Sunset Junction Street Fair Finds Wider Audience

Times Staff Writer

Organizers of this weekend’s Sunset Junction Street Fair in Silver Lake don’t particularly relish comparisons with last month’s Gay Pride festival in West Hollywood.

Although many of the leaders of Sunset Junction are gay and the fair attracts many homosexuals, the festival in Silver Lake, they say, is no longer geared to any sexual, ethnic or political minority.

They say their fair, now in its sixth year, has become a celebration of the polyglot population of the Silver Lake-Echo Park-Los Feliz area. That includes homosexuals and heterosexuals, as well as an ethnic mix of Anglos, Latinos and Asians. Economically, the area ranges from wealthy hilltop homeowners to low-income renters in the flats, with a varied middle class in between.


West Hollywood’s “gay fair is well and good, and I’m not out to knock it. But I like being part of a whole community rather than being part of a separate community,” explained Jacques Chambers, an insurance broker and neighborhood activist who is in charge of booth rentals for Sunset Junction.

Huge Crowd Expected

That’s why “Diversity, Strength, Harmony” was chosen as this year’s slogan for the festival. Organizers say they expect the event to attract 300,000 people to the five blocks of Sunset Boulevard from Bates Avenue to Edgecliff Drive.

“The idea is to generate a dialogue between the different elements of the community,” said Thom Rafter, one of the fair’s coordinators. “Unless people start talking and mingling, they’ll never really grow and break down stereotypes about each other.”

In the process, any profits from the fair--expected primarily from beer sales--are to be returned to the neighborhood through grants to the 12 community groups that, along with the Sunset Junction Neighborhood Alliance, co-sponsor the fair. Among the groups are three homosexual-oriented counseling centers, the AIDS Project, youth recreation centers, a health clinic, a senior-citizens activities program and the Hollywood-Los Feliz Jewish Community Center.

Previous Profit

Last year, about $10,000 was distributed after paying the fair’s costs of about $100,000 and putting aside seed money for this year, organizers say.

In addition, the Sunset Junction Neighborhood Alliance is planning to use some profits to start a revolving fund for interest-free loans to neighborhood groups working on their own fund-raisers.

The trust fund is to be named after Bob White and Art Fredette. White, the politically active owner of the Frog Pond restaurant on Hyperion Avenue, committed suicide in May amid mounting financial and personal problems. Fredette, White’s partner and longtime companion, died of cancer four months earlier.

Sunset Junction street fair was founded in hopes of easing tensions between homosexuals and Latinos, some of whom feared that the movement of more affluent homosexuals to the Silver Lake area would mean their own displacement.

The fear led to some violence, police said. Gang members had been harassing and mugging men leaving homosexual bars; two homosexual men were slain during a street robbery in 1979. The next year, three people were injured when someone--after reportedly yelling, “Die, Faggots"--threw a firebomb into the Frog Pond.

Out of those circumstances, the primarily gay Sunset Junction Neighborhood Alliance was formed, and its members began looking for allies. They found some in the El Centro del Pueblo Center, which counsels gang members and other young people. El Centro arranged for a truce among four neighborhood gangs during the first fair and got many gang members to work as street monitors at the fair over the years, alongside senior citizens, Boy Scouts and homosexuals.

‘Not as Bad’

The machismo of gang members makes many automatically hostile to homosexuals, but some become less so when they get a chance to work with them, said Sandra Figueroa, El Centro’s executive director.

“It’s still a problem. But it’s just not as bad as it was. Now it’s more ‘They do their thing and we do ours,’ ” she said.

Ray Donner, a counselor at Central City Action Committee, another youth group that co-sponsors the fair, agreed. Every year before the fair, some boys make “particularly outrageous comments” about homosexuals. However, he explained, “That’s part of the course for kids. They make comments like that about each other, too. But, when the time comes for the fair, they work hard and enjoy themselves.”

The Police Department expected trouble at the first fair. But few problems developed then or at subsequent fairs except for a handful of fights, minor vandalism, illegal parking and some complaints about noise, police say.

Some Shops Closed

“It is an extremely well-run event. We probably make fewer arrests in that area during the fair than during a normal weekend,” said Sgt. Jim Laker of the Los Angeles police. Laker has supervised the fair’s police protection, which is supplemented by the fair’s own monitors and security guards.

Steve Downard, president of Silver Lake Merchants Assn., said some shops in the fair zone will stay closed this weekend “because of bad experiences in the past regarding shoplifting and property abuse, such as breaking toilets.” But he said that such problems are kept to a minimum and that the fair has become popular and profitable for other merchants, especially bars and restaurants.

Attendance at the fair grew from an estimated 50,000 in 1980 to 250,000 last year, its organizers say. Police estimates put last year’s figure at 150,000, and some officers wondered whether public hysteria and fear of homosexuals in the wake of the AIDS epidemic might hold down attendance this year, even though the disease cannot be transmitted through casual contact.

More Families

Increasing numbers of heterosexuals and families have participated over the years. Although late-night events still attract a homosexual majority, about three-fourths of daytime visitors are not homosexual, said Richard Martinez, another coordinator.

The fair has become respectable enough that its opening ceremony at noon Saturday is scheduled to have a parade of elected officials, including Assemblyman Mike Roos (D-Los Angeles), Los Angeles Councilman Michael Woo, who represents the area, and Los Angeles Councilman Joel Wachs. Mayor Tom Bradley is expected to visit later in the day.

“The efforts of the Sunset Junction Neighborhood Alliance have had a tangible effect on reducing tensions between the gay and Hispanic communities,” Woo said. “It’s been a fascinating process in evolution” to see the fair grow “from an upstart in the community to where it has become an institution,” he said.

Avoiding Flashier Areas

Many people involved with the fair say they live in Silver Lake to avoid the flashier, more status-conscious life styles of West Hollywood and the Westside.

“There are a lot of old hippies, people who still had ideals and who did not move here to knock other people out or live in a gay ghetto,” said Rafter.

Megan Mills, another fair organizer, said the fair “gives me a sense of encouragement and hope about the future of activism.”

As an outgrowth of the fair, Mills is planning to compile a reference book of community services and agencies in the Silver Lake-Echo Park area. Forty such groups have rented tables at the fair, along with about 100 booths of ethnic foods, artisans, merchants and games.

There is no cost for admission to the fairgrounds, which will be open from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sunday. Traffic down Sunset Boulevard will be rerouted along Fountain Avenue, Effie Street and Griffith Park Boulevard.

A variety of free entertainment will be offered on three stages, including folkloric dancers, magicians and comedians. There will be jazz, rock, mariachi, gospel and rap bands. Among the most unusual performers will be a drill team of handicapped people in wheelchairs and a group of transvestites who impersonate the singing trio the Supremes. The best-known of the entertainers on the program is singer-songwriter Rickie Lee Jones, who is scheduled to perform at 8 p.m. Sunday at the Bates Avenue stage.