As we watched the group led by female elders drumming their way toward us, Rashida, a vendor of wonderful-smelling body scrubs, leaned over and said, “You can’t get this anywhere else in L.A.!”
She’s so right.
For the last four years, the monthly art walk in Leimert Park has brought together community, culture, art, and African heritage in a truly unique way.
Few places in the city, if any, feel so vibrant and warm as Leimert does on the last Sunday of the month.
Which is why the Pop-Up Plaza event at this art walk was so exciting — it offered a glimpse into the future of what Leimert Park Village could be if 43rd Place (the street running along the base of the village) were to be closed to cars and converted into a plaza.
The idea of making that conversion is one that many in the community have been kicking around for some time.
With the birth of the 20/20 Vision initiative — the strategy to drive the economic development of Leimert Park Village and its creative district in tandem with the arrival of the Metro station — the potential value of creating a plaza space has come more sharply into focus. So much so that the community is currently in the process of putting together a People St. application in the hopes of making that happen sooner rather than later.
Speak to anyone who has been coming to the area for years, and you will hear stories of the incredible street life Leimert once hosted: chess games up and down the sidewalk, spontaneous poetry performances, live jazz blasting, and a strong sense of community.
The loss of Richard Fulton and his coffee house and jazz emporium, which had played host to much of that joyful noise, helped push that culture into hibernation.
On days like this past Sunday, however, when several generations of Leimert residents and aficionados turn out in droves to celebrate art, music, community, and unity, that culture feels tangible and ready to be revived. It is just looking for a home base.
A plaza might be a good place to start.
In addition to the existing arts spaces and businesses, the opening of new gallery Papillion (on Degnan), the construction of artist Mark Bradford’s art and community space (on the corner of Degnan and 43rd Pl.), and the renovation of the Vision Theater (still underway), offer the possibility of a packed calendar of events that can draw crowds to spend the afternoon or evening in the area.
A plaza that was both adjacent to these spaces and connected to the Leimert Park Metro station would give patrons, visitors, and residents alike a place to linger.
With this in mind, Ben Caldwell of the KAOS Network artspace, Prof. François Bar and Karl Baumann of USC, and the students of their “Tactical Media” class set up a Pop-Up Plaza linked to the art walk.
It was a simple idea — block off the street, set up a couple of stages, offer a few interactive stations, and let people use the space as they see fit.
And, it worked.
It helped that they had reached out to Kyle VerBS Guy — a charismatic (and prolific) local phenomenon and the brains behind the eclectic musical adventure known as Bananas. He played emcee, occasionally rapping, explaining some of the activities going on around the plaza, and demonstrating how to interact with Sankofa RED, the prototype of a re-purposed interactive pay phone created in a joint USC-KAOS seminar last year.
The stage and its list of performers drew a younger crowd of artists than Leimert sometimes sees, all of whom had their own style.
The crowd also drew artists to create new works.
But, the really fun part was watching the kids play.
Kids also enjoyed testing out some of the Tactical Media students’ prototypes.
I also enjoyed seeing a new crowd on the plaza because it meant that they were getting an introduction to the long-time staples of the area — the vendors.
There is also just about anything you might need to pamper or adorn your body:
Things for your ears:
Things for your hands:
There are things for your head:
Things for your neck and arms:
And, of course, things for your spirit:
Because of Leimert’s history as a place of refuge and healing for the black community after the 1992 riots, many of the people that gather at the art walk have their roots in activism and social justice. Which helps explain why every single conversation I had Sunday revolved around ideas about how to make the plaza reflective of the community and its heritage, how to take advantage of the opportunity a CicLAvia hub in the area would present, how to attract younger artists, and/or how to build on the changes already underway in the area by putting in place a food co-op, a bike co-op, a movement studio that offered dance and fitness classes, and/or more outdoor performances.
None of that will necessarily be easy — the economic hurdles that have made it difficult for artists or entrepreneurs in the area to survive in storefronts or move from vending into a brick-and-mortar sites haven’t disappeared.
A temporary plaza certainly won’t resolve those issues, either.
But, it could help.
Too often, the lack of investment in infrastructure by the city in areas of South L.A. is what makes investors wary of funding ventures there.
A major project like the plaza, if handled right, can be the kind of infrastructure project that signals to investors that there is value in this community and all it represents while giving the people that make it special more opportunities to come together.