A sense that the Sunset Junction Street Fair was living on borrowed time has been building for years -- well before the unpaid bills to the city of Los Angeles that prompted the 30-year-old festival’s cancellation on Wednesday.
In the wake of the plug being pulled by city officials Monday morning at the board of public works hearing after festival organizers failed to produce a check to cover this year’s expenses, many musicians, Silver Lake residents and business owners expressed a combination of sadness and relief.
The event born three decades ago as a way to build unity among the gay and Latino communities in Silver Lake had grown so big it left many locals feeling excluded -- particularly after chain-link fences were installed to keep better control over alcohol sales.
The main beneficiaries of the street fair were bands that increased their followings with performances at the event, and the fans who come to see them. But as the festival grew -- and with it financial and security problems -- that spirit was being lost.
“I haven’t played there in a few years, but the first time I did, I had a fantastic time,” said singer-songwriter-guitarist Dave Alvin. “It was much smaller and well managed. Over the years I had tough luck with the police shutting it down during my set or my set length being cut in half because they booked too many acts, etc. It was a beautiful gathering for the community, but not the greatest experience for some of the artists.”
Jennifer Tefft, who’s helped book the festival since 2001, slotted the majority of the acts for 2011, her biggest influence on the festival yet. “I really feel for every single person affected by this,” she said. “If I had known that [organizer Michael McKinley] didn’t have a permit in place, I wouldn’t have approached these bands.”
Steve Melendez, owner of the Living Room furniture store and gallery on Sunset Boulevard, felt “really torn” about the canceled festival.
“I’ve been here 51/2 years, and this would be my sixth Sunset Junction,” Melendez said. “For the previous five, it’s been pretty controversial and polarizing. When I got this location I was so excited about being next to the junction and participating and doing well on the weekends. But that hasn’t been the case. It’s been a rough ride for everybody down here.
“My family loves it -- I’ve got teenaged sons, so in that respect I think it’s a shame,” Melendez added. “On the other side, I have many friends and neighbors who are business owners, and they have suffered. They can’t afford to throw away a weekend, and since they put up the fences and started charging admission, clients can’t get to them. It’s a money-losing weekend for me as well as for others.”
Councilman Tom LaBonge, whose 4th district borders Eric Garcetti’s 13th district in which Sunset Junction takes place, expressed mixed emotions as well: “I’d walk in and see the absolute spectrum of Los Angeles. For many years it brought quite a few acts of note to the stage. It’s unfortunate. But this is a casualty of our budgetary tough times. The reality is that any cost to the city is a real cost now, and there is no flexibility.”
That’s a disappointment to the performers.
“After a few years of playing Silverlake Lounge, Spaceland and the Echo, it was special to play Sunset Junction,” said Nathan Willett of the Cold War Kids, which rose to national prominence after launching its career in and around Silver Lake. “The affirmation of a wider audience appreciating the music, celebrating the east side of the city -- nothing else in L.A. feels as genuine.”
The festival’s character as a genuine homegrown event, however, ebbed over the years in inverse proportion to its growth in scope and popularity.
“Obviously it evolved into something that doesn’t have anything to do with the neighborhood anymore,” said Chris Pollen, owner of the Cheese Store of Silverlake, which has been in the neighborhood for a decade. “For the first five years, I opened but made less than half what I normally made on the weekend. I’ve been closed the last three or four years. It just didn’t work for me.”
Residents too found it increasingly problematic.
“As a 10-year resident of this ‘hood, I have mixed feelings about the fest,” graphic designer Gwen Koger said. “It used to be a lot of fun back in the ‘90s, before it got so big and tickets got expensive. On the other hand, it is a great showcase for local bands, which I wholly support. However, we already have quite a number of great clubs in this ‘hood which showcase those bands. This should have been resolved months ago.... I won’t miss it. I say move the fest to a big field somewhere and off the main street.”
Silver Lake Neighborhood Council member Sarah Dale, owner of Pull My Daisy, a clothing boutique in the heart of the Junction, has been outspoken for the last few years about the controversy surrounding the festival’s ticket charge and shifting footprint.
“The trouble started when they began charging a mandatory fee to get in,” Dale said, referring to the once-free admission that had steadily risen to $25 this year. “It sends the wrong message: ‘I celebrate diversity but there’s a price-tag on it.’ It’s diversity for those who can afford it.”
Yet she’s sad it won’t be happening this year.
“Ultimately, everyone does kind of lose,” Dale said. “I feel bad for the bands especially. The community has been trying to work with [festival promoter Michael] McKinley, but he has repeatedly not worked with the community to address serious concerns about the festival. Every year, he plays a game of chicken with the city -- he signs agreements and then doesn’t come through on his end. The fair was canceled not over a philosophical debate about it being good for the neighborhood but because of an enormous unpaid bill due to the city during a time of financial crisis.”
Dale does believe that other festivals and events will rise up in place of Sunset Junction, ones that might have more connection with the spirit of the neighborhood. “What the community wants is a free fest without fences. Someone will step up and do something awesome, I believe that.”
In particular, the two-day art and music festival started in 2010, the Silver Lake Jubilee, already enjoys a healthy relationship with the Neighborhood Council, which has contributed funds to the event.
This year’s bookings included local mainstays such as the Little Ones, We Are the World and Mia Doi Todd in addition to a heavy literary component, including a reading by Janet Fitch, who based parts of her 2006 novel, “Paint It Black,” in and around her home neighborhood.
Jubilee founder Jack Martinez gives Sunset Junction credit for capturing the enclave’s diverse pulse, something his fledgling festival aims to achieve in the next few years.
“The demographics of this neighborhood are so diverse,” Martinez wrote. “I do think their musical lineup, with its multiplicity of genres, represents the neighborhood better than the Jubilee.”
In the wake of the 11th-hour cancellation of the festival, some local venues have offered up their stages to bands that had been booked to play. The Butthole Surfers and 400 Blows will now play Saturday at the Echoplex, and the Satellite club and El Cid restaurant and nightclub also are hosting some of the displaced bands. Melendez said he’s going ahead with bands that were scheduled to play for his parking-lot barbecue and merchandise sale. The ReForm School art, craft and design store is hosting a ukulele festival to help fill the void.
Ironically, the last-minute scrambling may take the street fair back to its humbler, neighborhood-based beginnings.
“That’s exactly like it used to be,” said Joe Barkeeper of Bar Keeper bar and glassware shop. “It may die. It has died this year, and maybe it will be really small next year. After that I think it’s going to blossom back to what it once was.”
Times staff writer August Brown contributed to this report.