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Punk Rock, Poetry, and Public Policy

Punk rock's connection to politics dates back to the Civil Rights era. Groups like MC5 and the Stooges in the '60s, Sex Pistols, Bad Brains, Black Flag, and Fishbone in the '70s and the '80s reveal punk rock's connection to social justice and questioning the status quo. Moreover there's a school of poets, like KCRW DJ Henry Rollins and Jamaican Dub Poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, that have emerged from the Punk Rock perspective. Rollins in his book "Fanatic" recalls the ethos of the punk era: "there was a time in punk rock, a flashing moment when there was no irony and the moves weren't choreographed and no one knew where it was all going and it was all very real."

Many have said that a similar energy is currently thriving on the Eastside. As recent documentaries have shown, the energy of punk rock reverberated loudly throughout the Southland in not only Hollywood and the South Bay, but also in Boyle Heights. This week L.A. Letters spotlights a historic Eastside punk rock venue making a return, a travelling poetry festival, and neighborhood activists sharing the same ethos to improve local public policy.

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One of the most important bridge-builders in Eastside musical history is Joe Vex. Beginning in 1977, his Boyle Heights venue, "The Vex" near First and Lorena, featured notable bands like Black Flag, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Damned, X, Suicidal Tendencies, The Cramps, Social Distortion, Circle Jerks, The Germs, TSOL, The Adolescents, Los Lobos, and many more iconic bands. Originally a close comrade with the ASCO Muralists and the Chicano Arts Movement, Vex concentrated his energy and efforts on promoting the live music community. Besides featuring well known acts, he also opened the door for many emerging local artists until the venue closed its' doors in 1984.

Besides the historic series of live events held at the original Vex, Boyle Heights' central geographic location made it a local music mecca that bridged the gap between Hollywood and Orange County's local punk and new wave music scenes. The mythology about the original Vex can now be found referenced in several published books, as well as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, The Smithsonian, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and many other art museums and music history archives.

Girl Scouts at The Vex, August 7, 1980 | Photo Courtesy of Diane Gamboa

Good news for music enthusiasts is that Joe Vex has reopened his venue in a large performance space/gallery/workshop venue on Alhambra Avenue in El Sereno, just a few miles north of his original Boyle Heights venue. The new venue is 9,700 square feet, equipped with a large stage and performance space spacious enough to hold several hundred music listeners comfortably, and hold an art show simultaneously. After 30-plus years of experience in hosting music and art events, Vex is applying all of his wisdom in the newest incarnation. They will not only be hosting live music, but will be having gallery events, fashion shows, writing workshops and other types of community arts-oriented activities. Vex wants to give back to the El Sereno community. As a longtime Eastside resident and arts advocate, giving back to the city that gave to him is an important piece in the new venue.

Omar Holguin is the Executive Director of the Vex Arts. Holguin's excited about the future possibilities in the local area. He explains, "The Vex's goal is to enrich the lives of the El Sereno Community by providing a hands-on arts and education program, as well as providing needed services for the community and its surrounding areas. The legacy of the Vex will continue providing a thriving music venue as well as challenging all art disciplines and forms."

They have had a series of secret shows so far, with groups like Black Flag and quiet openings, but Holguien is collaborating with artist Steve Gates for an official opening with live performances that will exhibit artists Diane Gamboa, Bo Jennings, George Combs, Ngene Mwana, Ellla Sarkisian, Donald Frazell, Silvio Sangiorgi, Velma Gay, Lika Brutian, and other artists in a special curated group show.

El Sereno is an underserved community with a lot of teens living near the space. Vex and Holguin are in the process of working with the city to establish after school arts programs and other related workshops for the local youth under nonprofit status. They know that one of the best ways to keep the arts legacy going to cultivate the next generation of musicians and artists. This is why arts programming is just as important as their live events and gallery shows.

Holguin adds, "The Vex Arts mission is to enrich the lives of children by offering a continued arts and education program for all in safe haven, while introducing them to a variety of programs that would teach them about empowerment, techniques, structure, and enhance mental creativity, while teaching them to embrace each other's cultures." Holguin jokes that "the punk rockers have all grown up." The Vex is taking the raw energy of punk rock and reapplying the kinetic force to cultivate the youth and improve the neighborhood.

The new Vex space in El Sereno | Photo: The Vex Facebook


Poetry Palooza and the Eastside Arts District

El Sereno is ripe for the Vex and the timing is right. Rents are so high in the Historic Core and Arts District, even in Boyle Heights, that outelier areas like El Sereno offer more space for less rent. There's plenty of space for creativity at The Vex's new location. El Sereno is quietly emerging as another Eastside Arts District. As a liminal area of Light Industry, it's a wide open built environment of warehouses and railroad tracks, and some of the biggest and most detailed murals in the city are located along both Valley and Alhambra Road. The closest parallel to the area's aesthetic would be the stretch of Jefferson Boulevard near the Expo Line and Dorsey High School.

The Holy Grounds Coffee & Tea on Alhambra Avenue, just a few blocks east of the Vex's new location in El Sereno, has been hosting a number of literary and art events. Known for custom teas and selling local handmade merchandise, Holy Grounds is a favorite among Eastside denizens for its homey atmosphere, tasty products, and cultural events. One of their next big nights is the opening night of the 3rd annual Poetry Palooza this weekend.

Poetry Palooza is 12 nights of poetry in 12 different neighborhoods. The 12 nights are spread from August 2 to the 25. Focused on building bridges across the literary landscape of Southern California, the organizers hope "to network with peers of different multimedia artistic disciplines, and to educate through art, music, theater, and poetry."

The creators of Poetry Palooza hail from the ZZyZx literary journal, which publishes poetry, short fiction, and creative nonfiction. A diverse group with members from all across L.A. and Orange County, they decided a few years ago to begin an annual travelling literary festival that reflected their geographic dispersal across the Southland. After opening at Holy Grounds, the second night of the poetry festival will be in Venice, followed by North Hollywood, Long Beach, Pomona, Historic Filipino Town, Highland Park, Claremont, Whittier, La Puente, Downey and the final night in the Arts District.

Kimberly Cobian is one of the central figures of the ZZyZx group. Besides being a poet and editor, she's an accomplished belly dancer. One of her favorite phrases is that she likes to float in the midpoint between nothingness and inspiration. Cobian's infectious enthusiasm makes her popular with her fellow poets across the city. She has many comrades in her poetic undertakings. There are too many poets to name them all, but here are some of the key figures in the upcoming 12 readings: Angel Uriel Perales, Rae Shaw, Terry Walker, Todd Tostado, Christopher Luke Trevilla, Jessica Wilson, G. Murray Thomas, Lalo Kikiriki, Blazhia Parker, S.A. Griffin, Don Campbell, Deborah Kolodji, Frank Kearns, Shy But Fly, Rick Stepp-Bolling, Radomir Luza, Daniel Romo, Jeffry Alan Rochlin and Elena Secota among many other writers. Poetry Palooza 2013 this August is an onslaught of poetry for all those interested.

Though there have been other poetry festivals around L.A. for several decades now, Poetry Palooza has mostly focused on one genre of poetry and moved between only a few locations. The organizers know that L.A. is huge and their event scheduling reflects this. They enjoy celebrating the entire landscape and population, not just one small corner of the grid.

Holy Grounds Coffee & Tea | Photo: Holy Ground Coffee & Tea Facebook


Esotouric and Eastside Babylon

El Sereno residents Richard Schave and Kim Cooper of Esotouric are widely known around Los Angeles as architectural historians and preservationists. Both L.A. natives, they were early teens in the formative days of Punk and they inculcated the movement's spirit. Their Esotouric city tours cover off the beaten path sites like the San Gabriel Valley, Boyle Heights and South Los Angeles. Hosting original tours like "Weird West Adams," "Eastside Babylon," and "the Lowdown on Downtown," it's easy to see why they are loved for their authentic L.A. perspective.

The married couple did not become a romantic item until 18 years after they first met as undergrads at UC Santa Cruz during the Reagan years. When they finally really met, they shared a love for Los Angeles architecture, history and cultural lore. They collaborated on the very successful 1947 project blog and gradually started Esotouric in 2007 after a number of successful one-off tours with fellow blogger Nathan Marsak. Cooper has co-authored a few books and edited several music and art magazines like "Scram" over the last two decades. Schave has recently appeared in a number of video interviews on historic L.A. architecture, such as this one with Nathan Masters and Angels Flight.

Cooper and Schave stay more than active promoting awareness of Los Angeles history. Recently the city's redevelopment plans along Broadway have inspired Schave and Cooper to host a series of events to raise public awareness about the true nature of Broadway's streetscape. As any Anegeleno history buff knows, the Historic Core holds the largest collection of intact Beaux Arts and pre-World War II architecture of anywhere in America. The new monthly walking tours along Broadway, called "The Flaneur & the City," will examine the neighborhood.

Schave explains his motivation further: "it is imperative to develop a greater public awareness and understanding of Broadway's architectural and scenic qualities, and to bring the informed voices of the community into discussion of the proposed changes and alterations. We believe that no element of Broadway's streetscape can be altered without causing a transformation of the whole, requiring careful consideration before any permanent or semi-permanent changes are made."

Art Deco sidewalk on Broadway | Photo: David Blumenkrantz/Flickr/Creative Commons

Kim Cooper adds: "While the Beaux Arts style is eclectic and inventive, it is rooted in strict rules of proportion and appropriateness. The architects who designed and constructed our beloved downtown were highly aware of the restrictions under which they worked, and created iconic, beautiful and modern buildings within this framework."

Cooper also notes that Broadway's "sidewalks are distinguished by brightly colored terrazzo cartoons in the modernist Art Deco style. The historically designated portion of Broadway contains one of the largest collections of these decorative panels in the world. And yet they are completely unprotected, and could be ripped up tomorrow to be replaced with a new walking path."

The danger of the new redevelopment plan, Cooper and Schave's fear, is haphazard and careless short-term improvements "that are not based in the classical traditions, and that mar the beauty of the historic boulevard." These type of improvements are slowly being introduced a block over on Spring Street. Policy changes are happening fast, and Cooper and Schave want to make sure the public understands what's being proposed by the city before it gets too late, and policymakers carelessly begin to rip up the Broadway streetscape like they did on Spring.

The spirit of Punk Rock may have been about questioning authority, but as these figures remind us, it must be done with intelligence, careful thought, and foresight. Cooper and Schave know that when the public is equipped with the right knowledge it can positively affect public policy. Joe Vex and Omar Holguien know that music and the arts channels the restless energy of a community into a focused force pushing towards neighborhood improvement and self-determination. The dozens of poets participating in Poetry Palooza share this same zeal to uplift the city and spread creative fervor. Salute to these titans of punk rock, poetry and public policy; they are powerful agents of change in the topography of L.A. Letters.

Top: Exterior of The Vex in El Sereno. Photo: The Vex facebook

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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