, which the artists said they would present to the city. They did not leave her with a copy of these forms, she said, adding she did not have a card with the artists' particulars. Indeed, she hadn't seen them since, as they tended to show up early in the evening, after the shop had closed for the day. That is, until the neighborhood began experiencing a wet period.
"Look, I don't want to offend anybody," she said. "If someone wants to come by with a roller and some paint, I'd be happy if they painted over it."
"I've got some rollers and some paint back at my building," Pentecost piped up. "If you like, I can come by with them and do it myself."
Later, over burgers at a nearby eatery owned by Czechoslovakian Jewish immigrants, I asked Pentecost how, as an artist and, presumably, someone dedicated to free expression, she could be so quick to white-out someone else's work in progress, however objectionable. At the least, I suggested, doing so might render her vulnerable to some kind of legal action.
"Well, I'm not Jewish," she said. "My ancestors were Huguenots, persecuted Protestants who fled France for England during the Reformation. We all talk about tolerance. But as a human being, that doesn't mean you have to accept everything and anything. I don't think we have to accept expressions of anger and hate in our environment. We have to have standards.
"On the other hand," she added, "I'd rather use this incident to open up a dialogue with the artists and the community than give them a chance to say, 'Aha, the Jewish people who control the media are hammering at us.'" She went on, "Look, I wouldn't knock these guys' artistic abilities. They're pretty talented. But their conceptual abilities are clearly lacking. They may not even know precisely what they're conveying. I've worked in companies where entire marketing departments have signed off on a poster, only to discover after it was printed and distributed that it was offensive, and indeed, actionable.
"And, as you can tell from some of the people living here who've been telling us they find the mural offensive, most people simply are not visually sophisticated. And because so few Jews still live here, they probably aren't particularly educated about Jews, either. I'll bet these guys are simply dredging up something from a lesson they may have had in school about how the Nazis persecuted Jews under their occupation."
These kids were playing with powerful, almost universal archetypes. But the components that constitute them are as specific and deliberate, it seemed to me, as prefabricated Lego blocks. There was stupidity here, to be sure. But there was also the kind of malice that, in different times and places, manifested itself in murder and mayhem.
So what, in fact, did the law say? And how did any existing legislation play out in Los Angeles, which, with over 2,000 outdoor murals, could claim to be (among so many other things) the mural capital of the world? How does society balance the rights of artists to self- expression against those of property owners, residents, and even casual passers-by? Did the city, or any other agency, actually authorize this thing? Or perhaps (shudder) even fund it?
According to a newsletter put out by the organization Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, a clutch of laws prevent the destruction of public works of "fine art," but the 1990 Visual Artists Rights Act enacted by Congress affords property owners the right to alter or tear down the structure bearing a mural they had consented to.
Before they may do so, however, they must make a good-faith effort to contact the artists and give them 90 days to remove the mural, at the artists' expense. If the mural can't be removed without damage, however, or if the artists' whereabouts are not known, the owners may tear it down without prior notification.
Any further consideration of this particular mural's artistic merits could, however, be rendered moot if a city or agency with appropriate jurisdiction had either funded or otherwise authorized this effort. But making this determination, I learned from Councilman Joel Wachs' office (which I contacted after Molina's people confided that the city, and not the county, had jurisdiction in this matter), would be no mean feat.
In a town as spread-out and fragmented as Los Angeles, I was given to understand, any number of agencies -- municipal or community-based -- could have seen fit to green-light an undertaking of this kind. Recruiting young people to paint murals has long been a stratagem-of-choice for recruiting those at risk for gang involvement. Equally conceivable, however, was the prospect that this was a hit-and-run operation by a pair of freelance miscreants who deliberately may have misled the property owners into believing that the relevant authorities had sanctioned their efforts.
Hoping to narrow down the potential playing field, I called the city's Cultural Affairs Department, ostensibly, the first place people turn to for permits to create murals either on public structures or on private ones in plain view of public thoroughfares. By the time I got through to someone authorized to speak to me, though, I learned that Wachs and Pacheco had already beaten paths to their door and were given to understand, as was I, that no record could be found in Cultural Affairs files either requesting permission or authorizing a mural at this location.
Next, I placed a call with the city's Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), whose founder, Judith Francisca Baca, had personally overseen the creation of more than 400 murals citywide, including the Great Wall of Los Angeles. One of her people called back to inform me that this decidedly was not one of their efforts. Moreover, I was told that however vigorously SPARC might champion an artist's freedom of expression, it would never countenance a mural as ostensibly hateful and racist as the one described.
Toward day's end, meanwhile, I &'9;learned that Pentecost had been making headway of her own tracking down the parties responsible for the mural. A friend of hers with ties to the community's muralist network told her he would probably be able to identify the culprits before evening. Driving by the mural late in the afternoon, meanwhile, Pentecost reported that the Chassidic figure had mysteriously disappeared.
"Perhaps he or one of the neighbors spoke to the artist," she said in an e-mail to me. "Or maybe someone else took matters into their own hands. Maybe the city stopped by. All I can tell you is that, as of 4 p.m. this afternoon, the caricature has been painted out to white."
"Great," I replied by e-mail, "but what about your hopes to use the incident to open up a dialogue with the artists and the community? That might have been useful too, no?"
Her reply was not long in coming. "My friend described the guys who did these murals as 'druggies' and 'potheads.' He surmised that their political opinions are about as well-thought-out as a bad rap song. So dialogue would (probably) have been truly disappointing."
Surely, no one would make the argument that this mural reflected the values and aspirations of the people who now reside in Boyle Heights. Nor was I going to "shry gevalt" because Ms. Pentecost and others in her community had chosen to rid themselves of some odious agitprop left to befoul their doorstep.
"Hey, what are you worrying about?" she said, as we parted company. "People are still much too taken up with the Eminem business to bother with this.
"And anyway, no one wants or needs the JDL protesting down here. I just finished speaking to a woman up the street who has been a local Chicano activist for years and years. She's a single mother with three kids who walks with a cane, and even she volunteered to come by with some rollers and blot this thing out."