Mr. Otis Regrets

OtisI went to art school at what’s now known as Otis College of Art & Design, a small institution with a head count, among all four undergraduate levels, totaling only around 800 people. It was probably a bit smaller than would have been ideal for a young kid trying to get through the madness that was Los Angeles in the early nineteen-nineties. I saw earthquakes, droughts, gang warfare and civil riots during my four years there, and by the time I left I was so embittered by the awfulness of that city and the intensity of my experience at that school that I tried to leave it all behind me and to think about my collegiate past as little as possible.

You Can Run, but You Can’t Hide

Somehow, the alumni department caught up with me, though, and this past Tuesday night I found myself standing around at a cocktail party for Otis alumni who had ‘emigrated’ to New York. Otis has apparently grown to something like 1,200 students, but even so an outreach program to this coast strikes me as impressive and uncharacteristically on-the-ball. The school has never been great about fostering community — suffice it to say I never expect the kind of alumni network that might evolve around Ivy League graduate populations to form around my fellow Otis graduates. Still, I had a few glasses of wine and talked to a few people that I vaguely remembered and found myself, surprisingly, having a way better time than I expected.

At least a part of that enjoyment, I realized, was borne from our common experience attending school in a categorically horrific section of Los Angeles, one riddled with violence, drugs and wayward souls. The school has since relocated to a safer part of the L.A. area, and among my newly rediscovered compatriots we all agreed that, though we wish only safety and harmony for today’s students, it seemed impossible to really feel like we attended the same school as they do. To us, Otis will always be, at least in some small way, an episode of frighteningly tenuous social context, with a soundtrack pock-marked with frequent outbursts of handgun shots and police helicopters hovering at night. Perhaps I’m prouder of that than I should be, because I was able to graduate and leave for good, while most of the people who lived in that neighborhood had no such choice. But it’s a meaningful part of my past to me nevertheless; I’m glad Otis caught up with me again to remind me of it.

  1. Otis, unfortunately, sits in the middle of Pico-Union, which let’s just say is one of the more populated and colorful sections of Los Angeles. I worked several blocks away for a year and venturing outside was a bit more of an adventure than it needed to be. That said, it should be noted that LA is a lot more than the “awfulness” of MacArthur Park, and it’s unfortunate that too many people who stay too briefly here don’t have the time or means to discover all that is hidden. For a city with so much gloss and press, those who live here and love it know that the real treasure is what lurks just beneath—all those incredibly wonderful and authentic bits from every part of the world that are here, thriving, and easily accessed (once found). Just like New York or New Orleans or other cities I’ve lived in, LA can be very unkind to the uninitiated—but it would be a mistake to think that there isn’t greatness here. It’s a messy, vibrant, ever-evolving place, that’s usually warm and sunny. : )

  2. Yeah, I shouldn’t have come across so negatively about Los Angeles. My four years in the old Otis neighborhood were very trying, and New York just agrees with me so much more, but I’m not saying that there’s nothing of value to be found in Los Angeles. In 2000, I worked in Marina del Ray for about two months and generally had a good time being back in L.A. and not trying to get through art school. There definitely is a lot of great culture to be found there; you just need to have a car to get to it!

  3. I was there at Otis’s transition from MacArthur Park to West Chester. What a huge difference! It’s a tradeoff between the textured experienced of gritty and often scary surroundings for a more safe but sterile neighborhood.

    The old campus felt more personal and human to me. Navigating the streets meant you had to actually deal with people. While it wasn’t always safe, I felt that the local environment was vibrant in its own way. The new campus just doesn’t have that. Even the building used to belong to IBM and is meant to reference mainframe punch cards, which always make me think of distopian fears of machines. Even the neighborhood had a visible lack of human interactions. Cars would simply zoom by on Lincoln, while planes coming into or leaving LAX zoom over head. The one trace of human habitation is an apartment building across the street, and occupant would leave in the morning and come home at night. We rarely see them. It felt like we were in the middle of nowhere.

    In addition, having also attended UCLA, I can’t say that Otis is much of a “collegiate experience.” It’s a very intensive art education. There not much time for anything else if you take your studies seriously. People come to class and people leave. I think going into art school right out of high school is probably not a good idea and will often make for a bad collegiate experience. There are too many things you haven’t experienced, and you haven’t learned the discipline it takes to follow through. Comparing the first year head count with graduation head count will reveal that too often young student get burned out before they even begin.

  4. Yah, sorry … LA = having a car. If you don’t have a car, don’t apply. It makes for a different type of city—different than London or NYC or Paris, but it’s a unique place with more going on than almost anywhere, once you find it and drive to it.

  5. Nipith: I think I completely agree with your assessment; going to art school straight out of high school is generally a bad idea. It takes at least two years for most kids (well, for me anyway) to adjust to the idea that they’re on their own and they are responsible for getting as much as they can out of their own education. Combine that adjustment period with the intensity of art school and it can leave a very sour experience. Lots of people manage it and excel, but I think lots more would excel if they spent some time in a school with a broader academic spectrum first.

    Your comments about the new campus are also interesting; I had assumed that everybody was just completely relieved to be out of downtown LA. But it makes sense to me that there was a feeling of something missing when the campus moved. In spite of all its pitfalls, one thing that the MacArthur Park area absolutely had in spades was character.

  6. As someone who has lived in the apartment building across from the Otis site since 1987 I can appreciate the comments about the area. Certainly I wouldn’t venture in the park after dark. But things are changing. Back in the mid-80s you heard gunshots from the park every night. That now rarely happens. If you believe it, the area is starting to gentrify. The office building at Park View/Wilshire has been converted to upscale loft apartments. The new owners of my building about 18 months ago did a superficial renovation and aimed the marketing at officer workers, etc. And it seems to be working. Rents in the area have been skyrocketing the past 3-4 years. And if you can believe the old Otis building has been converted to an elementary school.

    Instead of Westchester Otis almost moved to the Fairfax district, in the old May Company building. Publicly that fell through due to alleged concerns the school had that about parking–that they planned an expansion of the school and that the parking structure wouldn;t handle the extra cars–I guess from your commenst they have indeed a larger student body now (BTW, strange the school moved just after laying out major bucks a few years earlier on that parking stricture on Carondolet).

    Westchester seems so sterile. Maybe a few more years and the school would have reconsidered leaving Westlake District.

    P.S. – I don’t have a car. And often see FIDM students riding public transportation with their porfolios.

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