Interview with Efrim Chiavetta: Ghetto Grounds

Young Voices is a series of interviews conducted by Occidental College students, assisted by the Keck Grant, for Professor Jan Lin's Urban Sociology course. Each interview highlights an individual who has made an impact in their communities.

Efrim Chiavetta is the Co-Executive Director ACLA (Art Community Land Activism), who converted a blighted property in Highland Park into what is now La Tierra de la Culebra and Ghetto Grounds Coffee House.


Can you talk a little bit about yourself, Ghetto Grounds, and the larger organization ACLA?

Yes, I came to ACLA right out of graduate school. I got my Masters in Humanities with a dual focus in Women's Studies and in English Literature. I decided on a focus in Women's Studies, because it was probably the most political department at the school. I spent two years studying the theory of movement of social change, and I came out of school wanting to get some experience organizing, doing activist work and then maybe going back for my Ph.D.

I spent a year or so just kind of bouncing around and trying to find out where I wanted to be. I was on the East Coast when I applied for this job through the Americorps Program in Rochester, New York. The woman that was doing the hiring was also the founder of the organization. What really attracted me to the job was when I asked her what kind of organizing we would be doing -- community organizing; assisting art programs and tutoring programs, or be in a neighborhood running a community center? She said that we would be doing all of that and pretty much anything else that I could think of -- they were a place that gives people the freedom to explore their ideas and put things into action. I thought that was fantastic.

I signed on for a year term with Americorps, and once I got here I quickly realized it was going to take much longer than a year commitment to do what I wanted to do here -- probably more like five years. After doing it for a couple of years I realized it was probably going to be more like ten years. So I slowly began to take up more and more responsibilities, including grant writing, program development, and volunteer recruitment and retention; I eventually assumed the director's position and the founder stepped down to become our board member.

So you've really seen this space transform. Could you talk a little about the ups and downs you've witnessed over the years?

We originally had two sites. When the other location closed, I came over here -- this place had been closed for two or three years because the neighborhood was a bit hazardous at the time. We had two overdoses, resulting in one fatality, and two shootings, one of them fatal. There were fires, arson, threats made against staff members, and a lot of serious gang activity. We put up a gate along the street, moved everybody out of the house, and shut the whole operation down for a couple of years.

When I got here, we had the challenge of working directly with gang members to create a neutrality to these grounds. A big help was that I lived in this house and was able to come outside and talk to people at two, three, or even four o'clock in the morning. I got to know people, I won their goodwill, and they very slowly began to back off. With the gangs allowing us to use this space in a productive manner again, I've been able to attract more and more community involvement from families and youth.

To what degree do you feel that social media impacts your outreach to the younger audience?

I do most of my organizing with young people via Facebook. The whole reason I got a Facebook account in the first place was so that I could communicate with the younger people that we were working with. I have a really awesome group of volunteers here, who are committed, enthusiastic, motivated and knowledgeable, to help in the process of building a website, and there is going to be someone who will do Twitter, another who will do live-feed, and another who will be doing podcasting. I think social media will play a much larger role in what we do and it's going to be very effective.

In what other ways do you reach out to young people -- I know you mentioned some of the programs you have here -- can you talk a little about this?

The coffee shop has been the most effective tool. The organization is run pretty much by myself since another person left a few years ago. With the lack of human resources there is only so much outreach you can do. You can't do door-to-door, you can't do a lot of canvasing on the streets, you can't do a lot of passing out fliers on the street, so we developed the coffee house as a way to attract people and give us a chance to talk to people, and that's been really good. And little things that you wouldn't expect, like some tier swings and wooden ones hanging from trees -- surprisingly enough that brought a lot of people in here. Also, just having activities that are visible in the park and having people come by and ask us, 'what's going on?' is really effective for us. Flyers on telephone poles or in storefront windows do not work. It's all word of mouth and directed through action with individuals in the neighborhood.

Could you describe a particular identity associated with Ghetto Grounds and how that has evolved over the years?

Well that's a really interesting question. I don't know what people think of this place quite honestly. I think a lot of people look at us like we're freaking crazy. It's constantly changing depending on whom we have involved at any given time. The Ghetto Grounds itself as a coffee shop and as this space right here is relatively new -- it's only about three years old.

For a long time we were working with a number of young bands -- a lot of people in that circle saw this place as a home away from home. People would come by at eleven o'clock in the morning to hang out and set up for gigs that began at eight that night. Some would hang out well after the gig was over. Those people have been working with me for about three or four years now, and they've all since become my very good friends, almost like family members.

Some people in the neighborhood still see the park as a place where gangs hang out and do and sell drugs, which is not the truth anymore.

To what extent do you feel you represent or reflect the larger culture of Highland Park in terms of anything including art, music, food etc.?

Well, a number of the kids we work with are not necessarily local. We have kids coming from San Gabriel, Hollywood, Pasadena, Monrovia, Arcadia. If I'm going to be honest, personally the work we are doing here in the park represents the changing face of Highland Park more than anything else. We have been really conscious of trying to bring social and artistic amenities to the area without necessarily contributing to the process of gentrification and displacement. There's been a number of gang-related families that have moved out of the neighborhood over the last month, which brings a completely different mood to the community. In the last month I've seen probably ten couples come through Ghetto Grounds, who have all moved into the neighborhood recently and came to check us out.

As a side note, what did this space look like when you first got here?

Well when we first got here there was nothing -- there was not a single plant, not a single tree. Some of the terrace levels you see were built around foundations of houses. The whole park was laid out, excavated, designed, sculpted and then planted by the founding artists with about 35 neighborhood kids. They began doing it without the landowner's permission, but we have now come into possession of the land through eminent domain. About ten years ago we sold the land to the city as a way to explore the benefits of a public/private partnership as opposed to private ownership.

What are your plans for the future?

The garden is a big project in the next year. Having the coffee shop fully function throughout the day with customers and tables and everything would be really nice. To have more community involvement on any level -- it doesn't make a difference whether they're participating in workshops or planning workshops or just coming by to enjoy the space as park space -- that's always been my biggest goal. We're doing more gigs, and especially now that we have more volunteers to help work for me, doing more and more educational programs with families.

La Tierra de la Culebra in Highland Park | Photo by Jennifer Gaillard used under a Creative Commons license

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have you guys actually be here? its actually shaddy, seems to be an excuse for burn outs to be burns outs, alot of shaddy activity, just go for yourself and see, its sad to see so many underage kids doing drugs so openly