The Eastside neighborhood of Riverside is one of the oldest in the city and has a long, rich history widely unknown to the people who now call it home. In the early part of the 20th century, it was a haven to Riverside’s booming citrus industry workers and in most recent decades, it became littered with gang-related activity and was stifled by poor economic growth.
Today, however, even in the midst of Eastside’s faltering tides, residents remain steadfast and hopeful for their community — confident that nothing could truly destroy the preservation of strength within the neighborhood. A contributing factor to this optimism has flown directly from a group of artists who hope to revitalize the neighborhood through their work. Their mission is to unite the community around a shared love for the past, commitment to the present, and vision for the future.
One of the artists, Juan Navarro, has garnered acclaim for his revitalization projects and work through collaborations with Eastside residents. Most recently, he was named the artist-in-residence at the Riverside Art Museum (RAM).
Navarro’s story began as a humble college student connecting with others through Periscope, a popular video streaming app in the mid-aughts. He built a following of 12,000, soon realizing there was a virtual community that embraced him as a burgeoning artist. The support helped him to travel around California as a Periscope ambassador where he began using his platform to raise money for suicide prevention through his artwork. Later, he participated in a prestigious art event in Oakland through Meeting Of Styles, an international network of graffiti artists sponsoring graffiti murals.
After a wave of traveling and personal reflection, Navarro felt called back to his roots in Riverside. Trying to make it in a world he had become connected with virtually only reinforced what he knew to be true: “An artist will never be loved unless they’re connected to their community.” So, he gathered his belongings and the knowledge he had acquired and headed home. Eager to build a network from scratch, he sought opportunities to volunteer with young local artists who had started painting murals through a beautification effort in the Eastside neighborhood.
Navarro’s newfound impact within the community and partnership with RAM has led him to foster social interactions and promote greater neighborhood development. Since then, he’s opened Eastside Arthouse, a co-working space designed for artists of all types to encourage collaboration and community. Navarro later won an award through U.S. Bank’s Foundation Market Impact Fund which invests in organizations that are creating effective community-led solutions to dispel economic disparities.
We spoke with Navarro to talk about his vision and the purpose behind his growth as a local artist. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Raincross Gazetee: U.S. Bank set aside $1 million to be disbursed among several nonprofits and you, through your collaboration with RAM, received $50,000. How did that come about? U.S. Bank was looking for emerging leaders, so you had to be in a leadership-type role for three years or less. RAM identified me as someone who should win the award since I’d recently graduated from the Resident Leadership Academy, which is a program from the Riverside Community Health Foundation specifically for people trying to learn how to be a leader and advocate for health within their community.
And you had always lived in Riverside? Yes, I was raised on Third and Mulberry streets. My mom went to church in the Eastside, and that’s when I started volunteering in pantries helping her and the other church ladies package food for donations. My volunteerism was always through church but never at the current caliber where I can use my artwork to serve and uplift my community.
It’s very clear based on your work and partnerships that you have a passion for Riverside. When was that passion and fire ignited within you? When the love was reciprocated. My concept is: Great artists stay in Riverside when Riverside serves them and great artists leave Riverside when there’s no opportunity. If we don’t take care of our artists and keep them here by supporting them, such as through commissions, they’re going to leave and chase the [Los Angeles] dream.
Having done this work for awhile now, I’m sure you’ve seen your community change drastically. What are some things that strike you as you drive through Eastside and admire the work you and others have made? I feel like we now care about the Eastside of Riverside, and the people feel loved. I’ll give you a quote. I was painting the [Verizon #ACallforKindness] mural and this guy was going by and he said, ‘Nice mural,’ and I explained what I was doing and he said, ‘Man, Eastside has never had things like this. Thank you for doing that work.’
As you advanced in your journey as an artist, you also recently decided to become a small business owner. What piece of advice would you give to an artist hoping to follow in your footsteps? Be kind and be generous. Something we say at Eastside Arthouse is, ‘Rising tides lifts all boats.’ My financial success from these projects is a success for all the artists in Riverside because there is a rapport that has been established and that they’ll also be able to take advantage of. I always ask the artists in my studio, ‘Why are you in the studio right now?’ and they say, ‘Well, I want to work beside you because it looks like you have it all going on.’ And I tell them that it’s not always what it looks like. And their response is, ‘I’m glad you show your humanity.’ Like sometimes I share with them, ‘Oh man, I’m so nervous, I just submitted something. Let’s see what happens.’ I’m still not like this person who’s incredibly confident.
Well, that’s the artist’s dilemma, right? There’s always doubt in your heart about whether anyone else will appreciate what you see in something. And if they do, that’s when you find your people. And you find your peace too. It’s temporarily comforting and it allows you to keep going.
So what’s next? Everyone always says “starving artists” or “artists are hard to work with.” You come here and you won’t be hard to work with and people are going to hire you over and over again. That’s my spirit now: don’t be stingy with what you know, share everything you have. There’s an infinite amount of opportunity and Riverside is not a dead art scene. It’s an art scene that is happening. [The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art, Culture and Industry] is coming. It’s the perfect time to be an artist that wants to grow in this area and the influence of our museums is going to be nationally recognized. Our artists need to be of that same quality. My hope for this space is that we all grow not only as individuals but together by inviting others in.
Eastside Arthouse is a membership-based common-space art studio located on 4177 Park Avenue. Memberships grant full access to the space complete with standing desks, workshop desks, an easel room, practice mural walls, an outdoor space, commercial sink, Wi-Fi, iMacs, and printers. Rates can be found at eastsidearthouse.studio.