What to do with an empty East L.A. cultural landmark

Former Self Help Graphics building. Photo by Edgar Lopez

By Edgar Lopez

The end of June normally saw collectors and fans of Latino art head to East Los Angeles to crowd into the mosaic-covered home of Self Help Graphics & Art for its annual print fair and exhibit.  This year, however, the two-story building at the corner of Cesar Chavez and Gage avenues was mostly quiet and empty as Self Help hosted the annual print show last weekend in its new Boyle Heights building.  Self Help moved out of  unincorporated East Los Angeles last April after the City of Los Angeles’ redevelopment agency was able to find the arts institution a new site in what officials hope will become a Boyle Heights arts district that runs along First Street. Meanwhile, back on Cesar Chavez in East L.A., it’s unclear what will happen to the former Self Help Graphics building, which is up for sale and being touted as a possible historic landmark by the Los Angeles Conservancy and other preservationists.

“We did not want our departure from this beautiful building to signal its demise,” said Jim Gatewood, a Self Help Graphics board member has been working to preserve the 1927 building. “We worked for its preservation because it is an important symbol of the Chicano movement, the arts movement and the myriad contributions that immigrants have made to the surrounding community.”

SHG moved out of the building on April 2 after occupying the space for more than 40 years. Representatives of SHG said that their former “building was ridden with problems, both structural and financial, so it was time for a move.”  But since SHG has left, community members and preservation groups have continued to make a case for the building to be preserved. On May 19, the State Historical Resources Commission determined that the  building was eligible to be listed in the California Register of Historical Resources.

While building is known primarily for its bright tile, Gatewood said what makes this building special is its cultural history. The building was once home to a Catholic Youth Organization in the 1940s, as well as the home to The Vex, a Chicano punk-rock scene in the 1980s.

Photo by Edgar Lopez

SHG moved into the space in 1973 and established its presence in the community, which added to its historic significance.  Self Help’s programs helped produce such pioneering Chicano artists  Patssi Valdez, Gronk and Frank Romero.

Aside from fame, in those 40 plus years, SHG helped support the community by creating activities for children and adults, which are often credited for helping the community keep children off the streets and out of trouble.

Still, the building has yet to be labeled as a historical landmark. What had made that especially difficult  is that unlike the City of Los Angeles, “unincorporated Los Angeles County has no local designation program or preservation protections in place,” said the Los Angeles Conservancy, which helps revitalize and preserve L.A.’s historic architectural and cultural resources.

“The Conservancy is the true hero of this effort,” said Gatewood. “Without them, the building could not and would not have been preserved (for this long).”


  1. Shari Fleischman

    Form a 501c3 not-for-profit as a restoritive/historic building. Then to keep it operational rent it out to various other 501c3’s for their pop-ups! Put in a kitchen and bathroom it will be more functional.

  2. I’d buy it and turn it into a self-help bike shop, in efforts to promote bike safety and awareness to the community… and a place to give hipsters a chance to crack open a PRB.


  3. How about asking the community living within .5 miles of the building what they think is most needed? That might generate some good ideas that might not otherwise surface. Another approach is to create a multi-purpose/multi-functional space that could be used by multiple community groups. A kitchen and bathroom(s) would be important to have if the building doesn’t already have it. if possible, hire contract workers who live in the neighborhood to do any work on the building that’s needed.

  4. Many great shows and a wonderful positive addition to the community.
    Here’s to a blessing.

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