One night while waiting for a band to load into the Regency in downtown LA, I noticed that the alley was filled with street art referencing Native Americans. I did a little research, and discovered that the alley is actually a very narrow street named Werdin Place. Running between the nightclub and an art gallery, this block of Werdin Place is known as “Indian Alley.”
An article in “Indian Country Today” traces the history of the building now housing the 118 Winston art gallery back to 1887. Once a crash pad for immigrants left without work after the completion of the railroad, it became a brothel, a “haven for communists and labor movements,” and eventually a Catholic mission house. After the building was saved from being condemned, the alley soon became ridden with drugs and crime. Located within the loose boundaries of skid row, it became a gathering place for homeless Native Americans.
“With the Relocation Act, LA’s Native population swelled from 12,000 in 1960 to 25,000 in 1966. Tribal members from as far away as Oklahoma flooded the city, with many ending up homeless, alone, and too often intoxicated in Indian Alley.”
In 1974, the building became the location of the newly founded nonprofit United American Indian Involvement, Inc. (UAII), which provided services to the community, including recovery services for Native Americans addicted to drugs and alcohol and temporary housing for displaced people. The UAII later moved to 6th Street, where it is still providing services.
Stephen Zeigler moved into the building in 2008 and started cleaning up the alley and studying its history. According to Wikipedia, street artists recruited by Stephen Zeigler and 118 Winston started painting the murals in 2011. Artists included Shepard Fairey, Jaque Fragua, local artists Wild Life, Bandit, Sketchy, Gabette, Free Humanity, Random Act and Teacher. The art includes “portraits of local Native American activist Robert Sundance and eighteenth-century California anticolonialist Toypurina, along with Native American symbols and more abstract pieces…” The murals have spilled onto the neighboring streets, with an enormous Kachina watching over traffic, two women in blue facing Los Angeles Street, and Audrey Hepburn adorning the local Subway sandwich shop.
Filmmaker Pamela Peters, who is working on a documentary on Indian Alley, is quoted in Indian Country Today, “…this new artful image is almost a branding, a stamp of Native existence in LA. “It’s like a memorial to all the people who have gone through Indian Alley, like the landmarks for battles. The alley and artwork are a modern contemporary showcase of our existence, and it is also a place to remember and never forget. The artwork in the alley is healing.”
McMillan, Penelope (1980-10-26). “The Urban Indian–L.A.’s Factionalized Minority”. Los Angeles Times.
Rose, Christina (2015-01-10). “Skid Row’s Indian Alley Adorned with Native Murals to Honor Tragic Past.” American Indian Today.
Schaeffer, Samantha (2014-6-28). “LA’s Winston Street has a Colorful History“.