“Free the Streets” promotes bicycle culture in South LA

imageIn the shady gated courtyard in front of Mercado La Paloma on Grand Avenue, handfuls of low-rider and fixed-gear bicycles plus a booming DJ sound system set the stage for the “Free the Streets” bicycle and community activism event last Saturday, November 5th.

Despite sparse attendance throughout the afternoon, the event — also known as the Cycle Music Arts Festival —included screen-printing demonstrations, freehand graffiti painting on the Mobile Mural Lab truck, live DJs and a Pabst Blue Ribbon-sponsored bar.

imageHalf of the $10 admission fee will help campaigns for safer streets in South L.A. that urge for more bike lanes and green areas, better street crossings and narrower roads. The other half will benefit CicLAvia, a semiannual event that blocks off 7.5 miles of downtown streets to cars and gives bicyclists and pedestrians full reign, and their plan extend the route into South L.A.

“We want to bring Angelenos together and show them each other, show them the city, and make our streets more alive,” CicLAvia board member Joe Linton said. “After the first CicLAvia, we got calls from people from South L.A. saying, ‘Hey, when are you going to come to South L.A.? We love it!’”

After hearing requests from many community groups to bring CicLAvia further south, Linton said he recognized the need for it in the neighborhood.

“There’s a lot of risk of obesity, there’s a lack of park space, there’s a lack of places where communities gather,” he said. “We think CicLAvia can play a role in that.”

imageOrganizers are tentatively planning for the new route, for the next ride on April 15, 2012, to shoot south on Central Avenue from Downtown Los Angeles and head west on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to Exposition Park and Leimert Park. In the future, they hope to extend it all the way to Watts Towers. But closing down so many streets to car traffic requires money for the proper permits.

With events like “Free the Streets,” organizers and activists hope to raise the funds for the route extension as well as awareness of South L.A. as a vibrant and bikeable destination.

image“South L.A. gets a really bad rep from media sometimes,” said Andres Ramirez, a Strategic Actions for a Just Economy tenant organizer. “CicLAvia gets people to explore different parts of the city that they wouldn’t normally explore. That’s what we’re envisioning, bringing it to South Central. South L.A. has a lot of history, has a lot of culture, has a lot of people period.”

Ramirez gave Mercado La Paloma as an example: a collective marketplace with gourmet Central and South American restaurants, local artwork on display and a kids’ play area that is a “gem” in the community but largely ignored by the rest of the city.

“Free the Streets” and future CicLAvia routes could introduce more people to independent businesses like the Mercado and an improved view of South L.A.

Watts Towers festival attracts folk art

Residents of Watts and beyond gathered for a celebration of folk arts beneath the neighborhood’s flagship cement and ceramic spires this past weekend.

The 2011 annual Watts Towers Day of the Drum and Jazz Festival also commemorated the 50th anniversary of the adjacent Watts Towers Arts Center.


Hundreds congregated on the small, triangular piece of land on Santa Ana Boulevard amid constant live music, craft vendors, arts workshops and local food booths — everyone from Black Panther representatives to homemade soap sellers. The free two-day event, hosted by the Department of Cultural Affairs, evolved from the Jazz Festival, which began in 1976, and the Day of the Drum Festival, started in 1981.

“It has grown from nothing,” said Alma Reaves Woods, a longtime community volunteer who was representing the Watts Towers Community Action Council. “It’s just so gratifying to see the changes and the growth.”


LACMA guides presented tours of the towers, one of only nine folk art sites in the National Register of Historic Places. Between 1921 and 1954, Italian immigrant Simon Rodia recycled rebar, broken tiles, dishware and soda bottles to build this pseudo-shrine of found objects and everyday materials.


Atop one tower, our tour guide pointed out, is a statue of Victory — but she’s missing her head. Below it is Rodia’s cement self-portrait, wearing what appears to be a bishop’s hat. The tour guide explained that Rodia declared himself an ordained minister and performed wedding ceremonies within the 99.5-foot-tall Wedding Tower.

Outside the towers, the Universal Drum Circle pounded away, inviting in children, dancers and any percussion available.

imageUSC animation graduate student Javier Barboza led children’s art workshops, demonstrating crayon rubbings of real plant leaves and plastic insects. He said attendance at the festival has gone down over the last six years he has participated.

“It’s a lot of grassroots-type of stuff, and the community promotes it,” he said. “And the people that usually come are people that have coming for the last 15, 20, 30 years, so they know about it. But the city doesn’t really promote it very much. They promote for like a week instead of for a couple months.”

Nevertheless, an appreciative crowd hunkered down under the main stage tent for Sunday’s headlining act, the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, a massive jazz ensemble from Los Angeles, established by Horace Tapscott in 1961. With over 20 members on stage, including a small vocal choir, “The Ark” brought the event to a roaring, uplifting conclusion.

If folk art encompasses any art form made for the pure purposes of beauty, community and cultural enrichment, then, in the spirit of Simon Rodia, the Watts Towers Day of the Drum and Jazz Festival embodies it all.

Listen to audio from the Watts Towers drum circle: