This fall, a little-known piece of Westside history will be the focus of a special exhibit at the Museum of Ventura County . “Last Exit: Tortilla Flats” showcases the research and archives used in the making of the Tortilla Flats Mural mounted beneath the 101 Freeway at Figueroa Street. Old photos, historical maps, pieces of the original mural and other artifacts will all be featured. The exhibit sheds light on a vital component of Ventura’s development, and preserves the legacy of a long-gone community that was nearly lost to memory as well.
Tortilla Flats was a vibrant multicultural neighborhood, nestled between the ocean and Main Street, which flourished during the first half of the 20th century. Chumash, Latino, African-American and Asian residents lived side-by-side with Midwestern families fleeing the Dust Bowl. When the 101 Freeway was extended into Ventura County in the 1950s, its route sliced right through Tortilla Flats, displacing all the residents, many of whom relocated to the housing projects up Ventura Avenue. “This exhibit focuses on an element of critical Ventura history: the 101 coming through town as a freeway,” says artistic director MB Hanrahan, “and how it impacted a neighborhood.”
In the 1990s, when Hanrahan and project coordinator Moses Mora began the Tortilla Flats project, they could find no documentation. “We became amateur historians,” says Hanrahan. They sought out families who had lived in the community, gathering photographs and other information that would paint a picture of the area. Mora was born in Tortilla Flats shortly before the relocation. He was a crucial link to the other residents. “We had to go door to door to talk to people,” he recalls. “Many of them remembered my parents. That opened doors for us.” News of the project spread, and soon others were sharing their stories (Mora conducted the interviews and Hanrahan video-recorded). It became clear that what they had was so much more than just background material. “MB and I thought we were involved in an art project,” Mora explains. “It wasn’t long before we realized how deep and rich the research was.”
One of the Tortilla Flats mural panels depicting the people who lived there.
The original Tortilla Flats Mural went up in 1995, with colorful paintings depicting the life of the neighborhood: businesses, people, landmarks like the Flying A gas station and Salad Bowl Curve. “Many people around Ventura today have relatives dedicated in the mural,” says Hanrahan. But the elements took their toll, and the panels were removed in 2000 to prevent further deterioration. Hanrahan stored some at her Bell Arts Factory studio; many went to Tortilla Flats families and other community members. Some of these panels will be featured in the exhibit.
The Tortilla Flats Mural was resurrected in 2002 as a public art project in concurrence with the Figueroa Improvement Project. New, permanent panels telling the story of the community were designed by Mora and Hanrahan, painted onto marine-density plywood, covered with clear-coat protection and placed in galvanized steel frames. The panels were installed on the Figueroa Street Underpass in 2008. Five years later, they continue to stand the test of time.
But the pieces — and people — that started it all will be the stars of the show at the museum. The exhibit opens Sept.14 with Hanrahan and Mora discussing the history of the Tortilla Flats community and mural. Former residents will also share stories about the old neighborhood. It should be an event to remember, and will help educate today’s Venturans in an important but nearly forgotten part of their city’s history. “The mural is a narrative, a memorial and a cautionary tale, erected in the shadow of the symbol of progress that eradicated a neighborhood,” Hanrahan says. “It is easily understood by a wide and diverse audience.”
“Our work is about keeping that legacy alive,” adds Mora.
“Last Exit: Tortilla Flats” Sept. 14 through Nov. 24 at the Museum of Ventura County. For more information, visit www.venturamuseum.org.