July 18 2012 01:16 PM

San Diego couple sees public art as a means for community change

Above: Greg Strangman’s “conversation pit”
Photo by Amy T. Granite

Greg Strangman can't stand blank spaces. Inside his 1962 wood-and-lava-rock, waterfront home in Ocean Beach that he's named Cape May Modern, there's nary a wall without a piece of mid-century art on it. That is, except in the conversation pit, a cozy area in the living room, sunken by a few steps, where Strangman's favorite painting by a local artist from that era, Sheldon Kirby, would normally hang—if it wasn't on display at the Oceanside Museum of Art.

"It's silly to say that we're embarrassed when guests come over…. We're not. But they always ask why there's nothing on that wall," Strangman says. "We've tried moving pieces around to see if they could fit, but nothing works."

Looking out the triangular front window that reaches the top of the home's pointed façade—a mark of classic post-and-beam architecture that looks somewhat like the frame of a barn—it's as if the sand and ocean are an extension of Cape May Modern, with the unobstructed view of the entire Ocean Beach Pier glowing at night.

Inside, the place is nearly perfect, a time-capsule of a home with all sorts of crafty art, a good deal of it made locally by Allied Craftsmen of San Diego—Jean Balmer's ceramics, Barney Reid's sculpture and Bob Perron's pottery, to name a few. But looking out onto Saratoga Park—grass decorated with concrete picnic tables—leaves much to be desired in Strangman's eyes. To him, it's just another blank space where there should be public art.

Strangman has traveled around the world to places where public art is an attraction. It's important, he says, because it leaves an impression on the people who see it, forever linking its memory to its location.

When Strangman traveled to Barcelona in 2008, and then to Berlin and Prague later that summer, he saw a lot of structures that didn't have parking, more people riding bikes and bounties of public art compared with San Diego.

"When I think of Barcelona, the first thing that pops into my mind is Frank Gehry's fish sculpture," he says. "Everyone loves the whale mural in San Diego. But now a building is going up that will block it. Why aren't there more murals of that size and scale recognized in our city? There needs to be things like this to put us on the map."

But Strangman isn't just a dreamer; nor is he merely an art snob bitching about San Diego's lack of culture. He's been creating the change he'd like to see since the early 1990s, when the Del Mar native fell in love with Downtown and moved there. He's played a role in its gentrification ever since. He appreciated its old buildings and invested in the neighborhood he felt was on the rise from the sex-shop-and liquor-store-laden decade before.

From the time he was 28 years old, Strangman has bought up every old-building bargain he could. First it was the Onyx Building, then the historic Scripps Building on Sixth Avenue and C Street, the Rossi Block Building and, most recently, the dilapidated Carnegie Hotel. And that's just his 92101 properties.

"When the economy took a digger [in 2008], my dream of more Pearl Hotels went away—temporarily," he says, referring to the stylish Point Loma hotel. "But I thought, Why can't we start the movement of affordable boutique-apartment living? I looked at street art in New York and wanted to find a way to use it as a vehicle to build the cachet rental value on other things, instead of tiling and amazing appliances."

The Community@ concept began in 2008 with the Martin Building in Bankers Hill. The living spaces are small, so, to compensate, Strangman made sure that amenities were in place, like a rooftop pool, communal lounge areas and a tenant concierge, and he made it so that applicants were prepared to make contributions of their own, for the betterment of the community. Some organize group activities while others cook dinners, and the community garden never goes untended. When the Viva La Revolucion street-art exhibition was in town, Shepard Fairy was assigned to paint a mural on Strangman's historic Scripps Building, but the city said no, so Strangman met the famed street artist himself and asked if he'd do the Martin building instead. To this day, he still can't believe all the calls from people wanting to live in the building for that reason alone.

"They can't even see it from their units!" he chuckled. 

For the Community@ Carnegie building, which opened this spring on 10th Avenue and C Street in East Village—an area he says the city hasn't made a big priority of cleaning up—Strangman dropped $25,000 on public art and set rents low, hoping to draw a demographic of change-makers to a neighborhood they otherwise couldn't afford. There's only one unit left, and Strangman says residents are actively planning activities. For the building's opening, Strangman teamed up with arts nonprofit Sezio for a one-night-only art exhibit, Collide, at which many of the 56 units featured artwork that attendees could view and buy. More than 909 people passed through, raising $7,500 for Sezio.

Just last year, Strangman and his wife Christina started a program called Community Gives. All of the Strangmans' tenants and hotel guests have the option to make a donation on top of their monthly rents or room rates, and, last year, the total came to $8,000. The philanthropic duo then matches the donations dollar for dollar—so, right now, $16,000 awaits a worthy artistic cause. While they're getting closer to determining what cause that will be, Christina's working on turning Community Gives into an official nonprofit organization.

"I'd like to see street artists pair up with architects or building owners who are willing to give up one of their walls for a revolving mural," Strangman says. "That way, every three months or so, another artist would have their chance."

For the past five years, Strangman has held an annual ping-pong tournament at his Orchid Award-winning Pearl Hotel, with proceeds paying for San Diego High School's senior trip to New York City. Strangman pays for all the tourney's expenses and neither reimburses himself nor pays his staff.

"Way too many nonprofits—not all—raise money, and then pay themselves and the jobs they've created," he says. "We give 100 percent of funds to the cause. That will always be our core value."

Amy blogs at saysgranite.com and you can follow her on Twitter @saysgranite.


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