Pickle Works Locked Up and Condemned to Die by Carlton Davis

This is a guest post by Carlton Davis, who was the proprietor of The Art Dock drive-in gallery in the historic Pickle Works building in Downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District in the 1980s. We interviewed Carlton about this extraordinary, endangered landmark in 2013 for Episode #18 of our podcast You Can’t Eat The Sunshine: Peeling Back The Layers of The Arts District.

What a tragedy that the City of Los Angeles is actively erasing the history and culture of the Arts District, a neighborhood that no longer supports working artists, while capitalizing on their reputation. God save the Pickle Works! The final decision on its fate will be made at the Regular Metro Board of Directors Meeting on Thursday, October 25.

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Art Dock and Doorways, Citizens Warehouse aka Pickle Works, Los Angeles, CA, August, 2018

Steel bars, angles, and heavy mesh imprison the Art Dock, all the ground floor openings, and doorways of the Citizens Warehouse. No trespassing signs declare violators will be prosecuted for parking on the street. The once vibrant artist residences and studios are vacant and have been since the city of Los Angeles purchased the building in 2000 for construction of the Gold Line light rail extension into East LA. A 60-foot section of the old warehouse next to the First Street Bridge was demolished for construction staging. The destruction was needless. In October 2018, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) eagerly awaits planning permission to demolish what remains of this 1880s brick warehouse with its hand-hewn redwood columns and beams, oak plank floors, and pickle vats in the basement. The Division 20 Environmental Impact Study (DEIR) declared it necessary. This is after MTA’s promises to preserve the building; after passionate historic preservationists’ and art community leaders’ requests that the Citizens Warehouse be saved.

The MTA lied for almost 18 years about its intentions. It made promises to save the building. Community pressure caused LA City’s engineering department to “restore” the south end of the building, which they had left as a plywood-covered eyesore, as a supposedly good faith effort to save the historic structure, which is one of the few, if not the only remaining, brick warehouses dating from the 19th Century, and a significant remnant of the flourishing art community in downtown Los Angeles from the late 1970s to 2000. The Potemkin Village reality that hid the true intentions of the city’s transportation planners is obvious from what was ultimately created on the south end of the structure. The wall was given a plaster veneer, and bolted to the wall were sheet metal images of windows with shutters flanking and flower boxes below included part of the imagery. The phony windows became curled and bent from the sun because of the shoddy method of their installation. The few bolts attaching the painted sheet metal resulted in a strange tableau of twisted metal like crushed pieces of chewing gum slapped to the façade. It is comical, but revealing.

The proclivity of Los Angeles development is to disregard the past as impeding process to the future. While mass transit is desperately needed in a city choked with traffic, it too often comes with the price of bulldozing the city’s existing context. This is nothing new. The fate of the Citizens Warehouse follows the honored stance of development over everything else. Now locked up inside steel bars the empty building seems haunted by the ghosts of wild spirits it once held. The warehouse/pickle works is condemned to death for being too full of creative energy. Once an important element of a burgeoning art community, the lost lofts become a metaphor for the lose of the art community in the Los Angeles Arts District. A neighborhood of rambunctious energy turns into a tame zone of cell phone-preoccupied and latte-sipping crowds of wannabes.

Designated the Arts District by the city, the area east of Alameda celebrated and declared Los Angeles’ rise to be a world class center of multi-faceted culture. More than just a cinema capital, LA matures into an art Mecca rivaling New York, London, and Paris. The Arts District, however, is no longer a realization of art’s importance in LA; it is a very profitable real estate venture. The district has become a developer’s dream. Cheaper land close to the government and business centers of the metropolis invited capital investment in new apartment buildings replacing the low density lofts. A few lofts remain, but the square foot cost rose from 12 cents paid in 1980 to an estimated 2 dollars or more currently. Artists can no longer afford to live in the Arts District. Many of the loft warehouses have morphed into restaurants and chic shops. Others warehouses have been demolished or soon will be. This is the fate of the Citizens Warehouse. The change is inevitable.

In New York City, what was once a viable loft scene, affordable live/work spaces have become the habitats of the rich. Soho has galleries and fancy restaurants, but not many working artists. Galleries pander to the acquisitive desires of the well-off who can afford the rents. Artists have dispersed into other boroughs and cities. In Los Angeles, artists scattered to other neighborhoods. The Arts District became attractive. Where there once few restaurants, the area has some pretty expensive eateries. Internationally renowned gallery Hauser & Wirth established itself on Third Street in the heart of the Arts District. It is the punctuation mark on the change that is and will become the icon of another reality about art zones. It’s all about money and who gets it. Except for a few, most artists don’t get the money, but many artists attract the money to where they were. Culture evolves from creativity to financial gain.

The Art Dock installations in the 1980s. Karen Kristin’s Wolf at the Door (above) and Drew Lesso’s and Neal Taylor’s Pile of Leaves in the dock and coal in the street (below)

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