The center is holding. A parking lot replaces a non-profit art and music venue, a fashion house co-opts a culture and a city is taken from its future.
Much of Los Angeles is excluded from teenagers. All-ages venues were already scarce when a “Notice of Demolition” sign was plastered to The Smell’s front door last spring. The music space entered its infancy in 1999 (like many of us) and grew into an emblem of all things young, punk and cool. A ramshackle Mecca in downtown Los Angeles charging $5 per show, The Smell’s do-it-yourself volunteer-run spirit attracted teenagers who saw it as a place of artistic freedom and escape from normal life.
For some, The Smell is the first music venue they ever visit. It’s their enrollment in “the scene.”
“A person’s Smell phase is like their initiation into the heart of LA youth culture,” senior Anya Pertel said.
Many LA kids fondly remember Friday nights leaning against the chain-link fence in The Smell’s infamous alley or taking a breath and a pee away from the sweaty masses in the beautifully grotesque, graffiti-stained bathrooms. It’s the first time they see in the flesh insta-famous kids sanctified through 25,000 followers, the first time they see humanity in a mosh pit that stops its moshing to rescue a fallen soldier. A few of those kids soon moved from the floor to the stage, like those of locally grown youth bands Kuromi, Celebrity Crush and Slow Hollows.
The building in which The Smell stews was purchased by the L&R Group of Companies, a group that operates (with tragic symbolism) parking lots. This has spawned a motivated teen movement to “#savethesmell” (want to join? They have a GoFundMe).
The committee has been successful in extending The Smell’s current residency an additional year, but their ultimate goal is to raise $1.2 million in hopes of securing a permanent space to harbor the artistic haven. DIY $5 shows cannot raise this much, let alone yield a profit.
Low cost makes The Smell’s mission entirely honorable; it doesn’t exploit but rather cultivates teenaged art creation. The Smell was a place of pilgrimage, a haven. If public youth spaces become parking lots, where will the young go?
“There’s something about being 15 years old and taking the train downtown with your friends on a Friday night to see your peers play music. It deserves to stay right where it is,” junior Gaby Gordon said.
Youth culture is extremely multifaceted as the adult world idolizes it but also foments its destruction. When Hedi Slimane moved fashion house Yves Saint Laurent to Los Angeles in 2014, Angelenos were enthused over this bejeweled middle-finger to New York and Paris. But when Slimane began attending shows at the Echoplex, taking photos of us and recruiting band members from Slow Hollows to walk on his runway, we felt possessiveness bubble up in our throats, like a piece of rotting apple lodged in the larynx that no amount of Pepsi or kombucha could wash away. And when Saint Laurent put clothes inspired by our culture on their ready-to-wear shelves and increased revenue by $400 million, we felt exploited. Like a vampire Slimane is sucking the sincerity out of Los Angeles.
Laurent’s re-branding to “Saint Laurent” is exactly the opposite of authentic youth culture. Youth culture is pure because although there are leaders, there are never conference rooms with mini water bottles and PowerPoints detailing five-year plans. In youth there can never be a five-year plan because it simply does not last five years. Youth culture is a fleeting moment, a kiss, a phrase, a slice of life, it’s hitting an octave just right. It’s a knowledge that the moment is already a bit passé.
It’s okay if you’ve never been to The Smell or don’t who Slimane is. You don’t have to be a direct participator in this microcosm of culture to understand what it feels like to be limited, to be confined, to have something taken from you. Possession is a complex thing. As perceived in the found-footage film “Los Angeles Plays Itself” (recently shown at the Aero), there’s a difference between “LA” and Los Angeles: LA is the version of the city that is projected by what the movie calls “foreign invaders.” These are moviemakers who come here and make a film about what they think is Los Angeles. Every film made about Los Angeles is an attempt to possess it, but the city will only emotionally belong to those who dance under its smog, who write it love songs, who remember riding ponies at its farmers markets. And who owns Los Angeles youth culture? Right now, it’s Slimane and a parking lot.
Pehrspace, a similar art/music venue in Burbank, was recently forced to close. The city of Portland is experiencing a parallel epidemic closure of all-ages venues. These closings make youth culture more exclusive and less accessible than ever before. A band playing at an open venue becomes an invite-only house party and that entertaining conversation with a person who knows everyone you know, but is somehow still a stranger, never happens. Our culture becomes stratified.
Joan Didion documented a similar (albeit grander) youth movement in her 1960’s essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” The hippie movement was counter to the system, as Didion expresses when she writes, “The center was not holding.” In contrast, LA youth culture is being fought by the center. It’s being fought from the vortex of commercialism; it reflects the familiar valuation of money over art.
“#savethesmell,” while noble, is not going to stop the repurposing of youth culture. The resignation of Slimane as creative director of Saint Laurent is not going to return to us our bands or styles (we don’t want them anymore). But what keeps me optimistic is the fluidity and the masterful ability to originate that defines youth culture. It will adjust, create and reform.
We see kids at parties whose moms work for NASA and dads make HBO documentaries, we’ve watched child actors take their Invisalign out or a girl shave a slit through her eyebrow after pottery class. And to us, this is real, this is Los Angeles, this is “Our Youth.”
Slimane draws a sketch, and suddenly it’s not. A Mecca crumbles. Concrete rises. Maybe there’s something wrong with the center. Maybe the center should not hold.