Arts Groups Worried About Hollywood Gentrification

Redevelopment in Hollywood is changing the face of a fabled, formerly gritty Los Angeles neighborhood. City officials say they're halfway through a 40-year effort toward achieving the landscape they want. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez reports that some arts leaders fear redevelopment may erase what makes Hollywood unique.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: Twenty years ago, tourists near Hollywood and Vine had to step over sleeping homeless people for a look at the stars on the Walk of Fame. Nightfall turned Hollywood Boulevard into a dangerous place.

Today, crowds pack nightclubs till the early morning hours. Sparkling new developments anchor Hollywood's main intersections. The changes look terrific. But they worry a couple of dozen people who gathered recently at a storefront gallery.

Susan Gray (speaking to crowd): Thank you so much for coming here this morning.

Guzman-Lopez: Susan Gray of L.A.'s Community Redevelopment Agency addressed managing directors of theater companies, financial officers of arts education groups, and museum directors.

In recent years, Hollywood's publicly supported, multi-billion dollar makeover has pushed arts organizations out. Open Fist Theatre Company Artistic Director Martha Demson said about a dozen groups have already left. She was one of the first to sound an alarm at City Hall.

Martha Demson: It seemed that with all the energy to redevelop Hollywood, all the energy going into things like Hollywood & Highland, all the money getting focused there, it's been good for, you know, attracting back commercial businesses, but the theaters and the nonprofit arts organizations, and education groups and music groups, they're all going to be forced out, either just die altogether or forced into more marginal neighborhoods.

Guzman-Lopez: A few years ago the owner of Open Fist's space asked the company to leave so he could develop the property. The group found a space. But it's paying almost three times the rent. A board member pledged to pick up half that cost for two years, but that time's up in a few months.

Open Fist is one of 13 groups the redevelopment agency has chosen to help. The first step is a survey of each group's space requirements and budget. Kip Rudd, a planner for the redevelopment agency, said it helps to locate enlightened developers.

Kip Rudd: We're getting developers who are actually very much interested in having interesting tenants in their space, and nothing's more interesting than a theater that has, or an exhibit space, or something that has culture attached to it.

Guzman-Lopez: At the Hollywood meeting, the Community Redevelopment Agency announced its first victory. A program that gives free music lessons to underprivileged kids will move into a 103-year-old craftsman house at Wilcox and Fountain Avenues. The agency brokered the deal and will help rehab the property and secure a low-rent, long-term lease.

With one project down and 12 to go, some arts administrators wonder how much longer they can hold out.

[Sound of power tools]

Guzman-Lopez: Stage crews built sets on a recent Tuesday for West Coast Ensemble Theatre's upcoming production of "Zanna Don't" at its Silver Lake theater. Its new theater is so small, Associate Artistic Director Richard Israel joked, that first row audiences for the musical may have to duck.

Richard Israel: We're trying to eke out 60 seats and it's really challenging. The actual room of the theater is – I want to say it's 35 by, well I don't even want to quote it because I'll misquote it, and that'll be bad, but – it's small.

Guzman-Lopez: West Coast's former landlord was a theater patron, Israel said. Developers approached her many times seeking to buy the property. She said no, until two years ago.

The move has hurt the company. It's lost members, and it can't stage the kind of productions that built its reputation.

The opposite is true for Actors' Gang, another company redevelopment pushed out of Hollywood.

[Sound of actors singing in rehearsal]

Guzman-Lopez: Actors with the company rehearsed the comedy "Gulliver's Travels" in its refurbished 99-seat theater in Culver City.

Actors' Gang has occupied many homes, from downtown L.A. storefronts to a Hollywood warehouse on a sketchy stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard. About two years ago, that property's owner sold the building.

The company's directors appealed to L.A. city officials for help. Officials in Culver City got word of the theater company's predicament, and bent over backwards to bring the company to their downtown.

Founding company member Cynthia Ettinger loves the Culver City space and the relationship with city officials. She compared all of that to her dealings with L.A. City Hall.

Cynthia Ettinger: We did for many, many, many years get all of these certificates from the city, and it would always be like, "oh you know what, the Actors' Gang!" I just remember – I have a whole file of [expletive] certificates we got from the city of Los Angeles, but there was no actual support.

Guzman-Lopez: A spokesman for L.A. Councilman Eric Garcetti challenged Ettinger's version of the events. The councilman, the spokesman said, was willing to work on building the company a new theater when Culver City swooped in.

Some arts leaders hope they'll benefit from L.A.'s other efforts to keep arts groups in Hollywood. Others say Los Angeles needs to do a better job of nurturing the small arts organizations that give Hollywood its unique flavor and make it an attractive place to visit and live.