Saying their hands were tied by the terms of a 61-year-old deed, Los Angeles officials have told sponsors of a popular African cultural festival that the monthly event can no longer be held at the city-owned Leimert Plaza in the Crenshaw District.
The decision prompted about 60 supporters of Afrikan Culture Day on Monday to protest at City Hall what they called a "bureaucratic outrage," and a spokesman for Mayor Tom Bradley said that the matter will be investigated.
"It's just not fair. It (the festival) helps the community by bringing culture to the people," said 13-year-old Jamila Daniel, as she and other children held up placards to passers-by on Spring Street.
Jamila's father, Warren Daniel, and other community leaders started Afrikan Culture Day last March in Leimert Plaza, a one-acre park with a fountain and a few trees centrally located in the Crenshaw District.
No admission is charged to the festival, at which African music and dance are performed. The entertainers are paid from part of the proceeds from 35 concession stands, where food, art and clothes are sold, said Daniel, who sells silver jewelry at the festival staged at the park.
The vendors are what prompted the city to balk at renewing the permit for the festival.
Two weeks ago, city officials discovered that the festival was operating in violation of a deed that prohibited any business of a commercial nature at Leimert Plaza.
Planning officer Alonzo A. Carmichael, who found the deed while researching an application to change the name of the park, visited the festival and found it "full of vendors selling goods of all kinds similar to the sidewalk stands along Ocean Front Walk in Venice."
In a memorandum to Jane Rasco, assistant general manager of the Department of Recreation and Parks, Carmichael said: "Whether they had a permit is unknown and irrelevant. We don't want the heirs taking back the property."
The organizers' effort to get the Parks and Recreation Department to rescind its decision failed, so they sought Monday to appeal the matter to the mayor, bringing a petition with 600 signatures to City Hall.
The protesters danced to the beat of conga drums on the steps of City Hall before going to the mayor's office to present their petition. They did not meet with the mayor, but press secretary Bill Chandler promised to bring the matter to Bradley's attention.
While city officials say the festival can continue without the vendors, Daniel said that "without vendor participation, Afrikan Culture Day will be ended." He said also that the location is ideal.
"Before Culture Day, African culture in Los Angeles was going the way of the Titanic," said Askia Muhammad, 45, who attended the protest rally. "This benefits people of all races and cultures. On an average Saturday, it's like a United Nations there."
Bea Jones, 43, a mental health consultant who lives within walking distance of the park, said she was puzzled at the city's decision.
"People look forward to it and the fellowship it brings. Black people are accustomed to this kind of action, but there really is no logical reason to stop the festival."
Said Pharoah Rameses, 31, of Highland Park, who sells reggae T-shirts and African artifacts at the festival:
"It's hard to tell kids not to sell crack on the corner and at the same time say they can't sell T-shirts in the park to make a decent living. You can't get rich out of it and you stay out of trouble."
The heirs of the grantor said Monday that they were unaware of any violation of the deed. George Leimert III said his late grandfather's company, which deeded the land to the city in 1928, is now defunct.
"We were unaware of the violation and the fuss over the matter," Leimert said. "From the information we have, we're in support of cultural activities like this. We think it's kind of neat to have these events in the park."
Leimert said he and his father were considering a request to alter the deed restriction to allow the vendors in the park.
However, city officials say that might not be easy. Pedro Echeverria of the city attorney's office said the Leimerts' approval might not change the restrictions.
"We do not want to place the city in jeopardy." he said, adding that even within the Leimerts' approval, removal of the restriction could take months.
"And that is assuming that the city wants to undertake to remove it," Echeverria said.