La Bodega's Exit Marks a Make-or-Break Moment for Barrio Logan - Voice of San Diego

Opinion

La Bodega's Exit Marks a Make-or-Break Moment for Barrio Logan

La Bodega wasn’t just a gallery; it was a key economic and cultural hub for Logan Avenue in Barrio Logan.

People lined up to see the Frida Kahlo show at La Bodega Gallery in Barrio Logan. / Photo by Kinsee Morlan

When La Bodega Gallery announced it was closing, the news cracked like a bullet in the night, loud and startlingly clear. Scrolling through Facebook at the time, I quickly commented with sympathy and sadness. Over the course of the day, the significance of this event dawned on me and my sadness turned to anger.

Though La Bodega is a gallery, it’s not just any gallery. It’s a key economic and cultural hub for Logan Avenue in Barrio Logan. Where most galleries are lucky to draw a few dozen people to an art opening, La Bodega draws hundreds of people to the openings of its biweekly, themed shows. For its adults-only show last month, the line to get in extended Comic-Con-style down the street and around the block. The gallery’s most popular show, “Friducha,” attracted thousands who spilled out onto the closed-down street. I’d wager that more people turned out for that one show than all the other gallery shows in San Diego for the past year combined.

The exhibition themes were sometimes wacky. Artworks were often stacked one on top of the other. The low prices made for great deals even as they barely sustained the artists. No matter. What made La Bodega truly special was that it democratized art. Owners Chris Zertuche and Soni Lopez-Chavez allowed a broad range of voices and talent to share their work with an equally broad range of eyes and audience. It was art for the people and of the people.

Not just any people – the people of the barrio. The neighborhood where the trains and trucks rumble through all day and all night. The streets where the city pushes the homeless no one else will tolerate. Where gang tags and tattoos forever remain in style. Where Chicanos proudly flaunt their culture through murals and cars and language. For those of us living in and around Barrio Logan, this was our Met, our MoMA, our Saturday night de cultura y cervazas. You can keep your snobby galleries and museums; we in the barrio have La Bodega.

On top of its role as a cultural epicenter, La Bodega acted like an economic sun with multiple planets rendered hospitable from its radiant energy. When the gallery opened six years ago, that side of Barrio Logan had been left for dead. Soon after, Border X Brewing opened across the street and the celebrated taco shop Salud opened next door. As the area’s popularity grew, a host of little galleries, eateries and boutiques opened to create a buzzworthy scene.

The reality, though, is that with the exception of a few destination spots, the street is dead during the week. An important way that these little places survive is through the traffic brought out by La Bodega, the twice monthly Barrio Art Crawl and the occasional street festival. If La Bodega goes away, the Art Crawl is in danger of withering away too since there’s hardly any galleries left to crawl to or from. (Many of the other art galleries that formerly made up the crawl have called it quits over the past year as well.)

It’s no secret that the gallery business is a tough one and that galleries come and go almost with the tides. But La Bodega was on top of its game. After the 2016 Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, the city pushed La Bodega’s owners to bring the old warehouse building to code. After some fundraising and dipping into their own pockets, the gallery’s owners had the cash and building permits necessary to improve the property and bring it into compliance. According to Zertuche, the only thing missing was a long-term lease with the landlord, Nick Inzunza.

“The unfortunate circumstances that are out of my control is the improvements that must be made on my building because of the change of use. The city has been very patient and understanding but we have simply run out of time … and the improvements must be made,” Inzunza told the Union-Tribune. Meanwhile Zertuche has maintained for months that he was ready and willing to make the improvements, the only thing holding him up was a new lease.

Once the gallery owners made their “heartbroken” closure announcement on Facebook, the backlash came fast. Angry shouts of gentrification tore through the internet. One community activist labeled the property “burnt” and vowed to boycott any business that dared to open up shop there.

An online petition asking supporters to protest any new alcohol permit application for the space – in the event the landlord turns around and offers it to a tenant like a bar or restaurant – currently has over 3,500 signatures.

Without a permit to sell alcohol, the La Bodega space isn’t worth even its current rent. No new tenant will pay market rent for a space that requires tens of thousands of dollars in upgrades. Rents for a retail space are much lower than for a bar/restaurant, however, without the foot traffic brought in by La Bodega, the space’s value for a retail occupant is questionable at best.

In the days since the closure was announced, the La Bodega owners have announced their intention to move on to a new, yet-to-be-determined space. When they’ll reopen is unknown. Their role in this drama is over for now, but the threat of Logan businesses being forced to close by rapacious landlords continues to hang over the heads of business owners and residents alike. If we who live and work in the area in and around Logan don’t want to see our community held hostage by those who place money before people, we need to make our voices heard. We need to protest in droves the license applications of those who seek to replace our cultural spaces with breweries and send the message to landlords throughout the barrio that greed doesn’t always get the last word.

John Raymond Mireles is an artist living and working in Logan Heights.

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