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La Bodega Confronts the Challenges of Going From Grassroots to Grownup

The Logan Avenue building that houses La Bodega Gallery has become a thriving anchor in a transforming community. But it’s also scrambling to address city and fire safety code issues that have thrown its ability to host big shows into question.

Nick Inzunza had a clear vision when he purchased the building at the corner of Sampson Street and Logan Avenue in Barrio Logan 10 years ago.

“I had the intention to do exactly what we’re doing with it now,” said the former mayor of National City.

He set out to turn the old bank into an incubator for locally owned small businesses, artist studios and an art gallery. He sees Barrio Logan as the Little Italy for Chicanos, he said. He wants it to grow into a neighborhood where Latino art and culture is front and center and celebrated for its vibrancy beyond Chicano Park’s murals. He’s always pictured that Logan Avenue and his building would be the heart of it all.

His building did, in fact, grow into a thriving anchor of the community. But now the gallery he rents space to is in trouble because the building isn’t up to city and fire safety code. Insunza said he wants to help.

Inzunza has avoided attention since a 2005 Union-Tribune story called him a slumlord. His family is a powerful one in South Bay Democratic politics – most famously, his brother Ralph was a one-term San Diego city councilman who was convicted on federal corruption charges.

Inzunza himself left public office after one term, and sold about 20 of his properties after the 2008 economic crash. He now owns just three, including the building in Barrio Logan, which he says he kept because of his vision for the community.

After he acquired the property, Inzunza brought in Chicano Park muralist Mario Torero, who had an art studio there and hosted a free art school for neighborhood kids in the space. Inzunza said he gave good lease deals to people like the Favelas, the family that now runs Border X Brewing, which got its start in Inzunza’s building before moving across the street. He also said he supported the owners of Salud!, a restaurant and catering company that’s grown its footprint in his building in recent years.

The businesses did well in his building, but Inzunza realized if he wanted the art space to really take off, he needed to connect with the movers and shakers in Barrio Logan’s artistic renaissance. The Barrio Logan art scene at the time was blossoming inside old warehouses on Main Street. The arts groups behind places like Voz Alta, The Glashaus, The Roots Factory and The Spot were quickly putting Barrio Logan on the map as an emerging arts district.

Inzunza said he personally recruited Chris Zertuche and Milo Lorenzana from the alternative gallery space The Spot (which later changed its name to The Stronghold), offering free rent for the first nine months if they could rehab the building and do in his space what they’d done in theirs. He wanted edgy art exhibitions that attracted hundreds of people to a neighborhood many outsiders thought was too dangerous to visit after dark.

Lorenzana eventually moved on to help open a different creative project down the street, but Zertuche did exactly what Inzunza thought he could do, opening La Bodega in 2014 and transforming it into a collection of bustling art studios and a gallery space that has hosted top-notch art exhibitions that draw big, enthusiastic crowds.

“I knew he could do something,” Inzunza said. “I knew he could turn around the street – turn around the whole neighborhood.”

Inzunza isn’t alone when he credits Zertuche and La Bodega for driving the fast-moving renaissance on Logan Avenue. A handful of other art galleries and small businesses have since opened on the same block and several folks I’ve talked to while covering the tension between the artistic renaissance and gentrification happening in Barrio Logan have brought up La Bodega as one of the main catalysts for the change that followed on the block.

But after the deadly Ghost Ship fire in Oakland last year, cities across the country started cracking down on arts venues.

The city received an anonymous complaint about La Bodega, and city and fire officials soon found a handful of code compliance and fire safety issues.

“We’re guilty as charged,” Inzunza said. “I don’t know what else to say. When people ask if we were having parties in the building, well yes, it’s on Facebook and YouTube. Hundreds of people show up to La Bodega events because people are hungry for this kind of stuff in San Diego.”

Before La Bodega can return to hosting art exhibitions that attract big crowds, there’s a list of costly improvements that need to be made, including upgraded electrical wiring, a sprinkler system, a new emergency exit door, restroom renovations, permits and more.

City Councilman David Alvarez, whose district includes Barrio Logan, said Inzunza should step up to pay for the fixes.

“I’m still trying to understand why the property owner isn’t taking responsibility for the improvements and the permits needed to keep them open, that’s whose responsibility that is,” Alvarez said.

But commercial leases in California tend to favor landlords, a real estate attorney and another Barrio Logan landlord both told me. Depending on the lease, a commercial tenant is almost always responsible for all kinds of structural matters, including meeting fire safety and city code requirements.

La Bodega launched a campaign to raise the estimated $38,000 needed for improvements. Other community groups have also stepped up to host fundraisers for the gallery.

Inzunza said he’s doing his part. While he’s not paying for the upgrades outright like Alvarez is suggesting, two weeks ago he said he had Zertuche sign a long-term lease. He wouldn’t share the lease with Voice of San Diego, but he said it includes a tenant improvement allowance that will deduct the cost of improvements from the monthly rent.

“He has the most favorable lease in all of Barrio Logan,” Inzunza said. “He has a lease that reflects what I want to see in the building – what I could not accomplish, but Chris could.”

Zertuche did not respond to several requests for comment.

Inzunza, of course, knew La Bodega was pushing the limits of what was allowed in the space, but said it had grown into such an asset that he didn’t want to stop its momentum.

“Sometimes have I done things with properties that are unconventional? Yeah, I have, but I’ve done it for the good of the neighborhood,” he said.

He said he “absolutely understands” why the city and fire officials are demanding the upgrades. He said the city is working with them and has laid out a reasonable timeline for the upgrades.

“What we’re building on Logan Avenue is something beautiful,” Inzunza said. “But we’re victims of our own success. When I bought it 10 years ago, we brought artists in and there was no on in the neighborhood, no one was there. … Now there’s La Bodega, and it isn’t going to close. That just isn’t going to happen. I won’t let it happen.”

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