When the white van pulls up curbside to Micheltorena Elementary School for yet another meeting on the fate of the beloved Sunset Junction Street Fair, those standing out front could be forgiven for being a bit confused. The van, carrying a group of children, squeezes into a nearby spot, securing the attention of the crowd gathered on the lawn. As the kids climb out and walk toward the building, a few people audibly groan; others dip their heads to conceal smirking faces.
These are Michael McKinley’s kids, beneficiaries of his nonprofit Sunset Junction Neighborhood Alliance (SJNA), producer of the fair. On this day in May, the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council is debating, once again, the plusses and minuses of L.A.’s biggest annual street party. But then, every year there’s some sort of issue with Sunset Junction, which shuts down one of the city’s main arteries for two days in August. What’s new, though, is the volume of concern. One local business owner estimates that there have been 36 such meetings in the past year, and the youth parade is a new tactic in this seemingly endless battle. It feels like a symbolic plea — what about the children? — in a neighborhood where two years of failed negotiations on the future of the fair have yielded little more than animosity and fatigue. Activists have drafted petitions both for and against the festival; rumors are whispered inside coffee joints; insults and accusations are hurled from across parking lots and inside meetings.
Inside Micheltorena Elementary, there are enough boys and girls for a soccer team and then some, giggling as they make their way to a couple rows of chairs. Within minutes they’ve slouched into uncomfortable seats. Most aren’t old enough for a learner’s permit, let alone to contribute to a debate on neighborhood politics. A few have the scruffy-punk haircuts of young teens who spend their Saturday nights watching Naruto and listening to emo. After school, though, these teens and tweens reap the benefits provided by SJNA, which uses a portion of the money it makes from the yearly street fair it produces to fund afterschool programs. The kids are a quiet, seemingly well-mannered lot, raising their voices only when they clap with approval for the organization, unlike the adults — local business owners, residents and SJNA associates — mingling and strategizing in clusters inside the auditorium.
The meeting begins with hands flying in requests for floor time. Brief comments are made, and frequent rants flit haphazardly between contentious points but eventually land on something to do with SJNA. Supporting four paid employees and the salary of its president, McKinley, the alliance’s main source of revenue is Sunset Junction, which has grown from a small neighborhood celebration to a nationally recognized music festival, attracting artists like Sonic Youth, the Buzzcocks and the Black Keys to its stages, set up along Silver Lake’s main streets.
While the festival has earned accolades from music fans and the press, McKinley’s organization has ostracized many in this tightly knit neighborhood. In fact, after businesses on the eastern end of Sunset Boulevard expressed frustrations over street closures and their effect on sales for two years running, local merchants joined forces to lobby both community groups and City Councilman Eric Garcetti, who represents Council District 13, to finally take a stand with SJNA.
Their message: Either work with the community or stop the festival. Until the permits are issued, the fate of this year’s fair is far from assured. Some think it may not happen at all, and blame decisions that SJNA has — or hasn’t — made. Says Sarah Dale, one business owner twice burned by the alliance: “It’s very hard to negotiate with people who at the end of the day don’t do what they say they’re going to do.”
Two years ago, in the time leading up to Sunset Junction, Dale, the co-owner of indie designer boutique Pull My Daisy, started prepping for the fair. She hired temporary staff who could handle heavy crowds and work until 11 p.m. throughout that weekend. They arranged merchandise, made sure the shelves were full, and planned which racks and tables to display in front of the store.
Then came the bad news: Stakeholders in the festival had altered its footprint, and her block would be used as a parking lot for equipment trucks and vendors. Trapped behind a glut of trucks and vans, Dale tried to make the best of the situation. She set up DJs behind her shop window and brought magician Christopher Wonder to perform in front of her door, but it was no use. Pull My Daisy was cut off from both the festival and regular foot traffic. Dale was upset. “First of all, it hurt my feelings. I wanted to be invited to the party,” she says, adding that she has a great love for the neighborhood and the fair. “Second of all, it hurt my business.”