by Linda Immediato
Photos by Kevin Scanlon
Portraits of downtown's endangered artists. Case study: The Canadian Building
The hookers downtown don’t look anything like they do in movies. No fishnets or pushup bras. They are in their 50s and 60s and look like little grandmas — which is why they’ve become known as the abuelas. They dress like secretaries and keep bankers’ hours, working days to cash in on a little lunch and rush-hour action. For years, they were fixtures at the perpetually C-rated greasy spoon known as El Trouble but whose real name nobody seems to recall. It was part of the Canadian, a building on Skid Row’s Main and Winston streets, which also held a XXX movie theater, an adult bookstore, a few empty storefronts and, on its two top floors, a collection of crumbling lofts. The Canadian used to be called the Birdhouse, because pigeons had come through broken windows to roost in a few of the vacated lofts; they covered the floors with bird shit and flapped their wings through the wide hallways.
By 1996 only three people were living in the building.
That same year, the owners began to advertise for tenants to fill the lofts. The raw spaces were dirty, most of the fixtures were broken, there was no heat or gas, and bathrooms and showers were in the hallways. The people who moved in were starving artists picking up the scraps from the boom and bust of downtown's earlier art-loft era in the '80s and early '90s. Living an often overly romanticized hand-to-mouth existence, struggling from painting to painting, freelance job to freelance job, no sign of a steady paycheck in sight, they came for one reason: cheap rent. At first, there were a few residents, basically functioning drug addicts, who were able to hold on to a job, at least for a little while, between benders. One, from a wealthy Santa Barbara family, was a severe alcoholic with a crack addiction, habits made worse by a slight mental illness. He’d often pass out in the hallways or hang from the banisters. Occasionally he brought home male crack whores. Then there was the bona fide nut case — he was paranoid, delusional and occasionally aggressive, particularly toward the female residents. He’d corner them in hallways when no one was around or while they were in towels, skin still wet, fresh out of the shared bathroom showers, to interrogate them about some imagined conspiracy. In his calmer moments, he'd show up in the doorways of male residents, swishing red wine around in a wineglass and making small talk in an attempt to gain allies so that he wouldn’t get kicked out of the building.
What follows are the stories of some of the current residents of the Canadian and about a way of life that’s become increasingly threatened ever since developer Tom Gilmore began packaging “the artist’s life” down the street with a series of luxury lofts now known as the Old Bank District, and other developers followed his lead. Before downtown echoed with jackhammers and cranes filled the skyline, residents of the Canadian spent a decade living with the constant interruptions of film crews shooting car chases, explosions and murder scenes. There were bonfires in the middle of the streets, bicyclists riding through empty thoroughfares in their pajamas, knife-wielding neighbors, clouds of crack smoke, homeless fights, underground art galleries and record stores, and parties that went on for days.
To hear them tell it, downtown L.A. circa 1998 was like Montmartre, the epicenter of bohemian Paris, in 1898. And if downtown L.A. was Montmartre, the Canadian was Le Bateau-Lavoir, the squalid tenement that housed the likes of Pablo Picasso and Amadeo Modigliani in the late 1890s. Before the current attempts to turn it into a yuppie playground, downtown's Main Street was the kind of petri dish of hunger and humanity that artists crave and thrive on. Right in the middle of it all was the Canadian, where crack and abuelas became absinthe and courtesans, and the party never ended.
The Brothers Banales
Back in the late '90s, you could roll a bowling ball down the middle of Main Street and not hit anything. Shadows moved, street lamps illuminated nothing but lonely stretches of sidewalk and deserted buildings. In 1998, whatever functioning businesses that were left would close for the day and silence would descend. Often, the unmistakable hum of a Banales brothers party would rip through that silence. Ground zero was the brothers’ 2,000-square-foot vaulted loft in the Canadian, where a dense graffiti forest thrown up by local artist Vynl wrapped around a stage with pro speaker cabinets and a manned mixing board. The source of the commotion? Maybe it was Deerhoof, or the Minutemen, the Centimeters, the Adolescents or any of the 50 bands that played for free to a packed crowd in the brothers’ loft. The parties usually lasted till the wee hours of the morning. The average bash drew 400 bodies, some of which were still around come morning, sleeping it off in a hallway. The Banales brothers’ parties became the stuff of legend.
They told me their story as we sat on stools at their homemade bar, drinking beers while a DVD of avant garde images looped on a screen overhead. It all began in the spring of 1995, when Dan Banales, baby faced, big boned and clean cut, had just gotten back from Tokyo, where he had spent the previous five years representing a group of psychedelic artists who lived in downtown Los Angeles. These artists’ lofts made an indelible mark on his memory; they were totally different from what he had seen growing up in Pasadena in his self-described Rockwellian existence. There was the Swiss Family Robinson–esque series of wooden platforms in the middle of the loft belonging to a 20-year-old artist named Stravinsky; another had a giant marquee from an old movie theater propped in a corner that really put into perspective just how much space there was. Dan saw in those lofts how young people could own their space, how they could do whatever they wanted. He was on that search for freedom in the spring of ’95 when he found out that his brother, Andrew, had been kicked out of yet another apartment, this time in Hollywood. Andrew paid his rent on time, he just had noise-management issues. He was in a punk band in the late ’80s called the Fin, and the noise has never left him. He needed to find a place where he could get crazy and loud. The brothers realized there was only one place for the both of them, and they headed downtown.
Most buildings they saw were in a weird transitional phase (read: of dubious legality), or empty. Back then a lot of the leases were on the downlow, since most of the buildings were zoned for commercial use, not tenant occupancy, and bringing them up to code was too costly for many landlords. Needless to say, most vacancies weren’t advertised. A modest sign would appear in a window with a phone number, a signal that a room was available. Dan and Andrew went on the hunt. They encountered all kinds of shady situations, like at the San Fernando, where they were greeted by a man in a suit who gave them the grand tour. He told them a developer already had the building in escrow but was only thinking about making it residential. The suited man touched the tips of his fingers together like a villain in a silent movie, asking, “Really, so... you’d live here, then?” The brothers got the feeling he was just conducting some market research. (The San Fernando became part of Gilmore’s Old Bank District project.) Walking to their car, they looked toward the building on Winston Street and saw heads silhouetted in the large windows. People were obviously living there, but what was that place?
Some elementary detective work led them to the Canadian, which was once owned by Mort Wexler, who used to own the Linda Lea, Little Tokyo’s mythic Japanese-language movie house on Main. As the story goes, Wexler gave the building free and clear to Robin Linden, who is rarely seen around the Canadian these days but is a life-long friend of the building’s manager, Dave Perry. Fatefully, the Canadian was the only building on a list of 20 that was actually ready for the brothers to live in legally. Once they had proved they were artists, signed a contract and paid the security deposit, a raw 2,000-square-foot space was theirs. It was dirty, decrepit and filled with holes and rats, but it was their new home.
“I was so scared when I first moved here,” Dan remembers. “There was this roof next to us. I’d lie awake thinking someone was going to crawl through the windows and stab me. We didn’t have locks, and we had no frame of reference if we should be scared or not.”
One time their own neighbor, a prostitute, jumped out of her loft in her robe, hair a mess, reeking of crack, and pulled a knife on Andrew and his friend after they accidently bumped into her door.
The people living on the street assumed the Banales brothers were cops. Why else would some well-fed white kids be moving to the skids? “It was all ‘Excuse me, officer’ and ‘All right, officer’ in the beginning,” laughs Andrew, who dresses like a rocker. (You'd have to be on drugs to mistake him for a cop.) Slowly their “street neighbors” accepted them as part of the community. Neighbors like Lisa. Lisa lived on Winston, in a cardboard box that she called her “house.” They would often hear her throwing her husband out.
“Oh, her tirades were poetry,” says Andrew. “When she told anybody off, it was beautiful; it was a soliloquy. I wish I had recorded it.” She called the Banales brothers her “babies.”
After the new buildings went in and started to well up with residents, the brothers started getting noise complaints. Andrew left for Koreatown. The new downtown isn’t for him.
“It didn’t bother me at first,” he says. “We knew it [redevelopment] was coming, but this wasn’t what I signed up for. This wasn’t the downtown I wanted. I have to be realistic — there’s a housing crisis, but it seems like you’re only getting one kind of person down here now.”
Dan wouldn’t dream of leaving his loft — the place where he runs the Web site downtown.la and where he and his brother still operate the Web-hosting company Inhost.com. (They manage servers in data centers around the world, and host Devo’s offical site and fan site, as well as Roger Moore’s and the maybe-not-quite-as-cool Tony Curtis’, along with sites for large-scale corporations and new artists.) But he also has qualms about the changes engulfing his neighborhood.
“I just wish,” says Dan, “that it was more organic. It seemed so planned. It’s as if [downtown developers] were looking at the Santa Monica promenade or Old Town Pasadena, thinking, ‘What do we need to do to get that sort of thing happening here? How do we bring in all the yuppies?’”
They still throw those infamous parties a couple times a year, though with some adjustments, like the addition of security guards.
Upon entering Liz McGrath’s loft you arrive in a foyer, a square room with dark-brown walls adorned with black molding and her signature taxidermy creatures hanging in boxes like gothic sepulchers. It’s small and dark, like the elevator in the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, but it’s a deceptive introduction to the bright, white and vaulted living space behind it. McGrath, tiny, with an impish smile and bleach-blond hair that is as pale as her skin, and her similarly complected husband, photographer Morgan Slade (who is McGrath’s band mate in the goth-western outfit Miss Derringer), look like a match made by Tolkien. Their space is actually the amalgamation of two lofts. One used to be a gay-porn studio called Chocolate Drop Productions, which eventually got the boot when tenants got sick of feces in their showers and douche bottles littering the floor of their shared bathroom. The other part of her loft belonged to a set director, who left behind the most coveted thing in the Canadian — a private shower and toilet that he had installed himself. Moving into the Canadian was moving up for McGrath.
See, McGrath was coming off a streak of bad housing juju. She doesn’t necessarily see it like that, though, and tends to characterize her adventures in habitation as part of the artist’s life she chose, one that also had her working at fast-food joints and mall shops. As far as previous living situations go, she laughs when talking about the giant mansion she lived in while attending Pasadena City College. Some dude had built an oversize home on Lowell Street in El Sereno that was ruled by the Mexican Mafia. After a series of break-ins, including one in which the burglar left a trail of hand-print smudges down the wall and over the window ledge, the cops eventually apprehended the thief. He was found in the basement, where he’d been hiding for months, high on PCP and surrounded by McGrath’s and her roommates’ stuff, including keys, a VCR and more than $500 in cash. Eventually, McGrath and her roommates got kicked out for failing to meet their rent.
That was in 1994. McGrath’s friend and fellow artist Winter Rosebud invited McGrath to move downtown with her in the Spring Street Studios. McGrath liked how downtown felt dangerous. When McGrath and Winter got kicked out of the apartment because it was being redeveloped, McGrath moved across the street to the Fenton building. The view from her window was obstructed entirely by the flashing sign for the dime-a-dance place below. She paid 100 bucks for the 100-square-foot room that, come evening, was awash in flickering red light. She didn’t have a bathroom back then — she had to head over a few blocks to the Biltmore’s gym to shower. Not that she minded; the Biltmore offered a little old-school glamour to take the edge off her daily hassles.
From the Fenton she moved to the Tomahawk. A guy named Greg St. John owned the Tomahawk, and he had a vision of bringing artists together in one living space. He let McGrath trade rent for paintings — artists downtown would often trade art for shelter, clothes or food back in the day. But the Tomahawk eventually fell into decline, in part because of St. John’s tragic flaw: In his desire to help people, he let in too many crackheads.
“It got crazy,” McGrath says, curled up on her zebra-print couch, her hairless Chinese dog Blue on her lap, and her new pup, King Tut, at her feet. “One night some dude knocked on my window, said his girlfriend called the cops on him and asked if he could stay with me. Then there was the guy who asked me to watch his pit bulls and never came back because he went away to jail. But mostly, I had to move because I had to literally step over people doing crack outside my door.”
By this point, her childhood friends Dan and Andrew Banales (see “Brothers Banales”) were living in the Canadian, which had an advantage over the Tomahawk in that most of the crack was smoked out on the street below. The fighting, the stench of piss and crap rising from the alley behind the building, the pregnant crack whores fighting, all of it was worth it to McGrath, who shows at Bill Shire Gallery and has published a popular book of collected works called Everything That Creeps. “There is no way I’d be doing art,” she says, “no way I’d be doing what I’m doing now if it wasn’t for living here.”
Before the current wave of downtown yuppification went into overdrive, McGrath used to watch the comings and goings of the thousands of workers, bankers, politicos, lawyers and drug dealers who flooded the streets by day and vanished by degrees with the darkening sky. The droning buzz of activity that seemed by day to reach as high as the heavens dissolved into a peaceful underwater silence by evening. McGrath would get a bottle of wine and sit in the park on the grass outside of City Hall, or walk around the Gehry-designed MOCA. She and her friends lit bonfires in the street. The cops would either tell them to put out the fires or just grab a beer and hang out. A white van would come around and sell beer; so did a guy on his bike with a little bell and a basket. He was like the addicts’ ice cream man; you’d hear him start his route around 11 p.m. with his trademark call, “ICE... COLD... BEE-ER!” Sometimes he’d add, “Drug-side service!”
“Back then," she says, her voice singed by nostalgia, "it really felt like the entire world was ours.”
Susan Bolles, a delicate, elfin woman, is sitting in her sun-soaked artist’s studio: 1,000 square feet of organized white space. She is staring at the models for her new series of paintings — plastic bottles filled with translucent candy-colored liquids, lined up like a row of half-licked Jolly Ranchers. “They look so bright and happy, so Barbie, don’t they?” Bolles asks, scanning the assortment. “But they’re toxic chemicals.” Even Bolles’ voice is fairylike, soft and high pitched as she explains how she came to be at the Canadian.
She was staring at the black-screened iron gate of the Canadian when she heard the lock turn from inside. She couldn’t see who was on the other side, but as the door opened, a blast of whiskey slapped her in the face. It was coming from a man with stringy hair wearing women’s bell-bottomed, cuffed trousers that flared out about a foot too high at his calves and a way-too-small child’s size flannel shirt. He was nearly falling down drunk. She explained to him that she was there to see the manager, and, teetering a little on his heels, the building's resident trust-fund crack addict made a big swooping bow and slurred, “Wellll, come ’n in!” To Bolles, that pretty much summed up the Canadian in the late ’90s, and downtown in general.
Bolles was one of 17 people who responded to the for-rent ad in the L.A. Weekly, but she was the only one to actually fill out an application. “I had a hard time finding a loft back then,” says Bolles, who paints full time and takes on production work to pay the bills (including a few episodes of Scrubs). “So I wound up renting a postage stamp in the Hollywood Hills.”
Then she found the Canadian, and with some elbow grease and about 20 cans of white paint, settled in to her 1,500-square-foot live/work loft. Bolles’ loft is neat and homey. The kitchen has a European farmhouse feel, with an old enamel stove, enormous windows and a rustic, wooden table. Huge canvases hang in each of the three divided rooms. On an exposed-brick wall in the sitting room, illuminated by a set of 1930s billboard lights, hangs a giant, moody photograph of low-lying fog thick above crossroads that seem to stretch an eternity in either direction. The lights were found on the street, and the photograph was taken by her live-in love of six months, Fridgeir.
“For me, downtown was normal,” says Bolles, who came here from New York City. “The buses, the grime — it was more normal to me than, say, Westwood. That’s a foreign concept to me — security guards and pool boys? That I don’t understand.”
Though the boundaries of normal were often pushed. One night when Bolles had invited a friend over, and they sat on her living room couch sipping wine and catching up, a giant fireball of red and orange light exploded without warning in front of her seven-foot-tall window, filling the loft with heat. A movie was being filmed in the alley. Film crews still shoot in the alley now and again, but with more people living downtown, full-on pyrotechnics have become harder to pull off.
There were loftwide parties every few months, where residents invited friends and sometimes close to a thousand people hopped through the building in a single evening. Some of them were still there the next day. The neighbors rode their bikes down to Al’s Bar, the local crusty punk club, or went on pizza runs. If you needed to bum a cigarette, even at 2 in the morning, you could find someone in the building, door open, awake and painting. The shared bathrooms and showers were not an inconvenience but another chance for community. Though most times it was peaceful, that community was not without drama. Particularly when it came to romances.
“Oh, my god,” declares Bolles, “it’s a crisis when somebody in this building breaks up. You wouldn’t believe it. There have been breakups where the whole building was involved. You’ll know because the chalkboard will have a big note on it: ‘Do not let him in the building!’” The chalkboard is sort of the MySpace of the Canadian, a rectangular slate at the landing of the main staircase. Often, passive-agressive anonymous word wars are carried out in multicolored chalk.
And if there was drama inside, it didn’t compare to the performances going on nightly among the homeless outside Bolles’ door. Grown men clucked like chickens, puffing up their chests, winning imaginary arguments. Women who were worse for wear, toothless, with bad skin and matted hair sashayed down the street as if they were Gisele Bundchen. Artists generally have a live-and-let-live ethos, and Bolles didn’t view the people on the sidewalk outside the building as something to fear, get rid of, or even feel sorry for; they were merely participants in the street theater.
“It was almost performance art,” Bolles says. “People knew they were performing. They were trying to climb street poles, the most outrageous things. We called it ‘the nightly entertainment.’”
Fridgeir moved from Iceland (he went to high school with Björk) in 1986. He briefly settled with his mother in Pacoima, but the pair left for downtown a year later. Fridgeir was 20 and not really sure what he wanted to do with his life yet, so he followed his fashion-designer mother, Stella, to a 3,000-square-foot warehouse off of Santa Fe Avenue, which cost about $800 a month at the time. That was back when Al’s Bar was really happening, when the first wave of artists ran around downtown before real estate speculation priced them out and galleries started moving west, when life down there consisted mostly of parties and underground gallery openings — when Danny Elfman occupied an entire floor of the Canadian.
Six months ago, Fridgeir moved in with Susan Bolles (see “The Expat”). They met at the Banquette, kind of like the neighborhood Central Perk. Sitting in his well-lit, gallery-like loft, he pushes his wire-frame glasses back up his nose and gets kind of excited talking about the old days. “We felt like pirates,” he says. “We did our thing in 1989, then the rents went up and the artists moved to Silver Lake or Echo Park.”
Fridgeir went to New Orleans to learn how to be a chef, thinking he had finally found his calling. He worked there for 14 years. But life began to unravel for him. “I like drugs and I like alcohol,” Fridgeir says candidly. “I got more and more caught up in it. As a chef, it was socially acceptable for me to drink, so I started drinking more and more, until it all crumbled and I came to L.A. to get sober.”
Los Angeles didn’t prove to be the kind of rehab Fridgeir needed, at least not right away. He ended up on Skid Row, on San Julian and Sixth streets, living in a cardboard box, living only to drink. “I drank alcohol like people smoked crack,” Fridgeir says. “My only thought was where will I get my next drink from.”
When he finally hit rock bottom, he went to the Midnight Mission. “I crawled into the mission,” he says. “I was almost dead.” He came back every day for three weeks to see if a cot had opened and waited for hours in a room with 300 people, watching an endless rotation of Chuck Norris movies. Ironically, the room was called the Reading Room.
He finally got in, and at 8 every night he and his 150 roommates pulled their cots out and went to sleep. Slowly, by demonstrating his commitment to staying sober, Fridgeir worked his way upstairs to the bunks. “And when I got a bunk, I felt like I was really moving up in the world,” he says with a smile.
Fridgeir got a job that paid $2 an hour, working in the mission kitchen. “It was a start,” he says. “I remember when I got that first paycheck, I realized how long it had been since I’d had money to see a movie. That was major.” He went to The Aviator.
He lived at the mission for a year and a half and decided to go to film school, winning a full scholarship to LACC. But it was during a prerequisite photography class that Fridgeir discovered the passion and serenity he was looking for.
To support his new love for photography, he got a part-time job as a personal chef to some bigwigs in Venice and moved to the Rosslyn Hotel, an SRO where, until six months ago, he was renting a room for $300 a month. The hotel was 700 rooms of crack, heroin and insane drinking.
“It was hardcore Bukowski,” says Fridgeir, who's been sober for three years now. But a cheap pad allowed him to concentrate on his art. “But not to concentrate on it as a means to a paycheck,” he says. “Making money is what I do to pay the rent; it’s not my driving force.” He pauses and then jokes, “That’s not very L.A. of me.”
Settled in now with Bolles, he’s been shooting downtown landscapes, a series of 4-by-5 images of lonely and forgotten buildings and areas downtown that he shoots in a palette of grays, of light and shadow. Life at the Canadian now is calming, filled with little luxuries, such as being able to cook at home in his own spacious kitchen. He’ll leave the door open when he cooks, allowing the aromas to circulate through the halls, and generously feeds anyone who shows up at his door. Any inconveniences he’s encountered at the Canadian, like the shared bathrooms or the lack of heat in winter, is a drop in the bucket compared to where he’s been.
“When I lived downtown here in the ’80s,” Fridgeir says, “I saw the homeless guys and I thought, I’m never gonna be that. That’s never gonna happen to me. Being homeless gave me a totally different perspective. Anything that comes after that you feel grateful for. It humbles you for the rest of your life.”
Brian “Hacksaw” Williams is a heavy-metal vocal coach at the Musicians Institute and the lead singer of the band Damn Hippie Freaks. Looking a little like Meat Loaf and possessing the raspy sound of someone who regularly abuses his vocal chords, he fits the part. In between sips of his Heinekin — ’cause, hey, he’s on vacation — Hacksaw speaks in bullet points about life at the Canadian.
“I came for two reasons,” he says. “The cheap rent, and I could play music as loud as I want.”
When he picked his loft, the rest of the building thought he was nuts or joking. In the 1980s that loft belonged to a famous architect who built structures inside the space, including three little houses with a gravel moat running alongside them connected by a bridge made of iron grating. The space appeared in a book published at the time called The International Book of Lofts. But by the time Hacksaw got to it a decade later, the loft was caked with soot and grime, the little houses’ floors had started to come up and, what’s worse, he couldn’t vacuum or sweep the years of dirt out of the rock moat.
Back in ’96, when the Canadian started advertising for tenants, he paid $370 a month for the space. Prior to moving in, he had been bartending and living in Culver City, floating in a pool and working on his tan more than his music. “So I moved into the Canadian,” he says, pacing in his oversize living room. “I liked the hungriness of it.”
Hacksaw's girlfriend came with him, and it got all Peyton Place when she started shagging Dave Perry, the building manager, and eventually shacked up with him down the hall. “At one point,” Hacksaw says, “I think they were going to get married, but it didn’t happen. And she ended up back here.”
For Hacksaw and Perry, it’s all water under the bridge. “We were all doing a lot of crystal at the time, and it was out of control. But in the end, after we did every bad thing to one another, there was nothing left to do.” (Meanwhile, Hacksaw’s got a 20-year-old daughter from an ex-girlfriend who lives in Arkansas with her mother and visits now and again.)
“I came to this pivotal moment,” says Hacksaw, “where I said if I’m gonna stay in L.A., it’s going to be doing something with music.” He found himself in a band with a guy who scheduled substitute teachers over at the MI, where Hacksaw had studied. Thirteen years after graduating, Hacksaw was back teaching.
“I have to sing a lot of classic metal stuff,” he says. “Once I had to sing Judas Priest for two hours.” To the chagrin of a few of his neighbors, he also gives private lessons out of his home. Hacksaw regularly plays with Damion Wagner (see “The Big Jerk”). He takes a break from singing to play bass. “That’s why I like to come down here and be reminded that music is art.”
Meanwhile, Hacksaw’s mom asks him every year, “How much longer are you going to try this [music] thing?”
The Big Jerk
All of scene number seven on the Collateral Damage DVD was shot in Damion Wagner’s loft. When Arnold Schwarzenegger gets Tasered, look closely and you can see him kiss the black, glitter-dusted floor when he falls. Wagner’s fridge and his silver peg board are in the background. Apparently, a location scout thought Wagner’s loft, with its huge windows, ample light and wide-open space that can host a film crew and equipment looked like the kind of place that would make a fine headquarters for a Colombian drug cartel. Wagner negotiated a large sum of money for that shoot. He and Bob Perez, a former Canadian resident/den mother, would pull a good-cop/bad-cop routine on the production companies that (sometimes without permits!) were looking to blow stuff up or have a helicopter hover 200 feet above the building, causing the windows to vibrate for eight hours. Back in those days, crews kept cash on hand to hush the natives. Wagner would pretend to be an outraged tenant on the verge of going postal, while Perez would play the placator, asking the location manager to grease a few palms. This little skit usually managed to get 100 bucks per day for each loft. But the deal Wagner made for himself with the Collateral Damage shoot bought him a record store.
It was called Metamorphosis Records, and it was part of a 6,000-square-foot space in a warehouse located off Santa Fe that also housed Canadian resident Richard McDowell’s Gallery 835 (see “The Mayor of Main Street”). Back then, Wagner, McDowell and another woman were all given space by the warehouse’s owner to do with as they pleased — no rent required; it was all to enrich downtown. McDowell says Wagner did a great job and that he created a community with “plenty of music, a good vibe, a really nice layout with chairs, and all the knickknacks and trinkets usually found at a bona fide record store.”
Then the building was sold, and they all got kicked out. Which was fine with Wagner, who realized after a year and a half that he “never wanted to be in the retail business again. I got lots of records now,” he says, smiling. Nowadays, the movie crews don’t come as much. The last production inside Wagner’s loft was a movie starring Usher, a straight-to-video that was so low budget the set designer didn’t change a single thing. “You can see my record collection, my bed, you can even see my high school yearbook in one shot,” Wagner laughs.
Some of his neighbors are still a little bitter about his score with the Schwarzenegger film, but that’s not why he’s known as the Big Jerk. “One of the things that makes me the Big Jerk,” he says, “is that I totally play music really loud.” He and his band the Dizzys often rehearse in the loft. And Wagner, who has an entire recording studio in his place, complete with a makeshift sound booth repurposed from someone’s loft bed, will play with anyone — like a local homeless kid named Nicholas, who was in his late 20s, black and good looking when Wagner finally met him. Wagner had seen him for years around the hood, always banging drumsticks on a street sign or what have you. He remembers their first jam session.
“Most of them tend to be older, but when he came up, he reeked of crack. He sat on the drums and he was John Bonham. He’s high and once he’s wound up he can’t stop. After a while, it’s this barrage of drums. I’m playing guitar and my other friend is playing bass, but we can’t keep up. ...He was so good, I invited him back the next week.”
Wagner doesn’t see Nicholas around anymore. “I knew something was happening when Pete’s went in,” he says. To him, Pete’s Cafe seemed like the yuppies’ Maginot line. “They were going into defense mode.”
Recently he got some complaints about the noise. “I had the cops call me a couple of times,” he says. “One time, it was because someone was screaming on the mike and the windows were up. I try to be polite as possible, but those buildings didn’t have anyone in them before, and I was doing this for years before anyone came. It’s not like I’m going to change. I don’t even know them.”
In an Illinois cornfield, getting burned under the morning sun, 14-year-old Aileen Duke would dream of Hollywood as she pulled the top tassels from the cornstalks so that the females could fertilize the males.
“I always thought I was a big fish in a really small pond,” she says. “I always longed for the glitter. I thought I’d find it here.”
She made it to L.A., by way of Tempe, Arizona, where her family moved when Duke was in high school. In Tempe, Duke had her eyebrows, lips and nose pierced, and even got her first tattoo, a star. She decided every time she lived somewhere new, some place farther from Illinois, she’d get another star. She wanted to be a walking constellation.
She remembers her first drive in from Arizona as a 17-year-old with big ideas. “My eyes were as wide as saucers that day,” says Duke, a curvy blonde with a touch of trailer park. You can see the milk-fed wholesomeness under all the makeup and face piercings. But in L.A., she and her friend Casey got kicked out of student housing while attending the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. Duke had nowhere to go when a girl she knew from school invited her to share her space at the San Fernando. They got another roommate off of Craigslist, a guy who listened to Bob Marley all day and started to smoke crack.
One day, while she and Casey were watching TV, the roommate came in, unplugged the set right in front of them, and pawned it for crack money. When their lease wasn’t renewed, Duke and Casey were left with nowhere to go except the Cecil, another notorious, drug- and prostitution-plagued SRO.
“We paid extra to have our own bathroom,” says Duke, “and there were many nights where I curled up at the bottom of that shower crying.”
The rule back in those days was that you had to leave an SRO after a month, so when their time was up, the girls carried their stuff in FIDM duffels and plastic garbage bags and moved into the Rosslyn, still another SRO. “Because we had no fuckin’ other thing to do,” says Duke.
One night, when Duke had been up for three days on a meth bender — explained away as a combination of college experimentation and easy access — she thought she had begun to hallucinate while doing her homework. The walls were crawling with cockroaches. Duke realized that it wasn’t lack of sleep causing this vision, but that a steady stream of roaches was streaming out of cracks in the windows and crown molding. She knew she had to get out of there.
In March 2005, she met a 25-year-old girl named Krista who lived with a friend at the Canadian. Krista offered Duke her place since she was always at her boyfriend’s. “I idolized her,” says Duke. “She took me in, ’cause she was made of fashion-design blood also. I thought she was wonderful.” Before long, Krista got married and wanted Duke out. She told her so by emptying the fridge of all of Duke’s produce, and scrawling, “God protect me from my friends. I can take care of my enemies,” across the kitchen wall. But in the end, Krista left, leaving Duke with the loft.
That was the same year Duke started working for Trashy Lingerie, just a month before she was to graduate from FIDM. She was helping a girl named Winter Rosebud, who is also a good friend of Liz McGrath’s (see “Lady McGrath”), make pirate hats for Halloween costumes and do odds and ends. On Halloween, the owners of Trashy Lingerie asked Duke to start designing for the company. Duke was so happy she cried.
“My parents don’t get it,” she says. “So in a way, it makes sense that I’d be here doing this thing that they would never dream of doing in a million years.”
Duke finally felt like she was arriving. She had aced her finals, and she was walking back to the Canadian feeling so good she started singing Sinatra’s “I Got the World on a String” out loud. She turned the corner on Main just in time to see a guy erupting diarrhea. “That kind of deflated me, and I went home.”
Duke thinks of the places she still wants to go and the star tattoos, like passport stamps, she’d collect. She’s been eyeing the Pacific Northwest, but when she thinks about leaving, she starts to cry.
“It’s just that,” she says between sobs, “there’s never going to be another Winter Rosebud in Seattle. There’s never going to be another Liz McGrath. They took care of me when I could have easily been left behind. They are the people who, in a sense, raised me, and it’s hard to imagine life without them.”
Dina Chang was all set to move in. All she had to do was deliver the signed lease, and the run-down dirty loft would be hers, all 2,000 square feet of it. “You’re still moving in?” the manager asked from his apartment, eyebrows raised. “Didn’t Valerie tell you?” he asked. “That someone shot himself in that apartment?” No, Chang was not aware of that. Michael Franz was an artist who had lived at the Canadian for years. He used to work off his rent by fixing things around the building. But then the work ran out and he was asked to pay a modest amount of rent, which he refused to do. When the Sheriff’s deputies finally came to evict him, crowbars in hand as they marched down the hall, Franz put a pillow to his chest and shot himself. He left a note blaming the building’s owner. There’s a bullet hole in Chang’s kitchen, but she thinks that one came from the outside. It doesn’t faze Chang.
Prior to moving in, Chang had been living across the street at the Hellman, before Tom Gilmore bought and polished it up. Back then, it was only slightly more glamorous than the Canadian. When she quit her job in postproduction to pursue her dream of becoming a pastry chef, she knew she wouldn't be able to afford the $1,050 monthly rent for her 800 square feet in the building whose hallways flooded when it rained. One day at Banquette, the little coffee shop down the street, Liz McGrath mentioned that she thought a space was opening in the Canadian. Chang got the loft. Rent was $550 a month; there was no air conditioning, no heat or gas. She had to buy and install her own electric stove and refrigerator. It cost her close to a couple thousand just to paint the place.
“People have this romanticized view of lofts,” Chang says. “They come in after we’ve all put thousands of dollars into them. Not to mention the love and hours and hours of work. It took me three days just to clean and disinfect it. I had to literally hose it out and suck the water out the window.”
Then there are the fair-weather friends who now want to come hang out in Chang’s place and coo about how “lucky” she is to live there. “I get resentful,” says Chang. “It’s like, where were you when I needed help moving four years ago? When did downtown become the epicenter of cool? When I moved in, it was the epicenter of hood.”
She left a 400-square-foot apartment close to the beach in Venice for downtown because she wanted to be in the middle of nothing. “It was peaceful,” she says. “It felt postapocalyptic when I first moved here. The bankers went home at 5. There was nothing but tumbleweeds and crackheads. My friend Jason and I would ride bikes in the middle of the night and it was like we were the last two people on Earth.”
She recalls the night she was driving home at 3 a.m. after a night of partying and saw the flashing lights of cop cars. As she approached the scene, she could see glass everywhere and then the body, covered in glass. She looked up and saw the broken 12th-story window at the neighboring Rosslyn Hotel.
“Someone must have been pushed,” says Chang. “Usually when someone commits suicide, they open the window first. There was so much violence at the Rosslyn that it gets to a point where you get used to it.”
On Fridays, Chang and her friends would play a game called Hipster or Hobo. They’d guess whether the stringy-haired skinny dude was homeless or a hipster from Silver Lake who’d come down in his beat-up old Benz to score his weekend crack. They’d pour a drink and sit there watching doctors pull up in BMWs; once they spotted a tow-truck driver, with a car still attached, stopping to make a score.
“I’ve seen every type of person smoke crack underneath my window,” Chang laughs.
The Mayor of Main
Richard McDowell, with the worried look of a mild neurotic, is leaving the Canadian. He’s already moved out of the loft he shared with Valerie Davis, who is a photographer, but he was still toying with the idea of keeping his art studio, the 800-square-foot space that was once his bedroom. McDowell sits in a big wooden chair, leaning back with his feet on the type of big metal desk you’d expect to see in a police station. A cloud of black paper bombs are suspended from the ceiling on invisible fishing line, in a frozen state of attack, threatening to rain down from above.
McDowell had wanted to live at the Canadian for the past five or six years. Every six months, he’d call the manager, looking for an opening. He was living at the Baltimore Hotel, a Skid Row SRO, where he paid $270 a month. He stayed in the Baltimore, even though he had a job that paid him enough to live decently in the most gentrified of neighborhoods. He remembers the roaches. “Ah, man,” he says, still shivering, “it took a long time to get rid of those bastards. When I moved in, I slept in the middle of the bed, and I didn’t turn on the light, ’cause whenever I did, I’d see they were right near me.”
He wasn’t staying out of necessity. He actually liked living there. He got a kick out of his 74-year-old neighbor, Art, a retired engineer with a 20-something girlfriend.
“I’d hear the funniest conversations through the wall. I’d hear her say, ‘No, no, no, don’t do that, Art, you’re dancing in my underwear!’ And he’d be singing, ‘Doodle-dee-doo!’” Then, there was the night McDowell was smoking outside the building. Someone tapped his shoulder. He turned, and it was a petite, blonde bombshell in a halter top and a little skirt with a pink-and-purple floral pattern and just enough of a black eye for McDowell to notice how the maroon color matched her outfit. McDowell knew who she was. She came down on the weekends from the Westside, where she lived with her boyfriend during the week, to shoot heroin. She’d let a few of the guys, the ones she either trusted or even liked, have sex with her. For most of the guys, McDowell says, “She’d take off all her clothes and let them do what they do as men without touching her.” She passed out the sexual favors in exchange for a place to “do what she did, as a human being, away from the streets and the jeers and catcalls,” says McDowell softly. “I wish I’d taken her upstairs that night, but I didn’t.”
McDowell came downtown in the late ’90s seeking human interaction. He found shelter in an abandoned bank and opened up a little gallery in the ghost-town streets around Santa Fe Avenue. It was cold and desolate, something out of the movie Silent Hill. People came out of the woodwork to check out Gallery 835. Early Cannibal Flower shows were held there. After getting kicked out of his squat in the bank building, he moved into the gallery to live. He paid only $200 a month for the 6,000-square-foot space. McDowell proudly boasts of how he received a letter from the Mayor’s Office saying he and his gallery were pioneers.
“I don’t know if I was the pioneer of anything,” McDowell says. “But I felt like I was in front of a massive wave.”
McDowell’s gallery caught the attention of the owner of the Spring Arts Tower, on Fifth and Spring streets, a building that housed artists for either cheap or free back in the day. The owner sent him a Christmas card saying he liked what McDowell had going on and should he ever need a place, he was welcome to stay in his building. Eventually, McDowell took him up on the offer. He lived on the third floor of the 12-story building, which was convenient since the plumbing only reached that level. No one ventured above the eighth floor. “It was a real community,” he says. “Everyone was an artist or a writer or a musician, minus a heroin addict or two.”
The Spring Arts Tower was a former law office that had been abandoned and left almost completely intact, as if everyone fled just before the apocalypse. What was left behind — cubicles, lamps, chairs, desks, old doors, a bumper-pool table — was claimed by the new inhabitants. McDowell wrote a book about living there called "Thirty Days on Spring: A Junkie Needs Relief." In 2003, all 37 residents, including McDowell, got the boot. McDowell moved to the Baltimore until Valerie Davis took him in at the Canadian.
But living with Davis wasn’t working for McDowell. He didn’t touch brush to canvas once in the time he lived with her. When it looked like his own loft wasn’t in the cards, he debated going back to the Baltimore but instead moved “further into the mayhem,” as he calls it, to a renovated loft on Wall Street. He says his new space is an artist’s dream: skylights, a freight elevator that opens into the kitchen, private access to the roof. It costs three times what he paid at the Canadian — $550 for his art studio and his shared living space with Davis.
Rocking back in his metal office chair, staring at the bombs overhead, McDowell relates a scene he remembers in some film where Picasso takes the artist Modigliani out to meet Renoir. Picasso and Modigliani lived in meager accommodations in Montmarte, while Renoir lived in a villa with 28 rooms, maids, butlers and a garden. Picasso was trying to show Modigliani that you didn’t have to live like a pauper to be an artist, that you could create and still have whatever you want. McDowell explains, “Modigliani asks Renoir, ‘How are you able to afford all of these things?’ Renoir answers, ‘I traded it for two paintings.’”
What did Modigliani do? He stole a bottle of wine and climbed over the wall.