Low-key district creates sonic fest

Northeast Los Angeles is a community-defining term unknown to many native Angelenos. South Los Angeles, East Los Angeles  and “the Westside” have all become common area identifiers, but Northeast Los Angeles remains an abyss in the minds of many locals even though it encompasses some of the oldest and most culturally flourishing parts of the city.

Eagle Rock, Highland Park, Mount Washington and much of the residential-based neighborhoods along the northern Interstate 110 and State Route 2 corridors claim to be a part of Northeast Los Angeles, a community separated from the city-at-large by both physical and social barriers.

Nestled in the foothills and narrow valleys where the Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountains meet only 10 minutes from Downtown, NELA’s current low-key, creative-class constituency is worlds apart from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood.

Like many other L.A. neighborhoods forced to forge their own identity in the face of a non-encompassing city narrative, NELA has long maintained a small-town feel by supporting street fairs, community centers and cultural events that help residents engage with both their individual cities and how it relates to greater Los Angeles.

Although most of the time NELA pulls from its own resources for art walks and cultural fairs, one signature event has been slowly attracting talent from across the L.A. area — the Eagle Rock Music Festival.

Now in its 12th year, the Eagle Rock Music Festival is Los Angeles’ most underrated sonic exposé. Borne out of Eagle Rock’s much-loved Dahlia Days festival — which celebrated the town’s love of the dahlia flower with music and food in the streets — the ERMF is now an all-night street party that showcases a genre-busting swath of local musicians on three stages and 11 venues all within walking distance of one another.

Unlike other local music festivals that have envisioned a roving multi-venue experience — such as L.A. Weekly’s Detour Festival, Sunset Junction and FYF Fest — the Eagle Rock Music Festival is a completely homegrown project.

Incorporated as the ERMF by the Eagle Rock Center for the Arts’ former Executive Director Denise Seider, the first few years featured performances from the Uptown Cabaret, high school string ensembles and other NELA-based groups.

Recent help from 14th District Los Angeles City Councilman José Huizar and local businesses created enough financial stability within the festival to allow it to expand its appeal to those living outside of Northeast Los Angeles.

By never straying far from its grassroots ideals, the ERMF has increased in prominence while maintaining its community-oriented character. Every year the lineup for the free event is chosen not by a money-hungry promoter, but through an open application process.

Each of the festival’s stages is curated by a different L.A. cultural organization, which gives everyone from Low End Theory to the Women’s 20th Century Club a stake in the performances. Add this to the fact that five blocks of main drag Colorado Boulevard will be shut down to allow the attendees to take to the streets for food trucks and vendor fun, and you have a cross-generational, multicultural, end-of-summer festival.

The ERMF would be nothing were it not for the Eagle Rock Center for the Arts, a non profit as old as the festival that provides nontraditional arts education for the youth and adults of Northeast Los Angeles. Housed in a mission-style structure built in 1914, the ERMF is one of the few venues in the performance space-deprived area and as such, it hosts an eclectic array of art exhibitions, summer camps, stand-up comedy classes and, most famously, music concerts.

The 225-person room has been the site of several interesting performances in the last few years, including side project debuts from Tom Morello, Roky Erickson, Deakin of Animal Collective and José Gonzáles.

Featuring representatives from each of Los Angeles’ underground music communities, this year’s ERMF is a generous cross-section of the city’s current aural climate with stages devoted to punk, Latin, gospel, experimental, choral, zydeco, emerging, and children’s music set up in the streets and inside alternative spaces along Colorado Boulevard.

Nowhere in Los Angeles is there a music festival that is as open-minded as the ERMF. Though it has taken more than a decade to build its currently flourishing state, the welcoming atmosphere of Northeast L.A. and the community-oriented goals of the Eagle Rock Center for the Arts have created the city’s only all-encompassing musical street festival, one that has the resources and audience to place the surf-rock band The Soft Pack and psychedelic sounds of Sun Araw on the same bill with DJs Nosaj Thing and the Eagle Rock High School Latin Jazz Band.

Sarah Bennett is a senior majoring in communication. Her column, “Fake Bad Taste,” runs Wednesdays.