Olga Khazan/Special to KPCC.org
Jack Martinez, who is with the Los Angeles Arts and Athletics Alliance, builds a sculpture made of old skateboards.
On a hot Saturday in March, Santa Monica Boulevard was just as congested as usual, but it was with creative types, not cars.
One artist sat in the middle of the street showing off 3-D collages made out of recycled baby doll heads. A cycling-advocate-cum-designer held posters that depicted two dueling bicycles with the ominous caption "BEWARE: THEY WILL EAT YOU ALIVE" scrawled across them in black lettering. Next to him, someone had erected a gigantic cardboard structure and cut a hole in the middle, writing "World's Darkest Gallery" over the makeshift doorway.
For many of the visitors, the March 13 Artcycle event was a cooky art event put on by the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council. But for the area's residents, it was a welcome chance to gather with their neighbors in a chunk of L.A. where public spaces are few and far between. Like many places in Los Angeles, the area near Santa Monica Boulevard and Vermont Avenue is home to a vast concrete jungle of drab strip malls and gaudy tire stores.
"That area doesn't have a very neighborhood feel," said Jennifer Moran, one of the Artcycle organizers, adding that the most notable landmark near the intersection is a vast yard littered with light-post parts. "Maybe it has something to do with the 15-foot chain-link fence with razor wire around the yard right there."
Eric Junker is part of a group of Los Angeles musicians who play old-time music from the Appalachian region. He explains what brought his "jam" out to East Hollywood's public-space advocacy event, Artcycle, on March 13, 2010.
For Moran and fellow Neighborhood Council member Enci Box, the event as more than a bike-themed spring activity: It's an advance in the battle for green space in one of Los Angeles' most densely populated neighborhoods.
"Maybe some of our motivations originated with certain political ideas, but politics are somewhat of a turnoff," Moran said. "No one is like, 'Woo, hoo, lets be upset about something!' This is more about having a space to come together and celebrate."
Moran got the idea for the event, called Artcycle, last year while she was studying art history. She wanted to do an art walk through East Hollywood, but she thought the area might be too big to cover on foot.
The name Artcycle comes from the support of the East Hollywood bike community, which was drawn in by Box, a Hungarian-born actress and bike advocate.
"She's art, I'm cycle," Box said. "But this is something positive that even non-cyclists can jump on. You can inspire art-lovers to get on a bike."
For three months, Box and Moran called up musicians, artists, dancers and other groups to come and show off their skills and wares.
Box and Moran's major logistical challenge was how to close Santa Monica between Virgil and Vermont, an area four times larger than last year's Artcycle.
"I think the upsizing of the street venue was a major difference — the bureaucracy that's involved is outrageously complicated," Moran said.
The $3,000 street closure cost was partly defrayed with help from the Hollywood Arts Council and Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti's office, who also funded the cost of four large generators that lit up the art booths well into the night.
The day of the event, hundreds of bicycles were parked on makeshift lots along Santa Monica, and hipsters on fixed-gears wove between clusters of folk musicians. Down the street, Brazilian capoeira dancers formed a circle at one end of the boulevard, ushering in visitors with handstands and Portuguese chants.
"It was cool that it brought together the touchstones of cultural life in that part of L.A. — bicycles, artisan food trucks, live music and the visual arts," said Charles Mallison, a Silver Lake resident who attended Artcycle.
Five galleries also opened their doors for the day, including Barnsdall Art Park, where a bike-themed exhibit featured musicians playing the spokes and chains of bicycles as though they were violins and xylophones.
The hodge-podge of art forms drew spectators from across the city, but Moran and Box said their biggest reward was the impression they made on local residents.
"That day it was great to see these kids standing on the side of the street — they'd never seen painted faces and fun and bicycles — thinking, 'What is this invasion of crazy arts people?'" Box said. "I told them, 'Come into the street! Today it's yours.'"
The event was a brief respite from the hustle of traffic and commerce for the area's residents, 40 percent of whom are either under the age of 17 or over 65, according to U.S. Census figures.
Garcetti has tripled the number of public green spaces in his district during his time in office. But the nearest large park for the area's residents is Griffith Park, which can be hard to access without a car, some residents said.
"There are a few parks, but they're too far," said Henry Gongazles, a former resident of the area. "It would be good for the kids to be able to go somewhere and concentrate on soccer and basketball instead of getting into gangs."
And the parks that are within walking distance aren't necessarily kid-friendly.
"Barnsdall is nice, but it's not a park for kids to play in," Moran said. "You can't kick a soccer ball up there, you might break a Frank Lloyd Wright house."
Garcetti said the city's budget crunch is part of the reason why it has been tough to create new parks in areas like this one.
"When the city of L.A. is facing really tough choices about what services to scale back, it’s hard to talk about actually creating more green space that will need to be maintained," Garcetti said in an e-mail.
The other problem is land use.
"The challenge for us is actually finding open space in that area," Wong said. "While we are wanting to create parks, it's difficult to find space that's available."
The fenced-off light yard across from Cahuenga library, for example, belongs to the the city of Los Angeles' Bureau of Street Lighting and isn't available for green space.
That's understandable, said some of the area's business owners, who said parks would be nice, but where would they go? After all, some say, drab cityscapes come with the territory in this town.
"We've got a lot of random, crappy stuff everywhere," said Natalie Marmon, the manager of a pet supply store called Urban Pet, when asked about the light yard. "Everywhere you go, you think, wow, they could really do something else there.
"But it's L.A.," she added. "You get used to seeing stuff you know shouldn't be that way."
A Brazilian capoeira dance circle formed at one end of the boulevard, ushering in visitors with handstands and Portuguese chants.