ES arts and culture – George the Fourth
by Mark McDermott
Squeak Renfro had a problem. It was the middle of the 1970s and Renfro — more formally known as George Renfro Jr., less formally as Squeak Jr. — was near the tail end of one of the more remarkable careers in real estate the South Bay has ever seen. His father, the original Squeak, had arrived from Colorado shortly after El Segundo’s founding; his brothers laid the bricks for the Old Town Music Hall and Squeak was kind of a jack of all trades who worked at Standard Oil and owned one of the fledgling city’s first bars.
Squeak Jr. loved his hometown, and it loved him back. He ran a gas station and real estate company, the latter which he turned into a somewhat sizable — owning about 200 homes, as well as a scattering of commercial property — and an unusually kind-hearted enterprise. His son, George III, came of age during the Vietnam war, in which he served, and upon return neither he nor many of his classmates could afford homes in El Segundo.
“He was really bummed out,” George III said of his father. “A lot of kids from here couldn’t afford to live here.”
The going price was about $25,000, fine for the middle class engineers who’d arrived with the aerospace industry but not so much for working class folk. A big part of why Squeak cherished El Segundo was because it had been a worker’s town. He wanted his hometown to stay true to its roots. And so he came up with an unusual deal — $1,000 down would get you in a house, and a 40 year payment plan would make it so you could stay.
“Anybody can do it,” Squeak told his son.
“So that is how a lot of people could stay here that were raised here,” George III said. “He really wanted people who were born here to be able to stay in this town.”
Staying has become increasingly difficult for subsequent generation of kids, not only in El Segundo but in the rest of the Beach Cities. El Segundo may now lay claim to being the last of the sleepy beach towns. Its downtown still brings to mind Mayberry, the fictional small town from the old Andy Griffith television show where everybody knows everybody (One of the flagship beers of El Segundo Brewing Company, founded by aerospace engineer-turned-brewer and native El Segundoan Rob Croxall, is Mayberry IPA). But no town in the entire region is changing more rapidly than El Segundo, which has become the area’s most economically vital city, with well over a $1 billion in new investment representing more than 8 million square feet of new office, retail, and amenity space recently built within the town’s five square miles.
“It’s an unprecedented level of development and redevelopment,” El Segundo city manager Greg Carpenter said in a 2015 interview. “We are attracting investors whom we haven’t seen in the past — corporate, commercial real estate people — not that we hadn’t seen them at all, but we are seeing them on a more widespread basis… Santa Monica, on the Westside, was the first; it’s become very expensive. Playa Vista was in second; Playa Vista is now at capacity. And we are next — the hot investment from a commercial real estate perspective.”
The transformation rivals the area’s post World War II aerospace expansion, but this surge has also has driven up residential estate prices. It’s made it even harder to stay than it was for the young generation that Squeak Jr. was able to help.
Staying was the last thing on George Renfro IV’s mind when he returned to El Segundo after obtaining a degree in graphic design from San Diego State in 2010. He expected to be in town briefly before setting out for New York City or one of the other design capitals of the world. But a funny thing happened, despite the fact that he was living with his parents and feeling a bit sheepish about it — he fell in love with El Segundo all over again. He put his shingle out as a freelance designer and was surprised at how much work he was able to find, much of it within town.
“There is a lot of art and design in Los Angeles, but it existed in Santa Monica, Venice, and Hollywood,” Renfro said. “It was almost comparing apples to oranges — they were like the Goliath. I knew there wasn’t a lot of design in this town yet, not a lot of businesses that were really applying design, considering it in their business. So I knew I had a chance with it. I knew I could turn it into something and get my name out there. But the beginning was kind of scrappy, like ‘I’ll take any project you want to give me and I’ll take a year on it if I need to.’ I just wanted to learn the process and learn how to deal with clients and perfect my craft.”
As Renfro looked at his hometown with the fresh eyes of a young man who’d travelled around the world a bit, he had two dawning realizations. One was that perhaps he didn’t need to go to a big city to experience the kind of culture and vibrancy he’d longed for. Instead, he could take responsibility for bringing the things he loved to town. It was kind of the inverse of the old adage, “If the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain.” The mountain was coming to El Segundo and George IV realized he could play a role in the city’s future.
And perhaps even more surprisingly, he realized his hometown was one of the coolest places he knew of.
“It doesn’t know it’s cool,” he said. “There is a certain lack of pretension. A lot of it is just naive. There are so many garages in this town filled with cool shit. My dad is one of the best artists I know and he barely even knows what that word means. He just makes stuff and it’s just bitchin’. It’s not contrived, like you go into Venice and you see that trend of cool, and you can see everyone moves in. ‘Okay, you are following a trend of cool.’ This town has always just done its own thing.”
“I think for a while this town, it didn’t want to be known,” Renfro said. “It liked being under wraps. It liked having a huge lot but only building a small house on it. It liked having free street parking. Like the opposite of all the things in Manhattan Beach — build up, build more, I don’t need yard space…. We were a little more focused on community, a little more humble. So all this change, I know the old guard isn’t particularly happy about it. I kind of see myself as a blend of the old and new. I’m caught in the middle.”
It wasn’t going to be possible to do what his grandfather had done. The real estate was all gone, and at any rate George IV wasn’t about to be a player in that field. But he did set up shop in his grandfather’s former office, a tiny one room building on the corner of Maple and Main. As he watched El Segundo pick up a new kind of momentum, he started thinking of ways to harness that energy in a way that served townsfolk.
“I’m working at his same desk,” Renfro said. “It kind of came full circle.”
The art walk
If the annals of El Segundo are ever compiled and some future scribe investigates the exact moment when the little seaside city named after Standard Oil’s second refinery reached a tipping point towards cool, he or she will discover it happened on the third Thursday of June in the year 2015.
This was when the El Segundo Art Walk arrived, and with it the realization that El Segundo had more creativity per square foot than any other city in the region. Unexpected spectacles popped up throughout the city’s downtown and adjacent Smoky Hollow warehouse district, including vibrant, often edgy paintings, surf art, exquisite photography, sculpture, music, aerial performers, and moonshine purveyors. The range of the art walk’s 29 venues was also a revelation, including MotoArt, the exuberantly unconventional business steeped in the deep heart of El Segundo’s past, present, and future, making artful, functional furniture out of vintage aircraft parts; Copper Willow Printing Company, a little shop filled with vintage, hand-powered printing machines; Tyler Surfboards, founded by local surfer Tyler Hatzikian, globally famed for his throwback “advanced vintage” surfboards; the El Segundo Museum of Art, the unexpectedly cutting-edge museum with an international mien and a wildly experimental bent; and South Bay Customs, the American motorcycle shop whose ethos is aptly summed up as “Music, Art, Motors” and which possesses the mysterious sheen of an alternate universe born of rock ‘n’ roll and combustion engines.
The art walk was the brainchild of Holly Socrates, who brought together a small group of the town’s creative types around a big table at the studio of photographer Dani Brubaker and proposed the event.
“When I pitched the concept of the El Segundo Art Walk to a dozen local business owners in 2015, everyone was incredibly excited,” Socrates said. “Out of that group, two people came up to me, offering their help to bring the art walk to fruition, Erik Svendsen and George Renfro, both graphic designers.”
Renfro created a map for the event and its original logo. The map turned out to be a key element. Other towns’ art walks are often somewhat artificial — artists are mported from elsewhere, and the venue is either a sidewalk or an otherwise non-creative storefront. ESAW felt like a naturally-blooming event, an exuberant burst of creativity from the seams of the city itself.
“That idea of the printed map — the El Segundo art walk is different than other art walks because we do curate the experience quite a bit,” Renfro said. “We intentionally place artists in venues knowing the size and type of their work, and so the artists and owners sort of mesh as people.”
That first night of the first art walk was revelatory, not only for the thousands of people who flocked to it but for those who’d planned the event. It felt like an idealized version of what a small town could be.
Tyler Leonard, Renfro’s lifelong friend and current business partner — they founded a design firm, BoundaryLA, in 2017 — recalls getting a very excited phone call from his buddy that night. Leonard was living in Venice at the time and had fallen a bit out of touch with his hometown. Renfro told him to get to El Segundo, immediately.
“I’m dead serious, dude,” Renfro told his friend. “El Segundo is getting really cool.”
“And I was like, ‘No it’s not. It’s the Tavern on Main and the Purple Orchid. I know all the bars,’” Leonard recalled. “I knew I wasn’t going to go there and meet someone new. But then I went, and low and behold, it really was cool.”
What Renfro saw was a way forward for his town. Towns that change rapidly often lose their sense of community because thenew people and the established townsfolk are strangers to each other. The art walk brought everyone together.
“It’s the idea that we can make the community smaller, by meeting everyone,” Renfro said. “There were so many cool buildings in Smoky Hollow and I saw that they had been remodeled and I knew that something cool was happening inside of them. I saw the art walk as being able to go into these buildings and check them out. Just naturally in business and commerce, you work on your own business, you go into your own office and put your head down and jam on things and make your clients happy, or whoever is buying your product happy. But the art walk was a night where you could let your guard down, open your doors and actually meet the guy who is working in the office next to you. So yeah, it’s about art, but to me, there is a very exciting entrepreneurial sense to it, too.”
By 2016, word of the art walk had spread — it became a destination regionally, and something more than an event, but a herald of the city’s arrival not just economically but culturally.
The City of El Segundo saw this and helped fund ESAW’s marketing.
“It’s been huge,” said El Segundo Mayor Drew Boyles. “El Segundo has these new businesses moving in with an emphasis on art, and the art walk took things to a whole different level, bringing together the best in business and art with the quaintness of our town. It’s been great from a branding standpoint, so much so the council supported investing in the art walk unanimously.”
“It fits with the idea, ‘El Segundo, where big ideas take off,’” Boyles said. “It’s helping move El Segundo from its history, in which it’s been very a institutional, very corporate community, to a more innovative and cutting-edge kind of place. There’s a lot of different things going on, and Smoky Hollow is one example…. El Segundo has always been the best kept secret, and now that secret is getting out. It’s a mixed blessing, of course, but this helps us control our own destiny.”
In 2017, Renfro took the helm of the art walk. Leonard had already been pitching in as ESAW grew, and now Renfro recruited another of his friends to partner with — John McCullough, a Georgia-born professional event producer who married into El Segundo baseball royalty, the Cousins family.
It was a tricky time for ESAW. The first couple of years had been so spontaneous, with kind of a Wild West anything goes ethos, including a bit of rowdiness at some venues that included lots of wine. ABC had contacted the art walk to let them know this wasn’t going to continue.
McCullough, producer of the Prohibition NYE celebration at Union Station in LA, was undaunted. He helped designed the art walk so a few designated venues served alcohol and a central beer garden served local brew. The feral spirit of the art walk remained intact. McCullough saw the opportunity to build on something that was already unique with ESAW.
“I think the way the art walk is set up, you have 40 businesses taking ownership of it, creating their own element of the art walk,” McCullough said. “It allows them to shape the event themselves. This is what is key about the city of El Segundo — people have a ton of town pride. And so for the art walk, the majority of people in El Segundo come out — of course other people come from other communities, but the core of [ESAW] is its residents. And you don’t quite see that at First Fridays in Venice and other art-driven events around Los Angeles.”
As ESAW continued to unfold, Leonard experienced something he never expected. He and George’s old buddies not only said nice things about the art walk, but started pitching in ideas.
“We have a group of friends who live to give each other shit,” Leonard said. “We are rough on each other, like any normal group of guys…. These are guys who all went to elementary, middle school, and high school together, and we are around all these people still — we know each other so well there’s nothing to do but give each other a hard a time. And George actually did something, the art walk, that made our friends compliment us. Which to me is crazy.”
It also changed the conversation in another way. Most of the younger generation in El Segundo had experienced its changes with some chagrin. Now they saw something positive in it.
“I think there is a sense of ownership,” Leonard said. “I think people associated [the change] with, ‘El Segundo, oh the housing crisis, I’ll never be able to buy a house here.’ I’m kind of seeing a shift, about how cool it is becoming, whether I can live there or not… It’s been wild. I see the art walk as sort of a launch pad toward other events, to be honest. This has been amazing for me to come into, and have friends you’d never think be dreaming for what can go on in this city.”
It’s kind of a magic trick. The price of real estate is an insurmountable hurdle for many native El Segudoans in terms of home ownership, but the art walk shows that this doesn’t mean their hometown can’t still belong to them. The spirit of a town isn’t in its bricks and mortar, as Squeak Jr. well knew, but in its flesh and blood.
“It’s amazing,” George IV said. “Townie is sometimes a derogatory term, but I’m a townie and proud. Meeting transplants who have moved to LA, or my friend who moved to New York or Chicago — it’s a completely different set of friends. I never realized how rare it is that all the guys I still hang out with are from my town. I kind of love it that way. There’s a bond there; we are family, not blood, but definitely family.”
Something else Renfro never saw coming is that he now serves on the city’s Arts and Culture Advisory Committee. The fact that the city even has such a thing amazes him. But he also realizes that helping navigate a future in which El Segundo remains recognizable as the place where four generations of his family found a home requires taking part in making that future.
“There is sort of a golden era that a neighborhood has when it exists as this blend of artists still contributing but then big brands find out about it,” he said. “It’s kind of kind of happening on Abbot Kinney — now American Eagle Outfitters come in, Abercrombie and Fitch come, ‘Oh that is the cool street, that is where all the foot traffic is,’ now they’ll come in and it’ll all fizzle out. I’m sure they have people architecting that future there.”
“That is something I just don’t want to see happening to El Segundo, never becoming too corporate or selling out. I know it’s going to happen to some degree, but hopefully the art walk and other institutions can keep it authentic. Keep it real.”