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Rally to Save Leimert Park

by Michael Slate Tuesday, Jan. 07, 2003 at 3:08 PM

Michael Slate from the Artists Network of Refuse and Resist! on Leimert Park

Rally to save Leimert Park Village

Rally to save Leimert Park Village
These thoughts were sent to us by Michael Slate, a member of the steering committee of the Artists Network of Refuse & Resist! It is well worth the read.

Just a few thoughts after hearing about the recent moves by developers to destroy Leimert Park Village. Too often we allow these things to happen and years later we have wisps of memories and too many regrets that we didn't stand up and do something when it really mattered. Sometimes this happens because what exactly is going on is not always so clear. Let's not allow Leimert Park Village to become another regret.

Leimert is a very rare thing in America today. It's a center for Black culture that has been carved out of what used to be a very rough and almost abandoned part of the city. Kamau Da'ood, a poet and one of the founders of the World Stage Performance Space on Degnan, used to talk about having to reclaim the streets from prostitution and junkies when the Stage first opened its doors. But Black artists came into the area and turned it into the Village it is today. The late Richard Fulton, all dreadlocked and gravel voiced, turned 43rd place into the place to be until the early hours of the morning- dozens of people playing chess on tiny sidewalk tables under strings of white twinkle lights while jazz musicians jammed in the upstairs performance space. Richard's place, 5th St. Dick's was known all over the world as a place to hear great music and engage in all kinds of conversations. Kamau and the late Billy Higgins opened the World Stage for performances, jam sessions and music lessons that reached out deep into the communities around the Village. On Wednesday nights the Ananzi Writers' Workshop featured some of the finest poets in the city as well as a workshop where these very same poets would seek comments on their own works in progress and then help newer poets develop their work. The Stage was also known worldwide and every major jazz musician who came through LA throughout the 1990s made a point of passing through the Stage.

And I don't think I'll ever forget the night when the whole guiding principle for a lot of the artists in Leimert was made clear to me. I was walking down Degnan with Horace Tapscott, the late, great jazz pianist. We were looking for a spot to sit and talk for a while when he decided that the Stage was probably our best bet. We left the door open while we talked until it became clear that as long as people, especially young people, knew Horace was inside the Stage hanging out, they would come in to talk to him about their music and his thoughts on what they should be doing with it. We had to talk so Horace finally got up to close the door and as he did he turned around with a half pained grin and said that he hated to shut people out "it just didn't seem right 'cuz it's all about passing on the vibe. If we aren' t doing that, we aren't doing what we need to do."

For me this has always been what's behind Leimert. It's a place built by Black artists where Black culture is promoted, developed, nurtured and passed on. It's a place where the community came come to take part in and enjoy their culture and this is unfortunately a rare space these days. And it's a place that crossed generations and artistic genres. It featured and nurtured all kinds of African American culture and was an especially important home for artists who made major contributions to the Culture of Resistance. On one corner you have KAOS Network and the hip hop of Project Blowed. Two doors down was the Vision Theater - the main stage of a theater complex once owned by actress Marla Gibbs and dedicated to both bringing in Black performances and training the youth in theater. Around the corner was jazz, stained glass artistry, painters' studios, voice teachers, theaters, museums focused on Black artists and Black history and African Dance schools. And in between all this are the merchants whose shops are kept alive by the changes the artists brought to Leimert.

And while Leimert is a center for African American art and artists, the Village warmly embraced people of all nationalities and valued its role as a place where people could learn more about each other and on that basis help and support one another and stand up for each other in the face of need or attacks.

The Artists Network of Refuse & Resist has a special bond with and debt to Leimert Park. The World Stage was the scene of the LA chapter's first Inside the Culture of Resistance interview with jazz lyricist and vocalist Oscar Brown Jr. And Leimert has a special place in my memory and in the hearts of anyone who has ever worked on or come to an ArtSpeaks concert because Leimert was the birthplace of ArtSpeaks! When we organized the first concert we were 10 people at most with very little experience and zero money or equipment. And we were trying to pull off a concert where we could express our feelings against police brutality. We really had no place to go until Leimert opened up its arms for us. Richard turned over 5th St. Dick's for our weekly meetings and helped secure sound equipment. He introduced us to Cedric, who managed the Vision Theater and who gave us the theater at a huge discount. And many of the musicians and poets who played at that ArtSpeaks! came out of the spaces in Leimert. It is no exaggeration to say that without the support and participation of the people in Leimert Park ArtSpeaks! would not exist today. And in the second year of ArtSpeaks! the artists and other people of Leimert rallied around the concert again, including standing up to the police who tried to intimidate people and isolate the concert by pulling off an armed raid of the theater the night before the concert.

Leimert is also an oasis for progressive political thought and action. When Geronimo Pratt was released from jail one of his first speeches to the community was in Leimert Park. Immediately in the aftermath of September 11th, Leimert Park hosted an especially crucial rally in support of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.

And for all these things, Leimert has also been attacked over the years. I'll never forget the night the LAPD pulled off a brutal raid at Project Blowed. And what about the day the bank took the Vision Theater Complex away from Marla Gibbs. And who has shuddered at the new signs of progress creeping down Degnan as developers with dollar signs for eyes buy up place after place.

Gentrification is not just a money thing. In this case it is the tearing out of a heart. Come to the rally on Saturday at 2pm This is not a place we can let slip away. Try to think for a moment about how many places like this exist in the city, the state or even the country. And now think about how many of these spots are homes for African American culture and artists. And now try to think what it will mean if we let them destroy Leimert Park the same way they tore apart Central Avenue in LA and countless other scenes in Black communities across the country. Let's not open the door for future generations to talk wistfully about what used to be in Leimert Park. Let's keep Leimert. Let's stop the relentless greed machine. Let's stop the systematic destruction of African American culture. And most of all, as Horace Tapscott would say, let's make sure Leimert is always a place where the vibe is passed on to new generations.

Poet Kamau Da'ood captured it best in his poem.

Leimert Park

My heart is a djembe drum
Played upon by the dark hands of a 5th Street cappuccino
My invisible turban is an angelic saxophone solo
The sidewalk is hardened mud cloth
Massaging the soles of my feet
I do West African dance steps
Reflecting the sun off of my Stacey Adams shoes
I stand on the OG corner and tell old school stories with a bebop tongue to the hip hop future
I see new rainbows in their eyes
As we stand in puddles of melted chains
Visit the black sensei with a grumpy voice wrapped in juju
And warrior spirits guarding a roomful of stereotypes and ancestral stories
A Moor in a pork pie hat stands with a video camera in front of a stain glass museum
I low ride on a Zebra in front of Congo Square
We clothe ourselves in sun and Africa by the yard
Hand-woven the fabric of our life we sculpture
You see, there are trees in Leimert Park under which old men do divination with the bones of dominos
Degnan, a river, a new Nile on whose banks young poets sharpen their hearts
Under polyrythms of Billy Higgin's smile
On the World Stage where Tapscott's fingers massage your collective memory
At the crossroads a vision is shaped by a woman who labored as a maid and gave her wages to her village
Here where children play double dutch with dreadlock ropes and believers wash the streets with Koranic tears under a kente sky
Vomit up your television set
Take a deep breath and exhale your fear
Scrub the tombstones of those who die young until they become mirrors in which to see yourself
Take long stares at your hand until true love returns to your touch Then touch
Stand right in a garment of light
I want to pour poems into the open arms of your drums
I want to get in between your piano keys and unleash the healing secrets
I want to stuff your dreams with a bed of cleansing herbs
I want to wipe the bulls eyes off the backs of your children
In Leimert Park

(transcribed from Kamau Da'ood Leimert Park)

Note: New property owners have doubled the rent for all the artists in the building where the World Stage resides. They have refused to meet with the people and have shown no respect or concern for what has been built there by the people.

For more information on the situation in Leimert Park call:
Phyllis Battle at 323 290-9026
Dwight Trible at 323 934-6313

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