Saturday’s inaugural WAM street festival aims to foster community through arts and culture
By Stephanie Case
To 24-year resident John Sharpe, Westchester has always felt more like a small town than part of a big city.
“I go into Vons and I recognize people in the aisles. You walk down the street and people wave,” he says. “You feel like you belong, and I think that’s rare these days.”
But unlike nearby Venice, which draws thousands to its annual Abbot Kinney Festival, or El Segundo, which hosts monthly art walks each summer, Westchester, Sharpe noticed, has never had a big arts-and-culture event to unify the community in a common space.
This Saturday, the first-ever Westchester Arts & Music Block Party (WAM), hosted by the Emerson Avenue Community Garden, aims to fill that void.
The free, all-day event is a massive musical takeover of Emerson Avenue, featuring eight eclectic bands and four dance troupes, along with carving lessons and family activities in the adjacent garden. Six gourmet food trucks and dozens of local vendors are also setting up shop.
“The block party idea is a great one because it brings neighbors out of their houses. It stimulates the community, and that’s what it’s all about,” says Sharpe, president of the Emerson Avenue Community Garden and lead organizer of the event.
If Sharpe seems confident about the party’s success, it’s because he has a track record. Back in the ‘90s, he and his friends threw dozens of decked-out block parties on Ogelsby Avenue to knit their neighborhood together.
Chris and Adrienne Isom of Americana punk band Nocona, the WAM Block Party headliner, have done the same in their Venice neighborhood.
“Adrienne and mine’s place is the place where everyone in the neighborhood comes to party and rock out,” Chris Isom says.
Nocona has played some of the biggest music festivals in the country — from Bonnaroo to Outside Lands — but the band is remarkably homegrown: they’ve performed at their own block parties, toured with families from their block and even brought 13-year-old neighbor, a guitarist, on stage to open for them.
Leading up to Nocona’s 7 p.m. set, a number of bands and dance groups are slated to perform, many of them hailing from Westchester.
Among them are the Loyola Marymount University Community Band; the Lariats, a youth dance ensemble; and traditional Irish music group the Praties (band member Steven O’Laughlin also volunteers at the Emerson Avenue Community Garden).
Other Westside groups include reggae-world songstress LaDee Dred, the young performers of the Los Angeles Art Collective and the Loyola African Drum & Dance Ensemble.
As the afternoon progresses, the traditional music gives way to the more radio-friendly as pop and rock acts take the stage. At 1:45 p.m., Annie Dingwall sings 50 minutes of her moody pop jams, followed by Walla, a four-piece with upbeat melodies; indie rockers the Audiots; and Apollo Bebop, a Santa Ana act that laces silky jazz with rap.
Away from the songs and dancing, families can take refuge in the nearby Emerson Avenue Community Garden. Among the blooming flowers and vegetables, kids and adults can stack oversized Jenga towers, get their faces painted, screen print T-shirts, pot succulents, decorate hats or watch puppet theatre. A master woodworker will show attendees how to carve bowls out of pieces of wood, while others can listen to Zsuzsi — the garden’s resident storyteller — weave some tales.
One of those tales could easily be about the revival of the garden itself, which was an abandoned lot less than five years prior.
“It was just dirt, weeds and trash, basically,” Sharpe says. “It had fallen into disrepair.”
Since then, it’s blossomed into a community meeting place of sorts, where Boy Scouts and college students, teachers and artists can congregate.
“It’s a little microcosm of humanity. We have every type of person in that garden,” Sharpe says. “It brings people together that may not otherwise have ever met.”
With the block party, like with the garden, Sharpe hopes to continue to unite his growing community and inspire others to do the same.
“There’s a bunch of new families moving in that are in the chapter of their lives that I was when I first moved in,” Sharpe says. “My objective is to stimulate them to take the baton, because it enriches your life. You feel more connected.”
The WAM Block Party happens from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 24, on Emerson Avenue at 80th Place in Westchester, including the Emerson Avenue Community Garden. Free to attend. Visit wamblockparty.org for more info.