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The Right to the City: New Community Spaces Amplify the Voice of Angelenos

Entering summer 2014 many promising changes are underway in the Los Angeles community arts scene. In nearly every corner of the city, community spaces, bookstores, and galleries are in full swing with nightly events. This week L.A. Letters highlights two new community spaces dedicated to amplifying the voice of Angelenos and providing alternatives to corporate spaces and cookie cutter culture.

Here & Now, on the Northwest corner of Huntington and Maycrest in El Sereno, is a new space that just opened in mid-June. Founded by Catherine Uribe with the help of Iris deAnda, the space is a healing arts center that also operates as a performance site, used bookstore, boutique, and writing workshop. Uribe is a longtime practitioner of energy work and the healing arts. She almost opened the space years ago in Echo Park, but the timing wasn't quite right. Having lived in El Sereno for almost a decade, she continued to see the corner building on Huntington next door to the famed coffeehouse, the Eastside Café, located right where El Sereno and Alhambra meet. The El Sereno Community Garden is also across the street.

When the space was put up for lease, Uribe decided to open up the healing arts center she had been envisioning for all these years. Around the same time she had been attending a writing workshop at the nearby Holy Grounds Coffeehouse, where she met Iris deAnda. DeAnda, in addition to being a poet, is a massage therapist and practices Reiki. The two hit it off beautifully, and Uribe asked her to be a partner in the healing arts center she was opening. Within a few months the plan was in motion. The opening party on a recent Sunday was a well-attended all-day affair, with live readings and screening of films on the large sidewalk out front, with their friends from the Echo Park Film Center.

The space is big enough for book parties and gallery openings, but it also has a private room for energy work and Reiki. The boutique features healing crystals, a few shelves of books, and an array of candles, sage, and body oils. The Thursday night poetry workshop is run by Uribe's husband, the poet Steve Abee. Abee calls his wife, "a design genius," and the immaculate interior supports his claim. The night I was there, a multigenerational group of writers, including Uribe and Abee's 16 year old daughter Maya, were writing their hearts out and sharing their work. The founders told me they also plan to feature singer-songwriters and a whole lineup of different literary events with their group, the Here & Now Poets.

They have taken to calling the corner in front of their space the Love Corner, because they have noticed many young couples stop to kiss next to the freshly painted light post. The romantic spirit pervades the intersection, and is further heightened by their vibrant green façade of their storefront. In their own words, "Here and Now located at the Love Corner in El Sereno is a place for mind, body, and spirit. A safe space where community can come together to share knowledge, express creativity, explore alternatives, gain self-awareness, grow, heal, and celebrate life and love. A healing arts center that offers classes and workshops as well as individual sessions."

Over the last decade there has been much talk about the Bringing Back Broadway Initiative in Downtown Los Angeles. On the heels of the new Urban Outfitters, as well as the Ace Hotel, while everyone waits on the streetcar, a recent development inside a large eatery is giving this initiative a much needed arts anchor. Located on the eastside of Broadway, between 6th and 7th Street, Les Noces du Figaro contains a second floor ballroom, which will now house a boutique bookstore and literary performance space under the direction of Writ Large Press. After operating a similar space upstairs in the Last Bookstore and organizing the Grand Park Book Festival the last two years, Writ Large has more than enough connections to organize area writers and local publishers. What's more is that they now have the room they need to cultivate the community properly.

Their portion of the space is called the DTLAB, and will house a few hundred titles by Los Angeles authors. In addition to books by Writ Large Press, there will also be work from Kaya Press, Les Figues, Tia Chuchas, and Red Hen Press, among others. To celebrate their opening they will be hosting 90 literary events over 90 days, beginning on Friday June 27. Authors from all of the aforementioned presses will be appearing, as well as every other type of literary event you can imagine. The schedule is already set for July and most of August, and can be found here.

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Founder of Writ Large Press, Chiwan Choi, tells me that there are two primary intentions to their enterprise. The first is to see what happens when you bring in large numbers of creative people from all over the city. In many ways, for Writ Large it is big a social experiment anchored in literature and the arts. He wants to see if the many groups of writers will cross-pollinate and collaborate. He hopes to provide a home base for aspiring scribes and those hungry for the arts. Choi is a longtime Angeleno poet, and his love for the literary community is why he continues to play a role as a central organizer of the burgeoning scene.

The second intention is to show business owners that there is great benefit to bringing the arts into your establishment. The second floor of Les Noces du Figaro is a spacious ballroom perfectly suited for their purposes of literary performances and bookselling. Patrons can also order food and drinks from the restaurant. A symbiotic business model is the plan. Choi's efforts are supported by his partner and wife Judeth Oden Choi, Downtown impresario Peter Woods, and the office of Jose Huizar. The events range from book parties, group readings, workshops, academic lectures, and literary performance art. Just a few names scheduled to appear include Luis Rodriguez, Gary Phillips, Wendy Ortiz, Jen Hofer, Jessica Ceballos, Jervey Tervalon, Douglas Kearney, Shana Nys Dambrot, Stephanie Barbe Hammer, and Jo Scott-Coe. They will also be working closely with groups like the Shakespeare Center.

An idea from Professor and Geographer Don Mitchell, author of the seminal book, "The Right to the City," offers a relevant insight. Noting the rise of privatization, heightened surveillance, and security of this era, Mitchell argues that in this age we need public space the most, it is disappearing before our eyes. This is why spaces like the Here & Now and DTLAB are more necessary than ever. Art and literature has always filled the void where public policy is lacking. Mitchell observes that the fabric of the city is constructed by "Actors with differing degrees of power, including large institutional players such as universities, city governments, merchants with differing views on what makes a 'lively mixing bowl.'"

Mitchell notes how economic power always influences implementation of public policy and social justice is generally ignored in this process. Nonetheless, Mitchell reminds us that regardless of your financial status, each and every citizen has "the right to the city." The arts are ground zero for this sentiment and one of the last bastions of democracy. Salute to Here & Now and the DTLAB for being important touchstones and epicenters in the topography 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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