A Revitalized Downtown: East Village Arts District

January 28, 2011 14 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

I never really liked where I have lived for the last fifteen years until I spent more time in Jacksonville, Florida. While a bit of an oxymoron, I have a vacation home in Historic Springfield, purchased three and a half years ago. I love the simplicity, I love the people, and I love the peacefulness of living in the neighborhood. And the obvious: I love the old houses.

What I would like to love is a vibrant downtown that is connected to Main Street in Springfield and north past the Trout River, a more walkable neighborhood with reliable public transportation, and bike (the kind you pedal) friendly streets.

For the last 15+ years Long Beach, California has embraced revitalization and art. What started slow has spiraled into an uncontrollable outpouring of cleanliness, art, revitalization, and an embracement of businesses big and small.  Redevelopment dollars have been used extensively and wisely through not just downtown, but throughout all of the blighted areas of the entire city of Long Beach. It is indeed the Redevelopment Agency's  mission:  “to enhance the quality of life by improving blighted areas of Long Beach, revitalizing neighborhoods, promoting economic development, creating jobs, providing affordable housing and encouraging citizen participation.”

The Arts Council of Long Beach, established in 1976 by the city of Long Beach, has been pivotal in the revitalization. They are a 501 (3) (c) that receives city contracts, and support from individuals, corporations, and foundations. One of their primary programs in their mission statement is “public art.”  Most definitely, art is abounding in the city.  Murals, sculptures, creative fencing, temporary art installations, and mosaic tile benches and pieces are on near every corner, public right of way, and vacant lot (there are very few,) in the city.  Each piece of art is absolutely unique and made locally by resident artists.  What Jacksonville dubs as graffiti, Long Beach embraces as art, and pays to have it adorn the sides of buildings, electrical boxes on the curb, and yup, sidewalks.

Downtown Jacksonville.  My first impressions near four years ago are still the same today, just with more understanding.  Quite simply, downtown can be described as “abandoned blight.”  Rundown, desolate, barren, nothing there, and what is there you don't wish to go to because it has nothing to offer you.  Pockets of beauty, but no connectivity.  Too many empty lots.  Too much history lost.  Probably not the fairest assessment, but let's be honest, I'm not too far off.

So herein lies a relevant example of what a neighborhood, like Springfield, so close to downtown COULD be.   And truth, just because Springfield is in my heart, the East Village of Long Beach is a good example of any neighborhood in very close proximity to downtown Jacksonville could be.

About East Village Arts District

A 30-block area, in the east section of Downtown Long Beach, was designated as an “arts district” in 1998 by the Redevelopment Agency.  In 2001, the East Village Arts District Inc., was incorporated to represent the district's businesses and residents, and this non-profit agency has helped this area grow.  This group strives to be “a catalyst for the expression of everyone in Long Beach and the surrounding areas who have a voice,” and strives to “keep an artistic and independent culture alive in the city.”

Long Beach's East Village Arts neighborhood is a great place to take a walking tour to see the public art and 1920 architecture.  This area is experiencing a gentrification which means that there is a mix of buildings and businesses, some old, some newly restored.  Coffee houses for the young, hip residents sit side by side with barbershops for their longtime East Village neighbors.  But the public art makes it more than just another gentrifying neighborhood.

The History of the East Village

A group of eight brown frame buildings – art shops, studios, and private art schools = in a rustic setting at the corner of Ocean Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue, known as the “Wayside Colony” was established in 1922 by James C. Savery.  Savery, a prominent businessperson and patron of the arts had been in Paris during the war and wanted to bring an arts community to Long Beach.  The Colony housed wood and metal workers, glassblowers, painters, weavers, musicians and dancers.  Artist’s works were on display and demonstrations were encouraged, china painting and rug making could be watched by those passing by.  A restaurant was part of the Colony as well.  

James Savery died in 1931, but it is said that the Wayside Colony continued through the 1930sand into the 1940s.

The East Village Today

East Village Arts District is the name of the eastern half of Downtown Long Beach, California.  The borders are Ocean Boulevard to the south, Long Beach Boulevard to the west, 7th Street to the north, and Alamitos Avenue to the east.  In 2007, the border of the East Village was expanded north to 10th Street.  

The East Village is a mix of many different housing types, including high-rise condos, artist lofts and small craftsman cottages, as well as people of [sic] many different cultures, income levels, and professions.  The neighborhood has many independent stores selling everything from designer denim and specialty sneakers to used books and mid-century furniture.  There are coffee shops which serve food, and restaurants featuring everything from crepes and sushi to chicken n' waffles.  The East Village is also the city's arts district, with most of the independent shops, restaurants and galleries exhibiting work by Long Beach and Southern Californian artists.  

Besides the regular bus services going to other parts of Long Beach, Long Beach Transit has a free Village Tour D'art going through the East Village that stops at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center and the Long Beach Sports Arena (which has one of Wyland's Whaling Walls,) the 1926 Art Deco Breakers Hotel, the Museum of Latin American Art, the Oceanic Art Museum and gallery, several local historical churches, the City Place and Long Beach Promenade shopping centers and the restaurants and shops on Pine Avenue in the West Village.  

The East Village Arts District is home to the Second Saturday Art Walk every month, featuring art receptions and special events in the shop and galleries of the District.

The East Village Arts District is also home to Soundwalk, a unique sound art festival, which began in 2004.  Soundwalk is a series of site specific sound installations and sound art performances and attracts renowned sound artists from around the world.

An important piece to bring light to is the Redevelopment Agency of Long Beach.  This department proves that positive use can come from redevelopment funds.  They include the community, post and update regularly their website page, and do MORE than they talk about doing.  They partner on many projects with the Arts Council.  They make change happen, and it looks damn good too.  You can check out all their plans and proposals at www.longbeachrda.org, they are impressive and worth the look.  They were instrumental in the development of the former “Pike” of Downtown Long Beach to its modern day interpretation of an entertainment and restaurant mecca and City Place/Promenade shopping centers in the heart of downtown, which touches the East Village.  

It is also important to mention the connectedness of Long Beach neighborhoods.  One of the most exciting programs to come out of the city is the Atlantic Street Corridor Project.  Connecting “downtown to the top of the city,” a full 8 miles of revitalization, Atlantic Avenue takes you through a mix of residential neighborhoods, two high schools, two hospitals, scores of businesses, and six of the nine City Council districts.  A trip on Atlantic Avenue shows clearly how diverse the city is.

This project, lead by local neighborhood visionary leaders that began four years ago, is applauded as one of the most ambitious community projects in the city's history.  The purpose?  For businesses and community groups up and down the Corridor to transform a series of diverse neighborhoods into one connected community.  The Atlantic Corridor at its south end is in the East Village Arts District, and at its north end, in North Long Beach, it border's Compton, CA.  (Summarized from www.longbeachmagazine.com, January 2011 issue)  Another important note is that Long Beach is a city that tends to include rather than exclude.  Groups don't argue about which side of the street belongs to who.  They simply embrace and include.  

There is always something going on in Long Beach.  Despite working downtown for the last 10 years, I honestly didn't pay too much attention until researching redevelopment and revitalization in downtown.  When things happen here, they don't take 10,000 years to complete.  Work happens daily, without delay, until the job gets done.  The city and its community groups and agencies take responsibility for making Long Beach a great city to live, work, and play in.  They don't point fingers, they don't look the other way, they work together and make good things happen.  And here is a mind blowing concept.  THEY COMMUNICATE!  I must too make a strong supporting “whoot whoot” for the nine council members of Long Beach.  They get it, they are aware, and they listen to their neighborhoods and actively lead a multitude of unique programs for the betterment of their hood.  Sounds pretty perfect and the ironic thing is I would not have ever had this epiphany had I never spent extended time in Jacksonville.   Jacksonville can learn from Long Beach.  I say it's time to learn, aw hell, its past time to learn, time to get out there and just do it.

Article and photos by Nicole Lopez