The LA2050 project recently offered $100,000 grants for projects that would support “a shared vision for the future of Los Angeles.” One of the initiatives, called Arts ReSTORE LA, opens Friday. But can the Hammer Museum’s plan to revive Westwood Village succeed if the area doesn’t want to change? What can be learned from a recent pop-up art program in Glendale? Caroline Chamberlain investigates.
Anyone familiar with Westwood Village in its heyday will tell you that the neighborhood has lost its fizz. The bars and restaurants are mediocre, there are too many chains, rents are high, finding a parking space is almost impossible, and despite its hordes of students donning UCLA apparel, Westwood certainly doesn’t feel like a lively college town. Even one of the village’s few bars, Westwood Brewing Company (Brewco), closed down this summer to make way for a seafood restaurant chain, The Boiling Crab. (Full disclosure: I am a recent graduate of UCLA.)
What Happened to Westwood Village?
While many ailing neighborhoods and cities point to the recession to explain their current slump, Westwood’s troubles started long before the 2008 economic crisis, back in the 1980’s when the village’s reputation plummeted following a 1988 gang shooting.
Andrew Thomas, Executive Director of the Westwood Business Improvement District, says, “ in the ‘80s the pendulum really swung too far in the direction of entertainment: it was too noisy, there was too much traffic.” In 1989, the Los Angeles City Council adopted the Westwood Village Specific Plan, instituting strict guidelines for businesses that he believes contributed to years of vacant storefronts, and limitations on bars and other entertainment venues.
Thomas believes the guidelines went too far. “Now the pendulum is on the other side. We’re at the point where can you can’t have live music in Westwood. It’s a challenge to have karaoke at your restaurant, there’s no pool tables here.”
Within this context, many find it hard to envision the neighborhood’s comeback.
Art to the Rescue?
But Westwood’s Hammer Museum is trying. ArtsReSTORE LA, a month-long installation of art in vacant storefronts in the village, opens Friday. The goal: to energize the neighborhood’s community and property owners through these pop-up displays of work of notable young LA artisans and artists, including Dosa, For Your Art, Fallen Fruit, ERMIE, Heather Levine Ceramics and Tanya Aguiñiga (shown left, image of Aguiñiga’s rope bracelets courtesy of the Hammer Museum; find out more about Tanya Aguiñiga and ERMIE on DnA).
ArtsReSTORE LA is one of the initiatives supported by LA2050, the Goldhirsh Foundation‘s effort to unite “citizens, stakeholders, and organizations to address our region’s toughest challenges.” LA2050 granted the Hammer Museum $100,000 “to curate an artisanal pop-up village in Westwood and offer a long term strategy to turn the neighborhood around.”
But while visitors to the neighborhood will enjoy a month long public exhibit of art, the “long term strategy” is not clear. “We’re not trying to claim we are urban developers, we’re a museum,” said Sarah Stifler, communications director of the Hammer Museum. “But we have connections to artisans and artists, and we can help facilitate relationships with Los Angeles creative communities.” She also noted that the museum’s connection with UCLA will help draw people to the event.
Thanks But No Thanks Banksy!
But do Westwood’s property owners have a taste for public art? A couple years back famed British street artist Banksy visited the village and painted “Crayon Soldier” (pictured below) on the wall of Urban Outfitters on Westwood Boulevard. Less than a month later, it was removed by the owner of the building occupied by Urban Outfitters.
President Jim Brooks of TOPA Management is optimistic. TOPA is the largest landlord of Westwood Village that owns 250,000 square feet of space, and he just signed a deal to expand that Urban Outfitters by 8,000 square feet to occupy space in a building TOPA owns.
He said that landlords participating, “see it [the Hammer project] as an opportunity to re-energize Westwood Village during the late afternoons and evenings” with the Hammer Museum acting as a “marketing arm extension.”
Brooks attributes Westwood’s decline at least in part to the neighborhood’s reliance on the movie-going scene in the ‘80s, and the neighborhood’s failure to update the movie going experience — when multi-screen competitors at Third Street promenade and Century City emerged.
Glendale Mixed Pop-Up Art With Other Urban Reforms
Westwood Village is not the first area in the Southland to try and galvanize a neighborhood with storefront art. After Glendale’s economy took a hit during the recession, the city started a similar project called GATE (Glendale Area Temporary Exhibitions). It too was aimed at reviving the city’s vacant storefronts with temporary artisanal pop-up stores in abandoned spaces big box retailers such as Mervyn’s and Circuit City had once occupied. (Hear more about the Glendale project on this DnA)
Annette Vartanian, Program Supervisor of GATE, said that the project was a success, noting that the retailers Bloomingdale’s & Pirch (now in the former Mervyns space), Jos A. Banks, Weight Watchers, The Flame Broiler, and Fetiche Salon now occupy the previously vacant storefronts.
But GATE’s timing coincided with a series of reforms in Glendale that eliminated a lot of red tape that had made it difficult for businesses to take root before. It is now far easier to obtain liquor licenses, adopt “creative signs” for businesses, and to utilize many different types of spaces for entertainment.
Can Westwood Village Do the Same?
On whether Westwood can make similar changes, Andrew Thomas said, “there’s a desire to modify the civic plan in certain ways. Our [Westwood’s] prime time is from 11 AM to 2:30 PM, because people are coming here for lunch. We need those people to stay for nightlife too.”
He also said that his organization’s influence has expanded from handling aesthetic issues in the village to being able to spend more time on communications and development, which he sees a “mandate to improve the economic health of our district.”
But for now Thomas is hoping the Hammer’s storefront art project will help to put Westwood back on the map. “People have forgotten about our neighborhood. It’s about re-introducing ourselves regionally, and hopefully that buzz will turn into more long term interest.”
UPDATE: Photos of Arts ReSTORE LA, Courtesy of KCRW’s Brandon Devine