After dozens of community meetings, fundraisers, late-night porch talks and a trip to buy a foreclosed property at auction, this first chapter of Arceneaux’s venture — a grand-scale collaboration involving local artists and the city’s major arts and educational institutions, as well as residents — is finally beyond the drawing board phase. Based on artist Rick Lowe’s Houston development, Project Row Houses, the Watts House Project (WHP) — part conceptual art, part activism — is a mission that Arceneaux, its director, describes as “an artwork in the shape of a neighborhood development.”

At the moment, his medium looks like many old streets in L.A., those elder neighborhoods that have eluded the nip-and-tuck of assembly-line gentrification. Here stands a row of bungalows, some stucco, others with their original wood, some fronted by neat lawns, or gardens tangled with succulents or bright splashes of bottle brush. Down the street, on this September afternoon, two neighbors watch under the harsh sun; another, down the block, is trimming a tree as carefully sculpted as a bonsai. Some windows concealed by bars are the only hints of anything untoward.

Much of the project is about just this: the nuances. It’s what gets lost in the overview: the day-in, day-out stories of a section of L.A. that has seldom had a chance to define itself for itself — let alone to the world. To this end, Arceneaux wants to fold together the history of the neighborhood alongside the stories of its residents, pairing artists with architects, creativity with practicality. He hopes to get to all 20 structures on 107th Street — refurbishing four a year for the next five years — and expand to create exhibition spaces, cafes, gardens and artists residences. “Instead of using clay, we’re using time and space to sculpt a neighborhood and relationships.”

While it isn’t lost on Arceneaux that his project sits in the shadow of one of the more famous monuments to the quixotic, his ground-up approach is what has attracted vital support from L.A.’s arts community. LAXART, a Culver City-based nonprofit contemporary art exhibition space, has taken WHP under its wing. The project has received funding from the nonprofit Creative Capital and UCLA’s Hammer Museum, and support from USC’s School of Architecture, the Watts Towers Arts Center and the interdisciplinary producer ForYourArt. “It’s crucial to explore ways for artists to work outside the gallery walls,” says ForYourArt founder Bettina Korek, “and in this case, enhance community resources.” Of the estimated $1 million they need for the work on 107th Street, they’ve brought in $85,000…

The effort was first conceived by Rick Lowe, the mastermind behind Project Row Houses, a still-flourishing, public art project that grew up in Houston’s once-crumbling Third Ward. Lowe’s idea there was to rehab 22 former tenant shacks, and convert them into living — and live-in — works of art for the residents. It transformed the neighborhood from blemish to jewel. “These projects are a way of challenging the notion that low-income neighborhoods have to be poor neighborhoods,” says Lowe.

In 1995, Lowe had attempted to create a similar project in L.A, here on 107th, as part of MOCA’s “Uncommon Sense” show. “I’d visited before,” says Lowe, “but this time it just became obvious to me that the symbol of the towers was significant nationally in terms [of] the black power movement.” Lowe began talking to people in the area, including Greenfield, about an idea to bridge the gap between the Towers, the Art Center and the community.

It was all rooted in his belief that through reflection and dialogue, an artist-in-residency can elevate the quality of life and amplify the meaning of place. “Artists,” says Lowe, “add a different kind of layering to ‘development.’

“What I started to observe was that the residents were potentially the best ambassadors to the neighborhood. But they weren’t always treated well,” says Lowe. And though it is a tourists’ draw, the street lacks sufficient parking [and] it floods when it rains.

“You don’t want to be at the center of things when you’re not at your best.” In other words, “How do you create that? How do you weave the art across the street?”…

In fact, says Arceneaux, it’s becoming like any art process: “It’s moving the tiles around.” This metaphorical canvas just happens to be quite a large, contested one.

“The process is reflexive. You do something and you let the work talk back to you. But,” he adds, “I can’t imagine a more sort of indeterminate background than Watts.”

Lynell George
Los Angeles Times