Yancey Quinones stands in the pedestrian tunnel under North Figueroa Street, his arms stretched out, his voice echoing off the walls. For years the Cypress Park tunnel had been closed to the public, but now, thanks to Quinones, it’ll soon be reopened this Saturday night – as an art space.
“It’s going to be the community’s tunnel, safe, secure,” Quinones says pointing to newly installed LED lights and freshly painted walls of the tunnel at Figueroa and Loreto Street near Nightengale Middle School.
As a child growing up in the neighborhood, Quinones remembers walking through the tunnel and how over the years the neighborhood’s gangs forced the city to close it. Now as the owner of Antigua Cultural Coffee House a few yards from the tunnel’s east entrance, Quinones looks to repurpose the underground passage as an open–albeit narrow–art gallery.
Loreto Street, where the coffee house and the tunnel entrance sit, is a blank canvas to Quinones – he speaks about grand projects, like turning the street into a cul-de-sac, what he calls “a village in the city,” and he also wants to repurpose an empty garage that’s next to the tunnel.
“Like a snail, it’s going to take time, but eventually we’ll get there,” he says a few days before the tunnel gallery’s debut as part of NELA’s art walk on Saturday. The tunnel will remain open only for shows and exhibits.
When Quinones and his wife Fabiola opened Antigua in 2007, they sent a letter to the Department of Transportation about reopening the tunnel. But the couple received only a form letter about their concern. It didn’t bother Quinones, whose main focus was opening his coffee house, a former ice cream shop.
He continued to tackle the tunnel project with enthusiasm but most importantly patience. Patience in attempting to contact his local council member, the Department of Water and Power, the City Attorney and the doors of a dozen other agencies he had to knock on. The neighborhood Senior Lead Officer contacted the council member’s office on his behalf, but the response Quinones received was that the project was not feasible, that the crime rate was too high.
The response that Quinones received from the city was to speak with a number of different offices.
“They didn’t think I would go to everyone, but I did. I went to all the offices, asked all the right questions,” Quinones says. “But then a clerk at City Hall told me that I had to get a request from my local city council member. It was like one big circle.”
This was early 2010, when nearby Highland Park was beginning to see an influx of new businesses. Meanwhile, Quinones was reshaping his corner at Loreta and Figueroa in Cypress Park with new murals, sidewalk tables and chairs; people were excited to have a coffee shop in the community. The area was changing for the better.
“I’ve been here for 45 years and I’ve never seen the area like this before,” says Rogelio Fonseca, owner of the restaurant La Abeja just a few blocks north of the tunnel.
“The area is heavy with bike traffic, with new businesses that seem to be giving a lot back to the community,” Fonseca adds.
By October 2012 Quinones still did not have a solid answer. He would attend city council meetings or be in the same room with his city council member – “Any word on my tunnel?” he would ask as a joke. Eventually Jose Gardea, chief of staff to the outgoing council member Ed Reyes, came to Antigua and observed the foot traffic and gave Quinones the go ahead.
The Cypress Park Neighborhood Council approved a grant of $9,000 for the project; hence the reason Quinones’ arms are in the air as he takes a victory pose in his tunnel.
The tunnel will open on Saturday, May 11 at 6 p.m. with a show of work by by local artist Jose Ramirez, whose band will also be playing in the tunnel. Quinones hopes to see the underground gallery used monthly.
Now Quinones is going to put together a manual on how to repurpose these tunnels, “so that other people can utilize these empty spaces that are not being used.”
For now he can rest and get back to making coffee for Cypress Park.
Nathan Solis is a Highland Park resident who writes about and photographs the L.A. music scene. You can find more of Solis stories, reviews and photos at Smashed Chair.