SAN DIEGO — For exactly six years, the Grass Roots Cultural Center has been a meeting place for folk singers and revolutionaries, Communists and (please don't say this too loudly) a handful of quiet Republicans.
So what does this suggest? A lack of focus? A lack of coherence? Changing times, marked mainly by eclecticism in thought and action?
Maybe all of the above. For whatever reason, Grass Roots (which opened in October, 1981) will officially close on Thursday. Today marks the last public event offered by Grass Roots, which is next door to The Big Kitchen at Grape and 30th streets in Golden Hill.
On a recent sultry afternoon, English was being taught in a back room. A tiny whirring fan was blowing the edges of posters advertising everything from Central American awareness to lesbian fiction. Groups of refugees from Nicaragua, Mexico, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Syria peered intently at the writings of Chaucer and Dickens.
These people will still have their classes, but they're being moved to other places. It turns out that many of the scores of volunteers whose activism got started at Grass Roots have done just that--gone someplace else.
"I don't know why it's closing," said Donna White. "I just work here."
Books to Behold
White, 40, does more than just work at Grass Roots. Since last fall, she's coordinated its army of volunteers; since March, she's run its bookstore. The books alone are something to behold. Where else, on one shelf, can you find dissections of Marxist thought, how to help single fathers be better single fathers and help for women to learn more about their bodies and still come away with insight into why songwriters such as Holly Near and Jackson Browne write so politically?
White and others concede that eclecticism has been a Grass Roots virtue. In some respects, it now appears to be its downfall.
"Oh, you hear everything from (lack of) money to lack of volunteers," White said, saying she's over the grief of Grass Roots closing. "Let's just say its time has come."
Volunteer John Randall, 40, attributes the reason to lack of commitment.
"People seem to regard it as some kind of museum, which in some respects it is," Randall said. "But there's no money (Grass Roots is a nonprofit corporation, funded by donations), and there's no commitment. It's like the symphony. Everybody seems to think it's a tragedy that we don't have a working orchestra, or haven't had until recently, but nobody does anything about it, at least not much. Grass Roots, like so much in life, has been taken for granted."
Randall, who grew up in the "hippie" era, said liberals and radicals were "more coalesced" at one time but were never as much in sync as is the right, which he says is clearly in power now and on the verge of being deeply entrenched.
Unity of the Right
"I remember going places with my John Birch Society acquaintances when I was in college," he said. "They were always of one mind, one voice. Then I'd get together with liberal friends, and we'd hammer at each other like crazy. I've always admired and marveled at the monolithic thought processes of right-wingers. They have a unity that people like us just don't."
In recent years, Randall said, what unity the left may have had at one time has eroded even more. Society is more eclectic, he said, and more individual. He believes commitment and a sense of community "have been sacrificed, especially in a highly mobile city such as San Diego."
A look at a recent Grass Roots activities calendar extols the types of events offered at the center: "Ollie North Meets the Teachers," featuring show-and-tell discussions by schoolteachers who recently toured Nicaragua; "Deborah Liv Johnson in Concert" (another evening of politically inspired folk music); "Benefit for Kirstin Crabtree" (to raise money for legal expenses accrued by Crabtree, a UC San Diego student arrested for photographing an FBI agent at a job fair), and "AIDS and the Minority Community."
White said the decision to close Grass Roots was made by its five-member board of directors at a recent meeting. The board cited the dipping number of volunteers--down to 10 from an all-time high of 75; declining funds, and former members defecting, seemingly en masse , to opportunities elsewhere, whether personal, professional, political or a combination of all three.
"Everyone just got real active in other groups," White said. "Of course, some say this is the kind of thing happening to the left. And then others just don't know their left from their right."
"I've been calling people, telling them about the closing," Randall said. "Everyone seems to feel sick about it. They moan and wail and say, 'Oh, no, it can't be.' But no one feels bad enough to offer time, money or commitment."
White said Grass Roots had been valuable in offering a meeting place for activists and teachers, people wanting a cause.