Leimert Park Village, the historical enclave of black culture and arts, has been showing signs of new life lately, and not a moment too soon.
The nonprofit Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center, named for the veteran jazz and blues singer, opened last month. In December, the Eileen Harris Norton Foundation premiered the Leimert Project, a space for arts education that has so far mounted two solo shows for local artists. On Leimert Boulevard, native son and internationally renowned artist Mark Bradford works out of a studio that has piqued new interest in the neighborhood in fine art circles. And for the last two summers, a homegrown music and arts festival has been successfully staged in a city parking lot.
The only thing missing was foot traffic, a longstanding problem in Leimert. Enter another addition geared to the Internet generation: the Leimert Park Art Walk (www.leimertparkartwalk.com).
Organized by Ben Caldwell, proprietor of the new media education center Kaos Network and a Leimert Park mainstay, the art walk launched as an experiment last June and has quietly been gathering momentum ever since. Held on the last Sunday of every month in the lobby of the Vision Theater and three storefronts on 43rd Place facing Leimert Plaza Park, it showcases artists and features other attractions such as music performances, film screenings, crafts, food and a kid’s pavilion.
The community festival vibe is hardly new to Leimert, which hosts similar events — Kwanzaa, Martin Luther King Day — throughout the year. What is new is that buzz about the art walk was created almost entirely online, chiefly through social networking sites like Facebook. And unlike the demographic that comes out each year for events like Kwanzaa, most of the roughly 1,000 people who showed up for the first art walk were young and not necessarily black.
The size and the diversity of the response amazed even Caldwell. “They were mostly college age, under 40, young families starting out,” he recalls. “And they were a third white, a third black, a third Asian. That surprised people.”
But Caldwell, whose Kaos became famous for its hip-hop scene, is more than encouraged. Already the art walk has enough of a reputation to stage events in conjunction with high-profile events such as the NAACP national convention coming to Staples Center this summer. “We’re on the radar,” Caldwell says. “The good thing about the art walk is that it’s monthly, it’s consistent. It keeps the neighborhood on people’s minds.”
The idea of an art walk came about a year ago not as a way to raise Leimert’s profile, but to address a problem that had developed at another regular Sunday event in Leimert, the drum circle. The African-themed circle had been meeting in the park for more than 10 years, and had always drawn complaints from some residents and businesspeople about noise and vendors who parked illegally. Tensions escalated when police showed up one Sunday and told vendors to leave.
Caldwell, a property owner in the village and a board member of its business improvement district, persuaded the group to start a business incubator to come up with a way of dealing with the problem. That yielded the idea of a monthly art walk that could expand the context of the drum circle into a larger event, use the unrented storefronts to display art (and advertise the space itself) and encourage foot traffic.
At a recent Saturday meeting of the art walk committee held at Caldwell’s space, younger attendees sat with laptops propped open as Caldwell led a discussion about the details of the next day’s event. The committee is an eclectic bunch comprising interested artists, merchants and residents. Caldwell encourages everyone involved to use the art walk as a way of developing and showcasing their own ambitions, artistic or otherwise. “This is a new generation, with new resources,” remarked committee member G Money. “Look at the role the Internet and Twitter [had] in the revolution in Egypt. If you’re not with it, you’re obsolete.”
The art walk’s website speaks clearly to a new tradition, but also to familiar goals of racial and social progress. The logo is a tweak on a mythological African image — a sankofa bird representing the past and the future, with paintbrushes for feathers. A four-minute film features a lively hip-hop soundtrack and interviews with young art walk patrons who wax passionately about the Leimert scene.
The docents are teens from local middle and high schools. and its critical role in keeping things in the ‘hood “positive."In a recent addition, capoeira dancers have joined the procession of drummers and other performers that files into Leimert Park Plaza to kick off the art walk at 2 p.m. (The next art walk is Sunday.)
Longtime area merchant and jeweler Sika, who has an eponymous shop, founded the Leimert Park Village African Art & Music Festival in 2009. Picking up where the annual African Marketplace left off when it abruptly shut down that year, the new summer event has been well-received; Sika is looking for sponsorship in 2011. He lauds the new Leimert Project and the art walk as important parts of a collective effort among business owners to permanently establish Leimert Park as a black center of culture and a model of self-determination. “Merchants should be able to do for ourselves,” Sika says. “We created this place, we should define and control it.”
Bradford is a relatively new catalyst in the movement. The artist, a California Institute of the Arts alumnus who met Caldwell there, moved into his renovated Leimert Park studio three years ago; last year, his close friend and arts philanthropist Eileen Norton followed suit by opening the Leimert Project. Suddenly it looked as though Leimert Park, which has always been somewhat isolated, might finally connect with the established art scene on the Westside and beyond. Bradford acknowledges that’s possible, though he emphasizes he’s looking to build on Leimert’s rich history, not replace it.
“I’m just trying to add a little something, not trying to detract from all the folks who have been holding it down since the ‘60s,” he says. “The goal to bring in more and more young, contemporary artists has really been a goal in Leimert Park since the ‘70s.” With that in mind, Bradford opened the doors of his studio for the first art walk, and continues to “whenever I’m around.”
Leimert has always been tough going for merchants. Development that has transformed artsy districts like North Hollywood into hip destinations has passed it by. And disagreement among merchants over what direction the village should take is legion, even during the best of times. The constant fear among some is that an influx of outsiders — such as those who’ve discovered the art walk — will dilute, or at least distract from, the village’s historical commitment to growing and preserving black culture in L.A.
Caldwell dismisses that view as self-defeating. “This is us learning as black businesspeople to be businesspeople, which means that we can’t just rely on black folk to support ourselves,” he says. “I’ve gotten pushback for [reaching out to other groups to patronize the village.] But the truth is, hip-hop, jazz and blues wouldn’t make it were it not for people of other colors. We have to broker what we have to be successful.”
Jackie Ryan, co-owner of Zambezi Bazaar, mostly agrees with Caldwell. She says that in the last year she’s seen a new seriousness of purpose about preserving Leimert. and doing it by any means necessary. “People are aware that we have to be innovative to survive into the future,” she says. “Electoral politics are not the answer. We have to have faith in our culture,” Ryan says. “That’s what’s sustained us all along.”