Memorial Day weekend came and went. Sunday meant work at a kiosk in the local mall selling candy while thoughts of people having fun at BBQs made each sale anxious. Guys in shorts and tank tops, girls in bikini tops with colorful tattoos, maybe a kitty pool or spray bottles to escape the first days of summer’s heat. Potentially the actual holiday – Monday – might have fulfilled Sunday’s fantasies but ended as it began with a handful of dudes sitting around watching reruns of shows on the TLC channel, some food, then more reruns this time an old movie. Enough to make anyone question if life held any meaning or if that perfect picture of the nuclear 50’s family sitting around at home turned into a dark nightmare of single men watching TV together hopeless with memories of past failures and the loneliness that comes with the statement, “If I only did that differently.”
This isn’t about past failures and missed opportunities, not about loneliness and bad jobs, but instead about making the best of what you have with what little, if anything, you have available. It is about defiance in the face of authority, maybe about the attempt to take back what is rightfully yours and not taking no for an answer. It is about celebrating freedom and ingenuity, and honoring the personal sacrifice of men and women, all which makes this nation great. It is about the Saturday before that Sunday and Monday, about how no one invited you to a party, about so-called “friends” you wanted to spend the weekend with ignoring you, and most of all about the 2012 Silver Lake Jubilee.
The Jubilee setup right off Sunset Boulevard at the famous and quaint location known as Sunset Junction, or where Santa Monica Boulevard meets Sunset. A few trendy restaurants, a few hip shopping retailers and that damn good cheese store that sells those damn good sandwiches keeps the area vibrant with foot traffic and popular with the young crowd of successful Hollywood hipsters. We arrived with a thirst for coffee. For coffee you have two options, the first is a cafe with a constant line out the door, and filled tables on the outside patio that makes it seem like they give out free coffee. Actually it couldn’t be further from the truth and the joint more than anything else gives the area its reputation for catering to success. Your average coffee drink at the place runs for a fiver, and people gladly pay it all day long.
Along with two other guys none of us worked. The recession you heard disappeared in other areas but left Los Angeles around an estimated 11 percent unemployment in the summer of 2012. A few spotty good jobs here and there but otherwise work meant a lot of odd jobs moving furniture, giving rides to people for cash and eking out what little unemployment insurance provided. A fiver for coffee didn’t add up so we headed for option number two, a cafe a block away that also posed as a spiritual center, and along with coffee and healthy fare sold yoga outfits and good smelling candles. Buddha might not make as good of coffee as capitalism, but the price sure felt better on the pocket. Sadly, they still charged higher than average for a cup and as a friend in New York once said “I hate paying more than a dollar for coffee.” Call us old fashioned.
Coffee, check, next stop some BBQ food because that is what you do on holiday weekends in America, eat BBQ. Ditching the main drag we dipped into the front area of the jubilee that started at Sunset and stretched down Santa Monica for a good amount of blocks to Virgil Avenue. Each entrance to the festival held a large stage area, with smaller music areas squeezed between booths selling merchandise of all types, including a booth that sold only fresh herbs for cooking. Though random in appearance, and at first look one might wonder what prompted a booth selling items such as thyme and basil to setup in the middle of pop culture t-shirts, beer vendors and corporate sponsors, such as Pepsi, but that is L.A. for you. Maybe Coca-Cola setup shop as an herb booth to sneak in under the exclusive rights contract that Pepsi possibly garnered for their monetary support of the event.
Looking closer though nothing better represents the culture in this nook of Los Angeles known as Silver Lake, Los Feliz and Echo Park (that many of the newer residents consider the east side of L.A. but actually is only east of the west side of L.A. and is more the north-central side of the city, though still slightly west of the real East L.A. of Chicano heritage – or better stated in the common phrase “we never go west of Western”) then the herb booth at the festival. It stood as a testament to a community in the face of development, or gentrification as people call it these days.
The community people who possibly grew those herbs in community gardens when the idea of community gardens was to give people space to fulfill the ancient heritage of tending the earth, but also took empty derelict lots in the city back from neighborhood blight to create spaces not where homeless slept off alcohol and drug induced blackouts but rather where something beautiful stood that people took pride in as they grew tomatoes and found each other. These community people who moved into hard neighborhoods riddled with crime and enduring with love stayed making the place that much brighter for the new families who slowly moved in opening eclectic businesses where art, good food and the American dream flourished. Eventually the crime moved on and left only a place full of energy that attracted more and more people until eventually upping real estate values drew more and more affluent people into newly remodeled condos and apartment buildings.
That is how the community stood, at the height of its creativity and in the beginning of its death throes. New cafes with $5 coffee start to replace the $1 coffee shops, clothing stores that sold secondhand merchandise or local designers for cheap turn into designer boutiques where the average price of pants is more money than a staving artist receives in a month from the county general relief fund. Many of the same types of creatives (the new generation) like those who helped shape the neighborhood can’t afford the expensive rents and now move further into Los Angeles into other neighborhoods. Those successful artists and entrepreneurs who opened the first shops and art galleries of course stay and who can blame them, they helped create the community and it belongs to them still, even though it is changing.
Those other people who helped form the community without experiencing the same success; maybe they too were artists but never caught fame, maybe they started failed businesses or lost their leases from the rising rents, maybe they never did anything but bring love and friendship to the neighborhood, or helped plant flowers in that same community garden; they see themselves pushed out as developers seek their rented real estate and their landlords who before welcomed stable tenants now see greater profits if they move. These people too move deeper into Los Angeles and into new neighborhoods as the more affluent replace them.
Slowly the neighborhood changes and while the unique character of the place will always endure in painted murals and a funky shop here and there, the heart and soul of the community forever disappears. It happens in every city all over the world. New York, Seattle, Houston, Chicago, in every major city and in other neighborhoods in L.A. like Santa Monica, Venice, and Hollywood. Places that eventually corporate America finds and sees an opportunity for money. They open drug stores and grocery stores, restaurant chains and clothing store chains, ice cream parlors and pizza joints. Where before the neighborhood didn’t fit a demographic they approved for business, now it held what they sought – people with money. When this happens real estate values become unattainable for anyone but corporations as they pay the highest price for 10-year leases. When the chains move in the neighborhood forever dies.
So the herb booth is not such an anomaly but makes perfect sense standing next to the giant corporate sponsors, it is a microcosm of gentrification, an illustration of the larger change happening in the community. Sadly, there small mom and pop operation seems out of place now. You can hear this said too if you listen close enough to the new young and hip generation in L.A.
Us three for example standing at the entrance of the jubilee, we say the same thing as everyone else, the place is too expensive, the shops are too trendy, the place isn’t “it” anymore. We hear that Boyle Heights or MacArthur Park represent the new frontier, where you can still find an apartment for six bills.
Truthfully the place still lives, not like Venice Beach that is beyond hope of recovery and forever gone. For instance the first stage while entering the jubilee is set up just for local teenage high school bands. What better says community than inviting those growing up in the neighborhood to play and perform along those already established. It is only us who love the dirt and grime of L.A. that mourn the coming loss, those of us who can’t afford the rents.
The next order of business after getting coffee still is the fresh Memorial Day BBQ as it looms large in the imagination of every American. The only burgers and hot dogs available at the Sunset entrance came from a food truck, not a fresh BBQ. Some bar was in the process of BBQ’ing chicken and sausages, but a taste for good old-fashioned burgers and dogs needed satiating. Two of us sat to wait while the search for food led further down into the block party. The BBQ setup had to exist, just where and when. The excitement and energy of the place felt palpable and contagious the further you moved into the thick of the crowd, until it died in an instant with two large looking security officers at a gate asking a simple question, “Do you have a yellow wristband?”
Of course the event cost money, everything else in the neighborhood cost money, why would they put on a free event for a holiday with bands? Looking over at the booth selling wristbands, sidling up to the front and cutting in line, the price of one yellow wristband left a bitter taste in the mouth. A twenty spot for a yellow piece of paper around the wrist. Of course it also meant twenty to find the BBQ desperately wanted as outside the event burgers and dogs didn’t exist, just like three twenty spots didn’t exist to gain us all entrance.
Defeated and starved the food truck seemed more appealing now. The two guys who held back took the news with indignation and disbelief. No fun here for the broke, and since people weren’t jumping at the chance to invite us to parties the day turned into less a holiday and more into a reminder that when life sucks it can really suck. One burger at the food truck and a soda to wash it down – $10. Here is a good chance to comment on the wealth of food trunks that have become a staple in Los Angeles streets. While a good food truck is divine, a burger truck is a poor second when you want a BBQ burger. For that matter most food trucks like the jubilee and the coffee shop sell poor food overpriced. There are the few jewels of gourmet food that started the trend, but now who can distinguish the good from the bad with everyone in pursuit of making a buck jumping on the coattails of success.
Anyhow finishing off the last remains of the food an idea struck that seemed simple enough, genius really, and it meant entrance at a very low price, possibly even for free. They were just yellow wristbands available at any local store. The idea presented passed among us and three smiles formed as trusty mobile devices came out of the pocket and the search for wristbands entered that stage of virtual planning. No parties stores around, nothing within walking distance except, yes, there on the other end of the party a few more blocks past Virgil stood our new hope. An office supply that advertised a solution for every business need. A long shot but businesses needed wristbands too, right?
Skirting the outside of the party the three of us slowly made our way through the neighborhood; passing happy drunk people, happy young kids and merry hipsters on their way to the jubilee. A new spring in our step matched theirs as our devious plan brought us into the store. Quickly we spread out and searched for wristbands. Not in aisle one or two as they only held blank paper stock for printing. Maybe use paper and print some wristbands? Too time consuming. The other aisles held pens, erasers, electronic devices, office furniture, clipboards and paper clips. No wristbands.
Until we saw it, not wristbands but something yellow, paper and about the same width as what the event staff gave out for entrance. Immediately grabbing the sticky Post-It strips two of us agreed they would work while the third argued the yellow wasn’t the same color. Demanding that we keep looking for something better we finished searching the entire store, but at the end the yellow sticky strips seemed the best option.
Call it broke desperation and a criminal undertaking, or call it harmless fun and American ingenuity. Call it whatever tickles your moral fancy but at that moment at the counter when we purchased our event wristbands for a little over a five spot all the disappointments of the past week, month and year fell off each of us. We beat the system.
Of course the wristbands worked and we cruised the event for a few hours harassing cute girls, drinking the free Pepsi being passed out, and listening to the local bands and electronic music in the glow of triumph. Most of all for those hours the thoughts of her who never returned a simple phone call that day disappeared also. Rejection never sits well with victory, and at a place like a jubilee there is always other fish. At the magic hour, as film people call the end of the day when the light begins to change and darkness begins to settle, we left for other pursuits.
In this story you won’t find famous quotes from the U.S. President because the President doesn’t attend this specific jubilee, and a jubilee is likely not the proper place for him on this weekend of remembrance for those who died for our freedom. Nor does your average person get to add their voice simply because the experience doesn’t lend itself to the definition of average. The closest thing to communication you get from anyone is a simple middle finger saying f*!ck you, or maybe two middle fingers if you really look closely.
It is important to note that last minute guilt and remorse made the conscious nag, and one wristband got purchased for the event by this author. If you are interested below too you can find a slideshow of pictures taken at the event and short video featuring a taste of the music played.
In all respects the event soothed the droll weekend that awaited, and not just because two of us cheated the promoters. Good music and a good crowd with interesting booths and funky outfits happily captured the heart and soul of Silver Lake, Echo Park and Los Feliz, or what heart and soul remains. Sadly, we never came across an actual BBQ going, just more food trucks selling different foods.
In the end a simple story about that coffee shop that sells $5 coffee best sums up everything that went on that day. A friend just ate a big meal at some fast food joint and was standing in the long line that always stretched out the door. Upon entering the store area the heat and the food begin to get to him, making him feel queasy. As the line continued to lag eventually the heat got to him and he threw up all over the floor. Just puked in front of all those people who can afford $5 coffee. After that he walked out and left the puke heading for some other neighborhood in Los Angeles.