Skid Row and Central Avenue's Culture-Based Activism

Photo by Shana Nys Dambrot

When photographer Sam Comen first started telling me about his photography-based historical neighborhood survey project "Central Avenue Community Album" I fought back skepticism. Sure, Comen is one of the most talented young photographers working in L.A. today; and sure, he has always worked just as hard if not harder at his documentary practice as in his editorial assignments; but let's face it, deserved or not, that word "community" is often the kiss of death when you're talking to an art critic about visual art. However, he soon won me over as with a spark in his eye he recounted the multiple threads of inspiration for putting this unique project together -- and the artistic and learning adventures he had while doing so. It was a bit like what Dorothea Lange and the old WPA photographers were up to, melding art and conscience in the name of the truth -- but way more joyful. And in the end, it wasn't just skeptical art-types he turned into believers, but perhaps more importantly, the people that live there.

From the 1920s until the late 1950s, the stretch of Central Ave around Slauson -- about a ten minute drive from Downtown L.A. -- was an incredibly vital center of politics and culture that launched everything from new American jazz to the Civil Rights movement. But by the 1960s Central Ave was depressed economically to a point where it became first the face of urban decay and then part of the backdrop for the 1965 Watts riots, and of course, the 1992 Rodney King verdict riots -- a bleak anniversary to which the opening of the Central Ave Community Album show was pegged. It was the 20th anniversary of the unrest -- but this show of vintage vernacular and weeks-old contemporary photography wasn't really about those events; in fact there is only one image in the entire show that deals directly with them. This survey went generations further back in time, but still, the anniversary was a good way into it for audiences, especially those who might be making their first-ever trip to the neighborhood on account of the show. It was a helpful context, but Comen is quick to point out that it is not the main narrative. "The real history is regular life in between historical flashpoints."

Skid Row.
Skid Row.

Together with partner Jason Neville, a young veteran of the urban planning scene and a firm believer in the power of cultural tourism as part of any serious revitalization effort, Comen set about gathering and updating the archive. Engaging directly with local business owners and community groups, they culled some 800 photographs from local residents' personal archives, and these were shown along with the scores of candid documentary portraits Comen made on the same streets in the weeks and months leading up to the exhibition. Over 400 people came to the opening night and many hundreds more viewed the show while it was up; local business owners said they've not seen crowds that big and diverse on Central Ave in 60 years. This is one example of how art can accomplish what governments cannot; artists and ordinary people succeeding in reclaiming their history and their streets where private equity and strapped city budgets cannot. Through powerful and intriguing experiments like this, Angelenos are meeting our own city again and beginning to see themselves -- ourselves -- in a new light.

And speaking of meeting your neighbors, on Memorial Day weekend I met hundreds of my own for the first time in the three years since I've moved to a Skid-Row adjacent neighborhood of Downtown LA. "Walk the Talk: 36 Skid Row Visionaries Celebrated with Three Days of Parades" was the latest and one of the most ambitious productions by John Malpede and the Los Angeles Poverty Department. Part arts collective, part social policy group, and part hands-on activist network, the L.A. Poverty Department has been presenting their unique brand of pro-am art and spoken word documentary performance-theater for decades. It both chronicles under-reported stories and actively works for change in the here and now -- but by using strategies that belong to the world of art and spoken word rather than to top-down civic polemic, it gets through to people inside and outside the community in a thousand small, direct ways that politics as usual can never hope to achieve. The work they do literally embodies in its own form that which it seeks to depict -- the tenacity and flair of the individual, underestimated points of light that shine in the darker shadows of redevelopment. L.A. Poverty Department's favorite strategy is reading from materials in the public record, fulfilling a documentarian function through the side-door. Its cast members are drawn from the ranks. Their recent production about life in the prison system "State of Incarceration" and the restaging of the 1968 RFK Poverty Tour during the 2004 presidential election, for example, both used this same formula of citizen-performers to great effect. As Malpede says, "I make art with the people that are in the room. We meet people where they are at. The goal is to be intellectually serious without holding back emotionally."

This particular parade was a culmination of a long-term project that started in 2007 and which has since included discussion forums, public performances, concerts, readings, and of course, visual art. The overall goals of "Walk the Talk" were mainly to excavate and celebrate the personal stories that "have helped weave the social fabric of Skid Row. The years of events and exhibitions have built up their momentum, but perhaps it was the addition of a brass band and the rather big coup of getting controversial street-artist Mr. Brainwash to do the portraits of the parade's honorees -- portraits which not only enlivened the procession, but which are destined for a permanent installation in the neighborhood starting this summer. Turns out what Malpede says is true -- that "the arts are a place where you can engage in all ways, from the intellect, to emotion, reason, all the senses, and in a fluid context."

Nevertheless, I gave free reign to my skepticism, and possibly did roll my eyes, when Malpede first told me about Mr. Brainwash. He sort of bothers me. He seems forced and narcissistic. But once again, I was proven wrong. Let the record show, I'm about to say the first nice thing I've ever said in print or in life about Mr. Brainwash. The truth is, the portraits he made of the parade's 36 honorees are gorgeous, lively, colorful and optimistic images and go very much to the heart of the matter -- and it was incredibly generous of him to do them for free. They helped telegraph the artistic, creative nature of this systems-sculpture spoken word parade performance. As folks ambled through the area from stop to stop along the route, the raising of the placards and the striking up of the brass band signaled that it was a celebration, not a protest. Though on the other hand, it was a bit of that, too. A protest against ignorance of one's history, against neglect of civic duty, and a protest against the misunderstanding of and constant existential threat to a vibrant, dynamic community. And once again, like on down on Central Avenue, art succeeded where bureaucracy had failed.

I could only take part in just one of the three parade afternoons (each with a different route) but it started on the block where I live and traced a circle that ended up almost back at my front door four hours later. The rotating cast of about a dozen speakers headed up by the absolutely charismatic Kevin Michael read their lines, and volunteers loaded in A / V equipment from a fleet of red shopping carts, and of course the art and music played in between locations and during set-ups, keeping the energy up and attracting folks like the Pied Piper. Following the art and music as it meandering around the streets of my own 'hood, some streets that I'd never walked down before, I learned about SS Jones and the Skid Row Musicians Network and folks sleeping on the street with $5000 Gibson guitars; Lillian Calamari and the SRO Art Workshop where participants were told "life is messy and so is art. Don't be careful, just go for it;" the founders of the Women's Building and the LA Mission; and the planting of Jacaronda trees in San Julian Park. I was honored to spend some time walking and speaking with Officer James Rich, the honoree at the Dept of Social Services parade stop of the previous day's route, who was the one and only police officer the residents had trusted for a long time.

Maybe the most colorful stop was the former site of Another Planet, Clyde Casey's 24-hour free-culture drop-in lounge and "cosmic general store" that facilitated creativity and bonding for a single glorious year before burning to the ground in 1989. People loved Another Planet -- they still talk about it with affection. In a way, its open-door policy and high-spirited social life represents the very hope of what the L.A. Poverty Department is advocating -- a grassroots effort to use the arts to bridge otherwise impossible gaps, by treating all comers with interest and respect. Word was, white collar folks from City Hall sometimes found their way to Another Planet. It was a kind of patchwork Utopia, and is currently the subject of an indie documentary film being made by friend of the L.A. Poverty Department, Austin Hines and 1C Films called "The Avant Guardian."

In her powerful and salient presentation to Americans for the Arts and the Urban Institute, "Making the Case for Skid Row Culture," Maria Rosario Jackson presents the findings of a study she produced with Malpede's help, predicting that such a triumph might be the case on a micro- and macrocosmic level in keeping with the area's history as a fountainhead for progressive social policy. "L.A.P.D. has been working in Skid Row since 1985, offering free performance workshops, cultural and educational activities and events with and for the city's most disenfranchised and forgotten. At the time of its creation, it was the first theater for and by homeless people in the nation and the first arts program of any kind for homeless people in Los Angeles. Its original goals -- still in place -- were to create community and to use the voices of the residents to convey the experience of living in Skid Row to Los Angeles and to the nation. From its inception, LAPD has recognized the inherently social process of theater and has used it in concert with other means of public education -- organizing, partnering, and activism -- to achieve its community building goals. The reality is, our audience is 'us,' the residents, the community members. In other words, the purpose of art in the community is to engage the community as participants and as audience." That last part sounds a whole lot like the way Sam Comen talked about the "Central Ave Community Album."

But it's also every inch the John Malpede I'd followed since the first time I saw one of his productions for myself. It had been "Agents & Assets," a 1998 production that also marked one of my very first trips to Downtown L.A., in which a group of citizen actors recovering from addiction and homelessness read the transcript from a hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence concerning the alleged ties between the CIA and the raging crack epidemic in South L.A., and included Maxine Waters' fiery invective against the way in which her constituents were being treated. The effectiveness of having the marginalized people at the heart of the statistics read aloud the record themselves was like nothing I'd seen. It was produced by Malpede with the incomparable director and production designer Peter Sellars, Los Angeles Poverty Department's frequent collaborator and Malpede's biggest fan. I'd been wondering how to get in touch with Sellars for comment, and then there he was at the parade. He just appeared, big hair and big smile and he was dancing down the block. In Downtown for a project at Disney Hall that next weekend, he had snuck out of his own rehearsal to follow the first hour and a half of Saturday's parade. He stayed with us all the way to Another Planet. As we walk-danced the wrong way down Fifth Street, we were feeling inspired, hopeful, and joyous. One of the most renowned theatrical minds of our generation was held in the sway of an amateur cast telling the stories of people he would never meet and believing in the cause. "This is everything that should be on TV, everything that should be represented, and it's being done by the people themselves. It's a national story!"


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