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Save the World Stage; Field Notes for Fall

"A Taste of Soul L.A.," the Crenshaw District's giant street festival, similar to the Sunset Junction and Abbott Kinney Street Festivals, is on this weekend along Crenshaw between Stocker and Rodeo Road. A star-studded lineup of performers will be appearing on stage live, as well as the usual lineup of local food trucks. This is the 8th annual "A Taste of Soul," and the event gets bigger every year. Less than a mile south of the festival, the legendary World Stage is facing eviction from new shadow absentee landlords. This week L.A. Letters salutes the World Stage, reinforces its importance. and draws the connection between other community arts organizations like Tuesday Night Café, Sunday Jump, Punk Hostage Press and Espacio 1839.

On numerous occasions in this column I have written about the World Stage and its central place in Leimert Park, and the literary landscape of Los Angeles and West Coast poetry. See the Departures Leimert Park section for more history of the neighborhood along with my previous poem and articles.

In the last five years two legendary Leimert venues closed their doors for good: 5th Street Dicks and Babe's & Ricky's Inn. Although both closed primarily because the original owner/founders had passed, the inflation of the last few years has made it much harder for community arts organizations to flourish or make ends meet, as market rates continue to climb. Babe's & Rickey's Inn was the last surviving club from Central Avenue, and lasted in Leimert for almost 20 years after moving there in 1996 from Central.

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The World Stage started in 1989 with Billy Higgins and Kamau Daaood. One of their mottos is "Seeking Light Through Sound." I have written many times about Kamau and his poetry book, "The Language of Saxophones." Billy Higgins played drums on more recordings than any drummer in jazz history -- well over 2,000 recordings. He played with all the heavyweights, including Coltrane. His days with Ornette Coleman were a hallmark. Higgins taught drum classes to local youth until he passed in 2001.

Since Higgins' passing the World Stage has continued to flourish, but there have been some difficulties over the recent years. Shortly after the Leimert Park Metro station was approved for the new Crenshaw Line, the building was purchased by new owners, who promptly served eviction notices to all the businesses along the east side of Degnan Boulevard. The new owners are hiding behind a management company and refusing to negotiate with tenants. For more on this, listen to Conney Williams, the World Stage's Artistic Director and his interview on "Which Way, L.A.?" with Warren Olney, from Wednesday, October 16, 2013.

Sid Grauman's Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, and Beyond Baroque in Venice, are both nonprofit venues that would not be around if it were not for some visionary business people that negotiated for each arts organization a better deal on rent, because they understood that the venue is healthy for the neighborhood. The World Stage needs similar consideration. Where is Oprah? Bill Cosby? Magic Johnson? His theaters were just up the street, on the west side of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall.

The World Stage | Photo: Yosuke Kitazawa

Just west of the Mall by the Jungles apartment is a desolate stretch of abandoned buildings that has been essentially ignored over the last dozen years. At one point in time some development was slated for the block, but nothing has happened. The Crenshaw District is very historic on numerous levels. Uneven development has plagued the area for too long. The residents deserve better. Visionary developers are needed and sooner than later.

Mark Ridley-Thomas has asked Metro to provide financial assistance to small businesses along Crenshaw Boulevard for the new Crenshaw Line. The World Stage should be first in line for this assistance. Conney Williams noted in his interview with Warren Olney that Leimert is the last African-American creative district in the face of nationwide gentrification. He mentioned both Harlem and Central Avenue, and how their historic landscapes have been redeveloped and forever altered. On Saturday, October 26, there will be a rally in Leimert to discuss the future of the World Stage and Degnan Boulevard.

Back in 1989 when the World Stage started there were not very many literary organizations in the city, let alone in South Los Angeles. The World Stage's writing workshop and weekly open mic has also been a model for countless other nonprofit literary arts groups around Southern California and the nation. In L.A. alone, venues in Little Tokyo, Historic Filipinotown, Highland Park, Boyle Heights, and South El Monte use a model similar to what World Stage pioneered 25 years ago. Williams noted in his interview that the World Stage should be a designated landmark, and I agree with him. Considering that the celebrated landscape architects, the Olmsted Brothers designed parts of Leimert Park, Williams' idea is not unrealistic. There are claims to be made on multiple levels: historically and architecturally.

Cultural venues and bookstores are good for neighborhoods on all levels. As noted above, the Egyptian Theater and Beyond Baroque were given special considerations for their property lease; the World Stage deserves the same. Stay tuned for updates and developments regarding this issue.

In the meantime, there are lots of happenings in the many community arts organization across the city.

The Tuesday Night Café, or Tuesday Night Project, is a kindred community arts organization to the World Stage. Started in 1998 by Traci Kato-Kiriyama, they have been a Little Tokyo Institution for up-and-coming writers and musicians. After all these years, Kato-Kiriyama is passing the reins to Sean Miura, Quincy Surasmith, and others so that she can concentrate on her numerous artistic activities with East West Players, Greg Watanabe, the Japanese-American National Museum, and other community arts organizations she works with. Over the years she has mentored countless young writers and musicians. The venue will be in great shape because she taught her protégés well.

Tuesday Night Cafe | Photo: Yosuke Kitazawa

Sunday Jump is the popular open mic in Historic Filipinotown. I wrote about them a few months back; they are also an offshoot from Tuesday Night Café. They have changed locations, and are now located in one of the neighborhood's best known sites, the Tribal Café on Temple. Sunday Jump is held every 1st and 3rd Sunday from 4:00 - 7:00 p.m. The open mic begins at 5 p.m.

Espacio 1839 on East First Street in Boyle Heights is less than 100 yards east of the Mariachi Plaza Metro station, and next to the venerated Eastside Luv watering hole. Now celebrating their first anniversary, Espacio 1839 sells vinyl records, indie literature, handpicked gifts, and runs an internet radio station where DJ's play on-site. Founded by a coalition of Eastside natives, like Marco Amador and Lady Imix, Espacio has quickly become a Boyle Heights institution. As the neighborhood continues to develop, focal points like Corazon del Pueblo, Espacio, and Libros Schmibros have become destinations and dependable locations for live events and creative products, by local musicians like Las Cafeteras. Espacio 1839 runs the popular Radio Sombra broadcasts, and were recently featured in Artbound.

One of underground Los Angeles' most popular poets over the last generation is Dennis Cruz. His new book on Punk Hostage Press debuts next week at the Downtown Lab, in the Last Bookstore. "Moth Wing Tea" is over 150 poems, and almost 300 pages of Cruz's selected poems from the last 25 years. His blend of humor, irony, and deep pathos translates equally well on the page and at his live readings. There's a boldness and vulnerability in his work that breaks the wall down between the writer and the reader. Urgency and direct messages emerge from his short lines. Here's his poem, "Carpe Diem."

Just remember,
The day is
What you make it.
The spirit,
is how.
and,
as with anything,
love it,
regardless.

Cruz's book is one of ten other books published by Punk Hostage Press over the last year including books by A. Razor, Yvonne De la Vega, Iris Berry and Rich Ferguson. They've been bridging the gap between Los Angeles and the Bay Area with their series of events and books. See the website for more.

All and all, many independent literary arts organizations across Los Angeles and California are surviving and staying very busy with events and publications. Entering autumn, change is always in the air, but here's to calculated changes that uplift communities. The World Stage needs help in Leimert. The absentee landlords should negotiate with the tenants. Furthermore, compassionate business people with financial capital need to get more involved, with venues like the World Stage. Places like City Lights Books that have survived for 60 years, have not only figured out good business models, but they have had help on occasion, from policymakers and business leaders. Tavis Smiley owns a building in Leimert, there are no shortage of wealthy luminaries in the area.

In conclusion, the World Stage's example as a community arts organization has really set the blue print for the contemporary archipelago of creative venues that now stretch between Little Tokyo, Boyle Heights, Historic Filipinotown, Highland Park, and Eagle Rock. The issue of the World Stage's eviction still unfolds, urgent support is needed now. Now is not the time to turn our backs on this important landmark of L.A. Letters.

About the Author

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