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Gays & Gangs
Racial Contact and the Sunset Junction Street Fair
In this audio sample, Bill Tutton explains what he sees as the lasting, positive effects of the Sunset Junction Street Fair, designed to bring together various demographics in Silver Lake.
Conflicts between Latinx and gays characterize Silver Lake's history, but the story is more complicated than simple displacement of which Florida speaks, in part because queer and Latinx residents simultaneously took advantage of straight "white flight" starting in the 1950s. The Sunset Junction Street Fair was designed in 1980 to mediate tensions between the Latinx and gay communities that co-occupied the neighborhood. The fact that the festival lasted thirty years, on the one hand, speaks to its success and, on the other hand, may have inadvertently exaggerated the friction as an intense and lasting one. While the neighborhood did experience purportedly anti-gay incidents and (gang violence was indeed a problem for all residents, certainly more for Latinx families than LGBT* residents), the simplistic narrative of gays vs. gangs occludes the intersectional existences of the neighborhood's Latinx queer subjects like our narrator Alvaro Vega.
Our oral history narrators shared their anecdotal accounts of racial relations in the neighborhood, spanning from Joseph's testimony from the 1970s to MW's in early 2000s.
“It was a lot of old people, mostly that were passing on [...] The only place you had [race/class tensions] was the area where I lived. Those were mostly poorer people. There were a lot of different ethnic groups, mostly Latino gardeners, and people who were blue collar workers. And when white flight happened, people who had those homes sold them cheap.” —Joseph
“When I moved here I found out quickly that Silver Lake was very gay, and I realized why gays liked to live there. And it was, one, because it was cheap. And the Latino population kind of [...] it was a sense that we’re both kind of oppressed peoples. Oppressed in some way or some direction that we found a commonality. There were some weirdos that were also in the neighborhood, that were a little bit alternative. And they seemed to be just as cool and there was no big deal. Let’s all get along." —Alvaro
“I wasn’t aware of it [tension between Latinos and gays]. I certainly heard about it. There were stories. There were a lot of bad things that happened. Somebody who worked at ABC went to McDonalds there. Some kids were doing something to his car, and he said 'hey get away,' and they were young kids, like 14, 15, and they shot him and they killed him.” —Joseph
“Most of my friends were white because I felt that through them I would be more accepted somehow or even with my Latino gay friends. It was difficult for me [...] You know where it felt that among my white friends and their families and their friends, I didn’t feel that sense that I was being judged. So, I had more Caucasian friends than I had Latino friends. And I had a lot of Asian friends.” —Alvaro
“I didn’t live here till ‘95. Everything was kind of cool with everybody. There was no one who cared about anything. There was one lady who lived in the building behind me and used to yell at my upstairs neighbor, who is also gay, and say 'you goddamn faggot.' And she would do things like that, but she is an example of someone who wasn’t too welcoming to the changing demographic. But every other person in that building was nice and straight.” —Bill
“Having my brother come visit me in a Latino neighborhood was a very good thing for me because it kind of gave me a credibility. Even though I was gay, I was still Latino. So there was this kind of easy, ‘We’re ok with you. We see the type of people you guys are, as far as Latinos and we’re friends with your brother.’ So it was kind of easy for me to fit into this community. I didn’t feel this tension.” —Alvaro
“There was a guy who was a trans guy, and had gone to a family funeral. He comes from a really big Latino family and had been hanging out with his family for an extended period of time and feeling really alienated from being able to be connected with another part of himself […]. He told me where he had come from, and he just wanted to have a chilled out quiet night by just being with people like him, and I feel like that was something that Shotgun provided for people.” —MW
Spanning from 1980 to 2010, The Sunset Junction Street Fair arguably fulfilled its intention of bringing together the diverse demographics of the neighborhood, in the beginning. Financial and permitting problems eventually shuttered the festival. More broadly, our narrators speak about the festival's rise and fall as a synecdoche for Silver Lake's gentrification.
“It was a safe environment. It was not only leather guys, but also cotton candy, candles, and like live music. And girls with pink mohawks...[Gays in leather and chaps] were apart of it, but not the main thing.” —Bill
“There was a street festival that existed always for my experience called the Sunset Junction Street Festival […] this is an example of how the neighborhood, you could witness the change. The arc of the change is how I should say because you could go to Sunset Junction in the early days. It was free. It was a neighborhood festival started by a guy named Michael [...] [Michael] started the festival as a way for the different communities in the area to have visibility to each other out on the street. So you had the Latino families. The Queers. The Artists. The Weirdos. Those with tattoos. And the Bears. Anyone was welcome. You could set up booths and mingle inside.” —Bill
“It was free at that time [...] But it got to be too big.” —Joseph
“Then the festival started getting to big for its britches. The word is that basically the guy saw that he could be monetizing a little better. He also was feeling that he had to compete with things like the San Diego street scene. And get bands of that caliber. So suddenly you had bands like Sonic Youth and major headlining bands from out of town. Whereas once it was a neighborhood festival. The bands who would play on Friday or Saturday night were the usually the most popular local bands. Eventually, you had Sonic Youth who were from New York or the New York Dolls who were also from New York […] They started shuttering off the local merchants. They put up fences so like you were either in the festival or out of the festival. You were no longer able to mingle in and out of the stores… Honestly, thank god it was over because it really sucked at the end.” —Bill
Biographies of Narrators (These sound excerpts also appear in the essay sections of "Swish Alps" chapter.)
Joseph Fiorillo was born in Miami, Florida in 1942 and eventually went to school in New York, where he primarily dated girls. Finding gay life by way of 1960's counterculture, he saw all sides of New York's swirling 70s nightlife. Moving to Los Angeles in 1979, Joseph worked as a real estate agent and established a private network of gay friends in and around Silver Lake while observing its thriving nightlife. Joseph’s life story weaves through crucial subcultures of the late twentieth century, charting sexual liberation, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and the development of Silver Lake as an important gayborhood in Los Angeles.
MW Cartozian Wilson is a trans guy who was raised as a girl in Silicon Valley. As a child, MW did not want to wear dresses. From an early age, MW knew that “there was something different about me,” what exactly was less clear. A gifted student athlete at a private girls' high school, who also haunted the San Francisco underworld, MW ended up going to The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he met his first girlfriend. MW eventually got an MFA in film at UCLA and moved to Silver Lake, where in 2004 he took over the legendary dyke/trans/genderqueer club Shotgun, hosted weekly at the Eagle leather bar.
Alvaro Vega grew up in a large Mexican American family in Arizona, knew he was gay when he was five, and first came out when he was in high school. He eventually moved to Silver Lake and immersed himself its gay culture. Alvaro first encountered HIV/AIDS in the local Kaiser hospital where he worked as a pulmonary technician. His oral history provides a view on over three decades of Silver Lake life.
Bill Tutton was born in 1963 and grew up in Buffalo, New York. He has played in bands since high school and came out to his family when he was twenty. In the 1980s, he moved to Los Angeles and gained national recognition in the 1990s as the bassist for The Geraldine Fibbers, a center piece of the Silver Lake music scene. He is married to Alvaro Vega.