Pico Union Project: Transforming Community, One Initiative at a Time

On May 26, Pico Union Project will celebrate its 10th Anniversary with Pico De Mayo – a street fair/fundraiser.
May 22, 2024
Pico Union Project, Photographer Adam Niv

Every Friday at 10:15 a.m., there is a line of community members outside a beautiful red brick building on the corner of 12th and Valencia Streets, a block west of the Harbor Freeway in the Pico Union neighborhood. Adjacent to this historic building, which once housed Sinai Temple, is a large parking lot that each week becomes a farmers’ market with tables overflowing with fresh produce.

A group of musicians fills the bustling market with music. Sister Alberta, a volunteer and a great singer, spontaneously joins in with the song, “When the Saints Go Marching In,” clapping to the rhythm.

The ambiance is inviting, enveloping all who arrive with a sense of belonging. This cherished tradition unfolds seamlessly week after week, thanks to the guiding hand of Craig Taubman. 

Once a leader of the famed Friday Night Live service at Sinai Temple, Taubman found a new purpose in his life when he fell in love with the red Greek revival style building.

Built by the Jewish community as Sinai Temple in 1909, which stayed there until 1925, when it moved to mid-Wilshire (now Koreatown), and later to its current location on Wilshire Blvd in West L.A. The building was then sold to Welsh Immigrants who opened a Presbyterian church that remained there for 88 years. During that time, the church served different communities, including the Latino community. It was also used as a recovery house. 

With membership dwindling, the church decided to sell the building – and that’s how Taubman came into the picture.

“It was on the market for several million dollars. I told my wife, ‘We’re going to buy it.’” Taubman said. “She looked at me and said, ‘How?’ She was right. We didn’t have that kind of money. So, I talked to the elders of the church and told them what I’m planning to do, but I don’t have the kind of money they are asking for.”

The elders felt it would be fitting for the building to go back to the Jewish people; they are the ones who built it, after all. So after discussing it amongst themselves, they got back to Taubman. “They told me: ‘Make a love offering,’ This meant, don’t think how much you can pay for it, but how much can you afford not to get it. Come with a number from your heart, not from your bank account.”

Taubman thought about it and felt they were right: he couldn’t afford to lose this place. There were other offers from investors on the table, but they weren’t as passionate and didn’t have Taubman’s vision for the place. In the end, his low offer won. 

“Now I had a vision of what I’m going to do there,” he said. “I’m a musician, and I was thinking, I’m going make the coolest nightclub in Los Angeles. We are going to have the best music in town with R&B on Monday, jazz on Tuesday, an open mic on Wednesday and so on.”

For the second floor of the building, overlooking the sanctuary where Shabbat services were once held, he also had special plans. “I was thinking about a bar with bottles of scotch and a great restaurant. I asked my daughter, what do you think of the idea? Do you think it’s going to fly? And she said, ‘Daddy, I think it’s the worst idea ever.’ I asked her why and she said, ‘I’m white, have privilege and I’m from Studio City. Why are you asking me what to do in the poorest neighborhood in town? Why don’t you ask the people who live here?’ And I was like, ‘Oh my God, she is right.’”

He abandoned his plans for a trendy nightclub and instead opened the venue to the community. He named the place The Pico Union Project (PUP) and started offering yoga and art classes. However, people hardly responded and hardly came. It wasn’t until three years later that he realized the key to people’s hearts was through food.

Before Thanksgiving 2015, Taubman organized a food drive, distributing over 500 turkeys to the community. The response was overwhelming, signaling to Taubman the direction he needed to take. He resolved to provide fresh produce to the community. With the support of local markets, he launched the Vida Sana market (Spanish for “Healthy Lifestyle”), where people could freely take as much as they needed without any cost. This time they came in flocks. 

It’s 11:30 a.m. and the tables at PUP are empty now. Most of the people who come here on Friday are Hispanic, with a few South Koreans. They all live in the area. Some of them started by coming here to pick up vegetables and became volunteers, and some became employees.

One of the things that Taubman wants to do for the community is not only provide them with food, books and toys, but also offer them jobs and teach them new skills. Recently, they installed a new pizza oven, and the hope is that community members will be able to find jobs thanks to what they’ve learned. 

It’s noon, and Celia Ramirez Torres in the kitchen, preparing lunch for the volunteers. They gather outside and sit around the tables. Today’s menu includes chips and salsa, chicken soup, vegetables, noodles and potato burekas. 

Taubman noted that Torres once frequented Vida Sana and decided she wanted to give back. She used to cook meals at home and bring them for the volunteers, eventually offered a job as the chef at PUP. Since then, she has been an integral part of the team. She is not the only one who has transitioned from a “customer” to an employee.

Bianca, a young woman and student, had been passing by the historic building for a few years, admiring it. “I saw people lining up there on Fridays but had no idea what was going on until someone told me [about it],” she said. 

Bianca started coming on Fridays to get fruits and vegetables, and soon after became the outreach coordinator. She assists with various programs at PUP, from the weekly Vida Sana distribution to organizing ESL and additional classes.

“When Craig heard I live right down the block, he told me, ‘Where were you? We’ve been looking for someone just like you,'” she said. Now she is a full-time worker and is there almost daily.

Bianca remarked on the profound sense of community at PUP, likening it to a family. It’s evident that she and the rest of the crew yearned for such a place.

Taubman didn’t give up on his dream of hosting concerts at the venue. He hired someone to arrange regular concerts spanning from jazz to world music and also renowned Israeli musicians such as David Broza, Idan Raichel and Rami Kleinstein. These performances take place inside the sanctuary, on the stage that once held the Torah ark and the bima. The huge, impressive pipe organ is still there, and Taubman found out a few years ago that it’s worth more than what he had paid for the entire building.

Before the inception of PUP, the neighborhood grappled with high crime rates. However, a shift has occurred in the decade since the project’s initiation. While residents still face economic challenges, including multiple families living in the same household and incomes well below the national average, there is a newfound sense of hope in the community.

Food isn’t the sole offering at PUP; the community can also participate in guitar classes, where attendees receive a free guitar after completing 10 lessons, ESL (English as a Second Language) and art classes. There’s also a support group aimed at teaching stress-management skills.

In June, PUP will launch a Spanish language film series, with plans to introduce a film lab for community members to learn the art of filmmaking. Volunteers engage in Team Green activities on Tuesdays through Thursdays, ensuring the neighborhood stays clean by tidying up litter.

PUP’s endeavors epitomize the concept of tikkun olam.

A block from the building, Taubman has created a small garden that resembles a peaceful oasis. Volunteers tend to the plot of land, growing flowers, herbs and vegetables. Surrounded by a fence and an unlocked gate, the garden remains pristine, untouched by the neglect and homelessness just beyond its borders.

This garden is not only Taubman’s pride and joy but also a symbol of hope for the community. Its existence, undisturbed amidst one of the poorest neighborhoods in town, stands as a testament to one man’s determination to rejuvenate the area and instill hope.

On May 26, Pico Union Project will celebrate its 10th Anniversary with Pico De Mayo – a street fair/fundraiser. Participants will enjoy cuisine from over a dozen local restaurants, street entertainers and volunteer distributing produce. The afternoon will conclude inside the sanctuary with a festive program hosted by MC and past PUP board chair Stuart K Robinson, a performance by a Grammy Award-winning artist and remarks by special guests, including Mayor Karen Bass, Supervisor Hilda Solis and Council Member Eunisses Hernandez.

Find out more info at PicoUnionProject.org.

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