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An Anti-War Sculpture Is the Latest Battleground in LA's Gentrification War

The Santa Monica City Council is attempting to remove an anti-war sculpture on public property, ostensibly to make way for lucrative redevelopment. The fight over the sculpture is a microcosm of LA's greatest issue in the 21st century: how to gentrify...
January 31, 2014, 10:45pm

"If you don't like it here, you're free to leave," is a constant refrain for those who don't like to hear criticism of their city. I love Los Angeles, and I actively want to see it improve, but what people usually do when they get fed up with LA is exactly what people tell them to do. They move as far away from the central city as they can while still being able to enjoy the ample benefits of the city. Because of this unchecked suburban growth, when people reference “Los Angeles,” it doesn’t just mean the city limits of LA.

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The Los Angeles metro area includes independent municipalities like Beverly Hills, Culver City, Pasadena, West Hollywood, and Santa Monica. It’s often the case that these cities were formed—or thrived—as an alternative to the civic dysfunction of LA. In the 1960s and 1970s, Santa Monica became known as a haven for left-leaning, progressive politics and counter-cultural movements, far from the reactionary, prying eyes of LA’s city council and police department.

Those unrepentant hippies didn't leave after the rest of America stopped seeing not bathing as a virtue. They planted their freak flag firmly, and the "People's Republic of Santa Monica" was born. One of the many symbols of that progressive history is Chain Reaction, a sculpture donated to the city by Paul Conrad, a noted political cartoonist. Santa Monica City Councilman Robert Holbrook recently likened the piece to a “golf tee,” but the actual image it intends to evoke is something far more sinister.

It’s a bunch of metal chains welded together to look like a nuclear mushroom cloud. Conrad, like many old school Santa Monicans, was vehemently anti-war and terrified of the potential of nuclear conflict between the great powers of the world. In the early 90s, Conrad gave his sculpture to the city, which gladly accepted it and placed it adjacent to the Santa Monica Civic Center.

Photo via Flickr User euthman

This naturally leads to plenty of strange bedfellows for all involved. It’s a bit of a middle finger to the “establishment” and a symbol of ironic disobedience for the remaining liberal residents of the city, which is why, some say, the Santa Monica City Council is so eager to see it removed.

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Under the guise of public safety concerns, the City Council stated they had to spend $400,000 to renovate the sculpture to keep children from climbing on it and falling to a grisly demise. In the over 20 years since the city took possession of the sculpture, there have been no injuries, but this fact hasn’t kept opponents of Chain Reaction like Councilman Holbrook and Mayor Pat O’Connor from publically claiming that the statue is a danger to citizens.

The movement to tear down Chain Reaction is indicative of a greater cultural shift at play in the western half of Los Angeles County. Santa Monica has slowly morphed into something that its long-time, long-haired residents don’t recognize. Large-scale residential developments and upscale malls are replacing the intimate, small-town feel that used to define the community.

A new light rail line to the beach is about to connect Santa Monica to the rest of Los Angeles in a way that most thought was impossible a couple decades ago. In this climate of rapid cultural and economic evolution, the Santa Monica City Council is taking steps to make their municipality even friendlier to redevelopment. The Civic Center area is a prime target for building, and a giant metal mushroom cloud is not considered a great amenity.

A group calling itself "Save Chain Reaction" has been trying to raise the funds the city claims it needs to refurbish the statue. I joined them for one of their meetings at Bergamot Station, a collection of art galleries near an old trolly terminal. Sarah Mason, a member of the group whose image was the basis for the cover of Time magazine's Person of the Year issue honoring the Occupy Wall Street protests, is well aware of the importance of having a sense of place.

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“I think that what the thing that was so important about Occupy, and this became really apparent after all the camps were broken up, is how important physical space was in developing a center for political discussion, planning, coordinating, debate. We don't’ have spaces like that available to us. Is [a shopping mall] a cultural center? Is that where people go to congregate?” Sarah said. “People that are making the decisions about development, and what is and isn’t art, they have big buildings all over the world. They have nothing but space to congregate and meet. And they do. They meet for weeks at a time. In Dubai and in Switzerland. And they’ve really got a vision and plans and all the space to think about them and carry them out."

Robert Berman, a gallery owner at Bergamot who played host to the meeting I attended, symbolized the fuzzy rebel spirit that made Santa Monica's reputation as a socialist paradise. There's a conspiracy theorist's mania to Robert. To him and many other Santa Monica progressives, there was always another layer I was missing, a shadowy player who was really puling the strings in this story. “[Councilman Holbrook] hates it, and he doesn’t want it there—he wants it gone, but he says, Eli Broad, when he was going to make a museum there, said, 'if that thing stays, I’m not going to build my museum.' Implying that it’s a piece of junk in Eli’s eyes,” Robert said.

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There would be no Disney Hall without wealthy philanthropists to make it happen. Photo via Flickr User smilygrl

Eli Broad basically owns or directly influences most of the cultural institutions of Los Angeles. He made his fortune building suburban tract homes in far-flung desert areas like Palmdale, Valencia, and Lancaster. He inadvertently helped move thousands of people out of LA and into the hinterlands, further devestating the city's tax base in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Now, he's known as the savior of urban LA. He's a major patron of the Museum of Contemporary Art and LA County Museum of Art, he was instrumental in helping to get Walt Disney Concert Hall built. To many in this city, he's the one every government official in the County has to genuflect to when he decides to build something.

In a three-way competition for a museum/monument to Broad's contemporary art collection, Santa Monica seemed to be the runaway winner compared to Beverly Hills and Los Angeles. At the last minute, Broad chose Los Angeles, and his Broad Museum is currently being erected in Downtown LA, much to the chagrin of people like Councilman Holbrook and Mayor O'Connor. Whether or not Eli Broad or any other powerful developer had a say in the Chain Reaction controversy is an open question. Councilman Holbrook and Mayor O'Connor ignored multiple requests for comment on this story. The tide is turning on Chain Reaction, with $100,000 raised to donate to the city for their requested repairs. The City Council will vote on February 25 to decide if they will accept the donation and front the rest of the costs of fixing the statue.

These issues are not intrinsic to Los Angeles or its neighboring municipalities. Every major city in America struggles with the loss of civic identity in the face of rapid gentrification. The New York City mayoral race that just ended was essentially a referendum on the modern American city. That city is unaffordable, hip, low on crime, but high on cultural resentment and tension. Still, without the truly wealthy, there would be no public art, no great architecture, and, well, no cities. This is Michael Bloomberg's grand point: without wealthy people paying taxes and donating to causes, New York would be a giant prison and LA would be Blade Runner.

The consequence of that is American cities are beginning to resemble the playgrounds of the hyper-wealthy like Dubai and Switzerland that Sarah talked to me about. LA's challenge, and the challenge of all American metropolitan areas is finding a balance between the safety of gentrification and the very real need to allow people of all classes room to mingle. In order to create the city we all want to see here in LA, the average Angelino has to do more to let their voice be heard. They should start with actually voting, and go from there. Los Angeles Is Miserable was never just about slamming the city. It was about trying to make this place better by pinpointing what's wrong.

Just like it always has, the city will keep moving regardless of what we do. People in LA get restless. It's in our nature. This story will continue to be told over and over again, just in different places. As Sarah Mason put it, “Echo Park could just as easily face the sort of situation that Santa Monica and Venice are facing now, because at the root of it is people that are interested in the value of property."

@dave_schilling