Eddie Cota and Carlos Rodriguez had been working for Levitt Pavilions for several years when they began to sense change in the air.
A nonprofit organization aimed at building community and supporting diversity, Levitt Pavilions was established in 1972 by philanthropists Mortimer and Mimi Levitt. Each of its six venues - from the original in Connecticut to the ones opened in Pasadena in 2002 and in MacArthur Park in '07 - hosts at least 50 free concerts a year. The National Endowment for the Arts has been a sponsor.
As artistic director, 30-year-old Cota was responsible for the organization's summer concert series in MacArthur Park and Pasadena. The Los Feliz resident was working to invigorate Levitt's shows, says Jeffrey Shapiro, who was Levitt's executive director for MacArthur Park from 2010 to 2012.
"The program was evolving from a broader, more general program to one that was designed to really fit the area," Shapiro says.
Taking into account the demographics of the MacArthur Park area, Cota began focusing on Latin, Latin alternative and world music - artists such as Maria del Pilar, Viernes 13 and Buyepongo. By 2012, Cota had put together such innovative programming that the L.A. Times profiled him twice, and L.A. Weekly honored Levitt for the year's best free concert series. (Full disclosure: Cota is a contributor to L.A. Weekly's West Coast Sound blog.)
"We were making positive decisions and positive changes in this neighborhood," says Rodriguez, the production and marketing manager.
But the national office apparently wasn't happy. In an email provided to the Weekly, a former board member wrote to Cota in May 2012 that she'd just spoken to the national executive director, Sharon Yazowski, who "expressed concern that the majority of our lineup is Latin-oriented. ... Can you confirm? I don't think so, right?"
The board member added, "To this end, would you mind inserting a column 'GENRE' to briefly describe the type of music/experience each night will be?"
Then, later that year, Shapiro left for another job. Under the new executive director, Renee Bodie, Cota and Rodriguez began to notice a real difference in Levitt's mission - something confirmed by two other staff members who spoke to the Weekly.
Bodie, according to a former Levitt employee who declined to be named, "came in wanting to change everything up."
In January 2013, Bodie returned from a meeting with national staff with a clear directive.
"She came back," another former Levitt employee says, "and said, 'Word from national is that we need to make our program more white bread.'?"
Levitt Pavilions' national headquarters are located in the Beverly Hills home of its chairwoman, Elizabeth Levitt Hirsch, who is the daughter of its founders. (Hirsch takes no compensation for her role with the organization, tax returns show.)
Beverly Hills is a long way from MacArthur Park, which is 70 percent Latino. Part of L.A.'s Westlake neighborhood, MacArthur Park has suffered gang-related violence; local politicians have pushed for an added police presence, hoping to stop vagrancy and drug use. While gentrification has long threatened, the neighborhood is still largely working-class.
And if Cota had his pulse on the neighborhood, certainly, Bodie's hire represented a different direction.
A board member of Folk Alliance International, a nonprofit devoted to raising awareness of folk music and dance, Bodie's background lies in Americana music. In 2009, she staged the L.A. Acoustic Music Festival in Santa Monica, featuring acts such as The Kingston Trio and Bruce Cockburn.
In an email, Bodie declined to address the "white bread" directive specifically, writing: "Our programming decisions at Levitt Pavilion Los Angeles reflect the range of diverse cultures in Los Angeles. ... Since 2011, Latino music has consistently accounted for 25 to 30 percent of our programming. ... I have always stressed that the free concerts should be high quality and exemplary of the demographics of all of Los Angeles in order to attract a broad cross-section of the city. That means speaking to every culture in this diverse city, which meets our core mission of strengthening communities through music."
Yazowski, executive director of the national organization, says, "The programming philosophy of Levitt Pavilions is about inclusivity and diversity. Our programming guidelines for each Levitt venue require that a broad range of music genres and cultures be presented during each concert season."
Cota and Shapiro hoped to put on shows that would resonate in the Westlake neighborhood. They also incorporated newer, more experimental acts to draw young music aficionados from the surrounding hipster neighborhoods, exploring genres ranging from Afrobeat to manouche jazz.
"It was about educating the community, and exposing them to something new in a comfortable way, not a shocking way," Cota says.
"It was really apparent that we were hitting on something special," one former Levitt employee says. "We were doing something that no one else was doing."
Its partner organizations agreed. Mark McNeil, co-founder of influential web-radio collective DubLab, says Levitt was making the arts more accessible to residents.
"There's no admission price, no barrier to entry, and you get this really wonderful tapestry of the creative spectrum of music and sometimes dance and art," McNeil says.
Alison Camacho, a spokeswoman for Homeboy Industries, which partnered with the venue, says, "It's really great to bring in local community musicians and focus on Latin culture, since that is so closely tied to the neighborhood." But, she adds, "It's also fantastic to broaden exposure and bring in other types of music."
Things clearly changed under Bodie. In 2012, the last series programmed under Shapiro, the MacArthur Park series had 17 Latin-focused shows and zero Americana shows. By 2013, there were 10 Latin-focused shows and 11 Americana-focused shows.
Bodie's vision wasn't necessarily misguided - in 2012, attendance at Levitt Pavilion shows in MacArthur Park was 45,000. In 2013, after she took the helm, it went up to 47,000. (According to the organization, numbers aren't available for 2011, so a broader comparison is not possible.)
But MacArthur's staff weren't happy. And as their unhappiness grew, some began to complain about something else as well - the way the company was keeping its books.
Rodriguez felt that both he and Cota had been wrongly classified as independent contractors, which meant that the organization didn't have to pay into their Social Security or provide other benefits.
For nonprofits, keeping administrative costs (such as salaries and taxes) low can have an added bonus - it can help them win grants, says Josh Wagner, a Santa Cruz - based tax consultant who specializes in working with such organizations.
"In general, grantmakers - and also the general public and the IRS - like to see a significant percentage of the expenses of a nonprofit devoted to its profits versus administrative or fundraising" costs, he says.
But Rodriguez believes it was an inaccurate classification in light of the type of work he, Cota and other staffers were doing: "A lot of people that shouldn't have been classified that way, were."
Suspecting that the organization was misclassifying employees to preserve its ability to get certain grants, Rodriguez took his concerns to a board member. He explained that he believed the books didn't accurately reflect what employees were doing.
The next day, Rodriguez was fired.
A termination letter from Levitt states that Rodriguez's position was being discontinued because Levitt operations at MacArthur Park and Pasadena were merging.
The merger was finalized in March 2013. But Rodriguez's concerns sound legitimate, says L.A. attorney Michael Maroko, who specializes in employment law. "It's very hard to have someone be an independent contractor who works regular hours, is under management, and is not free to work for other companies."
In an email, Bodie insists that Levitt's bookkeeping was on the up-and-up: "All independent contractors," she wrote, "were classified correctly."
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Since Bodie's arrival, most of the staff at Levitt has either left or been fired; Rodriguez alleges that some of the community partnerships have suffered as a result. But remaining staff - including Bodie and Yazowski - declined to provide any reasons for the directive to go more "white bread" in a neighborhood that's anything but.
And that, says Cota, is the real disappointment - everything the staff had built up may now fall apart.
"We put the ball in their hands, and all you needed to do was just go for it, and it didn't happen," he says. "It's like we're just another story untold."