Saving The L.A. Fort

fort1Skid Row. July 27, 2013 – Outside of The L.A. Fort, where cig smoke, wet cardboard and gasoline aromas linger and a tiny dog barks at passing shopping carts. Today the L.A. Fort is hosting a letter writing campaign to help persuade policy makers to streamline the permitting process needed to legally run a creative space.

Inside people are charged with the DIY spirit that’s toted as the saving grace in this overlap of arts and politics, a scene that’s poised to overtake the near future of Los Angeles or at least that’s what the organizers here are betting on.

“We only have one city,” says Cameron Rath, co-founder of the Fort, standing on stage before a small crowd. “This is it,” he adds with a wild arm gesture to the city outside the walls at the Fort. Not quite a music venue, not quite a gallery, but something new altogether.

The L.A. Fort officially opened in the Autumn of 2012, and hosted a number of concerts and workshops while the building underwent renovations at the hands of volunteers. It was a strictly volunteer atmosphere, with a membership for those who wanted to help mold the venue – pay a monthly fee, and “get out what you put in,” says Rath, emphasizing the use of the space as not only a venue, but also a workshop or artist’s loft or civic center. The possibilities are endless according to Rath.

As a music venue the L.A. Fort is on a hiatus as the LAPD have put a hold on all activities relating to concerts due to a lack of proper permits and strict guidelines that are placed on commercial entities.

But that’s not what the Fort identifies itself as. Or at least not what it wants to become. The city still doesn’t buy it.

Hence the letter writing campaign that will hopefully jumpstart a conversation with city officials and put together a definitive line in the sand on where the L.A. Fort stands as a creative space and what changes the DIY community would like to see with the permit process.

So, on the day of the letter writing campaign I’m instantly reminded of summer school.

fort7Inside Richard A. sits on a dusty couch drafting his letter to Mayor Eric Garcetti. He’s jovial, says that he’s moved whenever he travels through Skid Row. Richard goes on to say how much he loves Skid Row holding his hand to his heart, remarking that all the people in the city are not as beautiful as the ones here on the streets.

Others are filtering in the once vacant meat packing warehouse, now dolled up with a certain charm not unlike a children’s playhouse or a boutique that’s not sure what to stock yet. There are familiar faces everywhere. If I do one thing when I go to concerts in this city it’s people watch and now most of those people are here and I’m ecstatic, but also a bit flummoxed, because now they’re faces with names and personalities.

It gets even weirder as everyone at the Fort acts like they’re part of the same community and maybe I’m just a bit cynical when people start asking me questions, because usually I’m the one who is inquiring about this or that. Kenzo, who I saw at a show the previous night, tells me that he’s putting together an online magazine and maybe we can exchange information only he doesn’t give me his info and I jot down my email address on scratch paper.

The second floor of the Fort is completely a mess and Zach, who is apparently my neighbor by two streets over, is standing at a window and the rest of the Downtown skyline is looking back. He’s a recent transplant from the east coast and appreciates/loves the DIY scene in Los Angeles.

Jim from The Smell, the grandfather space of DIY locations in Los Angeles, is here. Grant C. from Echo Curio (RIP) is here and we’re all a bit saddened, because it was a great place with wonderful acts and horrible luck to get shut down by the LAPD, but that’s what happens when there’s a BYOB policy and all the kids just seemed to mill about on the street with their open containers. The founder of Jaberjaw Cafe (RIP), Michelle Carr speaks of a different Los Angeles in the 1980s when the vice squad were concerned with more important issues like race riots. But now in 2013 the people at the Fort are looking at a much more focused and educated law enforcement, which is detailed in an LA Weekly article.

fort6In all there are maybe forty people in attendance and it’s all very exciting, baby steps really, the first meeting in many meetings people say. It reminds of school because I’m handwriting a letter to my mayor to fix something. I remember writing a letter to my governor in elementary school and I’m doing it again in 2013 at 27 and only now my penmanship is much sloppier.

There’s Shane in the crowd of people at the Fort who asks me if I’m into the underground scene and I say that I am, but he starts naming off venues and locations that I’ve never heard of and it all goes over my head. “Just find me on Facebook, join my group and you’ll see,” he says as a matter of fact.

Carmen is wearing a red hat, and she and I met at a book store during a zine making workshop and that sounds so incredibly bougie, but it’s OK, because now we’re here at the Fort writing out letters to our mayor.

There’s an incense burning and dozens of handmade zines strung up on string. The group L.A. Zine Fest is in attendance and Rhea T. is encouraging people on the stage to get creative with their letters, but not too creative. There are form letters, but everyone is writing out their own words.

There’s a nameless kitten that Harmony found in the street and a dog named Valerie Solanas, who shot Andy Warhol and the dog’s named that because her eyes are a brilliant shade of auburn that look mad. Champoy is holding her leash, but Valerie Solanas, the dog not the woman who shot Warhol, seems so excited to be surrounded by people.

We’re writing letters in a warehouse off of Skid Row and it hits me at about an hour into the whole ordeal how crazy this sounds, how radically unpopular I would appear to the conservatives at my local city council meeting.

Cameron Rath, July 2013

Rath, co-founder of the Fort, is shirtless when I arrive, surrounded by women who are printing out letters. He’s ironing his shirt and he looks frantic, bewildered, excited. When he eventually speaks on stage he goes on about wanting to place the people in this community into a different mindset – not one where the established powers are evil, but where we’re all part of the same system. When he speaks about changing policy for creative spaces like The L.A. Fort he speaks in terms about changing our city and mentions changing the dialogue on what people can do.

“Don’t think of what they should do for us, but what we should be doing for all of us,” Rath says.

I met Rath a week prior at an old Victorian house in Lincoln Heights, another creative space where artists live, trying to change permit policies from antiquated cabaret licenses to something a bit more modern.

I wrote the article, but Rath’s quotes were cut out, because Skid Row is out there, so far away from most people’s everyday mindset. Life went on as it does. But I had to see this Fort and maybe write out these words to get an idea of where these movements start, where they get to gestate and mature.

It’s early on in their fight, just loops of words on paper. A preemptive course of action, not the last course of action that usually occurs when the LAPD or the city focus on a community center like this. It’s all very 1980’s ‘save the center with a dance contest’ vibe, only now the kids who would be breakdancing are replaced with organized individuals with civic engagement on their minds.

Rath champions the ‘Do it Yourself’ ideology, but now he’s saying DIT ‘Do it Together’ and not one person rolls their eyes when he says this and that’s saying something.