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The Father of Leimert Park, or the Octopus

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This article was produced by Intersections South L.A., a student-run news website at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Intersections features in-depth reporting about South L.A. covering an area from University Park to Watts.

 

Ben Caldwell stopped in the middle of 43rd Street in Leimert Park, bent down, lunged forward, clicked a photograph, and disappeared into the crowded street within seconds. Something on the other side of the road had caught his attention.

Perhaps it was the colorful quilted skirts swaying in the breeze in a makeshift clothing store, one of the many stands set up during Leimert Park's monthly art walk. Perhaps it was the kids playing jump rope across the street. Or maybe it was one of the drummers tapping furiously in the drum circle by the fountain.

Caldwell never leaves home without his Canon DSLR camera, whether he's going to a community meeting, a high-end innovation event at a private school, or simply strolling across the familiar Leimert Park streets.

"He documents everything, knowing things will have more value in the future," said his daughter, Dara Marama Caldwell-Ross. "The value is not just monetary, it's symbolic."

Caldwell captures the world around him from behind the camera, but moves so quickly and quietly that he's almost invisible. His customary faded black t-shirt and loose jeans don't help him stand out either. But this low-profile artist is the tour de force of Leimert Park, a constant in this ever-changing community.

"He won't like it if I say this, but he is like the father of Leimert Park," said Maria Elena Cruz, an artist and teacher.

He calls himself an "octopus" with every tentacle working on a different assignment. In the last 33 years, he's been a filmmaker, entrepreneur, ethnographer, documentarian, educator and community activist.

Caldwell runs the Leimert Park Art Walk, manages a for-profit community media lab, Kaos Network, and collaborates with the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication to create art installations out of old and discarded street objects like public phone booths. In addition, he is planning for the future of Leimert Park in light of construction on the Crenshaw/LAX Metro line, set to open in 2019.

"It's as if he is living a life-film," Caldwell-Ross said. "His projects are a reflection of the world that he sees as a filmmaker."

Caldwell's love of film began at an early age with his grandfather, a movie theater projectionist.

"My life is like the movie Cinema Paradiso," Caldwell said, drawing parallels to the Italian film that follows the journey of a 6-year-old boy who grows up around a projectionist and goes on to become a famous filmmaker.

Caldwell, who was born just after the Second World War ended in 1945, saw many war films growing up. When he turned 21 years old, he was drafted to fight in Vietnam.

He was struck by the disconnect between war movies and reality.

"War films made war seem nice," Caldwell said. "War is not nice. War is the lowest human level that you can get to."

He took his first still photographs of the Vietnam War. "Because this is like no movie I have ever seen," he said. "So I just went 'click, click, click.'"

After returning home, Caldwell attended Arizona State University on the GI Bill. He enrolled to study painting and photography, but a filmmaking class piqued his interest in his last year of college. From that year of studies, the University of California Los Angeles accepted him into the graduate film program on a full scholarship.

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Having grown up watching mainstream movies, Caldwell wanted to work in Hollywood -- and he tried. While studying at UCLA he interned at several production companies, including Columbia Pictures, before realizing the industry spouted too much racism for him to succeed.

Once, a student he was working with on a project in Hollywood called him a "nigger."

"Hell no!" Caldwell recalled thinking. "I am not going to work with somebody who says that to me." He quit the project.

As he was rejecting the Hollywood culture, Caldwell was being introduced to an emerging genre of Black alternative filmmaking. At UCLA he met Charles Burnett, Larry Clark, Haile Gerima, and Billy Woodberry -- young Black artists who teamed up to create independent films as an alternative to Hollywood. A Whitney Museum retrospective in 1986 called this group the "L.A. Rebellion."

The L.A. Rebellion gang collectively produced 22 feature and short films between 1971 and 1980, with Caldwell working on several films as a cinematographer, editor, and writer.

"Medea," which explores modern African-American identity through the journey of childbirth, is slated to join the archives of the Whitney Museum in New York, Caldwell said. Another notable film of that era, "I and I," drew on Caldwell's Vietnam memories.

"His style is experimental," said Woodberry. "He's not a straight narrative storytelling kind of filmmaker. He was the first person who was interested in video [as a medium], before video was even viable." Forty years later, Caldwell says the group still keeps in touch and draws inspiration from each other's work.

After spending eight years at UCLA, Caldwell began teaching radio, film, photography and video at Howard University in Washington, D.C., a historically Black school.

His former student Wesley Groves, who worked as a video editor in several Hollywood production companies, has stayed in touch with Caldwell over the last 30 years and calls him an innovator and a visionary.

"He's probably the most influential guy in my life apart from my dad," he said.

One time, Groves asked Caldwell for help with an editing glitch on a video assignment.

"Ben told me it kinda looked cool and asked me to keep it," Groves recalled. "Long before MTV introduced fast edits and editing glitches and made the whole thing seem cool, Ben was practicing it."

During this time, when not teaching, Caldwell documented the blues and reggae music movement in Washington D.C., following famous musicians such as Bob Marley, B.B. King, Peter Tosh, Willie Dixon, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee.

"Once I discovered that we were all same people but dropped in different parts of the world, I was wanting to see what corollaries were there between blues and reggae," Caldwell said.

Rather than call these works "films," he considers them "just documentation of a time period." He plans to sell some of the footage to biographers, museums, and documentarians.

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In 1984, after teaching at Howard for four years, Caldwell moved back to California to spend more time with his daughter, who lived in Los Angeles with her mother.

Caldwell was already familiar with Leimert Park because he had interned at the Brockman Gallery during his student years when he was at UCLA. He decided to settle down here because it nurtured Black artists.

"I wanted to live in a place where a predominantly Black community culture pervaded all things in life."

He opened Kaos Network as a community media lab in 1990, a time when Black culture was thriving in Leimert Park. Richard Fulton's Fifth Street Dick's, a coffee house, was emerging as a cauldron for African-American writers and poets; jazz musician Billy Higgins' World Stage attracted music talent to the neighborhood; and Michael Williams ran one of the most successful African-American comedy clubs.

Project Blowed -- an open mike workshop for young hip-hop artists, rappers and graffiti artists -- was one of Kaos Network's biggest successes. Artists and groups such as Aceyalone, Ava DuVernay, Abstract Rude, and several others gained global popularity from the Project Blowed showcases.

"He gave the kids in the community a platform to express themselves and directed them in a positive way who might not have otherwise had that opportunity," said Groves.

Project Blowed is one of the longest running open mike hip-hop workshops in North America, said Tasha Hunter, one of the project coordinators who has worked with Caldwell on multiple projects for almost two decades.

Keeping it going in the '90s after the L.A. Riots was a tough task. Caldwell negotiated with authorities to keep peace and decorum when police, often suspecting trouble from a large gathering of young people, would interrupt the hip-hop jams.

A small white printout called "Kaos Network Rules" on one of the walls reads, "No smoking, no drinking, no cursing, no graffiti, no weapons. Police yourself, so we don't have to."

Caldwell continued to be an educator, serving as a full-time faculty member at the California Institute of Arts (Cal Arts) in Valencia for 15 years.

Kaos Network served as an extension for his students, said Woodberry, who still teaches at Cal Arts.

"There was something creative and generous about him that made students gravitate towards him," he said.

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During this time, Caldwell made it a priority to encourage talent in the African-American community rather than finish his own film projects. His devotion to Leimert Park and the African-American community is what makes him unique, Woodberry said.

"He's built an institution that gives creative life to the community," Woodberry said. "That's a big gift. No matter how much recognition he gets, it's not enough."

Caldwell continues to receive accolades for Kaos Network, which still runs its signature media workshops. But other neighborhood pillars have changed: Fifth Street Dick's is gone, the comedy club closed, and World Stage has been fighting eviction notices.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood is in the spotlight now that the upcoming Crenshaw/LAX Metro line, slated to open in 2019, will make Leimert Park easily accessible to visitors coming from all over the city.

Caldwell says it's time for another renaissance, one that would echo the artistic vibrancy he remembers from his first days in Leimert Park.

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"It's like expansion and contraction of the lungs," he said, describing the peaks and troughs of Leimert Park. "Ebb and flow; that's life."

As he envisions a bold future for Leimert Park, Caldwell plans to completely transform Kaos Network, which is located on the 43rd Place, next-door neighbors with the iconic Vision Theater. He intends to build two additional stories, convert the ground floor into a café, and lease it to a well-known franchise like Panera Bread or Le Boulanger bakery.

The top two floors will hold a full-fledged studio for editing, casting and video production. As many of his projects like the art walk and Project Blowed have become self-sustaining, Caldwell says he wants to devote more time to filmmaking, his first love. He also wants to exhibit all the archival footage that he has shot at various locations over the last three decades.

"I want it to be a treasure chest that people can explore," he said.

Mark Bradford, the world-famous African-American collage artist and Caldwell's close friend, is lending his own energy to the community's development with plans to build an art gallery next door to Kaos Network. Caldwell sees it as a sign of new things on the way for Leimert Park -- and perhaps new reasons to stop on the street with his camera, lunging into new scenes and images.

"Kaos is like a petri dish, constantly changing, transforming, metamorphosing," he said. "I want to tell African-American stories that haven't been told yet. And there are plenty of those."

Photos: Sinduja Rangarajan

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