People call this a young city, and in a way, they’re right. “L.A. is all about reinventing itself, and abolishing the history of the past,” Sean Woods of the California Parks Department tells me as we stand, sweating, beneath the Baker Street Viaduct. The Metro Gold Line whizzes by, gracing us with a merciful breeze. I glance behind me and take in the majesty of downtown’s skyline. He continues, “What we’re trying to do is uncover it in new, exciting and engaging ways.”
The partnership between the state Parks Department and Kensington Presents does just that. For the past three months, Kensington has curated the Viaduct Sunset Series with diverse performers. Choir! Choir! Choir! will perform on Thursday, Nov. 1.
Rock the Vote is a sponsor of the series, which contributes to the program’s intent to engage with and energize the local community.
Micah Greenberg and Mathieu Young are the original minds behind Kensington Presents, which began as a concert series on their front porch (Kensington was the name of the street where they lived). When they outgrew their lawn, they didn’t just consider how much more space they wanted to fill but also how a venue itself can impact an audience.
The Viaduct was a natural fit for their expansion, given its intrinsic history and breathtaking views of the city. Originally known as the Buena Vista Street Viaduct after its construction in 1909, this became the main conduit for settlers 100 years ago. It sits on one of 12 historic bridges that cross the Los Angeles River, an important resource before L.A.'s population boom.
Of course, as is apparent today, the river became neglected over the years. The Owens Valley Aqueduct was erected in 1913 and provided most of the city’s water after that. The river was a nuisance in L.A.’s infancy, flooding regularly until it was plugged with a concrete riverbed in 1938. It wasn’t until the Friends of the L.A. River (FOLAR) was established in the mid-'80s that anyone took an interest in restoring its natural habitats.
FOLAR's philosophy is to treat the river like “a work of art.” Kensington Presents and the Parks Department show the same reverence to the entire city.
The Viaduct sits on the nose of the recently reopened Los Angeles State Historic Park; Woods gives me an abbreviated oral history from its early days as cornfields to the first draft of the park when it was opened in 2006 to its delayed renovations after the economic crisis. Since the park’s inception, the goal has always been to engage with Angelenos in a functional urban greenspace.
An installation known as Not a Cornfield, aka Cornhenge, was the first semi-permanent work for the community to gather around. The project was helmed by Annenberg trustee Lauren Bon, who planted and harvested all 32 acres of land for a full seasonal cycle; the plants then were used to create biodegradable containers, which remained as an interactive piece on the land for the next few years. The concentric grass formations welcomed gatherings for drum circles and other Native American ceremonies.
Diverse programming has kept the park alive. Woods, who has a background in theater, believes that art helps people empathize. “When you’re coming at people from a nonlinear perspective, meanings get embedded deeper because there’s an emotional connection. Kids learn when they’re having fun, and I think adults do too,” he tells me with a laugh.
Today, the hottest ticket is to the Viaduct. It is used as a storage yard for the Parks Department in off-hours but has been a regular venue for various events, including concerts and film screenings. One of the first groups to activate the Viaduct was Kensington Presents, when it hosted a live score to accompany a projection of the silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc in May 2015.
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Since then, a generous handful of artists have graced the stage, including BØRNS, who put on an intimate, acoustic show; a bombastic Big Black Delta performance, accompanied by psychedelic projections on the bridge; and a rousing presentation from Grammy Award winner Fantastic Negrito. More recently, the first edition of the Viaduct Sunset Series in late August showcased the might of jazz troupe Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, who took an opportunity during their set to marvel at the alcove of history where they stood.
Woods and his team at the Parks Department are more than willing to work with other institutions that share their mission. They also happen to be remarkably flexible in what they can accomplish. The stage may have some customizations at each of the upcoming Sunset Series events, all fit for the perfect Instagram shot.
There are plenty of other opportunities for oversharing at the Viaduct, too. The skyline rests just above the verdant State Historic Park and a snap of the row of skyscrapers could go viral if taken just as the sky streaks red, purple and pink. A sign reading "SWING VOTERS" marks a (functional!) swing set provided by the Museum of Ice Cream. And you can’t claim to have visited the Viaduct without taking a selfie with the bold, royal blue neon sign at its entrance.
Choir! Choir! Choir! will perform at the Viaduct on Thursday, Nov. 1; get tickets here.