Dance and hip-hop in the park

One nonprofit is building a community of dancers and artists right in MacArthur Park.

Eric Nishimoto, a break dancer and president of nonprofit hip-hop collaborative JUICE, explains what JUICE does for the community. He breaks down the different styles of break dancing and what it means to him and even shows off some moves of his own.

Every Saturday afternoon precisely at noon, the doors to the MacArthur Park Community Center are unlocked. After a few minutes, people begin to trickle in. Within about an hour, music is blasting from the second floor, and the dance floor in the multipurpose room has started to fill up.

This is Justice by Uniting in Creative Energy, otherwise known as JUICE, a nonprofit “hip-hop collaborative,” as president and director Eric Nishimoto calls it.

"It's a place where there's peaceful healing and just a place where one can express themselves in the way that they want to," Nishimoto said.

JUICE offers a free space for people of all ages to come and experience the different elements of hip-hop, including DJ-ing, emceeing, break dancing and graffiti art. On the dance floor, break dancers are doing head spins and windmills and teaching each other new moves. A DJ has set up all his equipment in the corner, the source of that blasting music. Out in the hallway, others are painting on canvas or doodling graffiti on pieces of paper. In a small room to the side, people are rapping and creating hip-hop beats.

"You experience the amazing energy of hip-hop and just meet a variety of really wonderful people from all different backgrounds," Nishimoto said.

These people are what make JUICE a tight-knit community. Every time another dancer walks in, they are greeted with hugs and high-fives. Everyone laughs and jokes among each other, taking turns to show off new moves.

People come to JUICE from across Los Angeles and even across the world. DJ Seedless, a music producer and break dancer, said that JUICE attracts such a diverse population because it is something unique, even among the vibrant art community in LA.

"A lot of people in the world, they want to come here to Los Angeles and visit JUICE and see it because this is something that's special, it's not something that you can just find around the corner," Seedless said.

Gilyon "Gil" Brace-Wessel, a break dancer and graffiti artist, said the diversity and sense of community in JUICE is beautiful.

"You have these experiences with people that really tie you together," Brace-Wessel said.

Brace-Wessel also said that the hip-hop community reflects the diversity of cultures, ethnicities and nationalities in LA.

Walking around the MacArthur Park area, it is easy to see what he means. The sounds of Spanish and English mix together in the air, and several different races and nationalities mix together on the streets – the same way they do in the second floor dance room in the MacArthur Park Community Center on a Saturday afternoon when JUICE arrives.

Hear more from DJ Seedless about JUICE and how hip-hop has impacted his life:

What is it like?

Dancers at JUICE offer their views on the hip-hop community and culture. Hover over their pictures to hear what they have to say.

Gilyon "Gil" Brace-Wessel

Gil has been break dancing for 17 years, but he is also a prolific graffiti artist. At the time this recording was taken, he had just returned from the international art fair Art Basel in Miami.

Jacob "Kujo" Lyons

Lyons has been break dancing for 25 years. He is almost completely deaf and suffered speech impediments as a child, so he said dancing is a way he can communicate with others.

Crissy B

Crissy has been dancing for 13 years. She loves that break dancing allows her to travel - she's been to Europe, India, China, Mexico and more.

Lamonte Goode

Lamonte has been dancing for 20 years. He has also created his own style that blends break dancing and yoga.

Johnny Leggz

Johnny Leggz, like Gil, is both a break dancer and a graffiti artist. He got into break dancing partly by seeing it in music videos.

DJ Seedless

DJ Seedless, break dancer and music producer, said he was basically born into the hip-hop world. He is also very knowledgeable about the history of hip-hop.

Public art

Sonia Romero's "Urban Oasis" showcases different facets of MacArthur Park.

Conveniently located across the street from MacArthur Park is the Westlake/MacArthur Park Metro station, where riders can get on the Red or Purple lines and head east to downtown LA or west toward Hollywood.

The station does not just house the subway lines, however. Inside are several works of art, including a piece called "Urban Oasis" that was designed by Sonia Romero. The piece consists of 13 different scenes, carved in ceramic tile, that line the walls of the station. Romero designed the piece in 2007; it was installed in 2010.

Romero grew up in the LA area, around Echo Park, and grew up right in the center of the art world – both parents were, and are, full-time artists. The piece in the metro station was her first public art job.

Romero said she started developing her idea by visiting the park with a camera and talking to people in the park and in the surrounding shops. She finally got her inspiration after speaking with Sandy Romero, a restaurant manager in the area.

"I got the concept from her because she told me how the park was an oasis and a special place for all the hundreds of thousands of people that live surrounding there," Romero said. "So I looked at it in a positive way...what I did was created 13 designs that showed people using the park in positive ways."

After hearing about the revitalization of the neighborhood, Romero developed the concept of an urban oasis, which eventually became the title of her piece. She defines an urban oasis as "a place where you can escape the dangers or the greyness or the urban jungle," and she believes that MacArthur Park serves that purpose for the community.

Many of the panels she designed are based on scenes she photographed herself, and others are based on historical photos or information. Some of the scenes are children playing, a protest, people playing chess or doing other recreational activities.

"I was trying to show all the facets that people use the park for: the arts and culture, the political history, some of the businesses I represented," Romero said.

In exploring how best to represent the park and its surrounding community, Romero noted that her perception about the area did change.

"I grew up thinking MacArthur Park was a really dangerous area," she said. "But it turned out in the 2000s, things had changed a lot...What the community members told me is that they did improve the safety there by installing security cameras, and the police worked to make it less dangerous in terms of gang activity."

Romero said that what she most enjoyed about the project was talking to community members.

"It was cool to go down there and talk to people and be less afraid and just realize that the people there are just people," she said.

Now, hundreds, maybe thousands of people pass by Romero's artwork every day and see her representation of this dense and diverse community in Los Angeles.

Here is a closer look at some of the panels Romero designed. Hover over the dots to learn more.

The sounds of Latin America

Westlake's strong Latino heritage shines through in its music.

The Westlake and MacArthur Park area is overwhelmingly Latino; over 70 percent of residents have Latino heritage. One can hear that heritage on the streets, as street vendors advertise their wares in Spanish. But one can also hear that ancestry in the community's music.

The neighborhood's annual COFECA Festival is just one example. This two-day festival celebrates the culture and traditions of Central American countries with dozens of booths selling Central American food, clothes, flags and more. The festival ends with a parade.

A visit to the 2016 COFECA Festival also revealed a celebration of Latin American music. In the middle of a closed street, separated slightly from the booths, stood a large constructed stage where several different performers sang and danced to the sound of their culture's music.

Daniel Sobrino, a Mexican singer-songwriter who moved to LA at 19, performs on stage at the 2016 COFECA Festival.

The Westlake neighborhood is also home to the first mariachi dinner theater restaurant in the world, La Fonda De Los Camperos. Mariachi music and mariachi bands are a tradition stemming from Mexico, and with Mexican being the most common ancestry in the neighborhood, it may seem fitting that the restaurant pays homage to this cultural symbol.

In 1969, musician and director Nati Cano, along with members of his band Mariachi Los Camperos, established La Fonda as a place for people to enjoy both Mexican cuisine and mariachi music at the same time.

"That was part of Nati Cano's vision," said Sergio Alonso, a harpist who has been with Los Camperos for 19 years. "To establish that place where he can have his mariachi be welcoming to everybody who would come here in LA."

Los Camperos performs at La Fonda, along with dancers.

For almost four decades, La Fonda became what Alonso described as "the mecca of mariachi musicians" and countless other artists. However, in 2007, problems with the landlord forced Nati Cano to shut La Fonda down.

The restaurant reopened for a brief stretch, but not as a mariachi restaurant – Los Camperos no longer played there. Then La Fonda closed again for three years, only reopening its doors earlier this year, in March, returning to Nati Cano's original vision of a dinner theater restaurant and bringing back the two-time Grammy-winning band, Los Camperos.

"La Fonda was always characterized by that homey feel, that intimate feel where you walk in and...people knew your name," Alonso said. "Now, I think, we shoot for that same feel but more of a tinge of retaining that legacy and that tradition of Nati."

Memorabilia from Los Camperos' history is everywhere inside the restaurant. Photographs of Los Camperos and Nati Cano dating back to the 1970s hang in the stairwell, and mariachi costumes that the band used to wear are enclosed in cases on the wall. Even the bathroom features posters from mariachi conferences that the group attended decades ago. One of the band's Grammy awards is displayed proudly in a glass case.

"When people walk in, they can go and look at some of the photographs that are here or some of the items that were here and remember back to when they used to come to La Fonda and they used to remember some of these guys that were performing here back in the '90s, '80s, '70s, '60s," Alonso said.

Four nights a week, Los Camperos performs a few shows each night, complete with dancers in traditional Mexican dress. For those few hours, La Fonda fills with the sound of mariachi music so loud it can be heard across the street. The band also speaks to the crowd in both Spanish and English, another nod to the community's demographics.

This restaurant allows Los Angeles residents a rich experience of Mexican culture, a culture whose roots run deep in the surrounding neighborhood.

MacArthur Park's mariachi restaurant

Learn about the history of the restaurant, the band and some traditions. Hover over the pictures to hear more, and click on the names to read a transcript.

Arthur Ibarra, La Fonda general manager

Manager Arthur Ibarra, who has been here since the restaurant reopened in March 2016, talks about what business has been like since the reopening and the return of Los Camperos.

La Fonda de Los Camperos: Through the years

Below is a brief history summarizing the biggest moments in both La Fonda's and Los Camperos' history.

But where?

Use this Google map to find the main places in this story.