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This Juice Bar Aims to Bring Healthy Food and a Vibrant Community Space to South L.A.

Los Angeles might appear full to the brim with juice bars these days, but a new organic juice bar planned for South L.A. intends to offer much more sustenance than just freshly squeezed fruits and vegetables to the community. Tropics, as the project is called, is a collaboration between a group of young friends from the Crenshaw district neighborhood of Baldwin Village, known locally as "The Jungle", and the design studio Commonwealth Projects. Together they hope to create a venue that offers fresh, affordable food options to an area lacking in healthy choices, while also creating a safe space and cultural hub that offers skill-building workshops, film screenings, guided meditations, visiting speakers and more. To achieve their vision, the team launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a three-month installation at The Underground Museum beginning in June, in order to test and refine the concept for a permanent location. With mere days remaining to reach their fundraising goal — and just over halfway to the necessary amount to get the pledged funding — we spoke to the Tropics team to learn more about the project.

“Sure, we're doing juice, in that immediate sense of handing a glass of juice to someone, but there's something much more to it,” explains Commonwealth Projects owner and Tropics co-founder Daniel Desure. “There's a sense of learning and empowerment, not just within this group, but we want to extend that idea out to the world.”

Tropics Juice Bar
Zev Schmitz

Desure moved to Baldwin Village in 2009, and thanks to the lingering smell of his barbecue he soon met future Tropics co-founder Thomas James, who grew up in the neighborhood. James and his friends were skateboarding at Charmette Bonpua Skate Plaza, just across the street from Desure’s home, when they were lured by the smell of food and decided to crash the barbecue that Desure was hosting on his roof. “They thought they were undercover and didn't know it was my place, and so I was hanging out and talking with them,” Desure explains. “I was surprised when they told me they were vegetarian after they declined a burger that somebody offered. Very quickly we all took a liking to each other and hanging out all the time, having dinners, trying new foods, and in a lot of ways, us learning about their world, and them learning about our world, and exchanging things. In a lot of ways that's what this project is about, this exchange of cultures, food and ideas. Tropics really formed out of that, though it wasn't really intentional, it just happened naturally.”

James also points out that many of the initial time he and his friends spent with Desure revolved around food. The group of friends, now in their early 20s, had recently decided to switch to a vegetarian diet, and in addition to dinners at Desure’s home, the group frequently went in search of vegetarian options, which weren’t always easy to come by in their immediate neighborhood. James says their decision to begin eating a vegetarian diet came about after a particularly meat-heavy New Year’s Eve celebration, "Growing up, there was nothing better than home-cooked food. Back then I was eating oxtails and steaks, which was cool, but if you're not cooking, what are you going to eat? There's McDonald's or Steak n' Fries, stuff like that. So we had a barbecue for New Years that we threw on our own, and we had all the supplies, and we noticed that it was just meat everywhere. And [my friend] Jair said, 'I'm going vegetarian after this.' So that year, on everyone's birthday, we all committed to being vegetarian, and that opened up our eating vision. We fell in love with kimchi at this Korean restaurant and learned about new vegetarian spots, trying veggie burgers and other things."

Tropics Juice Bar
Friends with (right to left) Preston Summers, Jair Mckay, and Thomas James. | Zev Schmitz

Jair Mckay, James’ friend and a member of the Tropics team, explains part of his motivation to change his eating habits, "One of the main things that made me go vegetarian is my parents because they're both diabetic and have high blood pressure, cholesterol and all of that.” McKay was born in Belize, where his father worked construction and his mother was a nurse, and came to the U.S. when he was six. “I thought it would be a good change to really watch what I put into my body. I didn't think it was going to impact my circle completely or that everybody else was going to do it, but it was a pretty good change. At first I was shocked, but once I realized they were really serious about it, I thought if I can make a change in my circle, I'm pretty sure I could see it with a larger variety of people.”

James also found motivation to change his diet following the passing of his father. “My dad died of a heart attack from clogged arteries,” he explains. “That was right at the end of the year when we began eating vegetarian, and that had me thinking too. I wanted to test myself, and I stuck to it. And everybody was on the same page in my circle. Later, even [Daniel] transformed to being vegetarian.”

Desure explains that the group outings also ultimately created the foundation for Tropics, which is just as much about healthy food as it is about openly engaging with new ideas and cultural experiences. Ideas that may initially feel unfamiliar, soon become familiar with an open mind. “There's a Korean spot up the street just at the beginning of Koreatown that we all started going to together,” Desure says. “When we first started going there, it's very locally-based with families that know each other, and I think they thought, 'Who are you guys?' But now we go there, and they know Thomas by name, they bring free drinks and things like that. And it's incredible because it's the same idea, they have a great vegetarian menu, it's healthy, and so it's opened up a whole other world. And I think this process [of creating Tropics] has done that in a lot of ways, whether it's through culture or food.”

The group of friends would also spend time at the offices of Commonwealth Projects, which Desure had moved next door to his home in Baldwin Village, where they would exchange ideas and learn more about the work that the creative studio did. Together they also began to participating in weekly meditation workshops at the studio. “It was a collective of colleagues from our world, and friends from their world,” Desure explains. “A lot of times, as we'd meet their friends, we'd expand this community so that it feels like one full community. The meditations were led by Jesse Fleming, and they were about an hour long and we'd have breakfast served, and you never knew who was going to show up.”

The meditation workshops eventually led to film screenings at the studio as well, many of which were curated by the group of friends. “These guys presented some of their favorite films to a larger audience of around 50 people,” Desure says. “It was a mix of obscure stuff and a lot films based in and around Los Angeles.”

“With the meditations, the film screenings and a lot of the ways we think about the food, too, it's this exchange of cultures and ideas — exposing us to new ideas and other people to new ideas, and trading in a way, which I feel like doesn't happen a whole lot,” Desure admits. “We have access to everything online, but you don't necessarily have someone presenting it first hand, through their eyes or their story. And in a lot of ways, Tropics has developed from that idea.”

Tropics Juice Bar
Left to right: Maximilian Brenner, Andrew Hogge, Thomas James, Jair Mckay, Daniel Desure, and Preston Summers | Danny Jensen

As the foundational concept of Tropics began to take shape, Desure and the team at Commonwealth Projects collaborated with James and his friends to turn the ideas and activities that they were already exploring together and turn them into a physical space. “You have to talk about it as a literal manifestation of something like a juice bar,” Desure explains of the need to have a focal point for the various concepts they wanted to explore. “But in a lot of ways, it's about the idea, more than it is about just a juice bar."

While the group initially thought they would launch Tropics as a stand alone brick-and-mortar, they quickly realized that the logistics of such an endeavor could prove too costly and complicated from the outset. Instead, they decided to launch Tropics as a temporary pop-up at The Underground Museum, in nearby Arlington Heights, so that they could test and refine the concept before moving to a permanent home. Desure had been a close friend of Noah Davis, the late founder of the museum, and had introduced James and his friends to Davis before he passed away. “Before Noah passed away, we had talked about doing something together, some sort of exchange of ideas, and we worked together all the time,” Desure says. “After he passed, his brother Kahlil and wife Karon said you guys should bring the Tropics to the Underground Museum, it's a perfect space, and Noah would want it to be here. And we had been looking for a space to do the pop-up. They also have a lot of other projects that are very much in line with Tropics.”

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James recalls his first encounter with Davis, “From the first time I met him, he opened his doors to me and created a line of trust, and that's hard to break.”

Desure explains that the spirit of Tropics is very much in line with Davis’ approach to art and life, “Noah lived in the moment, without talking about it, more than anyone else I've ever known. Everything was in real time, whatever is happening right now is what really matters. And there's something incredible and inspiring about that. There's an energy at the museum that's different than anyplace else, and that's 100% Noah's energy. He had a way of seeing the world that was different, and he was always on the move, and had a crazy energy and was always making things. And I think a lot of this came out of that way of making things.”

Maximilian Brenner of Commonwealth Projects adds that Davis’ artistic approach has also influenced the aesthetics of Tropics, “His way of creating something is informing the way that we've been designing the juice bar structure itself. His philosophies of creation are now being translated into the real thing.”

“Tropics is something that we feel really confident about from a design standpoint,” adds Desure. “We helped develop the graphics and what the name will be, and what it looks like. That's something that we do on a daily basis, and it's something that these guys have been exposed to and more interested in. It's a learning experience for all of us. We call ourselves designers, but at the end of the day, we're communicators. It's all about understanding other cultures, other people and helping create the language in a lot of different ways. We'll have a client come to us and we'll help them realize a vision, and I don't see any difference between these guys and another client paying us for a service. In a lot of ways it's about exchanging ideas.”

Brenner adds, “At the heart of all of our work is a really pure idea. The basis of every project we work on is some really sound foundational principles, whether it's about aesthetics, or some form of social justice. And I think a lot of the things that we translate that into become magnets, whether it's an exhibition, or an event, or performance of some kind. And that's what Tropics has been for the studio is a magnet. And the next instance, at the Underground Museum is the biggest version of that magnet.”

As a result of Tropics, Brenner is also now working on a separate project with James’ friend Preston Summers, an artist and Tropics collaborator. “We’re working on another exhibition together, which would have never happened without Tropics. And the potential for Tropics to do that for more and more people, as it gains a greater presence in L.A., is huge.”

Preston is enthusiastic about the project and all that has resulted so far from working with the Commonwealth Projects team, “Since we've been doing this, I've been learning a lot from Daniel about business and entrepreneurship, art, and it's teaching me that if we work hard enough and get our voices out there and get known, then we can make Tropics happen.”

More than just professional collaborators, Desure says that the time spent with James and his friends has led to close-knit friendships. “I’m probably more invested in this because it's starting something with friends,” Desure says. “We hit it off as friends from the first day we met, and all of us have spent a lot of time together. We've gone camping together, met each other's families, and it's incredible to see these guys to really own something and come into their own with this. And it's the exchange of ideas, whenever we meet, somebody else brings something new to it.”

Most recently the group got together for a juice workshop to test out different ingredients, juice blends and began developing names for them. They also have a gardening workshop planned to learn to take care of the plants they’re growing and deepen their understanding of what the juice bar will offer. A recent early morning visit to downtown L.A.’s sprawling wholesale produce market was also an eye-opening learning experience — not just for the team to better understand where the produce for the shop will come from and the stories of the people that bring the produce to market, but also for the vendors who were surprised to see such an inquisitive young crew at 5:30 in the morning.

Tropics Juice Bar
Preston Summers and Thomas James prepare fruit. | Zev Schmitz

Desure explains that with Tropics, they not only want to provide healthy and affordable juice to a community with limited access to highly nutritional options, they also want to further educate people on how to make healthier food choices in their daily lives. The group is exploring ideas about offering food-related workshops as well as potentially developing a cookbook. “It's like a car, you can't just say, ‘Here's a car,’ you have to teach them to drive and show them how it works, and that there's a sense of responsibility,” Desure says. “And once people have that, there's a sense of empowerment. You can introduce somebody to a new food, but that doesn't mean they're going to understand how to buy it, or where to buy it, or how to cook it or process it. We have to think, ‘Why is this important, what are we looking to fill in that's not immediately available out there in the world?’ We don't expect people to suddenly be super into juice, or become vegetarian, but here's this education on how you can navigate your world, in a similar way that we learned how to, I think that's important.”

Once the $60,000 goal of the Kickstarter campaign is met, the money will go towards installing the Tropics juice bar at the Purple Garden at the Underground Museum, the equipment and supplies for making the juice, and operational costs, which includes a living wage for employees. The team aims to launch the project on June 4, followed by a three-month installation. From there, they plan to find a permanent home in South L.A., and potentially extend the pop-up at the museum.

Reflecting on his time growing up in Baldwin Village, James admits that skateboarding helped him find a community — first at the skatepark and later with Commonwealth Projects and Tropics — and gain a fresh perspective on life. Nonetheless, growing up in the historically tough neighborhood also shaped who he is today, “'The Jungle' was full of trees, and before the skatepark, we used to go to the diamond at the top of Jim Gilliam Park. We'd go up there and find a shady spot where the trees covered us and there were ledges where we could skate. It's been called 'The Jungle' since before I was born, but that's what I knew and held onto, and that's what I carry with me. Whatever I encountered growing up in 'The Jungle', whether it was good or bad, I'm still a whole person and still here now, so I think it created me, the person I am now. The only thing that changes is time and the generations. When I was going to school, it was the older dudes across the street. Now I'm the older dude and I see the little people coming out of school, and the generation has changed, but it's always the same.”

Now that he’s part of the older generation, James hopes that the Tropics will provide an oasis for kids in the neighborhood — just as he found with skateboarding — offering them a safe space to grow and learn. “Honestly, better than them staying across the street to smoke in the hallways, they can come on the other side of the street and go to a screening or cut some fruit or meditate or do something else — change their scenery a bit, let them think for themselves. Once you change the scenery, I think you're able to produce better thoughts.”


Top image: Zev Schmitz

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