Fighting Los Angeles Gentrification with Artists’ Winged Murals
The City’s of Angels’ selective involvement in the arts inadvertently created one of its poorest districts today. The solution? Bring art to the streets. The real streets.
The city of Angeles has an equity problem, an issue intensified by its selective involvement in the arts. At the turn of the century Gallery Row blossomed into a flourishing arts district with steadily rising rent throttles — and its neighbor, Skid Row, slid further into poverty.
If city planners and volunteer groups hope to build a better community in Los Angeles’ poorest district, we must understand how these neighboring corridors grew in drastically different ways. We must also increase arts program funding for this forgotten corner of South Los Angeles, because this may be the only way to bring community to the streets of Skid Row.
While Gallery Row off Grand and Hope Street in Los Angeles flourishes with private art enterprises, restaurants and tourist destinations, its neighbor Skid Row is better known for housing the bulk of the city’s homeless population.
These two bordering districts entered the early 2000’s on a similar with similar rent and reputation. Neither the future Downtown area or Skid Row avenues were places frequented after dark. But as businesses and real estate began to move into the streets surrounding the Museum of Modern Art (which had opened in 1979) and the Fine Arts Building (which had opened even earlier in 1927), rent in Gallery row began to rise.¹
Beginning in 2004, another change moved families and art aficionados away from the borders of Skid Row. During this time the Gallery Row Organization procured federal subsidies for fledgling businesses settling in the Gallery district, and official Downtown Los Angeles Art Walks in Gallery Row brought burgeoning creatives away from the developing border district and put an end to independent art walks in Skid Row
Past walks crackled informally within these two districts, flickering like bright lanterns on formerly suspicious streets. They lit up dark corners and changed public attitudes about these city streets at a time where the future of both areas remained uncertain.
One 2016 study by the University of California, Los Angeles analyzes the economic changes in Gallery Row and Skid Row during this period. In this analysis, urban planners Brady Collins and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris argue spontaneous art events lit up city streets “at a time when most Angelenos still avoided this downtown area because of its reputation for being dangerous and dilapidated.” They also maintain that the establishment of the ‘Gallery Row Organization’ restricted assorted art walks to the newly gentrified area above Main and Spring Street, depriving Skid Row of an important income source.¹
Gallery Row took the Downtown Los Angeles Art Walks for its own benefit. In redefining itself as a center for the arts, Gallery Row accumulated all the Art Walk’s success, and it still attracts tourists and boutiques to this day. Museums and businesses that have since moved to the area continue to ensure financial success for the opportunist district.
As Gallery Row grew wealthy, Skid Row fell even further into the shadows.
Museums are important engines of labor and social capital, but they are not a viable possibility for the City of Angels’ poorest district.²
Instead, local governments and volunteer groups need to invest in public murals in low-income areas. They need to invest both in mural research and in mural construction itself.
Murals are worth the financial risks
Murals are a component of the City Beautiful Movement, and they brighten concrete jungles without uprooting existing structures. Mural maintenance creates jobs for unemployed workers, and tourist revenue helps raise awareness for newly painted intersections.
Murals are a part of California’s past, and both their creation and their destruction serve to create jobs outside the art field. The Olympics created a mural market in Los Angeles that has only grown with the age of social media. Los Angeles spent $75,000 on a series of Olympic murals covering sections of the 110 Freeway that “received more publicity, more public recognition, and more leasing interest than from any other element of the entire [Olympic] budget” of $125 million.³
Visitors can still see these murals Los Angeles today. California Department of Transportation maintenance crews cleaned up 32.4 million square feet of graffiti in 2014, and the city spends about $7 million on graffiti removal annually.⁴ Multitudes of murals are a sign of good times, that businesses can afford the means to keep their walls bright and intact. They increase community morale, and they may work to decrease vandalism in disadvantaged districts.
Graffiti is an especially potent problem in Skid Row. Vandalism leads to higher insurance rates, higher perceived danger, white flight and higher costs for passing anti-graffiti legislation. But research shows that street art may decrease the amount of neighborhood graffiti.
Congressman Jose Huizar, who worked to revoke the ban on Los Angeles murals that lasted from 2003 to 2014, actively supports murals in CD14 because he believes murals serve a role opposite of the ‘broken window theory.’⁵ This means that one mural in the neighborhood encourages the proliferation of more street art. In fact, the Skid Row City Limit mural that received a lot of publicity in 2014 still stood in 2019 when it was recorded by Google Maps — it likely still stands today. Murals by many accounts seem to deter graffiti, which could help Los Angeles save money in the long term.
Researcher Penelope Craw and her team found that murals exhibited lower rates of graffiti than neighboring blank walls, and they suggested that street art reduces visibility for new vandalism.⁶ Future studies may determine that covering cityscapes with vivid color neutralizes the costs of graffiti removal. In a city known for its vibrant arts community, Los Angeles policymakers must make it their mission to research mural economics and determine where art can make the most difference in diverse communities.
Designers and muralists are important. They have the power to redirect our first impressions of a place or policy, much in the same way murals can give neighborhoods a sense of place or community. In New York, property rates rise by 10 to 15 percent when districts encourage street art.⁷ Clearly, murals change how visitors perceive a town or intersection. But in making art more accessible to the streets of Skid Row, we must take care not to follow the same mistakes that benefited Los Angeles’ Gallery District. Skid Row needs public funding for murals, and its residents need assurance that their rent will not skyrocket should new sketches appear on the streets below.
Even though Los Angeles has made headway in supporting public art since 2014 when it introduced a new permitting process for Los Angeles murals, most of the support for these public art pieces comes from volunteer organizations.⁵ These organizations cannot populate Skid Row with murals without continued funding because their focus lies on mural maintenance first and painting subsequent murals second.
Murals are tricky because according to The Washington Post, a 10-foot mural can range anywhere from $8,000 to $20,000. This accounts for as much as 20 percent of average annual income for small businesses across the United States.⁸ City planners cannot expect to place this sum on taxpayers in Skid Row, and businesses in Skid Row will need outside funding to support underemployed artists.⁹ ¹⁰
Additionally, while these art pieces may draw attention from visitors and Instagram feeds, there is very little statistical evidence linking murals to increased business revenue. In order to convince business owners to support murals in areas long plagued by graffiti, the City of Los Angeles needs to back up future mural programs with research.
The mural research market remains wide open, and with so many questions unanswered.
Where will murals reap the most social benefits?
Are these projects worth the financial risk?
How many jobs do murals generate?
Which subject matter best appeals to viewers and residents?
Which sort of businesses do murals and public art displays attract?
With further proof that City Beautiful murals work, Los Angeles can better determine which communities can most benefit from inspiring street art projects.
Calling All Artists
Luckily for Los Angeles, we are a city of artists. Out of a population of approximately one million people, over 96,150 individuals living in Los Angeles pursue careers connected to the arts.¹¹
About one-third of self-declared California artists make under $15,000 a year.¹¹ This will change if city planners conduct research and encourage artists to use their skills to better their own communities. This means that Skid Row artists should work to decorate Skid Row, and that South Los Angeles artists should paint their respective neighborhoods. Los Angeles has made great headway in restoring public art in the last decade, but the city will need to increase its efforts if it hopes to reap the benefits of public art.¹²
Research will allow businesses and non-profits can to see the economic benefits of including a mural near their storefront, this will make them more likely to consider future investment in the arts. Skid Row art walks will draw visitors towards the run-down district, and comprehensive mural mapping will help tourists discover these gems hidden among crumbling city streets.
Best begin as soon as possible.
 Collins, Brady, and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris. “Skid Row, Gallery Row and the Space in Between: Cultural Revitalisation and Its Impacts on Two Los Angeles Neighbourhoods.” Town Planning Review, vol. 87, no. 4, Liverpool University Press (UK), July 2016, pp. 401–27, doi:10.3828/tpr.2016.27.
 “Museums as Economic Engines: A National Report.” American Alliance of Museums, American Alliance of Museums, The Andrew W. Melon Foundation and Oxford Economics, 2017, www.aam-us.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/American-Alliance-of-Museums-web.pdf.
 Rosenfeld, Dan. “The Financial Case for Public Art.” CityLab, CityLab, 18 Apr. 2014, www.citylab.com/design/2012/05/financial-case-public-art/2113/.
 Mendelson , Aaron. “LA Scrubs Away 30 Million Square Feet of Graffiti Each Year.” Southern California Public Radio, Southern California Public Radio, 10 Sept. 2015, www.scpr.org/news/2015/09/10/54285/la-scrubs-away-30-million-square-feet-of-graffiti/.
 “Arts & Culture.” Jose Huizar, 24 Jan. 2019, www.josehuizar.com/arts-and-culture/.
 Craw, Penelope J., et al. “The Mural as Graffiti Deterrence.” Sage Publications, Sage Publications and the University of Michigan, 2006, willsull.net/la597/resources/14-March/6-Craw-et-al.-2006.pdf.
Forte, Fabiana and De Paola, Pierfrancesco. “How Can Street Art Have Economic Value?” Sustainability, vol. 11, no. 3, MDPI AG, Jan. 2019, doi:10.3390/su11030580.
 “Los Angeles, CA Rental Market Trends.” Apartments for Rent — RENTCafé, Rent Cafe, 2019, www.rentcafe.com/average-rent-market-trends/us/ca/los-angeles/.
 Hubbell, Diana. “Street Art Has Become a Global Business — and Artists Are Worrying over Its Future.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 7 Apr. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/news/going-out-guide/wp/2018/08 /31/street-art-has-become-a-global-business-now-artists-are-worrying-over-its-future/.
 Attard, Janet. “Small Business Annual Sales — How Much Money Do They Make?” Business Know How, Business Know-How, 24 Nov. 2019, www.businessknowhow.com/money/earn.htm.
 Gallegos, Emma G. “Los Angeles Is An Artist’s Haven, Census Says.” LAist, LAist, 29 June 2013, laist.com/2013/06/29/study_los_angeles_is_an_artists_hav_1.php.
 Garcetti, Eric. “Proposed Budget as Presented by Mayor Eric Garcetti.” City Administrative Officer, City Administrative Officer, 2018, cao.lacity.org/budget19–20/2019–20Proposed_Budget.pdf.