By Darlene Donloe
Julia Meltzer had a very good reason for founding the nonprofit Clockshop in 2004.
She wanted to unify art, culture, and public space.
“I lived in New York and I also lived in Mexico and being in those urban environments, it gave me different experiences of being in public space,” said Meltzer, who studied modern culture and media at Brown University. “And culture is a component of public space.
“In Los Angeles, we have a fantastic climate and all of these opportunities to have arts and culture be part of open space, but it wasn’t being taken advantage of,” she added. “I felt the difference in how privatized space is in Los Angeles. There weren’t any organizations looking at art and, particularly art in public space. This is something L.A. needs. I felt we needed more public projects in public spaces.”
Today, Clockshop is an arts and culture organization that seeks to generate social change through the transformation of public space.
“Clockshop works with artists to commission public art projects and we also partner with organizations and state agencies that work on public lands in Los Angeles,” said Meltzer, who is also an artist, and filmmaker whose films and documentaries include “The Light in Her Eyes” (2011) and “Dalya’s Other Country” (2017).
“For eight years, we’ve worked with California State Parks. It was initiated around the desire to bring arts and culture programming to a piece of land along the river they own called Bowtie. The goal is to encourage stewardship and investment in public land through arts and culture programming. Invest people in the land so that it can be developed into a public space.”
Clockshop collaborates with artists, activists, researchers, educators, curators, institutions and neighbors to reframe how public space is viewed. The organization’s work activates portals to revisit the past and reimagine possible futures.
Clockshop brings this mission to its partnership with California State Parks at Los Angeles State Historic Park in Chinatown and at the Bowtie Project, an underused public space along the Los Angeles River. Together, the organization works with its community in shaping the future of the city.
The Bowtie Parcel Project is a former rail yard owned by California State Parks. It’s currently 18 acres of undeveloped industrial land along the Los Angeles River in the city’s northeast area. The bowtie-shaped parcel is already a popular community space where local residents can roam freely to seek respite from everyday urban life.
The Bowtie sits within Taylor Yard, the former headquarters of Southern Pacific Railroad. After rail operations shut down, local community residents advocated for a vision to revitalize 100 acres of the area into park space.
In 2003, the California State Parks Department bought the Bowtie property to preserve the land for nature conservation and support efforts to restore the Los Angeles River.
Clockshop found that some of the land along the river is contaminated because of prior use of the railroads. The soil was found to have toxicity.
“I worked with one of the soil scientists to test for toxicity,” Meltzer said. “We did a short piece [film] on what the process is about. Right now when you go there, it’s not a park. The idea is to push government forward by having a community of people.”
Since its inception, Clockshop has generated social change through the transformation of public space by working with Bowtie and partners that have generated investment toward that piece of land becoming a public park.
“We’ve raised half a million to go into conceptual design,” Meltzer said. “That will be finished in April or March. … That means there is a concept design that has been approved and completed.
“The next step is to raise the money to build the park. We have to encourage stewardship. You have to invest people into the land.”
What Meltzer would like to see in the Bowtie Project is a restored natural habitat.
“That’s my primary interest,” she said. “The native plants and space along the floodplain along the river are restored. There is green space along the river. People can access the river and spend time in expansive green space.
Meltzer, 53, said the timeline for the natural habitat to actually come into fruition is a complicated question.
“If funding comes through from the National Park Service, construction could start in October 2022 and be finished in 2024,” she said. “If not, it’s a whole other process — working with elected officials, pushing California State Park to find some other funding.”
The process, said Meltzer, has taught her there is a real need and space for nonprofits working with neighbors and community members to push government forward.
“Our government moves pretty slow,” Meltzer said. “We have to demand that they do this.”
Clockshop is currently working on a project with L.A. County on a site in Antelope Valley.
“It’s the first Jackie Robinson Park in the nation dedicated in 1965,” said Meltzer, who previously worked with Creative Time in New York. “It came to be through a community of African Americans who left Watts and went to Antelope Valley to buy property out there. That park has no reference to the history of how it came to be. We were invited by the county to consider that site to bring an artist and writer to make a monument to the history of that site.”
There are a number of projects coming down the pike for Clockshop. Meltzer believes what Clockshop does is important.
“It comes from a desire I have to have art and cultural experiences at their core be accessible to people,” Meltzer said. “To be able to stumble upon something that is curious. It’s because I’ve also traveled to other places in the world and seen and experienced how art and culture can really be integrated into the fabric of daily life in a different way.”
Meltzer said, “different governments have different thoughts and different budgets around art. The amount of money our federal government puts toward the arts is pathetic.
“The fact that it’s not prioritized, it trickles down into the experience we have walking through space in our cities. If it’s not pointed out to you, you don’t think about it.”
While technically Clockshop doesn’t have anything to do with clocks, it does pay homage to Meltzer’s family.
“It is a reference to the business my great grandfather did,” said the married mother of one. “He came from Eastern Europe and sold clocks door to door. Our family had a clock business in Europe. They had a storefront on Broadway and 9th Street [in New York] called Eastern Dry Goods, which then became Eastern Columbia Clothing store. The building is still there.
“It has a clock. I wanted to reference back to the business that my ancestors brought here and the practice my family has of leaving beauty in the city.”
Meltzer, 53, is proud of what Clockshop represents. The organization stands firm against all forms of injustice, inequality and racism, including ways that they assert themselves within the field of art and culture.
“Seeing people come together in a space and to learn the history or just enjoy a moment with strangers together is great,” she said. “It’s a hard thing to have happen in L.A. for some reason.”
“Making a Difference” is a weekly feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making a Difference” profile, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at email@example.com.