Boyle Heights Gentrification Takes Toll on Eastside Artists

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by David R. Bloom

   Property owner Douglas Erenberg has retained Dennis P. Block, LA’s most notorious eviction lawyer and an unapologetic opponent of rent control, in his effort to evict a well-known group of community artists from their live-work spaces at 2623 Medford St., according to documents received by LA1 News.

   The tenants, who established the Medford Street Studios as a loose-knit collective of fine artists, street artists and curators in a Boyle Heights industrial warehouse complex, say Erenberg is suing them each individually to skirt a Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department determination that the property—and the landlord-tenant relationship—falls under the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance protocols.

   Among the defendants are: Heriberto Luna, a widely exhibited visual artist who also teaches art at juvenile detention facilities; Sheku Kowai, an artist raised in Sierra Leone who has exhibited at galleries from the Mid-Wilshire District to Highland Park; Luis Huffington, an artist trained at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design who has shown work at Self Help Graphics and Pomona’s Da Gallery, among others; Erick Brenes, a street artist whose work can be seen across Los Angeles; and Abel Salas, publisher and editor of Brooklyn & Boyle, a popular Eastside arts monthly.

   “I think art has the power to heal,” says Luna, recognized recently by the Office of LA Mayor Eric Garcetti for his contributions to the cultural life of Los Angeles and whose work is in several nationally recognized museums and private collections. “I work with kids who are locked up because I want them to see that art was my way out of that life.”

   They were surprised, say the tenants, to receive a 30-Day Notice to Terminate Tenancy on April 14th from Transwestern, a New York-based property management firm and the third one contracted by Erenberg as his proxy. The notice was later retracted. Interestingly enough, Erenberg, who lives in a million dollar Pacific Palisades home, represents himself as a patron of the arts and a friend to Eastside Chicano artists.

   Erenberg has often supplied him and other graffiti artists, says Brenes, with the aerosol paint used to create work on the exterior walls of the Medford St. warehouses Erenberg’s family has owned since the 1940s. Nonetheless, Brenes and his studio mates view their eviction as part of a gentrification process now garnering media coverage.

   In this context, says Salas, newcomers—be they non-resident business owners who rationalize their presence by employing local residents at the bottom of industry pay scales, real estate speculators banking a “hot new neighborhood” or well-meaning artists or professionals—are hard-pressed to acknowledge the detrimental effects their arrival implies for longtime, lower-income residents. Unfortunately, “they are hard-wired to the naïve notion that their migration into neglected, politically disenfranchised and economically depressed neighborhoods represents progress.”

   Salas leased his unit in June of 2013, encouraged by a South Pasadena gallerist and architect hired by Erenberg to manage the property and supervise the studio construction.

   “I thought Hazard would be the last place to be gentrified,” says the veteran journalist (The New York Times, Los Angeles Magazine, LA Weekly, Los Angeles Times Magazine) and a co-founder of Corazon del Pueblo, a Boyle Heights community cultural arts center. He came to Medford, he says, because its indoor and outdoor common areas were ideal for the cultural events he had in mind. “Obviously, I never counted on the the USC bio-tech corridor or Zac Hartog,” Salas says.

   The bio-tech corridor is a USC-led plan, he explains, predicated on the acquisition of property surrounding the USC Health Sciences campus as an incubator for the growing biotechnology industry. The initiative is enthusiastically supported by LA City Councilman for District 14 José Huizar, and Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis.

   “Adjacent to our Health Sciences campus, we plan to establish a vibrant hub that will dramatically bolster an entirely new industry in Los Angeles: biotechnology. We’re calling this new corridor a Biotech Park,” said USC President C. L. Max Nikias in the Winter 2015 online newsletter "Trojan Family."

   Zac Hartog, owner of a business catering to the film & television industry, special events, music tours and festivals, signed a lease agreement for the warehouse space now in dispute at least six months prior to the eviction process initiated by the April 14 notice from Transwestern.

   This explains, Medford residents say, a demand issued by Transwestern in November of 2015 that they obtain commercial liability insurance as stipulated in a rental agreement proffered by the previous property managers two years prior.

   “They asked us to buy insurance for a year, but they knew that the property was being leased out from under us,” says Luna. “They were scoring points because they knew that Das Jesson, the owner’s step-son, was part of a new company brokering the deal with Zac Hartog.”

   An internet search reveals that Jesson was previously employed as an executive at Turn Around Solutions, a flooring company since evicted from the 2623 Medford warehouse. His exit from Turn Around is the subject of unflattering but unconfirmed rumors, say the Medford artists. Jesson’s mother, Jody Erenberg, is Douglas Erenberg’s estranged wife. Her relationship with Kimberly Gold-Hartog, a successful Westside realtor and Zac Hartog’s wife, is unknown.

   “Our landlord prefers to pay LA’s biggest slumlord lawyer, who brags about showing ‘renters the door’ and deny that he or any of his property managers knew we lived here,” says Sheku Kowai. “What it comes down to is how much money he’ll get from Zac each month because then he can write his own ticket with USC.”

   A tow truck driver and an artist, Kowai was briefly employed, he says, by Hartog Events, Inc., which already leases the two adjacent warehouses on Erenberg’s property. He was laid off during a lull in company activity. When his application for unemployment benefits was rejected by the California Employment Development Department, he submitted a request for documentation pertaining to the denial of his benefits. He now possesses a form submitted by a Hartog employee who alleges she was instructed by Hartog to provide false, slanderous and legally sanctionable information to the state agency regarding the reasons for Kowai’s termination.

   Kowai suspects the move was retaliation for a graffiti art piece in the style of New York’s famed Jean-Michel Basquiat which he painted on the façade of the Medford Studio portion of the building. The graffiti mural was subsequently painted over by a Hartog employee. Transwestern followed with a notice prohibiting alterations to the exterior walls and threatening charges of vandalism if the residents did not comply.

   “I don’t know what to think,” says Luis Huffington. “The scuttlebutt around here is that Douglas was offered close to $1 million for part of the property, but he turned it down because it wasn’t enough.”

   Erenberg’s attempts to install Hartog as the sole tenant, say the artists, seem part of a strategy to demonstrate the earning potential of his property over a prolonged period of time, a sum the artists claim is sure to factor into an eventual sale price.

   Salas admits that his small publication has benefitted from having a stable, accessible location. “Having an office, a place to live and space to curate exhibits has been good for my paper.”

   He argues, however, that the bio-tech initiative won’t create real opportunities for those living in the neighboring Ramona Gardens apartments. “The projects won’t be here in 10 years,” he predicts. “And some of them are only here because their families were first forced out of Chavez Ravine by Dodger Stadium. They moved to what was called "Little Hazard," just west of Soto Street. The expansion of County General Hospital forced them to move again, and they wound up in the projects, originally a whites-only housing complex.”

   “When I tell people that Cannibal & the Headhunters, a band from this neighborhood, got flown in a private jet with The Beatles for a gig at New York’s Shea Stadium in 1965, they roll their eyes in disbelief,” Salas says. “That’s what we’re up against. Either we make great food and work hard or we’re the gangsters and rapists Trump has built his whole campaign on.”

   “When we oppose those stereotypes, we’re ungrateful troublemakers,” he adds. “But we’re only asking for the market rate relocation assistance recommended by city officials. If Douglas, who lives in a million-dollar home, wants to kvetch and act like he’s being bullied, he should remember that he’s only rich because his father and his uncle, the owners of Superior Bedding, worked hard. He didn’t have to. His wealth was handed to him.”

   Doug Erenberg describes things differently. Contacted by LA1 News, Erenberg claims his family has been one of the biggest supporters of the Eastside arts scene since the 1940s, and were original financial supporters of Self Help Graphics' creation. "My family has lived in Boyle Heights for the past 98 years," he says. "My grandfather arrived here in 1919 and helped to stand up the Breed Street Shul." Erenberg, who did indeed inherit the Medford Street property, says he never encouraged any of the artists to actually live at the site. "It's art studios, not apartments," he says. Asked whether he would be willing to pay a relocation fee to the artists at his property, Erenberg says that issue is the primary reason for the group's request for an eviction trial by jury, and refrained from commenting further.

   Erenberg says there are often drugs found on the property, as well as past fights there and even a single shooting, although he admits the latter was likely unrelated to the artists in any way. "There was even a Molotov cocktail thrown one year," he says, "and a drug deal gone bad which resulted in the guys from Big Hazard showing up looking for someone. One of the artist residents was caught on camera in a fight on the property," Erenberg says, adding that he was approached in the past by a lady who wanted to lease the entire 5,000-foot space occupied by the artists, and that Salas was the person who introduced him to her. "In the end I resisted out of respect for the agreement I had with the artists."

   Erenberg says Zac Hertog's lease of his 75,000-feet space has been a blessing since day one. "His first project was a television commercial which brought in a windfall of money with no negative issues at all related to it. Why would I not want to continue building on a partnership like that?" Asked whether he has any plans to sell his property to USC in support of their Health Sciences campus expansion, Erenberg flatly says no. "If there is one thing everybody knows about me," he says, "it's that Doug Erenberg never sells anything."

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