For 50 Years, St. Elmo Village Has Been A Semi-Secret Creative Haven For Black Artists
On a warm July evening in 2013, approximately 40 people gathered in Mid-City Los Angeles, in a garage adorned with psychedelic murals. It was two days after George Zimmerman had been acquitted of killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida. Disheartened and infuriated by police and institutional violence toward black people, artist and activist Patrisse Cullors had organized the meeting. She wanted to provide a space where people could grieve but also brainstorm ways to mobilize.
"Folks were on a high that night," Cullors says. "People had been protesting since the acquittal. They were ready and engaged and wanted to know the next steps."
That four-hour meeting sowed the seeds for what would become the national Black Lives Matter movement, and Cullors felt like she found the perfect spot to plant those seeds — St. Elmo Village. The free-spirited complex, where she had been living for two years, remains one of L.A.'s most important and underrecognized Black arts hubs, with had a long history of activism.
From Rubble To Refuge
Founded in 1969 at the height of the hippie movement, St. Elmo Village has served as a haven for anyone who crossed its rainbow-colored pathway. Located on what was once actress Mary Pickford's horse farm on the corner of St. Elmo Dr. and Rimpau Blvd., the compound is comprised of 10 wood frame, Craftsman bungalows and a garage-like backroom. In the garden, sculptures fashioned from junk sprout between cactus and chinaberry trees, forming a colorful respite amid the urban sprawl.
Muralist and photographer Roderick Sykes and his uncle, visual artist Rozzell Sykes, built St. Elmo Village. They wanted a space where children and adults could explore their creativity outside the structures of the mainstream art world.
The pair had tried their hand at the gallery circuit, only to face indifference and racial discrimination. Although Rozzell kept a studio in Hollywood, he craved a more community-centered space.
After settling in Mid-City in the summer of 1969, Rozzell and Roderick hosted a festival that raised the $10,000 they needed for the down payment on the bungalows. Tom Bradley, then a city councilman, helped them raise additional funds and the landlord agreed to sell the quarter-acre property to the Sykes for a cool $60,000. In 1969, it was a good deal. In today's astronomically high real estate market, it's a brilliant one. But before it could become an explosion of color and creativity, the place needed work, a lot of work.
Nestled between middle and low income homes, the 10 dilapidated bungalows were infested with rats and roaches. The compound served mostly as a graveyard for cars. Where others had seen ruin and neglect, the Sykes saw an opportunity to blossom.
Rozzell and Roderick spent the next few months clearing away debris and covering harsh asphalt with splashes of paint. During a blistering summer, Roderick built a shallow reflecting pond, sectioned off by stones from the San Fernando Mountains.
In 1971, with its makeover complete, St. Elmo Village became a formal nonprofit. Many of the patrons who had visited Rozzell at his studio joined the organization's board of directors.
It's A Family Affair
In 1979, Jackie Sykes was living in Northern California and she had an unbreakable tradition. Every Memorial Day, she attended the Berkeley Jazz Festival. That year, her college roommate called and told her about an up-and-coming black arts space in L.A. that was hosting a two-day festival of live music, dance performances and works by local artists. It was happening Memorial Day weekend. Jackie was torn. She would have to skip one of her favorite events but this confab, in her native city, sounded too good to pass up. A graphic artist with a background in African American art history, Jackie had dreamed about an organization like St. Elmo. So she broke precedent and came to Southern California to check out the Art of Creative Survival fundraiser and celebration.
That weekend, the same friend introduced Jackie to Roderick and the two hit it off. "Six months later, I moved all my stuff down here, and I haven't been back to Berkeley Jazz," Jackie says. She and Roderick became a couple later that year and have lived in one of the bungalows ever since.
For more than two decades, nephew and uncle worked together to maintain St. Elmo Village until Rozzell passed away in 1994. Today, Jackie, 68, who has helped with everything from teaching workshops to writing grants over the years, keeps the institution afloat, with Roderick participating in a more limited fashion. Each year, she welcomes volunteers and interns to facilitate free weekly workshops, host quarterly exhibitions and help with administrative duties. But even after half a century as a staple in its tight-knit and ethnically diverse Mid-City neighborhood, St. Elmo Village is barely known outside of L.A.'s Black arts community.
Mid-City's Unofficial Art School
The 2019 Memorial Day shindig marked the 50th anniversary of St. Elmo Village. The Art of Creative Survival, which now happens every five years, featured performances by the Lula Washington Dance Theatre, a blues set by the Reverend Shawn Amos and speeches by current and former residents of the neighborhood. About 150 people showed up.
Mark Ridley-Thomas, the supervisor of L.A. County's second district, asked the crowd, "Without St. Elmo, what would the city be?"
Songwriter and sound engineer Denny Singleton, who grew up around the corner, says the Village was fundamental to his artistic development. "It was like living in a full-time park," he says. "The creative space was always there. This was the place to be."
The Village has nurtured a generation of Black and Latinx artists including late filmmaker John Singleton, a cousin of Denny's, and music producer and adopted son of Rozzell Sykes, Benny Medina, whose life provided the loose basis for The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
Many of these artists grew up watching their Mid-City neighborhood change. During the height of the crack epidemic in the 1980s, when police raids were common, Jackie says the colorful steps of St. Elmo Village were designated a no conflict-zone. Neither police nor dealer would set foot on them, even if a chase passed through the Village. Since 2000, a slow but persistent wave of gentrification has driven away some of the Village's close neighbors.
"The fact that it exists in our neighborhood is important. It isn't some center or industrial space," Singleton says.
Facing The Future
As one of the city's oldest nonprofits, the Village is mostly self-sufficient and doesn't rely much on state or federal funding. In addition to the bungalows, it includes an adjacent apartment complex on St. Elmo Drive. Those 14 units are rented out to help cover programming and maintenance costs. The village's residents, many of whom are artists, are asked to help with the organization, from staffing events to tidying workshop spaces.
Next year, Jackie hopes to launch a campaign to raise funds to pay off the property and start working with an architect to redesign a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house that St. Elmo Village has owned for the last 15 years. In the future she wants to host two artists-in-residence each season and create a music studio for workshops and recording.
She doesn't have a target date for its completion. She says that's up to St. Elmo Village's 18-person board to decide. Eventually, the board will also have to decide who will oversee the village when she and Roderick step away from the organization or pass on.
St. Elmo Village is, in many ways, a living monument to the 1970s Black Arts Movement. As much as that has allowed scores of artists to experience an alternative, and often rare, creative space, it has left the village tethered to its past and reluctant to diverge from its laid-back roots.
"There has to be a plan to evolve the Village and train the next generation of leaders," says Cullors who lived at the Village for four years. "It is a historical landmark at this point."
From 2013 to early 2016, the Village served as a meeting point for Black Lives Matter. "It became a politically active space that it hadn't been in years. It became a space where artists and organizers could come and talk. It became a center for resilience," Cullors says.
But in October of 2013, she saw the darker side of that recognition. Cullors says the police showed up at her door one night, guns first. Before that, the residents of St. Elmo had never locked their doors. She says it was the first time she started to worry about her safety. In 2015, after four years at the Village, Cullors, who was pregnant at the time, decided to move to a more secure location, taking much of that activism with her.
Most of the young artists I spoke to for this story had never heard of St. Elmo Village. Among the few who had, it was mostly from Cullors's book, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir. (A few had also heard of it from Agnes Varda's documentary Murs Murs or from the nonprofit arts world.) That's partly because Jackie, Roderick and Rozzell haven't expanded the organization. Jackie is the only full time staffer. She currently has one volunteer who helps with the website and an accountant who balances the books twice a month.
The Sykes have also resisted traditional avenues of recognition. Jackie doesn't advertise new vacancies at the Village. Instead, she keeps a list of potential tenants on hand. She doesn't want the affordable rent prices to change the village's atmosphere. In addition, Jackie and the board have chosen not to apply for historical cultural monument status, which can provide tax reductions and technical assistance. Doing so would mean scrapping the wood-framed windows on St. Elmo's cottages and making other changes that would alter the vibe the Sykes have spent half a century cultivating.
"There isn't a space like that in Los Angeles," say Cullors who, worries about the future of St. Elmo Village. "We have to protect the village for all of us. It must exist for as long as it can."
Although the operation is small, St. Elmo is deeply embedded in its Mid-City neighborhood. Change, both inside and outside the compound, doesn't bother Jackie. "We survived," she says, "now we're thriving."
Although long-term survival will rely on more than community goodwill with questions around funding, leadership and gentrification up in the air, Jackie is focused on what the Village can do for people today. To her, thriving isn't about recognition or money. It means being able to offer a "safe creative place" to children in the neighborhood. "Creativity saved my life," Sykes says. "It's one of the most important assets we can have that doesn't cost you anything."
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