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Downtown's Identity is Growing Up

By Ed Fuentes
Published: Tuesday, July 10, 2007, at 11:24AM
WitnessLA Ed Fuentes

The Los Angeles experience can be felt in the wisdom of a former Central Ave jazzman, or seen in the detailed recall of a veteran photojournalist. Even someone with a youthful timeline can understand how a city is a series of small cultural moments to be documented for others to share and interpret.

21 year old Helen Ly has early experience in the idea of finding value in the small things of the everyday experience. Ly, an Art History major at California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA), is spending her summer in the library of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) under her second Getty Multi-cultural Internship. She also received a 2006 Getty Grant internship for the Friends of the Chinese American Museum and assisted curator Sonia Mak on the exhibit Growing Up Chinese American: Childhood Toys and Memories. Meanwhile, for the last two years she has also been a Museum Guide for the City of LA while carrying a full schedule of classes.

Ly was a high school math whiz who started college as an accounting major until she began assisting a digital muralist and saw how stories can come out of everyday cultural experience. More eye opening to Ly was watching the artists in the Arts District, where she now resides, walking around like they had just came out of a sweatshop. "It showed me being an artist is really hard work," Ly says.

After that mural series was completed, she began to explore her own experience and took notice of her own personal memories of being raised in Chinatown as a child before moving inland. She recalls going to the Phoenix Bakery with her grandmother and how the Los Angeles Dodgers adopted her elementary school and did little things, like provide small Dodger helmets to hold cereal. She also remembers playing outside a sewing factory on North Broadway, waiting for her mother who was working inside.

Ly saw how those moments as part of a different time and place, even if only a few years ago, could weave into the content of community based art. She changed her major to Art History after she enrolled at CSULA and credits professors who have become her mentors. She adds, "They wouldn't know it though, because I tend to be shy and just listen."

Ironically, she came back to Southern California after spending a year at San Francisco State University because of the availability of public transportation. "I don't own a car. You can get by without one in San Francisco." she says, "CSULA was close to downtown where I found a loft. It ended up a good choice for me."

Just that gives Downtown a different cultural identity from one it had when Ly was born. She gets to experience it as the personal story of an Art History major.

Pictured: Helen Ly outside her current sweatshop in the Arts District.

[Editor's note: In the interest of disclosure, the digital muralist mentioned above just happens to be Ed Fuentes.]

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Witnesses of LA

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