The Story Of A Village In South Central
A film by Jeanette Lindsay
Hosted by Gilles Peterson this moving documentary will be shown at Rich Mix, 35-47 Bethnal Green Rd. E16LA on Wednesday 19th Nov. @ 8pm. Fee: £10.00 inc. TheFresh Mix Live Session!
ABOUT LEIMERT PARK
In April 1992, Richard Fulton, a formerly homeless man who had been living on Los Angeles' skid row, opened Fifth Street Dick's coffeehouse in the South Central Los Angeles neighborhood of Leimert Park. A few days later, the 1992 Los Angeles riots broke out. For five days and five nights, a group of dedicated merchants and artists stood guard to protect their village from the fires that raged through the streets of South Central Los Angeles.
Richard's coffeehouse soon became a gathering spot for the community, and ultimately sparked a remarkable underground renaissance of African-American art and culture. Leimert Park became a stopover for world-class jazz musicians who might drop in to jam until 3 or 4 in the morning. The sidewalks overflowed with people of all ages and races absorbing the jazz, hip-hop, blues and spoken-word poetry performed in the park and various music venues.
Told through the powerful words, art and music of the community, this film articulates and celebrates the profound struggles and deep spirit of the extraordinary artists and musicians who transformed a few blocks of modest storefronts into a vibrant and inspiring cultural oasis. Intimate and compelling, Leimert Park is a universal tale of the struggles and triumphs of artists everywhere and of the power and importance of art and music in our lives.
All net proceeds from the distribution of this film are slated to go back to the community to support the arts and culture.
STRAIGHT NO CHASER'S ANDY THOMAS TALKS TO ANDY THOMAS TALKS TO THE FILM'S DIRECTOR JEANETTE LINDSAY.
How did you come to hear about the Leimert Park community and what made you determined to let the world know the story?
Jeanette: I initially found out about the Leimert Park community from a class on jazz history that I was taking at Antioch University in 1997. The teacher told us about Leimert Park and then invited the class to a performance of vocalist Dwight Trible and his band at the World Stage in Leimert. I remember being deeply struck by the community. There was a very creative vibe there and it resonated with me. I had always longed to be part of a community of artists and that was exactly what I saw going on down there.
What made me determined to let the world know about Leimert Park was partially my passion for art, but also being struck by the interaction of artists within a community. I could see how important it was. It was something I had always longed for, and here it was in LA, and I had never even heard about it. I couldn't believe that this was going on here, and I had known nothing about it. It was completely under the radar of the media. This was a real art and real music springing organically from a community. It wasn't about the money. It was about self-expression and community and beauty. What is the real value in art? I mean, what is the role of art in our society? I don't think that art is something that is put on a pedestal in some big white museum up on a hill (I'm referring here to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles). I think art is something that should be integrated into our lives and a part of our communities. I think art is the measure of a culture, how art and artists (and when I say art and artists I mean music, I mean visual art, I mean dance, all of that) are valued ... how it's viewed, respected and treated by society, by the people. I think it is integral to our understanding each other, respecting each other, and building peace and community.
So back to your question, what made you determined to let the world know this story…. To put it more succinctly, I was inspired by what I saw occurring in this community. The beauty and the love ...that creativity. It was something that I had never experienced, particularly not in Los Angeles. And I was bothered by the fact that I did not know that this was occurring right here! I live in L.A., I read the paper. But I did not know that this area of LA existed, and I did not know about the artistic community going on down here. That seemed outrageous to me. So I decided (with a great amount of naivete) that I would document it. I felt it was important to tell the story of this community to Los Angeles, and the United States and the world. To share, to celebrate, to be inspired by Leimert Park.
Was it important for you to show a different side to this blighted area and to break down the clichés around South Central?
I don't know that I would call this area “blighted” particularly, so I'd like to address that first. Perhaps the dictionary definition of blighted is correct, but the word blighted to me implies a hopelessness. And I don't see that in this area. Perhaps I would refer to it as a forgotten or ignored area of Los Angeles. There are areas of LA that are blighted, definitely, but this would not be one of them. Now in the 80s, things were very different in Leimert Park – or so I am told. There was a good deal of gang and drug activity in the park and people were afraid to go out at night. But after the uprising in 1992, things changed significantly.
There are still some “run-down" areas surrounding Leimert Park. But this area historically has been predominantly middle-class and working class. Leimert Park itself has been referred to as a “hidden jewel.” The homes - as well as the people -- are quite lovely there.
That's not to say that people there don't struggle. They do, they shouldn't have to, but they do. I think part of that is due to the misconceptions about South Central.
It was important that I show a different side to South Central to correct some of the misconceptions about the area in general - to introduce people to a different side of Los Angeles and erase some of the stereotypes about the area and the people.
The film opens with Kamau Daaood’s words about Leimert Park being a “sacred place and a gathering spot for an army of healers”. Did you feel that spirituality when you first went there?
Leimert Park has a vibe - a heartbeat. I think the warmth and the spirit of the people and the artists can be felt there. I think it was that very spirit that inspired me to make the film and made me believe that I could actually do it!
Richard Fulton talks about the importance of music to the harmony of the
community. On what level do you think jazz acted as the gel for the people to come together?
“Jazz is improvisational and it makes people improvise in their own minds…” Those are Richard’s words, but I agree with them wholeheartedly. Jazz and the improvisational aspect of the music represent an inclusiveness. The music says to me – “hey, let me hear what you have to say about that”. It gives musicians an opportunity to express in ways that other music doesn’t. It is that freedom and acceptance that I believe has an effect on the listeners. It flows through the music. And of course a great rhythm section doesn’t hurt either.
Playing music and letting the music spill out onto the streets – it kind of envelopes in a warmth that is palpable…
Cats like Kamau Daaood and Horace Tapscott had of course experienced the Watts Riots of the Sixties. How important was that in helping them bond with the younger generation?
I’m not sure how the experience of the Watts riots in the 60s had an effect on the elders bonding with a younger generation. I do think that the experience of living as an African American in the United States creates a common bond. It is something difficult for outsiders (me being an outsider!) to fully understand. We just haven’t grown up dealing with that and with all the subtle aspects of racism in this country…
Would you agree that seemingly small gestures like Richard Fulton setting
tables outside so people could play dominoes became powerful symbols of
To me, it is small gestures like setting tables outside on the sidewalk that are the most powerful symbols of resistance. I believe this for a few reasons. It shows the difference that one individual can make in a community and it is the accumulation of small gestures that over time creates powerful and lasting change. I think most people believe that in order to make a difference or “change” things, they have to do something “big.” This is what gets the attention and these “moments” seem to come out of nowhere. But it is the seeds that people like Richard plant that create the fertile soil for the larger changes.
How important was it that music was taken out onto the streets at the same
time as the fires were burning?
Music wasn’t taken out onto the streets at the same time that the fires were burning. People were too busy helping each other and ensuring that their businesses didn’t burn down! It was after the fires were out and things had calmed down that people began to gather at Richard’s coffeehouse. They needed a place to gather, to heal, to talk, to comfort and Richard’s coffeehouse provided a forum for this to happen.
I think having that space and enlivening it with art and music is crucial in times of crisis – it creates a space to heal.
Kamau Daaood talks about the lineage from The Watts Writers Workshop to the poetry sessions at The World Stage. To what extent was the explosion of spoken word a reaction to the riots?
This is pretty much an extension of what I was talking about before – having a space to heal. Music and art are such important tools for change and for healing. The World Stage provided a forum for expression and the structure of a safe supportive workshop to do it within. Vitally important. After the Watts Riots in 1964, a number of artists from the Watts Arts Center went around and gathered “junk” from the burned buildings and created a series of artworks that eventually circled the globe. The exhibit was called “66 signs of neon” and it launched the careers of a number of artists. I mention this because I think what is most notable is that artists are able to take an act of violence, to take the cast off remains, to take the pain of experience and transform it into something beautiful. Artists – true artists – are healers and an integral part of a community.
Michael Datcher recalls how gangsters left the area alone, some even becoming spoken word artists. What does that say about the power of the arts and of the oneness and acceptance of this community?
I think I have answered this above. In the end, we are all human. And the gang members are – yes – gang members but they are also a part of a larger community. The artists and what Richard was doing was helping the community. It was good for their people. They could see this and they respected it. I think art speaks to a deeper part of ourselves…
What role does Leimert Park play now?
Ahhh. Difficult question. Leimert Park is at a crossroads. Not only was it hit with the untimely deaths of some of its key figures, but like the rest of Los Angeles (and the U.S.), Leimert Park was caught up in the real estate frenzy. Several of the properties were bought by investors outside the community – who have no interest in the community itself, only in making money. It is unclear which way Leimert Park will turn, now that the economy has changed so drastically. I also must say that the film deals with the viewpoint of the artists. There are some in the community (I am speaking here of the merchants) that want to see Leimert Park became more “upscale” and less grassroots. There are others who fear that change as they believe it will run them out of business. Many of the artists have already been forced to leave due to rising rents and this has changed the community greatly. So it is really at a crossroads.
What do you want people to go away with after watching this film?
I have found that each person walks away with something different (which is quite satisfying). I guess if I wanted viewers to get "something," I would like them to go away with a broadened vision of “South Central Los Angeles”, and even more so, I would hope that the film and the artists in the film inspire people to follow their own passions and create.
CHECK OUT: the perfect companion to Leimert Park – the film – is Stephen L Isoardi’s excellent book The Dark Tree: Jazz & the Community Arts in Los Angeles (George Gund Foundation Book in African American Studies
Paul Bradshaw www.straightnochaser.co.uk