A coalition of artists on Tuesday declared “victory” in their fight to save a historically significant mural in East Los Angeles. The announcement came just hours before the Los Angeles County Planning Commission was to hold a public hearing on a proposed new school that artists feared would end up destroying the murals.
The Coalition to Save The First Street Store Building was formed several months ago to fight efforts to remove or demolish “The Story of Our Struggle,” an 18-panel mural painted in 1974 on the site of the former First Street Store where developers want to build a new charter school.
The group had successfully gathered thousands of signatures from local residents who did not want to see the mural destroyed during redevelopment of the property that for decades was the site of the only department store in East LA.
Tuesday morning, the Coalition announced that they had reached an agreement with the Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools and their developer, Pacific Charter School Development to preserve the murals that visually tell the story of the Chicano movement. The announcement was made via an email sent by “Don Juan” Johnny Gonzalez, one of three artists who created the mural.
Gonzalez, according to Coalition chair and spokesperson Irma Beserra Nuñez, is credited with “creating the Chicano mural movement,” which makes the mural that much more significant, she told EGP. He was recently recognized at the Fowler Museum during the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time, as the innovator behind the movement, Nunez said.
The coalition, the charter school operator and the developer are working together to create “PLAZA LA PRIMERA™,” which will include a freestanding mural wall, according to Gonzalez’s email.
David Botello, who designed the mural along with Gonzalez and Robert Arenivar, told EGP the Coalition began meeting with the Alliance and county representatives about three weeks ago and on Monday night they signed a working agreement in which the Coalition agreed not to appeal the permit to demolish the Ranch Market as part of their strategy to save the mural located along two sides of the adjacent First Street Store building, on 1st Street and Townsend.
A middle school and a high school are planned for the two properties.
The developer had said preserving the First Street store façade in its current state was impossible due to school safety concerns, according to Botello.
But after months of often contentious arguments over the viability of preserving the murals, an attorney, Susan Brandt-Hawley, working voluntarily on behalf of the Coalition, secured permission for the group to bring in Melvyn Green, a well-known and highly respected structural engineer to review the structure and the artwork.
“He found not only can we preserve the entire wall-very easily-but that it needs to be featured for the community,” Nunez told EGP.
It can be done without being taken apart, and it will still meet state safety building codes for new schools, Botello said.
While a formal project has yet to be submitted to the county planning commission for approval, the former First Street Store, located at 3640 E. 1st St., is slated to become the permanent home of Alliance Media Arts and Entertainment Design High School (an existing Alliance school in East LA). Only plans for the proposed middle school have so far been submitted for approval.
However, during a hearing in August, Coalition members said the middle school and high school are tied together, with shared facilities like a parking lot, which they said justifies their petition for a full Environmental Impact Report to be conducted.
Most recently, the coalition had appealed the planning commission’s declaration that the proposal to build a new middle school would have no negative impact on the local community.
But according to LA County Director of Planning Richard Bruckner, they have now withdrawn their appeal. Alliance and the artists have been engaging in very productive meetings to evaluate alternatives for saving the mural, Bruckner told EGP.
“There’s no question the murals will be saved—they will be saved—it’s a question of how best to do that in a respectful and cost effective and timely manner,” Bruckner said.
The project to demolish the former market and replace it with an Alliance College-Ready Middle Academy can now move forward, he said.
Gonzalez’s redesign of the high school’s exterior creates a mural centered courtyard in front of the high school. The murals will be moved back about 10-feet so people can view the panels without having to cross the street, Nuñez said, adding that Green will continue to consult on the engineering portion of the project. The developer will partially pay for the project. They hope TO complete the plans and budget by January, she said.
Nuñez said this Plaza La Primera is the first step toward executing Gonzalez’s revitalization plan for First Street to become “Plaza La Primera Avenida de los Murales and Chicano Art Walk,” a cultural destination for tourists. Merchants can carry artwork for visitors to purchase, she said.
The coalition’s appeal set back the demolition of the market, originally scheduled to begin last summer. A new construction schedule for the middle school hasn’t been finalized but the work could begin at the end of this year, Pacific Charter School Development (PCSD) President and CEO Eli Kennedy told EGP.
“The team is going forward with a solution that is great for East LA, students and the preservation of a wonderful piece of art,” Kennedy said.
In a written statement, Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools President and CEO Judy Burton said: “We are pleased to work with the artists of the First Street Mural to preserve their beautiful mural, The Story of Our Struggle. As a school focused on the arts, the mural gives us the opportunity to use this piece of art as part of our educational mission. The mural will expose young adults to art firsthand and enhance their appreciation of the art around them. We are excited that the mural will be a real historical and educational resource for our students and our community.”
The project could serve as a model for how people can come together to work in the best interest of all the parties involved, Nunez said.
“We are really thrilled that everyone has come around to make this happen,” she said.