Downtown’s Bendix Building Has Become a Haven for Artists Priced Out of the Arts District

The iconic 1929 structure has become one of L.A.’s few vertical art spaces

Haylee Nichele is bounding around the penthouse office of the Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre atop the 11-story Bendix Building in downtown L.A.’s Fashion District. As the dancer moves out onto the terrace, 50 or so guests—among them a smattering of artists and gallerists who have studio space in the building—watch her performance beneath the night sky and a vertical red-neon BENDIX sign with a massive, 25-foot-tall B. Part of a series of salons the dance company hosts in the 1929 structure, it’s the sort of evening that would have been almost unthinkable in the Bendix not all that long ago. The tower originally housed the Bendix Aviation Corporation, maker of brakes, aviation pressure carburetors, and the like. Over the years its tenants included the Federal Housing Administration, the regional offices of the Boy Scouts of America, and the Wilshire Oil Company before the building became home almost exclusively to garment companies in the 1980s.

 

These days roughly half the tenants are related to the art world, a demographic shift that’s in step with the bigger changes taking place in downtown L.A. With rents rising ever higher in the Arts District, the 100-block Fashion District—home to more than 4,000 companies, most of them clothing businesses—has become a new “It” spot. Justin Weiss, vice president of brokerage at Kennedy Wilson, prefers to call the neighborhood “the next frontier” in downtown’s renaissance.

Over the past three years the Bendix has become home to six galleries and around three dozen artist studios, many if not all of them lured by attractive rents. “I didn’t think it was possible to get a studio for a dollar a square foot,” says artist Matt Lipps, who set up there three years ago. (Rents at higher-end locations in the Fashion District can run from $2.50 to $4 a square foot.) “Everything was brand new: the walls, the electrical outlets, the lighting. The floors are polished cement. It’s what you imagine a downtown artist studio is like.” (Naturally, there’s a new yoga studio in the building as well.)

PØST gallery moved to the Bendix in 2015 from its longtime space in the Arts District after its landlord doubled the rent. Cole Case, a painter, relocated his studio after Virgin Hyperloop One took over his building in the Arts District. “The places where artists can afford to live and work started to get snapped up,” says Case, who feels he “lucked out” to find space at the Bendix. Another tenant, Track 16 gallery, decamped from Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station to make way for the Expo Line, while the nonprofit gallery JOAN recently left West Adams because of rent increases.

That they’ve all come to the Maple Avenue property isn’t happenstance. Attracting artists is part of the plan by Steve Hirsh, whose family has owned the building since the 1970s. “Steve knew that creatives were being pushed out of affordable space [elsewhere],” says Mona Sangkala, who handles leasing in the Bendix. Hirsh, who at 64 manages the family’s portfolio, describes himself as being “not a huge collector but a huge appreciator” of the arts, and he worked with an art advisor to find tenants. “He’s genuinely very into this,” maintains Lipps, who says his landlord has stopped into his studio to say hello.

In short order, Hirsh has established one of L.A.’s few vertical arts spaces. There’s the Beacon Arts Building in Inglewood and the Brewery Arts Complex in Lincoln Heights, but neither boasts the Bendix’s height, downtown address, or pedigree.

“It’s this very prominent, high building, and there’s this history of it having been built by a woman,” says tenant and Viennese painter Katherina Olschbaur. She’s referring to Bendix developer Florence Casler. In the 1920s Casler stood out in the male-dominated commercial real estate business, putting together an empire that came to include at least ten downtown buildings worth an estimated $7 million in 1926. And she didn’t skimp. For the Bendix, she hired architect William Douglas Lee, who designed the Chateau Marmont and the El Royale apartments the same year. Lee ornamented the building’s Gothic façade with bas-relief male figures next to words such as Progress, Education, and Invention, and installed large windows that offer sweeping views of downtown. The top floor, which the dance company shares with a public relations firm, is extravagantly decorated with vaulted beamed ceilings, a large fireplace, and a mint green-tiled bathroom—the handiwork of Carl Jules Weyl, the architect turned art director responsible for the Hollywood Brown Derby restaurant and the Oscar-winning art direction of 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. “I love L.A., and it’s a very exciting moment with these gorgeous buildings getting renovated,” says painter Gary Brewer, one of the first artists to move into the building, almost four years ago.

Walk around the area day or night and you wouldn’t sense that a wave of development is on the way in the Fashion District. At ground level it is still mostly discount and fast fashion joints populated by people on the hunt for bargains and sample sales. It’s mostly desolate after dusk, the way much of downtown used to be, except for the occasional nights when some of the galleries in the Bendix coordinate their openings and 400 or 500 art lovers throng the place. Come morning, there’s the buzz of sewing machines as workers, predominantly Guatemalan women speaking a Mayan dialect, churn out everything from junior tops to quinceañera dresses for the two dozen or so fashion concerns that remain in the Bendix.

Mariela Martinez, an organizer with the nonprofit Garment Worker Center, sees the livelihood of such workers as being under threat. “These companies are being pushed out by galleries and cafés—things that don’t service the local community, which is majority working class,” she says. The culture clash goes beyond class, she adds: “The gentrification is getting closer and closer to where situations of sweatshops and wage theft are happening.”

Workers in such small sewing shops can be paid as low as four cents for each piece, according to Martinez. Employers are required to pay the minimum wage but may flout the law, knowing that workers are often undocumented and lack recourse. Since 2015 Martinez has worked on two cases citing garment manufacturing companies in the Bendix Building for allegedly paying people sub-minimum wage. While it is not a landlord’s responsibility to ascertain whether tenants pay workers, ensuring safe and clean conditions is a legal requirement.

Martinez maintains that the Bendix used to have issues with bathrooms that weren’t clean. “It’s a lot better now, but it got better because of the galleries moving in, not because of the garment workers,” she says. Hirsh’s representative, Mona Sangkala, counters, “Keeping bathrooms clean is always a challenge when there is a large number of people using the facilities.”

Photo by Matthew Anderson

Whenever a fashion company in the building decides not to continue its lease, says artist Gary Brewer, the landlord “either holds [the space], looking for a gallery, or subdivides it into spaces for artists.” What’s difficult to ascertain is whether garment manufacturers are being nudged out in favor of artists, who inevitably add monetizable cachet to a property.

A half dozen garment company owners in the Bendix that I approached declined to speak. But Hirsh—whose family also owns the Fashion District’s Cooper Design Space, home to showrooms for such brands as Alice + Olivia, 7 for All Mankind, and Isabel Marant—uses the word organic to describe the transition. “I think it’s a healthy balance of fashion and art people there now,” he says, “which I think everybody is enjoying.” Sculptor and painter Nancy Evans sums up the situation this way: “We are two different tribes,” she says of the garment workers. “I don’t know what they think about us.”

Martinez notes that what’s happening in the Bendix is happening throughout the Fashion District: “I know that a lot of factories are moving away from this area and going south to around Olympic and Soto or to South L.A.” Facing pressures from globalization, others are going farther than that. A 2011 study of the Fashion District showed that between 2003 and 2009 clothing manufacturing there declined by 50 percent. “So many of my peers have moved all of their manufacturing to China, to Indonesia, to Bali,” says fashion designer Folake Kuye Huntoon, whose line, FKSP, is made downtown.

Rising rents will no doubt be a part of everybody’s lives in the area as the Fashion District continues to transform. Two blocks from the Bendix, Rossoblu, a hot Italian restaurant that opened in the spring of 2017, shares City Market South, a redeveloped old produce market, with Cognoscenti Coffee and Dama, a new bar from the people behind Venice’s Scopa Italian Roots restaurant.

The project is part of a larger City Market development that has been in the works for years and promises to reshape the area over more than a decade. According to figures from the Business Improvement District for the neighborhood, it’s expected to have more than 7,500 residential units by 2019, compared with 2,300 now. Still more will be in a 33-story tower that’s proposed to go up on a parking lot at the corner of 7th and Maple, close to Skid Row.

Lipps notes that his rent has gone up incrementally every year since he’s moved in. One gallery owner, who wished not to be identified, is already worried he may not be able to keep up with rent hikes in the Bendix building, where most of the leases are for a year at a time. “I just got notice of a 15 percent rent increase,” says the gallerist. “I know it’s still pretty inexpensive in terms of spaces for galleries. It’s just a matter of three or five years before it’s impossible for artists to be down here in the Fashion District.”

The painter Cole Case says he fears that “at some point this could be seen as some viable property for some major international investor. But that’s one of those things that’s just kinda outta your control. And as an artist, I’ve been used to that. You move somewhere, the prices go up, you move. I don’t get angry about it. I’m just, like, ‘Well that’s the life I chose.’”

Adds fellow painter Olschbaur, “Artists in our generation live in this constant insecurity, but we tend to forget that the workers here, the women, they are a hundred times more insecure. There’s a function that we have, I think, for people who think in terms of real estate values: ‘Let the artists in first, and then the value gets higher.’ ”

If the Fashion District is the next frontier, then the area just south of it may be the next, next frontier. Fashion companies are headed there, and so are art galleries. In the past five years nine art spaces—including Night Gallery, Francois Ghebaly, Simard Bilodeau, the Mistake Room, and Mixografia—have opened south of the 10 freeway, in a largely industrial zone that runs from Central and Alameda to the edge of Boyle Heights. Christian Baert, a Swiss national, opened his Baert Gallery on a small street of warehouses of South Santa Fe Avenue below the freeway in 2016 after considering the higher rents in the Arts District.

But he still feels as though he’s not too far from the action: Soho House is set to open its Soho Warehouse nearby, on the lower edge of the Arts District, and he’s less than a mile from the massive redevelopment planned for the Sears mail-order building in Boyle Heights, where more than 1,030 residential units will join scads of retail and office space. “It’s exciting to be in this area,” he says. “Everything is changing completely.”


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