“If you live in a city, it’s your home. You should be proud of that.”
— Sonja Rasula, on connecting the dots from the big world of Los Angeles to your backyard
Not too toot our own horn, but there is something to the idea that grounds our little almost-didn’t-make-it blogging network known as Metblogs: that you, as a netizen, have a resource other than the big guys for information, news, and commentary about what’s going on in your block. Because, ultimately what goes down at your corner store is a microcosm of what goes on in your neighborhood, your side of town, your city; if you work on improving your little corner of the world, you help improve all four corners of the world. This hyperlocality of action parallels what Sonja Rasula is doing, one event (Unique LA) and food festival (next week’s Street Food Fest) at a time.
I met Sonja for the first time at this spring’s Unique LA, an event where some 300 (mostly) local designers and crafty people brought their, yes, unique items to sell in a giant room at the California Market Center downtown. Keeping up with Sonja is an exercise in – well, exercise. I caught her somewhere between managing her volunteer staff of 9 and trying to get a bite to eat. After pausing to resolve a situation with the tote bags (the $10 admission price to the event included a free tote bag designed by a local artist), we headed over to grab a bite at the Flying Pig’s stand — but not before Sonja stopped by the booth of a vendor named Homako. Homako is a petite Japanese woman based here in LA; her Etsy store contains her mission statement: “To create stuff to make me so Happy.. I want my friends(=my creations) to make you happy too!!!!!!!” Aw. She was so bubbly and excited by all the people – not just Sonja, but others as well – who ooh’ed and ah’ed at her where-did-you-get-it origami necklaces that you just couldn’t help feel peppy too. Sonja picked up a necklace. “If I don’t buy this now, I’m never going to get to it,” she said.
Unique LA is a now bi-annual event, one in the spring and one in the winter, right before Christmas. For the $10 admission fee, participants got free booze, the nifty tote bag designed especially for the event, and the opportunity to shop at the vendors handpicked, by Sonja, to set up temporary shop at Unique LA. For those of you (me) who hate shopping precisely because your taste is buds only with food and not style, Sonja did the legwork for you. It’s easy to take it from here.
“Buy local” is a such an oft-repeated mantra that it almost – almost – is devoid of the reasons behind the thought. The only remnant of the phrase left is the connotation of expense – that, because of the economies of scale, buying locally-produced products is generally more expensive than, say, going to Target. Nonetheless, over 12,000 people attended Unique LA; in total, Sonja estimated that $500,000 was injected into the local economy as a byproduct of the two-day event. (Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, for all his pride about various national events held in LA and contributing to the local economy, remained conspicuously silent – guess he can’t catch every half million dollar event that happens under his nose.).
The sight of Angelenos – me, you, our neighbors, their mothers- paying the admission price and buying at Unique LA, in a recession no less, was a bit of surprise to me.
Not entirely for Sonja. “The challenge, actually, is getting more people to come” to Unique LA and to “understand why you should buy local,” she said. She credits her “incredible” street team and certain wry social media strategies for the turnout at Unique LA (but otherwise stayed mum on the specifics of her techniques – the details are Coca-Cola-trade-secret tight), but notes that she still “wants to reach beyond the hipsters and young people.” Sonja appreciates good design, wants others to appreciate it as well and not settle for less – even if it means paying a little more.
She hopes that once we recognize that local artists produce unique things that you can not find at your neighborhood Third Street Promenade, a change in mindset from a passive to more active buyer will naturally follow. She raised the fact that guests often visit LA and end up at Third Street. “That’s so funny,” she said. “You can find most of those stores anywhere.” Instead, “I want to have a mall comprised of local vendors” so that the visiting New Yorker can have something a little more LA than shirt from BCBG. And vice versa – Sonja has planned a Unique event for NYC (and Atlanta), so if we happen to visit the Big Apple during Unique NYC, we can take home something a little more New York than a “I Heart NYC” mug created specifically to boost tourism.
It’s easy to write off Unique LA as a cute two-day affair for hipsters, and nothing more. It’s more thought provoking – and a little scary for corporations, and the publications and governments they sponsor – to take it seriously as a step towards modifying our shopping habits (again, all of our shopping habits, not just those of 20somethings with Clark Kent glasses and skinny jeans) that travels beyond the walls of the California Market Center. Now, instead of only Target and Wal-Mart on our list of places to go for, say, stationary, we’ll consider Rock Scissor Paper as well. Shopping with that mentality of choice is the first step towards fully taking advantage of the wonders of capitalism.
In this market of choice, price is only a factor. Sonja is convinced that once people attend Unique LA, they will appreciate the quality and uniqueness of our locally made products and have little qualms about shelling out a little extra for the cost of ownership. In turn, the dollars, earned and spent at the local level, will help support local infrastructures, like schools and public parks. Seeing the state of these infrastructures will motivate us to do things like vote in local elections; after all, as Sonja pointed out, we are most directly and immediately affected by the problems and solutions addressed in the local elections. This is the urban circle of life. It is this circle that is the reason why buying local is so important as to almost be a political act itself. If Simba figured out how to fulfill his role in the jungle, so can we.
That we include the local designers on our shortlist of places to buy is the least we can do. After all, their designs are lifted, sometimes blatantly, from the big guys. Urban Outfitters, for example, strains very hard to duplicate and commoditize a certain street look, popularized by designers actually living in those streets. Indeed, at least one blog tracks instances where retailers brazenly rip off other designers’ work. Supporting your local designer, in a way, helps support your local Urban as well. Irony, she’s rich. Almost as rich as Urban.
Sonja is clear about not hating (too much) on the big guys, however. There should be room for everyone: “Sometimes, you just really need a plain black leotard from the Gap,” she laughs. At some point, she would like to help retailers enlist local designers and launch local lines within their brands. With supermarkets of all places now heralding locally-sourced fruits and veggies, it is not at all unfathomable that the Gap or J Crew’s Madewell would roll out a line from (and appropriately credited to) a local designer.
All politics is local (RIP Tip O’Neill). The urban circle of life is something Sonja has been contemplating for quite some time. Having spent a significant amount of time in Canada, “making sure your neighbors are taken care of” simply was part of the community mindset. Taking that ethos with her when she moved to LA, she became heavily involved in the Youth Progressive Majority, encouraging young voters to learn the issues and, um, vote.
Sonja mindfully uses her events to “give back” to local non-profits. Some proceeds from the spring Unique LA event, for example, were donated to Greenwish (which helps raise funds and awareness for green businesses), and a portion of each ticket sold for the upcoming LA Street Food Fest will benefit St. Vincent Meals on Wheels and Woolly School Gardens.
Supporting your local artist is less of a problem, it seems, when your local artist happens to be creating food. The last five years or so has seen this city come to its own in terms of food. Among other causes, blame/credit gentrification, the rise of celebrity chefs, and a young demographic with an appetite for taste beyond the scene. Late last year, just as the whole food truck thing was reaching its pinnacle, Sonja organized the city’s first major gathering of food trucks downtown.
By most accounts – including Sonja’s – the February event did not go well. Scheduled to start at 10am, the fire marshal’s inspection caused undue delay. Meanwhile, countless people descended upon the lot; pretty soon, the line (and the parking) snaked so far down 6th street that it was reminiscent of the early, two-hour-in-line days of the Kogi truck. When the festival finally did open, the grounds quickly became overcrowded. The lines at each food truck were enormous, hours-long even. Hungry masses went crankily from one line to another.
Sonja strikes me as the type of person who, if she arrived 15 minutes late one day, would show up 15 minutes early the next. And so, after apologizing in the face of the backlash and anger over the event, she and Shawna Dawson organized a second LA Street Food Fest, slated for next Saturday evening, July 24th, at the Rose Bowl. There is a little hesitation about the second go-around of the food fest, given the problems of the first (indeed, a few food vendors told me they declined to participate precisely because of how the first was executed).
Yet, to give them both credit, Sonja and Shawna learned a-plenty from their first go and upgraded accordingly. Unlike version 1.0, there will be no giant lines spilling over into the huge parking lot that subs as a flea market every month. Rather, version 2.0 caps the capacity, and makes tickets available only via pre-sale. In addition, the pay-as-you-go format has been dropped in favor of a one-time admission fee of $45. This seems a little steep at first, but you do get your money’s worth: liberty to sample all you can sample at each of the 60 participating food vendors and to drink all you can imbibe. Just remember that no one likes an overly drunken foodie (no one).
In addition, the event will bring together both new skool (i.e., Filipino food truck Manila Machine and Fry Girl, who won TWO awards at our First Annual Donut Summit last month!) and old skool (Tamales Elana from Watts and former Breed Street vendor Antojitos Carmen (<– if she has them, you absolutely must – must – pick up a few fried quesadillas)). There also will be a cook-off, so you can watch all sorts of one-chefmanship take place. And, finally, because eating and a competition about eating are not entertainment enough, The Deadly Syndrome and Warpaint will be jamming as the summer night falls. All this on the grasses where Reggie Bush pushed Matt Leinart and where a stunned audience witnessed future Pro Bowler Vince Young handily hand the Trojans their asses.
Regardless of the struggles of the first food event, and how well this second improves on the first, the idea of the food truck powwow undoubtedly will endure. America at the Brand, for example, organized two Street Feasts in March and June of this year, with stores in the outdoor mall running specials and discounts. Similar events at other retail shopping courtyards followed. While I’m personally happy to see local food trucks getting the business, it’s a little … disingenuous? insidious? genius? to use them as the worm to hook people in to spend at the retail mall. Riffing from local ideas, it seems, is not limited to design (oh, right, who can forget Baja Fresh’s ridiculous attempt to put “Baja Kogi” tacos and burritos on its menu?).
Unlike other cities (Sonja points to Austin and Portland), we here in LA are still in the nascent stages of recognizing that we even have a local culture to support. Also, we sometimes shoot ourselves in the foot: as she organized Unique LA and her food fests, Sonja learned that the climate in Los Angeles is “hyper-competitive.” I guess the fact that a celebrity very realistically may wander into your store and pick up your ware to wear makes for a hypercompetitive market. But that competition is giving way to mutual respect. Sonja was pleasantly surprised when she learned that vendors picked to set up shop at Unique LA actively encouraged their patrons to attend the fair. “[T]hese vendors were encouraging their customers to possibly shop with their competitors. And they were ok with that.” Similarly, participating food vendors are actively encouraging their followers to attend next week’s Food Fest. And so, everyone wins. See? A little community building never hurt anyone. We should be proud of us.
The LA Street Food Fest is on Saturday, July 24th, 5:30pm to 9:00pm, at the Rose Bowl. General admission tickets are $45, which includes unlimited eats and drinks, parking, and entertainment by The Deadly Syndrome and Warpaint. VIP tickets are $60, which gets your car a little closer to the stadium and you in a little earlier into the Fest. Tickets are pre-sale only, so get them while they last. And, mark your calendars: the holiday edition of Unique LA is scheduled for December 11 and 12 at the California Market Center downtown. Think of it as a way to avoid those nasty post-Halloween crowds.