Forget everything the always-chipper TV character Leslie Knope has taught you about the inner workings of a municipal Parks and Recreation department. Judging from a brewing battle between the WorldBeat Cultural Center and San Diego's Park and Recreation department, things can be far less comical in real life than they are on the NBC mockumentary.
This past weekend, WorldBeat hosted an emergency community meeting to discuss ongoing issues with Park and Recreation. The cultural center, which regularly hosts African and African-American arts, health, music and community events, is housed in a colorfully painted former water tower in Balboa Park. Park and Recreation has jurisdiction over institutions and events in Balboa Park, and the San Diego Police Department (SDPD) steps in when enforcement is needed.
In a video released Saturday, WorldBeat executive director Makeda Cheatom (better known as Makeda Dread) thanked the community for the show of support and briefly listed a few of the ongoing issues between WorldBeat and the city. Cheatom mentioned that the center was having problems securing a long-term lease with the city and getting permits for special events; she explained that the upcoming annual Earth Day multicultural celebration was in jeopardy.
"We don't want to have any more discrimination," a distressed Cheatom said in the video.
On March 15, the police department sent the WorldBeat Center a notice that their ability to get an event permit was suspended for 30 days; the notice cited major problems at two recent events.
According to the notice, on Jan. 6, police were called to the center to break up a crowd that had gotten out of control after rap artist Tyga cancelled a scheduled appearance. Officers reported that some patrons appeared to be as young as 12 or 13, which was a violation the event's permit. Also listed: overcrowding, curfew violations and possible profit sharing between the venue and the show's promoters.
SDPD claimed that several violations occurred at a Feb. 24 event, including sexual contact between a minor and adult inside the venue and marijuana use by a DJ in his car.
On March 21, Kathleen Hasenauer, deputy director of the city's Park and Recreation department, sent the WorldBeat Center a letter that included a bill for $6,937. In the letter, she said that attendance at several events exceeded what was listed in permit applications and that at one event, fencing had been erected, which requires an additional permit and fee.
Graham and Cheatom said problems with the city started earlier this year, when they had their lawyer contact Park and Recreation about negotiating a lease. Neither WorldBeat nor the Centro Cultural de la Raza, the Latino / Latina community center next door, have ever been issued long-term leases, which, they say, makes it difficult to get federal funding. WorldBeat has been on a month-to-month lease since moving into the current location in 1995. The center's lawyer sent a letter to Park and Recreation, discussing the possibility of drafting a 25-year lease.
"That's when all this harassment started and they began making all of these false accusations," said Graham, who added that they recently got an unscheduled visit from public-health inspectors, too. "It's all a lie to distract the public and city officials from us getting our lease. We're one of the very few institutions in the park that doesn't have a lease."
Graham blamed problems at the Jan. 6 show on an outside promoter who rented the venue for the evening. And, he said he doesn't understand why the WorldBeat Center would be held responsible for someone smoking marijuana in a car. He also pointed out that one of the additional fees in Hasenauer's letter was based on police estimating a crowd of 350 when Graham had pulled a permit for only 300.
"So, we're talking about the difference of 50 people," Graham said. "I don't know how Vice could tell without hand counting everyone there."
Cheatom charged that Park and Recreation has never liked the WorldBeat Center. She said that for the nearly 20 years they've been in their location in the southern end of Balboa Park, she's felt discriminated against and harassed. She added that no-overnight-parking signs have recently gone up outside of both WorldBeat and the Centro, which she said has resulted in thousands of dollars in parking fines for staff, and she can't help but notice the 24-hour parking spots reserved for executive directors at other Balboa Park institutions.
The lack of a long-term lease, though, is Cheatom's most pressing concern. The city previously had a hold on new leases in Balboa Park, but exceptions were made for nonprofits that required long-term leases for federal funding. Cheatom says an exception should be made for WorldBeat, too. She believes the fact that Park and Recreation won't grant them a lease is evidence of deep-seated racism.
CityBeat's calls and emails to Hasenauer and Park and Recreation were not returned.
"I just want the rights the other institutions in this park have," Cheatom said. "We don't want to be bullied anymore. They thought they were just going to just kill me with all these fines.... Now they realize that we're no dummies, but I'm not going to deal with [Park and Recreation or Vice]. I'm taking it to City Council."
Cheatom and Graham said they'll be at the City Council meeting at 2 p.m. Tuesday, April 10. They've started circulating a petition, and they're asking WorldBeat supporters to show up at the meeting and help them demand a lease.
A spokesperson for the City Attorney's office said he's aware of the issues between Park and Recreation and WorldBeat Center and requested CityBeat's questions be put in an email. By press time, we hadn't received a response.
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