LOS ANGELES — The stretch of Western Avenue between Melrose Avenue and Beverly Boulevard could be described as many things — eclectic, busy, noisy, gritty, hot — but “desolate” is not one of them. Located smack in the center of LA, the strip sits at the intersection of three neighborhoods: East Hollywood, Hollywood, and Larchmont, representing the third, seventh, and 25th densest neighborhoods in LA County respectively, according to the Los Angeles Times’s Mapping LA project. Just to the south is Koreatown, the densest of all 265 neighborhoods. Tens of thousands of cars traverse the intersection of Melrose and Western daily, as do a constant stream of LA Metro buses.
Despite this reality, a persistent narrative suggests that the new residents of “Melrose Hill” — as press announcements touting the arrival of chic art spaces call it — have swooped in to revive an otherwise forgotten ghost town. In fact, “desolate” was precisely the word used to describe the area in a Vanity Fair article last month on the recent influx of galleries to the block, which drew immediate and sharp criticism from Angelenos who know better.
“I know the art world exists in a bubble, but this is insanely out of touch,” tweeted Steven Sharp, editor of UrbanizeLA. “Melrose Hill was ‘desolate’ until an art dealer and his ultra-rich friend arrived, bought up some buildings, and invited Owen Wilson to a party!”
“‘Forgotten.’ Never mind that a lot of Brown people live in this neighborhood,” Los Angeles Times arts columnist Carolina Miranda tweeted in response to the article’s headline.
The phenomenon of a neighborhood being re-branded by developers, often aided by Google Maps, to present an area as a kind of ahistorical blank slate is nothing new. “How dare someone try to rob our culture, and try to act as if we were not here, and create a new name, a new reality as if the clock started when other people showed up?” State Senator-Elect Brian Benjamin exclaimed in 2017 in response to the attempted rebranding of part of New York City’s Harlem neighborhood as “SoHa.”
Local businesses reached by Hyperallergic listed their neighborhood as either Koreatown (Castle BBQ, Mesa Thai, and Meson Cafe) or East Hollywood (Tlayuda LA). When asked about the name Melrose Hill, an employee at California Cannabis Melrose, located near the gallery Morán Morán, replied, “No one calls it that. That’s what it says on the map, but I don’t hear anyone say ‘I’m going to Melrose Hill.’ There’s no fucking hill.”
There is, in fact, a neighborhood called Melrose Hill, just not where these new art spaces are located. Technically, Melrose Hill refers to a small triangular area bounded by Melrose on the South, Western on the West, and the Hollywood Freeway, which cuts diagonally from NW to SE — meaning that the only art space actually in Melrose Hill is storefront gallery The Lodge. Within this neighborhood is the Melrose Hill Historic Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ), a group of 45 California Bungalows across three small blocks that must maintain historical design standards. It is a well-shaded and verdant oasis when compared to the hot, dusty, and mostly treeless stretch of Western.
The vicinity surrounding the new gallery cluster is exceptionally diverse: East Hollywood is more than 60% Latino, while Larchmont is 30% Asian. It has a high percentage of foreign-born residents, with sizable populations hailing from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Korea, as well as a significant number of Armenian Americans. This diversity is reflected in the restaurants along Western Avenue, which boast Salvadoran, Thai, and Guatemalan cuisines alongside the neighborhood’s ubiquitous Korean Bar-B-Q joints. A block and a half off Western on Melrose, a Santa Muerte temple stands watch; fast food chains, gas stations, and auto-supply shops line the well-trafficked thoroughfare. Large furniture shops are a remarkable feature along Western, their proprietors looking bored within the cavernous, often empty showrooms, their customers presumably having moved online.
Residents are overwhelmingly renters, with low to average median incomes for the city. Once you move off the main commercial and transit arteries of Western and Melrose, the streets are filled with low apartment buildings, single-family homes, and courtyard housing, originally built by Hollywood studios to house their workers. (The Paramount Studios lot is just half a mile west on Melrose.)
Over the past few years, the area has undergone major changes, as hip eateries like “elevated fast casual” Filipino restaurant Kuya Lord and Italian delicatessen Ggiata along with nine art galleries, including mega-dealer David Zwirner’s first LA outpost, have moved in. (The others are James Fuentes, Sargent’s Daughters, and Shrine, all from New York; Clearing, with branches in New York and Brussels; and hometown spaces Morán Morán, nonprofit LAXART, and Sebastian Gladstone, which is located on Santa Monica Boulevard, just north of the others and down the block from Harkawik’s new LA spot.) The tight concentration makes for a gallery district that is walkable, a phenomenon that is rare in LA but not as unprecedented as recent reporting suggests. (Walkable gallery clusters in Culver City, Chinatown, and Hollywood immediately come to mind.)
Large sections of LA have been transformed by development and gentrification over the past 20 years, but the speed at which it is taking place here seems exceptional. “It’s like a film production, happening overnight,” says Alice Lodge, who founded The Lodge in 2015 on Western just north of Melrose and has lived in the area for 15 years. “That block will be unrecognizable in less than a year.”
The Lodge is located in a bucolic courtyard complex where Ed Ruscha had his studio in the 1960s and ’70s. Fellow Ferus Gallery artist Joe Goode also had a studio nearby, and fine print publisher Cirrus Editions was located next to James Fuentes Gallery’s current space, palimpsests of the neighborhood’s many lives.
As a gallerist, Lodge welcomes the new changes, but as a resident, she is more ambivalent. “The foot traffic has been amazing for me. A whole week would go by and no one would come in,” she told Hyperallergic on a recent walk down Western Avenue. “I used to stand on the street, and say to people, ‘Come in and have a look!’ They would look at me like I was crazy.”
She is excited about the new restaurants, including the posh Café Telegrama, which is slated to open this fall, but mourns the loss of Laundrywood next door, a popular laundromat that she calls “a staple of the neighborhood.”
“I hope they can have sensitivity to the people who live and exist here,” she said.
“They” refers not only to the new restaurants and galleries, but also to Zach Lasry, the scion of billionaire private equity manager Marc Lasry, who has purchased many of the properties in the area, and Creative Space, a “real estate brokerage, development and investment platform” that he tapped to help him develop them.
Creative Space designed and developed projects for everyone from Hauser & Wirth, Gagosian, and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles to Burning Man, Christie’s, artist Laura Owens, and Lisson Gallery. Several of the new spaces on Western are on their client list, including Kuya Lord, Ggiata, Zwirner, Clearing, a shop for fashion brand CO, Café Telegrama, and Color Club, a forthcoming nightclub designed by the Haas Brothers. Their office shares a building with Telegrama and is across a parking lot from the former Laundrywood, which will be filled by two as yet unnamed galleries, says Stonebreaker.
Despite the scale and scope of their operation, Stonebreaker insists that they’re not trying to mastermind some total neighborhood conversion. “It’s not like a [Rick] Caruso Grove-type project, that’s wiping out an entire city corridor,” he said, referring to the LA developer whose mixed-use developments are built from the ground up. “These buildings were vacant or were going to be vacated. We’re not trying to buy every single building,” he adds, noting that many of the furniture store owners are happy to sell their spaces in light of their dwindling sales. He dismisses the loss of Laundrywood, noting “there are half a dozen laundromats within two blocks,” and says that Telegrama has already hired two local residents to work there. He also noted via email that the company is “investing several million dollars voluntarily” to install crosswalks, signalized lights, and landscape medians to “make the otherwise harsh street conditions safer and more pedestrian oriented.”
On the evening of Tuesday, May 23, hundreds of people descended upon “Melrose Hill” for the debut exhibition at Zwirner’s new space, a solo show of paintings by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, alongside openings at Shrine and Sargent’s Daughters. Vanity Fair said it “could have been the biggest gathering ever seen by the area.” Elizabeth Isralowitz, a board member of the Wilshire Center Koreatown Neighborhood Council which includes this stretch of Western, told Hyperallergic it was “a hot mess.”
Some people circled the block for half an hour before giving up. “The line of waiting cars shut down Western to one lane from about 6-8pm,” Jenelle Porter, an independent curator who lives in the Melrose Hill HPOZ, told Hyperallergic via email. “The sidewalk was so full that people had to walk in the street. It seemed like someone ‘forgot’ to consider how people in Los Angeles move around the city: in cars.”
Because of the area’s density, parking is already extremely difficult, even without throngs of gallery goers coming in for openings. Stonebreaker says he is aware of this problem, and that Creative Space is “providing offsite parking for staff and customers on lots we either own or are leasing … to help create a more manageable/livable commercial environment and take some of the pressure off the surrounding neighborhood.”
Isralowitz says she is also frustrated by the lack of community outreach the galleries have undertaken. “I don’t expect them to have their doors open, but I don’t think everyone knows you can just walk into a gallery. That’s been a huge disappointment,” she told Hyperallergic. She added that the Wilshire Center Koreatown Neighborhood Council wrote a letter of support for Zwirner’s construction plans to the city’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee with the condition of community engagement. A representative for David Zwirner told Hyperallergic via email that the gallery is “looking forward to engaging with the local community through hosting school groups and other initiatives” and that “conversations with community organizations and educational institutions in LA are active and ongoing.”
Representatives for Shrine and Sargent’s Daughters affirmed that they were open to the public and excited to welcome in the local communities, but did not share any specific plans for engagement. The only one of the new gallerists with direct ties to the area is Sebastian Gladstone, who told Hyperallergic via email that he will continue to work with Feed the Streets and Community Health Project LA, organizations that help support unhoused individuals and those struggling with poverty and drug addiction. “As someone who grew up in Hollywood, and currently lives in Hollywood, I consider myself a member of the community,” he said.
At their core, however, art galleries are essentially stores, which may look on the surface like museums or nonprofit art spaces but do not share their community outreach purpose or responsibility. They are generally open to the public, but eschew transparency and accessibility, hiding what is inside behind frosted windows and minimal signage.
A few doors down from James Fuentes’s stark white and glass brick facade is a shuttered 6,000-square-foot community market that Creative Space is currently renovating. Stonebreaker brought in Theresa Ruzumna, who spent her youth coming to the Korean markets and restaurants nearby with her parents, to run the space. According to Ruzumna and Stonebreaker, the market was on its last legs, with a non-functioning walk-in freezer and owners who were looking to retire. Ruzumna, who has experience across the food and restaurant spectrum “from fine dining to quick service,” sees this as an opportunity to provide quality groceries and produce at affordable prices. “We’ll have premium items, but we’ll offer things that people identify with value,” she said, adding that they will stock charcoal and ice, staples for the local community that an upscale boutique might not carry.
Counter to the revisionism of the Melrose Hill moniker, the market will have a simple name that captures the inclusive nature of the neighborhood when it opens later this year: LA Grocery & Cafe. “I can figure out how to make a store that is Angeleno-specific, which will include all the members of the community,” she told Hyperallergic. “We’re in the heart of LA.”