The “Drone Guy” of Boyle Heights provides a bird’s-eye view of neighborhood landmarks


ETVBUTTONBOYLE HEIGHTS – A man interested in architecture and a drone named after an Aztec god have captured aerial shots of historic buildings and neighborhood landmarks from a perspective that until recently was limited primarily to pilots and pigeons.

Boyle Heights native Erik Molinar – aka “Drone Guy” – has recorded and uploaded more than 20 videos to YouTube that were shot from a camera attached to a remote-controlled drone. The videos include dizzying views of some well known L.A. landmarks – such as Disney Hall and the Mission San Gabriel – as well as familiar Eastside sites: Mariachi Plaza, Evergreen Cemetery, Cinco Puntos and the Sears store at Olympic and Soto.

Molinar said he enjoys the surprises the camera has caught, including a flock of parrots that swarmed the drone, the Art Deco details atop the Sears store and some architectural features of Mariachi Plaza that he didn’t know existed.

“There’s things I never saw until I went up with the drone,” said Molinar, a 31-year-old architectural designer and owner of Molinar Design Drafting. “I wanted to look at old buildings and newer ones that people don’t get to see from a birds-eye view. It intrigued me to see them from there because there’s a lot of detail in the architecture and a lot of it can’t be seen from ground level.”

Most of his YouTube videos begin with a shot of his handsome, bearded face while he introduces himself as the Drone Guy or the Chicano Architect and the buildings or sites they’re about to see. The videos then switch over to the drone preparing for lift off, signaled by a cartoonish couple of beeps as the tunes of a classic rock song come on to drown out the humming of the drone.
Erick Molinar preparing Quetzalcoatl

Erik Molinar preparing Quetzalcoatl

Molinar flies an 18 x 18 inch, DJI Phantom Quadcopter manufactured by Dronefly. He named it Quetzalcoatl, the Meso American god that took the form of a feathered serpent. It cost him $2,300 and the Go Pro camera attached to it was an additional $500. It’s an expensive hobby but one that Molinar said he really enjoys and is passionate about. It’s also one that his followers on YouTube enjoy as well. On a family vacation in Hawaii, Molinar used his drone to get an up-close look at a hard-to-reach waterfall. After posting the video, Molinar received a lot of feedback from Hawaiians thanking him for the shot and recommended other places for him to shoot.

He has also been asked by people to shoot locales in Los Angeles, and Molinar does it happily and free of charge, he said. An Australian documentary filmmaker asked him to film a hill that was used in an episode of the Twilight Zone.

“We didn’t know where the hill was but it was fun to track it down and find it. All I had was the shot from the Twilight Zone to go off of, but I found it,” Molinar said. “People are amazed, and I get a lot of encouragement from people.”

Molinar, who is currently working to receive his state architect’s license, uses his drone not only as a hobbyist but also to build his personal portfolio as an architectural designer. He found the drone to be an economical way for him to shoot his own projects at different phases of construction, saving him money.

Not everybody is a fan of Molinar’s drone, however. Molinar laughed as he recalled an incident in Hawaii when a couple from Canada were ready to tackle him because they believed his drone had missiles. Closer to home, some in his Boyle Heights neighborhood have expressed concerns about their privacy being violated. Molinar said they were probably conducting illegal operations because they asked him a threatening manner if he was spying on them.

“Some people are concerned I’m going to peep into their house. I would be concerned too, you know, if somebody was peeping on my wife. But what they need to understand is it’s not like that,” Molinar said.

The use of drones has become a rather touchy subject across the country, and in Los Angeles. Last month, city officials moved forward with a motion that would restrict the use of drones by civilians. The LAPD also faces opposition over two drones acquired from the Seattle Police Department. Public outcry against the use of the drones has lead the LAPD to put their use on hold until the department formulates a policy that would be reviewed by the public the Police Commission.

Molinar says privacy concerns will probably limit the future use of drones. But he is preparing to do as much as he can, including putting pressure on Boyle Heights Councilman Jose Huizar,to ensure that he will be able to continue to fly Quetzalcoatl with camera in tow.

“I know now I have to pressure myself to document as much footage as I can before these new laws take action,” he said.

More than anything, Molinar loves his neighborhood of Boyle Heights and finds its history fascinating. He enjoys looking at pictures of a past when Boyle Heights was the home to Jewish and Japanese communities, and he hopes to document the neighborhood as he knows it today. He has recently been asked by a Boyle Heights Facebook page to shoot all the churches in the neighborhood which he said he was happy to do.

“I love documenting these buildings that have been preserved for years and years,” he said. “But they may not always be here, these videos will always be here.”

Lucy Guanuna has reported on a variety of issues, including business, education and social justice movements in her native Los Angeles. Her work has been published in the Daily Sundial, L.A. Activist, and the San Fernando Valley Business Journal.

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