If you walk down Main Street in downtown La Puente, you can almost forget that you’re in L.A., and sometimes that’s what the soul needs. The streets are quiet, with the vibe of a small town far away from the metal machine drama of L.A. The lot of destinations in downtown La Puente ranges from an old trophy shop, a couple of furniture stores, and a record shop whose offerings run the gamut of old copies of Lowrider magazine, Nintendo 64 games, and a stockpile of Smiths records. It’s the kind of place where business owners pull up a chair outside their shop in the late afternoon to watch the sunset. Even the cars move slowly and with courtesy, accommodating the few pedestrians crossing first street, past the old, half-of-a-barrel-shaped, characteristically Southern California Star Theatre.
Built in the late 1940’s, the theater is only one of two S. Charles Lee designed theaters left standing in all of Southern California out of the six built around the same time in L.A., San Diego, and Tulare counties. As far back as 1947, the theatre showed first run popular movies, then in the 70’s new owners revamped the theater’s programming to include strictly pornos. In the early 2000’s, another group of owners brought in kids movies featuring Spanish subtitles. The Star survived solely on kids movies until 2007, when it finally closed its doors for good. Just last year the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, reported that the Star’s owners were planning to demolish the historic building to build luxury condos on the land, an unsettling sign of the massive wave of gentrification happening throughout L.A.
I was in La Puente to shoot a short documentary about my favorite place in Los Angeles, Bridgetown DIY, a cooperatively-run music venue, art space, and community space run by kids from the area, for kids in the area. Tucked away in between a laundromat, a perpetually busy kiosk that sells purified water and a Zumba studio, Bridgetown—no bigger than a high school classroom—provides a space for kids area to congregate, play music, and put on art and comedy shows. Additionally, the space hosts workshops on all sorts of things, from anarchist political organizing tools to home gardening, and even Mexican folk dancing. The space is run by kids from the area, for kids in the area. They run it without grant money from the Broads, nor any other philanthropic organization, nor the with the help of the government, nor their parents; they survive $5 to $10 at a time on ticket sales from their various events, although in all the events I’ve attended at Bridgetown, I’ve never once seen them turn a kid away for not having enough, or any, money.
Occasionally, more established indie bands, like Downtown Boys, Touché Amoré, and Oathbreaker, will perform at Bridgetown. For the better part of the year, though, local bands—usually consisting of high school or college aged kids—fill the show lineups. In between and amidst blasts of scream-o-style punk music, Bridgetown succeeds in nurturing a youth-led, politically conscious, artistic community, without the presence of authority figures. For even the most hard of heart, It’s hard not to feel at least a little warm and fuzzy watching kids in the audience support their friends on the stage.
It’s not all warm and fuzzy here in La Puente, though. Over the years, the area has had its fair share of problems stemming from the presence of gangs and the impending systematic injustices of poverty, but there’s something about La Puente, and the San Gabriel Valley as a whole, stretching from Claremont in the northeast to Whittier in the south— that, in spite of its problems, I’ve always loved.
My grandparents moved to La Puente from L.A. shortly after they married. They both were public school teachers, and didn’t make much money. One of the cheapest places to buy a house in the city at that time was La Puente–more specifically, the city of Valinda, a small, almost bureaucratic blip of a city tucked into the northeast corner of La Puente, a once predominantly black neighborhood when black families were redlined out of living in La Puente.
My grandparents lived in Valinda for decades, raising three kids, and sending them all to local public schools. In Valinda, my grandparents—both pasty-white Jews— found a community of fathers and mothers who were accolades of Marcus Garvey, the famous pan-African activist. Of that group of parents, many went on to have children who were black panthers. My dad grew up around kids whose fathers still had zoot suits hanging in their closets. This was a town, a community that had been built around politically conscious, artistically-inclined working-class people.
As times have changed, Valinda, along with the city of La Puente, has also changed. Still, when one steps onto Main Street, it’s apparent that this is a hardworking, progressive, and artistic community—a welcoming, small town, unpretentious in its humble intelligence. The same can be said of the San Gabriel Valley as a whole.
For the past couple of years I’ve worked as a music journalist, which necessitates that I go out and see bands and DJs perform as often as I can. Recently I’ve been trying to focus on covering L.A.’s eccentric, underground, electronic music scene, a vibrant and unique scene that gets barley a word in most major music publications, or even the few local media publications still left standing. A couple of years ago I was working on a profile of AshTreJinkins, a Compton based house and techno music producer breaking the boundaries between various styles of electronic music. In my opinion, he is one of the city’s musical treasures. As a part of the profile I was writing, I went to watch AshTreJinkins play a show. All the flyers for the show listen an address, some unrecognizable street way out in Whittier in the San Gabriel Valley — far from the spotlight of downtown L.A., where most of these dance music shows are housed.
When shows and parties happen outside of established venues and bars in L.A., save for a few notable and appreciated exceptions, the atmosphere of these shows, usually held in empty warehouses or other unconventional spaces, is unfortunately cold, with both the audience and the performers distant and removed from one another. When I pulled up to the address in Whittier I was expecting a similar deal, but instead of a cold warehouse, I got a warm botánica with an open door so people happening to walk by could check out the show. Inside, the kids who organized the show had exhibited artwork by local teenagers and 20-somethings, all with tags by the artists describing their own work, descriptions you could catch bits and pieces of whenever the purple light of the disco ball disco ball caught the artwork in just the right way. Kids, mostly young and Latino, danced in group circles, but not in cliques, opening up and letting people into the circle in case they were alone on the dance floor. I thought about the strong sense of community here, or at least of how communities should be.
As I stood outside another musically exciting, yet socially unfulfilling L.A. dance music show just weeks later, I thought about a story my dad told about my grandmother, a Uruguayan Jew, who tried speaking to her Mexican neighbor in Spanish, a language they both grew up speaking. In conversation my grandmother used a Uruguayan slang word that meant ”great”, but outside of her little South American country the word meant something completely different, something akin to “barbarian.” The story goes that her neighbor stood shocked for a second, until after a brief explanation, she broke out laughing, and the two became good friends. That’s the San Gabriel Valley.