Property and Artists’ Rights at Odds Over East L.A.’s 1st Street Store Murals

By Gloria Angelina Castillo, EGP Staff Writer

East Los Angeles residents could see demolition work begin this summer at the now closed 1st Street Ranch Market, located next door to a once popular department store with a façade covered in murals.

Pacific Charter School Development (PCSD) is coordinating the project to build a new middle school on the site for charter school operator, Alliance College Ready Schools. They also have plans to convert the former First Street Store location into a new campus for an existing East LA area Alliance charter high school, now housed at another location.

While a final project plan has yet to be submitted to the LA County Department of Planning, a group of artists, including some who worked on the First Street Store mural, have mounted an effort to make sure that the mural panels are kept intact. The artists object to the panels being removed and placed in a different order in a different location, as the developer has proposed.

Titled “The Story of Our Struggle,” the mural is comprised of 18 painted tile panels that tell the history of Mexican Americans.

At a meeting last week between the lawyers for the muralists and Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, the development company and some community stakeholders, the lawyers were informed that their clients have 90 days to, at their own cost, remove the murals. If they fail to act, the property owner will have the right to decide the mural’s future, according to PCSD President and CEO Eli Kennedy.

Kennedy said the notice to the artists “doesn’t change anything.” Even if the artists don’t remove the mural, “we still intend to fully incorporate them” into the new school design, Kennedy told EGP.

Kennedy said everyone is in agreement about preserving the murals. They are “beautiful,” he said.

The artists had to be informed, in accordance with the law, that they have the right to remove the artwork, he explained.

No dates set for construction at 1st Street Store. (EGP photo by Gloria Angelina Castillo)

Eric Bjorgum, attorney for muralist Johnny D. González, says the California Art Preservation Act provides legal protection for artists’ “moral rights” to their work. He said murals, or other works of art, are part of an artist’s resume. When a piece of their work is destroyed, a part of their resume is also destroyed, he said

Bjorgum specializes in intellectual property law and disagrees with Kennedy that the murals would become the landowner’s property once the 90-day period expires. He said no title has been transferred for the murals, which like any art is property.

Last week’s meeting wasn’t particularly contentious, said Bjorgum, who explains that he was brought in to help ensure the murals are not destroyed or defaced.

The developer and charter school representatives said the murals will not be destroyed, but the artists want the building’s façade to be preserved as is, he said, describing the root of the disagreement.

Bjorgum said they could still call for a full Environmental Impact Report to be conducted on the building project.

Manuel Huerta of the Eastside Heritage Consortium was also at last week’s meeting and says his group would like to see a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) study conducted to consider how the project would impact the community, including traffic congestion.

The community has expressed that the building is important and so are the integrated murals, he said. They should be allowed to weigh in and the CEQA process would best allow that opportunity, Huerta said.

While the developer contends that leaving the building as is would be unsafe for the students, and not meet school safety building requirements, Huerta says his group wants a study that not only looks at the safety issue, but also at how to preserve the murals as part of East LA’s heritage.

Supervisor Gloria Molina says her office was asked by the artists to step in early on and they did. “We absolutely would like to see the murals preserved,” Molina told EGP.

She said the developer responded to her request to find a way to preserve the murals by, at their own expense, redesigning the entire building to incorporate the murals into the design.

“But when we took it [the new design] to the muralists, they stopped returning our calls and got an attorney,” she said.

Molina said the new design, with the murals rearranged to compliment a new high school building, preserves the mural’s integrity because it is still facing the street for people to see.

“They want the building to stay as it … that is not acceptable,” Molina said. She said the vacant building has been an eyesore for some time. Despite claims to the contrary, according to Molina the former First Street Store building is not protected by historic preservation guidelines, as was the case with the Golden Gate Theater.

The murals are located at 3640 E. 1st St., in unincorporated East Los Angeles. The Alliance Media Arts and Technology Academy, which is currently located at a temporary site on Whittier Boulevard next to the Golden Gate Theatre, will be relocated to the new high school once the building project is completed.

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June 21, 2012  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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