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A Shaky Road Back to West Adams

Lula Washington can finally rebuild her earthquake-damaged dance space.

October 25, 1998|Elaine Dutka | Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer

The barren, litter-strewn plot of land on West Adams at Sycamore is the property of the Lula Washington Dance Theatre. Before the 1994 Northridge earthquake, it was the site of a structure the prizewinning choreographer and her company called home. Bought and renovated for nearly $500,000, it represented hard-won stability for the troupe.

When officials red-tagged the building, Washington was pushed into temporary digs. Since then, she's focused on rebuilding the structure, reviving her original vision.

Now, it seems she's getting her wish. Putting an end to an on-again, off-again debate about the group's eligibility, the federal government informed the troupe this month that $1.4 million in frozen disaster relief earmarked for the company has just been released. If all goes well, groundbreaking on a new $1.2-million, 8,000-square-foot building should begin shortly. Washington hopes to occupy the premises in early 2000--the 20th anniversary of the company.

The decision by the Federal Emergency Management Agency came none too soon for the dancer and her husband, Erwin, who are weary of their hand-to-mouth existence.

"We were months behind in our rent payments and our studio was padlocked a number of times," recalls Erwin, executive director of the company, which is performing at the Getty Museum on Friday."Without FEMA money, we were weeks away from having to close our doors."

Lula, too, is feeling lighter these days. "Up and down, up and down, it's been a roller coaster," she say. "It's exciting to think that what looked unlikely last year is finally going to happen."

The outcome marks the end of a morass in which the Washingtons have been mired for years--one that began the night of the earthquake and has dragged them down ever since. Only hours after a party celebrating a face lift of their old building, tremors knocked down the back wall of the structure. More bad news followed when the company's first application for FEMA funding was turned down by the agency. Only certain categories of private nonprofit groups--including museums, libraries and community centers--were eligible for FEMA disaster relief, they were told. No performing arts organizations need apply.

Citing its six-day-a-week after-school and weekend youth program called "I Do Dance, Not Drugs," the company repositioned itself as a "community center." In mid-1994, after months of deliberation, the agency came around. FEMA relocated the 10-person troupe, which had shut down for six months, to temporary mid-town quarters. It also pledged to pay 90% of the $3500-a-month rent and the same percent of rebuilding costs.

Getting the building underway, however, took much longer than expected. One problem was providing sufficient on-site parking to meet city requirements. Another was determining how much money was needed to replace the damaged structure. In the end, three separate engineering analyses were requested.

In April 1997, the old building was demolished. Four months later, in response to a complaint, an investigation of the troupe was undertaken. The Office of the Inspector General, an independent arm of FEMA, conducted the audit to consider whether the company truly fit the definition of a "community center."

Things looked grim early in the summer when the OIG ruled against the company. The group is, without question, an arts institution, it said, and must return $265,000 in past funding. The saving grace for the Washingtons was Chris Lopez, an official at FEMA's Northridge Recovery Office. In an Aug. 31 report, she announced that the agency had decided not to accept the OIG recommendation.

Washington's troupe--like the North Hollywood-based Actor's Alley Theatre and South-Central's Los Angeles Brotherhood Crusade, whose grants were also in question--had met the standards that were in place at the time the grants were originally made, FEMA federal coordinating officer Lopez explained.

"We didn't want to penalize these groups for the minimal interim guidelines existing back then," she says. "We opted to clarify the criteria. Under new eligibility rules just handed down, community services must be a group's primary focus rather than part of its totality."

Lula Washington speculates that the move was mostly a thinly veiled face-saving gesture. "The government would have looked silly pulling out after supporting us all this time," she says.

In early October, the Washingtons were informed of the decision by the California Office of Emergency Services, which dispenses FEMA funds. Though they could draw on the $1.4-million grant, they were told, they were responsible for rent until the new building goes up.

Lula Washington says she's won the battle--but is afraid of losing the war. "Arts institutions aren't high on the government's agenda," she says. "They're not considered a day-in, day-out essential. No one thinks about the social and emotional value of the arts--their importance to the human soul."

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