"What are we even waiting for?" a 20-something hipster asked his friends. He'd likely never seen a line this long for an art show, much less a line that curved around the block. I counted 60 or more people. Toward the back of the line, two girls I knew were being pulled inside through a window by one of the artists. Once we got up to the front of the line, security guards told us we'd have to throw away our brown-bagged tallboys before entering.
If this sounds auspicious for an art show, I assure you, it was. Inside the Community@ Mi Apartamento apartment complex in Barrio Logan, the Parallel event showcased more than two dozen of San Diego's best and brightest artists in each of the complex's 29 residential units. Local painter and OG street art maverick Mike Maxwell displayed recent works that were both vivid and a surprising departure from past portraiture pieces. Spenser Little's room of wirework was packed with people marveling at his custom lamps that silhouetted words like "fuck" onto the wall.
There was a lot of exciting and amazing art at this event, put on by local nonprofit Sezio and the artist-run Cohort Collective. Still, I couldn't help but feel like something was off. When I went into the increasingly ubiquitous painter and muralist Celeste Byers' room, I noticed a print of a woman wearing an ironic tank top with a caption that read, "This place is getting really hipster."
Yeah, tell me about it.
As I walked down the stairs and toward the backyard, I ran into a friend of mine who happens to be the head of a very reputable arts institution. She was clearly not having a good time. I inquired about her noticeable grimace and she remarked that the whole affair was, in her opinion, a little off-putting. She felt the event, while commendably supportive of local artists, was but a clever marketing celebration of the recently renovated apartments themselves. I initially dismissed her naysaying, but as I weaved through the huge crowd parked in the backyard and into the second group of apartments, her point seemed more salient. It became clear: Parallel wasn't an art event. It was a carefully staged marketing party that happened to include some art.
In the press releases and Facebook invite for the Parallel event, Sezio and Cohort used terminology like "artist-driven experience" and "artists take over" as if the event was some kind of unsanctioned DIY takeover of an otherwise empty building. And while I have no doubt that a lot of time and effort went into the setup and installation of the artists' respective rooms, the pretense was palpable.
As I looked a little closer, there were messages scattered throughout the complex that said things like "Need a place to live?" with information on how to rent one of the cool new Community@ Mi Apartamento units. So as great as some of the art may have been, it was used as window dressing; the artistic equivalent of a department store mannequin. By looking at the art in the room, the hope was that aging hipsters and trust-fund Millennials might envision it being their own self-important, art-filled apartment.
And it worked.
A few days after the event, I contacted Christina Strangman, director of special projects and property management at the L.W.P. Group, which owns the Community@ Mi Apartamento property. When asked if anyone had inquired about the apartments after the event, she said that the response had been "tremendously positive."
Those unfamiliar with L.W.P. (Live, Work, Play) Group should know the company is not some corporate, behemoth real estate group. It has an impressive record of developing properties all over town into either thriving businesses (The Pearl Hotel, Tacos Perla) or reasonably priced apartment complexes in North Park, Bankers Hill, downtown and East Village.
Given their reputation, I don't doubt L.W.P.'s sincerity in statements like this one from its website: "We seek to participate in the traditions of and enhance the quality of life in the communities where we invest."
The opening of Community@ Mi Apartamento and the Parallel event wasn't some declarative sounding of the trumpets to affluent creative types to start moving into the neighborhood, but I'm barely refraining from using the dreaded g-word. It prompts the question: What happens when other developers see the success of these types of events and try to emulate the formula?
Make no mistake: New residents and developers are coming. The key to Barrio Logan's future will depend on whether these new residents do, indeed, attempt to enrich and embrace the community. That doesn't mean just going to hip art shows at La Bodega Gallery and shopping at the actual bodega across the street from the Mi Apartamento complex. It also means fighting for the integrity of the community.
Keeping corporate interests out. Going to community forums and meetings. Attending protests for causes that affect the neighborhood. Barrio Logan has a long, rich tradition of doing this.
There are certain neighborhoods in San Diego that have become increasingly homogenized, tourist-friendly and, yes, (fine, I'll say use g-word) gentrified. Will the new residents of Barrio Logan pack up and leave after they start making more money or when they can't afford the ever-increasing rents? Or, will they stay and fight to keep the identity of one of the city's last real, gritty, authentic neighborhoods?
I hope it's the latter.