Planning officials have approved a project to demolish the former First Street Store in unincorporated East Los Angeles, making way for a new charter high school. Fears that the demolition would destroy a massive mural on the building can be laid to rest, since all parties involved in the project have agreed to conserve and reinstall the panels on the building’s reconstructed façade once it is complete.
According to Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools President and CEO Judy Burton, demolition and construction are not expected to in early 2014.
In the meantime, efforts are now underway to explore the best possible way to remove and store “The History of Our Struggle,” an 18-panel tile mural created in 1974 that sequentially depicts events in Chicano history.
The murals could be removed in about six months, according to Eli Kennedy, the project developer, president and CEO of Pacific Charter School Development (PCSD), and Alliance’s vice president of real estate, Megan Hadden.
The former department store site will house the Alliance Media Arts and Entertainment Design High School, currently located on Whittier and Atlantic Boulevards in East Los Angeles where it operates out of a collection of portable classrooms.
Construction of a new Alliance middle school on an adjacent lot on East 1st Street, where a market was demolished earlier this year, should be completed by August, Hadden told EGP on Tuesday.
Efforts to “Save the First Street Store” mural, which began with the collection of thousands of signatures on a petition, concluded when the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning approved plans for the high school that included preservation of the mural in May.
At the meeting, artists who had fought vehemently to protect the mural, expressed joy and gratitude that it would be preserved for new generations to see and explore.
David Botello, who with two other artists helped design the mural, called the school site project “a life-long dream come true.” He said he would love to pass his knowledge on to students at the school if given the opportunity.
The mural’s architectural designer, Johnny D. González, also known as “Don Juan,” told the commission he thinks its “fantastic” that Alliance high school students would be exposed to the mural, Chicano history and the potential rebirth of the First Street corridor.
“I’ve been talking to a lot of the businesses on First Street and the businesses are really hurting in the area. They’re just really anxious to get going with this because they feel this is going to bring a chance and motivation to the other businesses to enhance the area,” said González, one of the most vocal proponents of saving the mural in it’s current execution. Plans originally called for removing the mural panels and erecting them out of order across the campus.
González says during the 1970s he envisioned a cultural heritage tourism initiative that would bring visitors to the stretch of East LA where the First Street Store, then the only department store in the area, was bustling with business.
Numerous artists are lauding the mural preservation as a nod to East Los Angeles’ Chicano/Jewish legacy. While Jewish individuals who grew up in the area supported the conservation campaign, no Jewish organizations, per se, were involved in the effort, despite the original mural wall being the result of a Jewish/Chicano collaboration.
More than four decades ago González approached the First Street Store’s Jewish owner, Bob Kemp, with his designs for the mural. Soon after the Chicano Moratoriums and the death of L.A. Times reporter Ruben Salazar in 1970, Kemp gave the go ahead to create the mural, which González said “may be the largest monument honoring the Chicano/Mexican/Latino culture and community.”
“The Story of Our Struggle” was completed in 1974, completely transforming the store, according to González, who credits the mural for launching Los Angeles into becoming the mural capital of the world.
The importance and beauty of the mural has been recognized in recent years by UCLA, the Fowler Museum during the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time, and in a Time Magazine article about the Chicano Art Culture renaissance, according to the Save the First Street Store Building coalition spokesperson, Irma Beserra Núñez.
González, Botello and Robert Arenivar designed the mural, which has both artistic and sentimental value to many artists and others, but is not listed in any federal, state or local historical registry.
Botello confessed to EGP that he is not looking forward to demolition of the building, where he has many fond memories of shopping with his grandfather and family, but expressed hope that future generations will be able to enjoy the mural.
In compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), a study was conducted and concluded that the project could have significant impact to the cultural resources of the area, but with mitigation, the impact would be less than significant. A notice of intent to adopt a mitigated negative declaration and the notice of public hearing was publicized on April 22, but no public comments were received during the 30-day period, according to County Planner Alice Wong.
On the exterior, the new state-of-the-art high school will resemble the former First Street Store in its California Mission architectural design. The murals, however, will be elevated and set back about 10 feet from their current position on the sidewalk so visitors can admire it without straining their necks. Gone will be the glass windows and doors, planters will be placed along the exterior. The new school design will also include a large educational plaza with seating and an Aztec pyramid fountain designed by Gonzalez. Bilingual plaques and lighting will also enhance the mural.
The twenty-two-classroom school will serve up to 600 high school students and employ 30 faculty members, according to the May 22 commission meeting transcripts. The middle school and high school will share an off-site parking lot, satisfying parking requirements. Measures to reduce traffic that will potentially be caused by the opening of the new high school were also approved.
County Regional Planning Director Richard Bruckner told EGP the project’s approval was one of those “rare instances when everyone wins.”
“The project will result in a new high quality educational institution for the families of the neighborhood, it will result in the art work being preserved and a space that in my estimation will be much improved from what is there today,” Bruckner told EGP, explaining the building will be structurally safe and visitors will have better access to the murals.
Alliance is charged with documenting and moving the murals and has engaged professional mural conservationists to evaluate the best practices for removing, storing and reinstalling the mural, Bruckner said. The charter school operator was very gracious in their negotiations and the outcome, and the artists equally forthcoming, he added.
Alliance’s Burton said the nine months of negotiations worked out an arrangement that met everyone’s needs: “We are very happy to be able to reach an agreement that everyone is happy with.”
It is unclear how long the mural removal will take, but demolition of the building will begin soon after, Hadden said.
Kennedy told EGP that everyone sacrificed a lot due to scarce resources. Kennedy reiterated that the original intention all along was to save the murals, and said the building’s design changed a lot during the negotiations. “We are extremely happy and looking forward to getting it started,” he said, referring to the construction.
Members of the coalition also expressed gratitude for the cooperation of Supervisor Gloria Molina’s office, as well as the LA Conservancy and Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles.