A Milestone and an Accomplishment In Silver Lake

Sunset Junction Street Fair This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of the Sunset Junction Street Fair. Why would this matter to Orange County? Well, I’m glad you asked and I’ll explain in a minute. First, some background.

Silver Lake is the bohemian or, some say seedy (not true), part of eastern Hollywood. It’s where Sunset and Santa Monica Boulevards meet; thus the name. Thirty years ago, it was an uncomfortably violent neighborhood. Whites, Blacks, Latinos and Asians were all at one another. And they all went after the gays.

A group of residents thought that if only the various peoples of the neighborhood could become more familiar with each other, tensions would diminish. It was, at the time, a rather bold notion. If we all get to know one another, maybe we wouldn’t be so afraid of someone who don’t look or act like us. As we get to know one another, we get to celebrate the richness of our diversity.

OK, you’re pretty skeptical about this, right? Well, the LAPD and the City of Los Angeles were, too. They were actually more than skeptical. But a few people at various levels of authority thought it was worth a try. So the city did issue, perhaps reluctantly, the necessary permits.

Planning the event, in the early days, took place in living rooms and around kitchen tables. The planning group, initially a handful, grew to a couple dozen. Nearly all were residents of the area and the others brought either expertise in planning events of this nature or excitement at the prospect of doing good (that’s good, not well)

In the immediate area of the street fair, there are (or were at the time, it may be different now) no fewer than 13 recognized gangs. Street fair planners went to the gang leaders and negotiated a truce for the weekend along with a guarantee of safe passage to the festival for all. And then the planners went a step further. They invited the gangs to provide security for the event. Oh, holy crap! Right? Altamont all over again. But no. these people are smart. Everyone who would be working security had to undergo training led by someone who knows about how to do it right.

The logic behind this move is elegant in its simplicity. Treat people with dignity and respect and 99.99% of the time, that’s how they will respond. It is in large measure, that lack of dignity and respect along with other factors that drive people into gangs. Consistent with that line of thinking is also the second component. Give people a genuine opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way and not just make-work. It gives people a stake in the outcome.

It worked. The whole plan worked. On every level. Violence overall is down in the neighborhood. I’m aware of only one incident at the street fair. It was 20 or so years ago and involved a couple of gang bangers from outside the area who didn’t know or understand about the truce and safe passage. It was quickly, quietly and properly handled.

So, here’s why it matters to Orange County. We have gangs in Orange County. Many politicians and some so-called community leaders bemoan their existence and do little-to-nothing of real substance to cure the problem. Usually we hear about it only at election time or when someone is attacked or killed. Yes, the problem is bigger than what the Sunset Junction Street Fair can fix. And it won’t go away overnight. It’s equally true that there are ways to improve the situation. I’m told that 50% of all US gang murders occur in Los Angeles. If a bunch of regular folks in one neighborhood can get together and improve relations in big, busy Los Angeles, we can do it here in Orange County. We have a problem. Here’s one effective, successful solution. We have the talent and expertise to put something like this in place. What we lack is the will. We lack the courage to speak with people who aren’t like us. It’s time to get over that.

This is a five minute trailer for a documentary that was made in 2001.

Kudos to Micheal McKinley for keeping it going from the start and for all these years. Kudos also to those brave souls, too numerous to list, who staged the street fair in its early years and to those who plan it today. You have much to feel good about.

The street fair is tomorrow, Saturday from 11am to 11pm and Sunday from 11am to 10pm. Proceeds from the event benefit a number of local youth programs.

(Disclosure: Though not in the first year, I was involved early on for about five or so years in planning the street fair.)

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