What has happened with La Bodega Gallery can be seen as the latest controversy in a San Diego neighborhood that has long been the center of debates surrounding gentrification and displacement
The temperature outside is chilly, but it’s warm inside La Bodega Gallery, if not downright sweaty. Artists, aficionados and general well wishers have packed inside the Barrio Logan art space for a “Star Wars"-themed exhibition featuring dozens of works in a variety of mediums.
Still, the art on La Bodega’s walls on this night seem like an afterthought compared to the matter on everybody’s minds: That this was La Bodega’s final exhibition since first opening in 2013.
“When we first came here, our goal was to open an art gallery,” Soni López-Chávez said a few days earlier. “We wanted to make sure the place was welcoming to artists, but before we knew it, it became a community space. It’s not just an art space.”
López-Chávez runs La Bodega along with her husband, Chris Zertuche, who is restricted to how much he can speak about the gallery’s closure due to a non-disclosure agreement he signed with the owner of the property (former National City Mayor Nick Inzunza).
López-Chávez, however, can speak on the matter and is keen on pointing out that she and Zertuche did everything they could to remain in neighborhood.
“The property owners start to see a bigger value in their property and then that’s when they start to want more for that space,” López-Chávez says. “What they don’t understand is that we’re the ones who created this value in the first place. We’re the ones who did all the work and we’re also the ones who care about the community.”
A place for artists
In many ways, what has happened with La Bodega Gallery can be seen as the latest controversy in a San Diego neighborhood that has long been the center of debates surrounding gentrification and displacement.
“There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make the neighborhood better, improving it. It’s obviously very subjective as to what that is,” says Carolyn Osorio, a Barrio Logan resident who has exhibited at La Bodega Gallery in the past. “But then you get into this issue where these changes begin to force longtime residents out.”
The cultural significance of Barrio Logan and Logan Heights is rarely questioned. It is, after all, the home of Chicano Park and the site of a historic neighborhood standoff with the city in the 1970s. In the past, the neighborhood’s multi-generational residents had been somewhat successful in fighting back not only against developers and landlords, but against city policies that threatened the character of the barrio.
It wasn’t until the early 2000s — over 30 years after Chicano Park was conceived — that galleries, performance spaces and even dining destinations began to pop up in what had long been vacant storefronts and dilapidated factories.
While some of the new spaces were run by creative-types attracted to the low rents and seemingly untapped potential of the neighborhood, some were homegrown and managed by longtime residents. Voz Alta Project Gallery and The Spot both became known for showcasing local artists, while also providing an all-ages venue for concerts and community events.
A renaissance of sorts
The early 2010s saw an influx of artistic spaces opening in Barrio Logan and Logan Heights. The Glashaus Artist Collective Warehouse, located in a refurbished warehouse off Barrio Logan’s main strip, rented out studios to dozens of local artists and businesses. Collectives like The Bakery also opened new communal spaces complete with artist studios and a garden. In 2013, Public Architecture owner James Brown refurbished an old bread factory on Julian Avenue to open Bread & Salt, a massive art, music and event space.
The main drag of Logan Avenue also saw a steady inflow of new artsy boutiques, galleries and even eateries. Many of the galleries, such as Chicano Art Gallery and La Bodega, were well-suited for the neighborhood. Both galleries opened in 2013 and placed an emphasis on showcasing local artists who they saw as staying authentic to the Barrio.
“I look back on it all, and I have all kinds of feelings, but overall, there’s just a sense of gratitude,” says Cesar Castañeda, who ran Chicano Art Gallery for six years. “Really appreciating the moments we shared there with the community — the artists, poets and activists.”
Castañeda looks back at those early years as a renaissance of sorts, with the monthly Barrio Art Crawl bringing out hundreds of visitors to peruse art and shop at recently opened boutiques.
Moving out, moving on
The first sign of trouble — or a natural sign of progress, depending on who is asked — came in 2014 when the owners of Voz Alta, citing “gentrification and redevelopment,” were forced to close the gallery.
Opinions and theories vary as to whether the recent closures of Glashaus, Chicano Art Gallery and La Bodega spell the end of Logan Avenue, and Barrio Logan at large, as an artistic epicenter.
“La Bodega’s the last one, so now there aren’t any more to close,” says Osorio, who recently painted a mural on the gate of her residence that directly addresses gentrification.
While it would be convenient to simply chalk the neighborhood’s transition up to the artists that moved there in the first place, the closures can be seen as symptomatic of the city’s increased vigilance when it comes to enforcing safety and building code violations.
After the 2016 Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland, which resulted in the death of 36 people, San Diego joined other cities in cracking down on art spaces that weren’t up to code.
“If the Ghost Ship thing had happened while I had that gallery in North Park, I have no doubt the city would have done the same thing,” says Michael James Armstrong, a local artist who ran his ICE Gallery space out of a dilapidated space on 30th Avenue in North Park before moving it to Bread & Salt in 2013. Armstrong was also one of the first artists to lease a studio inside Glashaus. He left just before the owners decided to close it due to the building’s many code violations.
“That’s the tragedy of gentrification,” Armstrong says. “You’re often dealing with a bunch of people who don’t have the means to buy property, which is the whole reason they’re dealing with gentrification.”
And while La Bodega and Chicano Art Gallery’s owners attempted to work with their respective property owners, they ultimately decided that they could no longer afford the rent increases and, in the case of La Bodega, a property owner who they say was “uninterested” in working with them to get the building up to code.
López-Chávez then tells the story of a mother who came in shortly after they made the decision to leave. Together, they gathered in a circle to pray, and one of children, a little girl, had a very specific prayer.
“She said that she hoped that she could showcase her work here one day,” recalls López-Chávez, who then begins to cry. “I just told her we’ll have a space for her. I told her to keep doing her art. Don’t stop.”
A few weeks later, López-Chávez confirmed on Instagram that she and Zertuche had secured a new space for La Bodega Gallery a few blocks east at 2292 National Ave. The factory space formerly housed National Steel & Metals.
“It’s going to be a lot of work to get the space ready, but with two outdoor areas, the potential is amazing,” López-Chávez confirmed to the Union-Tribune.
“In the meantime,” she wrote on Instagram, “we will be collaborating with different venues in San Diego to organize pop-up art shows as our new home is being renovated.”
Combs is a freelance writer.