South L.A. Skateboarders Are Serving Up Something Wonderful at the Underground Museum
UPDATE: Tropics announced on May 16 that it had achieved its Kickstarter goal.
There may be a formal blue and white sign marking the neighborhood of Baldwin Village, but the locals still call it “The Jungle.” Part of the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles, the area’s borders are Coliseum Street and La Brea Avenue, with pro skater Rob Dyrdek’s Safe Spot Skate Spot, Charmette Bonpua Skate Plaza, locally referred to as “Rancho,” situated at its center.
Rancho lives up to its name, as according to local resident Daniel Desure, “Physically having a skateboard in your hand means safety.” Desure is the owner of Commonwealth Projects, a design studio located in the Jungle since 2011, and an active member of the community. Commonwealth Projects’ airy and open space sees a fair number of skateboard-wielding neighborhood youth coming and going. In addition to housing Desure’s business, the space plays host to a weekly meditation class, film screenings, a wide range of workshops on things from people skills to craft skills to kitchen skills, and, more recently, a juice workshop, all of which include the skaters.
The juice workshop is part of the Commonwealth Projects–hatched Tropics venture, a pop-up juice bar, which will be located at the nearby, much heralded Underground Museum. Launching its Kickstarter campaign earlier this month, Tropics is a multifaceted concept that, on its surface, is simply another iteration of Los Angeles’ latest health and culture trend — albeit at a much more affordable price point. Tropics’ Kickstarter is to fund $60,000 for three months of operations costs, equipment and supplies, plus installation and building materials. The juice bar is the tangible aspect of the project presented to the public, but Tropics’ goals are layered.
“Introducing anything new requires education,” says Desure, who acknowledges that bringing cold-pressed juice to a neighborhood whose juice consumption has traditionally been of the high-preservative, high-sugar, no-refrigeration-required variety is a challenge.
He continues. “There is never a difference between people. It’s only the information they were able to get. We have ideas, let’s bring them to people, expose them to these ideas, they can do what they will with them. Some people are going to stick around, some people are not interested or not interested in that one thing, but maybe they’re interested in something else you can show them.”
Desure comes from the same school of thought as his late friend Noah Davis, the celebrated artist behind the Underground Museum. Davis started the museum as an art studio, decided to have showings there and quite literally invited people off the street — including the ever-present skaters — with the promise of free food and drinks with some artwork viewing thrown in. Davis’ audacity paid off, making the Underground Museum a Los Angeles destination. The idea to house Tropics in its environs came from Davis’ brother, Kahlil, and Davis' widow, Karon.
Free food and drinks was what first connected Desure to the skaters, a small group of whom crashed his rooftop barbecue, skateboards in hand, and ended up sticking around. Two of these, Preston Summers and Jair McKay, are among the core young people involved in Tropics.
“I wouldn’t say Commonwealth saved us, but it did give us a choice,” says Summers, 20, an artist in his own right and the talent behind all of Tropics’ graphics. “[Desure] provided a healthy place for us. He’s trying to take us down paths we could not go on our own. We’re going to run our own business, put money in our pockets. He’s just giving us a kick-start — literally.”
“Commonwealth is a place where I can get away from everything,” concurs McKay, 24, a master strategist and programmer, particularly gifted in managing meetings and assigning tasks. “Trying to let everyone know what we’re here for, people that might not even be from the neighborhood, trying to get everybody together as a community is what I come back for.”
“Exposing other people to the needs and what’s happening is important, but it’s also about starting on your block and getting the local community to be contributors and investing into it,” Desure says. “This is a celebration of the neighborhood. It has a dark side and it has its issues, but there are also incredible things that come out of here: the people, the ideas, the culture. It is such a special place.
“Tropics is everything we’ve been building toward,” he continues. “We learn a lot every step of the way. We build skills. We build a community. The one thing I’ve learned is every time I have a very specific goal, it usually doesn’t happen, but I find something new in the process. No matter what Tropics becomes, it’s going to be successful."
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