Not Your Momma's Art Club
How One Creative Studio is Combatting Socioeconomic Change with Hope and Youth Empowerment
Eric barreled down the streets of Highland Park, California sporting a salty tee that proudly warned, “Don’t Feed The Hipsters!” A casual onlooker scoffed, “You’re brave to wear that t-shirt... here.” Quickly whipping around, Eric paused to address his mocking audience. “Pardon me, what do you mean?” The clever critic replied, with a roll of his eyes, “I mean, it’s Highland Park, man. Hipsterville USA.” Eric, an Angeleno since birth, shook his head. “That’s where you’re mistaken, sir. Don’t you know anything about the history of this place?”
In fact, most people don’t. Or at least they don’t recall the full history.
Today’s reader is probably familiar with Highland Park as a top destination for choice bowling, vegan donuts, or a quick stop off the Metro Gold Line. However, this has not always been the case. Northeast Los Angeles has had an oscillating past between rich and poor, business venturers and art-lovers. According to historical accounts from the city of Los Angeles, the area was discovered by the Chumash, settled by the Tongwa Band of the Shoshone, and later granted in the 1780s in part to Jose Maria Verdugo, Corporal Guard at the San Gabriel Mission.
However, in the late nineteenth century, a defaulted loan put the land up for auction. The San Rafael tract was purchased by Andrew Glassell Jr. and Albert B. Chapman, but later resold to George Morgan and Albert Judson to establish what is now known as Highland Park. Around the turn of the twentieth century, Highland Park was annexed to the city of Los Angeles, providing it with more resources to grow and thrive. As advances in railroad lines and streetcars increased, Highland Park soon served to capture the overflow of the Arts and Crafts movement from its northern neighbor of Pasadena.
This outbreak of culture and curiosity did not last long, however. World War II halted any further growth of the Arts and Crafts movement, especially as resources for building the iconic Craftsman homes became diminished. In the post-war landscape, new housing tracts in the San Fernando Valley and the western regions, along with the development of the Arroyo Seco Parkway, saw many Caucasian soldiers and their families leave Northeast LA in what is historically known as the “White Flight.” In the decades following, many Latino and Asian-American working class families began to occupy Highland Park. From the 1970s onward, the rise of Chicano and blended cultural art began to define the eclectic Northeast LA neighborhood.
“Northeast Los Angeles is an urban refuge, a Southern California "Portlandia" – offering closeness to nature and more authentic quality of life that attracts escapees from the auto-centric and cookie-cutter suburban sprawl of the larger metropolis…”
Today, Highland Park is undergoing yet another shift in socioeconomic climate. Jan Lin of KCET News reports the rise of house-flippers, among other other changes, in the post Great Recession era, additionally stating, “Northeast Los Angeles is an urban refuge, a Southern California "Portlandia" – offering closeness to nature and more authentic quality of life that attracts escapees from the auto-centric and cookie-cutter suburban sprawl of the larger metropolis…” Both business venturers and bohemian artists pursue Highland Park as a modern-day Promised Land, seeking to serve their needs. However, these new shifts in culture are not without consequence.
“... some shop owners have seen rent increase by over 250% overnight while those leasing homes and apartments in the area have had their rent go up 60% without any modification or repairs from landlords.”
In one effort, there has been a rise in the preservation and appreciation of the Craftsman culture and history. But in the same stroke, many current residents are suffering steep inclines in cost-of-living expenses as Northeast LA become the new “it” destination. Familiar streets such as York Boulevard, Figueroa Street, and Eagle Rock Boulevard now sport hip bars, trendy coffee shops, and niché eateries. Local publication, L.A. Taco, reports that some shop owners have seen their rent increase more than 250% overnight, while those leasing homes and apartments in the area report rent surges of 60% without any modification or repairs from landlords. Many local businesses have been forced to relocate, or in severe cases, close their doors. A long-term perspective suggests that changes in the urban landscape of Highland Park are nothing new. The area has always had a mixed history and cannot claim a singular narrative. Regardless, the current climate is now re-presented with a new set of challenges that must be navigated well.
“The LA Times conducted an in-depth study grading the quality of arts programs in public schools. Sadly, over 80% of schools received a grade of C or lower.”
Unfortunately, youth education in Highland Park has also fallen susceptible to the new waves of new money. Public school art funding has been reduced in several programs, leaving many children without access to creative resources. Between 2005 and 2012, funding for the arts was reduced by 76% in the Los Angeles Unified School District. In just over 5 years, arts budgets have decreasing from $78.6 million to $18.6 million. To give further context, The Los Angeles Times conducted an in-depth study grading the quality of arts programs in public schools. Sadly, over 80% of schools received a grade of C or lower. With lack of resources, schools were not able to provide a quality-level arts education their children required, though many individual faculty and community leaders gave forth brilliant individual efforts.
Recognizing the dire need for a proper art education in Northeast LA, friends Josh Buck and Braven Greenelsh came together to form AMP Los Angeles, a fully equipped creative studio dedicated to serving the youth of Highland Park and surrounding neighborhoods. Incepted in 2014, AMP LA was first designed to provide a safe space for youth to learn healthy social skills and vocational training while experiencing positive group mentorship. The focus of the framework was going to be on film and the digital arts. However, after meeting with mothers, families, educators, city officials, police officers and politicians in the area, AMP shifted to be a digital and creative arts studio for students transitioning out of late elementary to early adolescence. AMP recognized that the first element of serving is listening. By being willing to realign their goals to meet the community’s needs, AMP was able to craft a program that would have a lasting impact and create real change.
In its pilot year, AMP LA hit the ground running. In summer 2014, they partnered with Highland Park Recreation Center to launch a creative summer camp. 30 volunteers stepped in to provide a memorable experience for the 50 children who attended. Backed by the success of their summer camp, AMP then went on to host a 12 week afterschool program the following fall, with one mentor for every two children attending. The focused ratio made the experience more intimate and meaningful for those participants. Soon the 12 week program graduated to a 24 week program, where children met for 6.5 hours every week with mentors to produce a feature film. During this time, students in the program were also able to create, edit, and produce shorter segments like the “Highland Park News” as well as a fun sketch entitled “Lego Girls,” proving that the beloved interlocking brick is for everyone. At the end of the course, AMP hosted its AMP Awards Show where they debuted the long-term film and handed out accolades to recognize the group’s hard work.
“Highland Park does not need another liquor license. It does not need another coffee shop. We need studios like this opening up for kids..”
“The point of AMP Los Angeles and this program is [...] that we would step in and protect the most vulnerable among us. Highland Park does not need another liquor license. It does not need another coffee shop. We need studios like this opening up for kids...” AMP founder Josh Buck addressed the crowd boldly at 2017’s AMP award show. Since then, AMP has grown in their reach, strategy, and viability in helping children in Los Angeles achieve their maximum creative potential. Today, they are one of the only certified Creative Youth Development™ Programs in Northeast LA. With a no to low-entry cost, there are few barriers for post-elementary students to work alongside industry professionals to learn practical skills that will serve them well into their adult lives.
“AMP has impacted my life by helping me not to be so shy, to show who I truly am, and also express my life situations honestly with others.”
Not only do these youth learn how to edit films, clean up images, and mix sound, but they also develop lifelong friendships. One student scholar stated, “AMP changed my life by showing me that making films with a group and writing stories can be fun, and can also show you what the world around you means." Another recognized the need for authenticity in story-telling, saying “AMP has impacted my life by helping me not to be so shy, to show who I truly am, and also express my life situations honestly with others." Yet another student declared how AMP gave them a voice, sharing, “AMP impacted my social life by getting me to talk more and express myself. The chance to make new friends and connect with others made such a difference."
“ I found that AMP was serving as a critical resource for local families, providing top-tier educational tools and instruction in the digital arts while also giving youth faced with tremendous transition a place of stability.”
Not only did AMP LA teach hands-on skills for NELA students, but it proved to be a natural place for local creatives to grow as leaders. Caleb Betts graduated from nearby Occidental College in 2017, with an eager desire to change the world. After connecting with Buck and Greenelsh, Betts quickly recognized the important work the studio was doing, and signed on as the Community Engagement Coordinator. “ I found that AMP was serving as a critical resource for local families, providing top-tier educational tools and instruction in the digital arts while also giving youth faced with tremendous transition a place of stability. I quickly realized that this was a team I wanted to join.” In fact, the majority of the mentors and faculty on AMP LA’s roster are volunteers, offering their expertise, skills and leadership at a pro-bono rate. Even the Board of Directors is made up of volunteers. The passion for youth creative empowerment is so strong among the AMP tribe, that members willingly give up themselves to serve the students’ best interest.
Pablo Picasso once famously noted, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” AMP LA, recognizing this epidemic, has poured out its time, money, resources, and above all, love to support the next generation of digital artists, filmmakers, and storytellers. Some say, they are only getting started. To say Highland Park is the same as it was 10 years ago would be foolish. Indeed, times have changed drastically. In response, AMP LA’s existence boldly says this is not your momma’s art club.
This year, AMP LA will be hosting its third annual film awards at their headquarters, 6336 York Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90042, on June 8th. The event is free to attend as AMP LA is proud to show off their student’s industry standard work.