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In Defense of Watts House Project

WHP Founder Edgar Arceneaux in front of Rosa Gutierrez's house

WHP Founder Edgar Arceneaux in front of Rosa Gutierrez's house

As an advocate for social practice and a former staff and board member of the Watts House Project, I feel a responsibility to respond to the recent LA Times article lambasting the Watts House Project and the character of its founder, Edgar Arceneaux. I am no longer with the project, though I left for purely personal reasons (mainly, the birth of my daughter and the time commitment of motherhood) rather than in protest (as the article implies). Though the project has indeed been rocky over the past few years, and there are indeed residents and former board members who are critical in very valid ways, the article paints a one-sided and partial picture of a complex situation. I don’t see Watts House Project as a looming, money-rich organization that has been surreptitiously hood-winking poor people, or as the product of a free-wheeling, unreliable charismatic leader who promises more than he can deliver with an overblown sense of his own importance. Though Ms. Finkel never explicitly says this in her article, she implies as much through its structure and selected quotes. Rather, Watts House Project is a small, capacity-poor nonprofit with a wildly ambitious mission that is attempting to produce a new model for grassroots urban redevelopment. It has run into a host of permitting, financial, and interpersonal roadblocks in a very complex environment, and has had to adjust itself many, many times to maintain a responsibility to its mission and values. Are there things that it could have done better from the very beginning?  Of course. Are Edgar, the board, the residents, and the artists struggling to find a model that will work well without disastrous unintended consequences (like displacement)? Yes. Is it taking longer than anyone anticipated? Yes, certainly. And does this frustrate residents who have been working with the project since the beginning? Clearly it does.

But these issues require a loving critique, one that responsibly investigates the root causes (many environmental and institutional) and the broader context of challenges facing the project, rather than a reductive expose that blames everything on the founder. This is unfair, and lifts the responsibility to work towards success from the many people who have participated in the project in the best way they know how (including the disgruntled residents, who have been collaborators from the beginning). It plays into the very real systemic inequities and toxic territorialism that makes it so difficult for such projects to succeed in Watts. In a brief effort to unveil some of this complexity, I’d like to address a few of the points in Ms. Finkel’s article that I feel warrant further investigation.

“ONLY THREE RESIDENTS”

Ms. Finkel cites that “only three homeowners” signed up for the ambitious home renovations that would be the product of artist-architect-resident collaborations. This is misleading, as there are only 20 homes on the block, and many are rentals with absentee landlords. Watts House Project made the carefully considered decision to pilot three initial projects with only families that owned their homes, and complete only minor façade improvements on other homes. The organization was very cognizant that significant improvements to rental properties could disproportionately increase the value of the properties and displace the residents of those homes. There are several other families on the block intimately involved with the project in other ways.

HAMMER “GRANT” AND MADRIGAL PROPERTY

Initially, before the project was a non-profit, WHP focused solely on façade improvement, and its scope was only broadened to more significant home renovation after its first year. So the accusation that WHP squandered money on just a paint job and a few improvements on the Madrigal property in 2008 is highly misleading. The Hammer Museum actually asked Edgar to be part of its Artist Residency program (not simply granting the money, as Ms. Finkel’s article states) based precisely on his proposal of façade improvement for the Madrigal property, and this was what happened during the residency period. It was only later, in a completely different phase of the process and unconnected to the Hammer, that larger home renovations were discussed. It is regrettable that Noemi Madrigal had a bad experience with the shed-building process, but the shed was requested by her father Felix Madrigal (who was not interviewed for this article), the owner of the house at that time. WHP prides itself on being responsive, with homeowners as collaborators, and as the shed was identified by Felix (a handyman by trade) as the most important improvement at the time, that is the project that the organization worked on together with the family. It took six months for various reasons –it was mostly volunteer-built (which takes longer than simply hiring an expensive contractor), and included a period of time when Felix was away in Mexico for personal reasons, which halted construction.

ROSA AND THE FLOWER HOUSE

This comment in the article particularly galls me:

As for [Rocco] Landesman, [NEA Chief] reached by phone inWashington, D.C., he said he based his positive impressions on a slide show by Arceneaux as well as a tour of the block, “and it all looked good.” He also talked to one enthusiastic 107th Street resident, Rosa Gutierrez, whose home received a bright flower mural as part of the program.
He said he was not told she was on staff at Watts House Project. And he didn’t have the chance to talk to residents of the three main homes promoted as renovation projects.”

This quote implies that WHP is trying to purposefully pull one over on Landesman, and is misusing monies so as to bestow benefits upon its own staff members. The article fails to mention that Rosa received the mural in 2008 through volunteer labor and at extremely low cost (most of the paint was donated), at the same time as the improvements to the Madrigal façade. She was not hired as a part-time staff member until over a year later, and her name is clearly on the website as being part of the staff and has been since her hiring. Another sensitive issue WHP has run into is the problematic of parading of residents in front of every potential art world funder, so it has limited its “tours” to staff members and residents who have agreed to this kind of meeting. I would be more concerned if Landesman had been introduced to every single homeowner in the midst of their busy days, as if they had nothing better to do than chat with the NEA chief.

GARCIA HOUSE and LOVE HOUSE

These projects have certainly been fraught with delays, and the homeowners have experienced great frustration. Some of that has certainly been WHP’s fault, mostly promising larger plans and in a shorter time than what proved to be possible, and perhaps not having the right expertise on board from the very beginning that could navigate LA permitting and tax law, not to mention Watts politics. But there is more to the story than what was reported in the narratives describing these projects. Just something that was not mentioned:

The Garcia plans were running along fairly smoothly until it became clear that the family had an illegal structure in the back of their property where one of the family members was living. The architects proposed some solutions to allow them to continue with the other plans they had formed (permitting law is such that in order to pull certain permits, illegal structures that are not-up-to-code would have to be rectified at prohibitive cost or torn down altogether – hence the “dining pavilion” idea) but the family was not interested in pulling down that illegal structure. So the plans had to be scaled down to what was possible within LA permitting law. As well, artists Mario Ybarra, Jr. and Karla Diaz had initially planned to do an artistic fence treatment, but were thwarted when Augusto Aguirre via the Watts Towers Art Center created an admittedly lovely mosaic mural literally over one weekend (and without anyone in the family notifying the WHP or the artists). Of course the work of Ybarra and Diaz ended up being delayed – they had to start from scratch in their plans.

CONTRACTS

But really the most vitriol comes from the issue of the residential contracts. I know that discussing contractual issues in depressed areas of our city is a tinderbox topic, because so many people have been taken advantage of. So many. And perhaps because so much of the board was not from this place, they did not anticipate that moving forward in the way they did would spark such negative reactions. For the record, the board was closely split on this issue, whether or not to even present contracts with these terms to the pilot residents at all. This was a real soul-searching moment for everyone who was part of the project. In the end, the decision was made to present the contract with the model terms, and if the residents were uncomfortable, to take those terms out (this is precisely what happened with Moneik Johnson). WHP naively didn’t anticipate that this strategy would generate such negativity. Hind sight is 20/20.

However, I will staunchly defend the terms of the contract, as they go way beyond a simple compliance to tax law. The discussion about these contracts was nuanced and thoughtful (even if the way they were presented to the residents was not). Rather, the reason for these contracts was to guard against the displacement that inevitably accompanies gentrification, and to ensure that money invested into the project would be cycled back into the community itself for a continued cycle of improvement. WHP is not a pay-day lender – just a non-profit requesting a small percentage of the value invested into family homes (50% of PROFIT upon sale, only up to $50k) in order to keep that money in the community and be able to reinvest it in more homes. It requires residents who agree to these improvements to place a stake of this whole project back into their own community, to invest in their neighbors’ future, to be part of a sustainable model. I think it is a key part of the whole vision for replicative capacity of WHP, and the board paused construction for an entire year to work on it, back and forth with lawyers, back and forth amongst ourselves. It was a responsible and important discussion, and there were no precedents, so it took a long time legally to research and implement. After that beleaguered, difficult process, WHP lost sight of how it would be perceived by the pilot residents, and that was a big, big mistake. But it was not a malicious one.

However, and this bears noting, this contract issue has also since been used to drive major wedge between neighbors by the very “community leaders” that Rick Lowe advocates for in the article – perhaps because Watts House Project did not initially pay the “proper respect” required and expected. But just because people are community leaders, does not means that their motives are always pure and their agendas beyond reproach (some are, some aren’t, we all know this). This is not to say that all critique of the project stems from manipulation – some criticisms, like those of frustrated homeowners, are completely valid. But to be escalated to such rampant hostility bespeaks other factors and other agendas at play. Watts is not a void. There are forces in Watts that have harbored personal vendettas against Edgar since day one – he never had a chance with some people, not least because of his color, his personality, his class, his home in Pasadena. He didn’t see this as a reason not to try to start WHP, and he has paid the price for that audacity.

THE FUTURE FOR WHP

As I hope I’ve demonstrated in these explanations, there is a selective collapsing of time and events in Ms. Finkel’s Times article that does little justice to the complexity of the context WHP entered into, its evolution in response to ever-increasing knowledge of that context, nor its very real successes and very specific failings. Which makes me wonder, why was this article written? I am grateful that the Times is paying attention to Watts, and that the article has opened the door for the kind of discussion I am now participating in. There are important larger systemic issues at stake in this investigation and I am thankful to have this forum to discuss them. But there is an air of malevolence about this article, searching for patterns of misappropriation of funds and resources, or just general destructive incompetence, which doesn’t quite add up. Citing the LACMA funding report, for example – the funds spent were pretty low indeed for two artist honoraria and for architects like Escher Gunewardena to create architectural plans for the property (the architects themselves did it pro bono, in fact, or it would have been 10 times as expensive – they only paid their staff for the hours needed to create models and blueprints to present to the Garcias). This is expensive work, and a lot of people worked incredibly hard for very little money to try to make it happen.

If competency is the issue, is the article trying to make the point that WHP should go away? It’s not going away, though I just learned that Edgar has resigned as Executive Director. Perhaps the rhetoric has gotten so toxic that he could simply not function effectively anymore. Did the article reveal this situation, or merely fan the flames? And in a recent LA Times blog post from April 7th, is it now being leveraged as an indictment against all social practice?

I have been a critic of WHP from the start, and also have spent years of my life working on it. I have had countless conversations with many, many people critiquing the project and its failings and how to make it better. So to say that WHP is not engaged in rigorous critique is an utter falsehood – a much more rigorous self-reflexivity than I ever see in the non-social-practice art world. I wish I knew exactly where this indictment was stemming from, but I can only hope that it is simply a product of trying to wrestle with a complex new model that is struggling in a contentious context, and reduce that very real conflict into a series of sound bites.

What can WHP do better? I am sorry that Edgar had to step down in the midst of ignominious circumstances, but perhaps it is for the best. Will Sheffie is an amazing person and will hopefully be able to shepherd the program into more stable era beyond the necessary chaos of its founding. WHP can separate its pilot residents from its larger replicative model, figure out amicable terms to move ahead (if that is still desired) on all sides, and move ahead on a specific timeline and pace. WHP can strive for greater transparency in its marketing and discussions with funders, and work with neutral evaluators and scholars on a regular basis to commission progress reports. All of these ideas have been discussed by WHP, and I have no doubt they are moving forward as best they can, as they have always done. After all, they aren’t going anywhere.