UCC’s Angelus Plaza to host photo exhibit on L.A.’s older immigrant communities

Angelus Plaza resident Agripina Castellanos and her caregiver, Maria Martinez, were captured by fine art photographer Roberto Guerra for the “Going Gray in L.A.” exhibit.

An unused office space on the third floor of United Church of Christ-related Angelus Plaza Senior Activities Center in downtown Los Angeles is sparking a renaissance at the center for the creative arts.

The center’s staff wanted to start an ongoing multimedia project, not only for residents in the low-income senior housing of Angelus Plaza, but for the entire L.A. community. So the office space was converted to a gallery.

Since 1980, Angelus Plaza — part of the Retirement Housing Foundation, a nationwide CHHSM-member ministry and advocate for affordable low-income housing for seniors — has been home to a diverse community of about 1,400 low-income older adults. One of the most important ways Angelus Plaza serves its community is through the arts. New installations take place regularly in the gallery. The most recent, a Korean Art Exhibit, closed May 17.

“I think art is a universal language, as is music,” says the Rev. Laverne R. Joseph, president and CEO of the Retirement Housing Foundation. “And even if you can’t understand a language, art brings people together in appreciation for the beauty of life.”

That sentiment certainly will be true in the next installation, Going Gray in LA: Stories of Aging Along Broadway. Going Gray is a narrative photo exhibit by fine art photographer Roberto Guerra and his wife, journalist Ruxandra Guidi. The exhibit opens Aug. 7 and will run for a month.

“Going Gray” is an exploration of aging in the working-class and immigrant neighborhoods along Broadway in Los Angeles. The installation at Angelus Plaza is part of a year-long, multiple venue exhibition.

“We first had a vague idea about doing a project focused on older adults several years ago when we were living near Broadway Avenue here in Los Angeles,” say Guerra.

After L.A. radio station KCRW called for proposals for year-long reporting projects, Guerra and Guidi knew they’d found a way to move forward. In exploring the Broadway Avenue neighborhoods, they would work to “learn about some of the issues already facing the city’s seniors, but also try to raise their visibility in the media,” Guerra says.

The final project became 12 radio stories, multiple photo essays and other photographic content, a Going Gray website, a free newsprint publication, a high school lesson plan, two public events, and a traveling photo exhibit, Guerra says.

Angelus Plaza as Exhibit Central

“During our work, we learned that the largest older adult affordable housing community [in the United States] — Angelus Plaza — was right in the heart of the geographic focus of our project, and we knew we needed to include it,” says Guerra.

The final project features portraits of two residents, Miguel Borrayo and Agripina Castellanos with her caregiver, Maria Martinez. “We feel that Angelus is quite a special place,” Guerra adds.

Using the gallery space at Angelus Plaza as a venue for the exhibit was part of Guerra’s and Guidi’s plans all along. “It’s important to Rux and I to bring our work back to the communities where we’ve been reporting whenever we can,” Guerra says.

The exhibit just closed at St. Barnabas, a facility close to Angelus Plaza that also helps provide services to the Angelus Plaza Senior Activities Center. The center is open to all L.A. senior citizens, whether they live at Angelus Plaza or not. “It’s important to bring our work … to places that engage a wider, more diverse audience,” adds Guerra.

Guerra and Guidi hope the exhibit will appeal to the older adults they featured. “Our hope is that the seniors at Angelus and elsewhere appreciate and enjoy seeing and hearing realistic, intimate portrayals of themselves and their peers,” Guerra says. “So far, the response from older adults has been incredibly positive and supportive.”

Gallery serves diverse needs

Particularly with L.A.’s burgeoning population of older adults from different cultural backgrounds, shows like the photography exhibit, as well as regular dance and music concerts, help bridge communication gaps, says Jeffrey Winston, Angelus Plaza community relations coordinator.

Plaza residents, along with visitors to the Senior Center, are as diverse as the Greater L.A. community itself. To make sure everyone has access to the same information, the Plaza boasts a newsletter in four languages — Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and English — along with concerts and programs to highlight the cultural diversity.

“We’re the flagship of the Retirement Housing Foundation,” with a five-acre facility that crosses two L.A. zip codes, says Kristal Olvera, Angelus Plaza administrator. “We’re a village within the city” for older adults.

In addition to the gallery, other recent arts activities at Angelus Plaza have included an Asian cultural festival and a Mother’s Day concert. There also is a senior talent show showcasing the many backgrounds of the residents and visitors, among other activities.

“Because of our diversity and language barriers, we find that the arts work perfectly” as an avenue for understanding, Winston says. “The visual arts are universal.”

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