Life of the Party: Sunset Junction Street Fair Hits Dead End
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.”
When the street fair works well, everyone benefits, say owners, with the rise in foot traffic prompting a spike in sales that can last for several months. But that weekend in 2007 caused many of the mom-and-pop outposts in the pedestrian-friendly area to lose two full days of business without ample warning or compensation. And it was their breaking point. In Dale’s case, though, it meant more than lost sales: It was the loss of a tradition.
Dale moved to Silver Lake in the mid-’90s. For a 19-year-old interested in indie rock and underground art, it was the ideal place to live:inexpensive and off the grid that rules much of Los Angeles. She fell for the hidden spaces and Spanish architecture, the “multigenerational” community of artists, and the annual festival. In conversation, she can weave together memories of the Junction that make it sound like a small-town carnival, stories of Ferris-wheel romances and parties in shops.
Pull My Daisy had only been open for two months when Dale experienced her first Sunset Junction as a merchant. It was chaotic in a fun and exciting way. “I was in the middle of this thing I love,” she says. But the situation quickly changed. In 2002, Sonic Youth and Sleater-Kinney headlined, drawing a far greater crowd than she had ever seen on her Sunset block.
“I remember getting a little bit afraid,” she recalls, “like there were going to be riots, like these bands were too big for this venue.”
Joe Keeper, who runs the cocktail “head shop” Bar Keeper, still has hanging on his bar’s walls memorabilia from old street fairs. “As the ticket price started to increase, the neighborhood started to change and the outsiders started coming in,” Keeper says. “It became a rock & roll festival.”
From there, the fair continued to expand. Bands like Guided by Voices, Rilo Kiley and the New York Dolls stepped onto the stage. Attendance shot up to 30,000 to 100,000 people daily. But by tapping into the neighborhood’s newfound appeal, the larger crowds somehow made the event feel more pedestrian. Where food was once provided primarily by local restaurants, now the options mostly included the same $5 lemonades and greasy funnel cakes found at every other music festival in the country. Corporate booths replaced many of the independent vendors. And that nominal, optional donation turned into a mandatory cover charge, which increased with each passing fair until it finally hit $20 per day last year.
Sure, grumbling throughout the neighborhood has existed since the festival’s inception, but after the experiences of 2007, the voices grew more passionate. Dale and her neighbors began asking more questions. “We learned the lesson that if you want things to work and you want things to change, you have to make the commitment and go to the meetings and talk to the people.”
The business owners approached Garcetti, whose staff has mediated between the community and the alliance. After a year of meetings through the fall of 2007 and into 2008, the situation appeared to have settled. Sunset Boulevard between Sanborn Avenue and Edgecliffe Drive was once again included in the festival footprint.
On the morning of the 2008 fair, Dale woke up at 7 and headed down to the Junction for a prefestival meeting with the city, the Alliance and other business owners. An hour later, she returned to see that her store had been fenced off from the fair. Her block had fallen through a loophole; technically, they were still inside the footprint, but they had been trapped between entrance gates in a sort of buffer zone, absent the booths, stages and installations set up a few hundred feet away on the other side of a chain-link fence. Only ticket holders could enter the first gate, but there was no reason for them to mingle on the way to the main entrance. The Junction promoters hadn’t arranged for trash cans, and some accounts say that security guards were instructed to prevent anyone with alcohol from entering the zone. Ironically, the eastern strip of Sunset Boulevard, the portion that houses the building marked Sunset Junction, had been cut out of the fair for a second year in a row.
This past March, Michael McKinley was the one standing behind the podium at Micheltorena Elementary School for the Neighborhood Council meeting. For some in this area, this was the first time they had actually seen him in person. For others, this was a flashback to far more uncomfortable encounters.
Gareth Kantler, owner of Café Stella, alleges that during one fair, McKinley sent the Alcoholic Beverage Control police and fire marshal to close his beer garden. The authorities didn’t see cause to shut down the outpost, and a shouting match between Kantler and McKinley grew ugly. Some, like Kantler, even believe that the beer-garden situation, at least in part, contributed to the SJNA’s fencing out the eastern portion of Sunset last summer. SJNA earns a nice chunk of its Junction income from beer sales. Though a nonprofit, the fair follows the same business plan as any major concert: Offer frosty beverages at a heavily marked-up price. The only difference is, at Sunset Junction, your alcohol consumption helps at-risk youth.
It’s not often that McKinley attends community meetings. Typically, if the SJNA makes an appearance, the organization sends someone else. Where once McKinley was known for going from shop to shop, passing out posters and festival wristbands, now many in the neighborhood say they rarely see him outside his office, in the basement of Tsunami Coffee House on Sunset.
Ask him about the beginnings of the street fair, and his face conveys a look that’s a lot like first love. The Sunset Junction Street Fair was born out of the gay-rights movement, conceived to promote peace between the neighborhood’s gay and Latino communities with a party instead of through protest. “We were one of the first people to celebrate all of the differences we have, and to celebrate the community,” McKinley says.
The first event, attended by at least a handful of people who now stand in opposition to SJNA, was a small affair, not terribly different from your standard block party. It quickly became a local institution, a free party where all were welcome. And, by all accounts, everyone got along well. SJNA then parlayed this success into charity work, and afterschool programs for local youth, including soccer teams and computer training, painting and mural refurbishing. There was also work at the nonprofit Tsunami Coffee House, a student-worker project that developed from roundtable sessions McKinley held with local youth following a series of “perceived gay-bashing” incidents at Silverlake Lounge in the early ’90s. It was because of the expense of running Tsunami that the fair began asking for, but not mandating, donations. Undoubtedly, McKinley has done some good with SJNA. There are the young adults who, as teenagers, found some purpose through the organization’s outreach programs.
Neighbors have formed friendships through the street fair. But when McKinley says emphatically that the festival “will get bigger,” and mentions the name of a major rock band he would like to see play there, it’s hard not to think that SJNA may have strayed from its mantra, “in harmony with our neighbors.”
“We know what’s going to happen,” Joe Keeper said shortly after the March meeting, where the Neighborhood Council voted not to support the festival in its current format. “He’s going to get his way, just like last year.”
Where in previous years Garcetti has supported the festival, this time around, his position is not so clear-cut. Two months before the festival, Garcetti’s staff is still weighing the situation. Officially, they have requested that SJNA meet certain criteria before gaining the council’s support, the most critical of which is submitting a written proposal addressing all concerns raised by Silver Lake residents and business owners. According to district representatives, without this, Sunset Junction’s permits will not be approved. Garcetti declined to comment for this story.
The stress of the past year has clearly raised tensions. While fielding comments at the March meeting, McKinley abruptly turned on one concerned resident. With anger in his raised voice, he detailed fragments of a story about taking her backstage to meet Isaac Hayes. The crowd sat uncomfortably still, listening as McKinley’s argument grew more convoluted and the resident’s criticism faded from memory.
After that, John Brown, a member of SJNA since its early days, took over the position of public speaker. Brown, a confident voice, always gives the impression that he’s listening to locals and that their views matter. (Of the past year’s exclusion of the businesses between Sanborn and Edgecliffe, he says, “It’s very regretful.”)
But even a charismatic spokesman hasn’t been able to ease tensions. For many on the opposition, Brown’s pleasant demeanor doesn’t change underlying problems, particularly since tickets for this year’s festival — with a lineup including War Tapes, Arrested Development, and Sly & Robbie — have gone on sale. Business owners continue to raise questions about finances, but that’s nothing new. For years, festival critics have wondered about what they call the “$20 in a garbage can” payment method at the entrance. But SJNA’s public financial records offer little insight. Sunset Junction Street Fair isn’t just SJNA’s biggest fund-raising project, according to its tax documents — it’s the nonprofit’s only fund-raising project. In 2007, the event brought in $796,738. The cost of putting together the festival was $450,375. Entertainment eats up a major portion of SJNA’s fair budget, and adding to its expenses are hefty city-service fees it must pay now that the fair is no longer considered a special event.
Brown and McKinley say that the $20 cover fee exists, at least in part, because these city fees are no longer waived by Garcetti and the Los Angeles City Council. However, Garcetti’s office says that Sunset Junction no longer has special-event status because it charges for entry.
Another kind of “special-event status” has also vanished, say longtime fans of the festival. Traditionally, Sunday at Sunset Junction took the form of an unofficial mini–Gay Pride event, a little edgier and a lot more diverse than what you might see in West Hollywood or Long Beach. But Rough Trade Leather & Gear and Le Barcito — two pillars of the gay community, which have hosted some of the best-known parties in the fair’s history — are among the businesses that have been excluded from the festival in recent years.
It’s this sort of disconnect that frustrates some longtime advocates and owners. One could argue that Silver Lake would not have its reputation without the street fair, but the case for the reverse could easily be made: Sunset Junction Street Fair would not be the massive attraction it is without the residents and entrepreneurs who give this neighborhood its flavor.
Those present at May’s meeting have made arguments for both sides of this issue, as they’ve done over and over for the past few years. At the back of the Micheltorena Elementary School auditorium, two rows of teenagers quietly exit the building. The meeting still has another hour and a half left, and none of them has said a word. All around, the adults are bickering about the fate of the festival. If any of the kids has something to contribute to the conversation, no one appears to notice. It doesn’t seem to matter: By the end of the meeting, it begins to look like Sunset Junction is turning into a lose-lose situation, regardless of the outcome.
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