Published July 05, 2011
LOS ANGELES – Prince William and Catherine's visit to the U.S. will fittingly include a match of the "sport of kings" at a Santa Barbara polo ground and an evening of hobnobbing with Hollywood's version of royalty, but the couple will also make a stop in Los Angeles' most plebian neighborhood -- Skid Row.
Moving from the hoity-toity to the hoi polloi, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will be visiting Inner-City Arts, a nonprofit academy that has given children from poverty-stricken neighborhoods free classes in visual and performing arts since 1989.
"This is what's going on outside their castle. They're going to get a taste of what life is like for us," said Jessica Cornejo, a 19-year-old member of a dance troupe that will be performing for the newlywed couple during their Sunday visit. "It's the best way to end that royal trip."
Housed in a contemporary compound of bright white buildings dotting a plant-filled courtyard, the academy stands out on a street pockmarked with despair.
As twilight sets in on a recent afternoon, the sidewalk fills with locals swigging beer out of paper bags and smoking marijuana cigarettes. No one pays any mind to the toothless and shoeless, mumbling to themselves or shouting to the air as they shunt shopping carts crammed with their worldly possessions.
Skid Row is the nation's homeless capital with some 4,000 people crammed into a 50-square block area of downtown Los Angeles. Nearly 1,000 sleep on the street every night, others seek a cot at one of five shelters in the area or reside in homeless housing.
But inside Inner-City Arts, the air is filled with the energy of kids who turn the frustration of growing up poor into creative impulse for dancing, acting, music, painting, sculpting and drawing in professional caliber studios. About 90 percent of the children here are Hispanic, many from families that lack a stable home.
The academy offers arts classes as part of local elementary school curriculums and after-school activities to teens, as well as instruction to teachers.
The duke and duchess will paint and work in ceramics alongside 120 grade-schoolers and then watch a dance performance by a troupe of teenagers. The 16 dancers have been frantically rehearsing in twice-weekly, six-hour sessions since the visit was announced in early June.
While some were enthralled about the prospect of meeting the figures from a fairy tale, others weren't quite sure who Prince William and Catherine were when told of the impending visit.
"I said `I need to research them'," said Lorenzo Perez, 19, adding he got a lot more excited when he found out the guest is a genuine blue blood second in line to the British throne. That beats hands down a previous VIP performance for a group of congressional representatives.
"We thought that was the biggest we could get," he said. "I never pictured that I'd be performing for the royal couple."
The troupe will perform two pieces. One is a dynamic seven-minute medley of various musical genres, including hip-hop, pop and merengue, while the other is a more somber piece that incorporates a video of images of poverty around the world.
The first was selected to highlight their own urban youth culture and the second to point to global issues. "We're close to Skid Row," said dancer Iliana Samaniego, 15. "Maybe it can get attention to that."
Inner-City Arts combines two of Prince William's causes -- the arts and homeless prevention -- in a trip that focuses on his charity causes.
"I know he wanted to use this trip to the benefit of everything he does," said Nigel Lythgoe, chairman of the Los Angeles chapter of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, which is hosting the Saturday evening gala for the royals. The prince is the president of the academy and the event will promote young British film industry talent to Hollywood elite.
The Santa Barbara polo match and dinner -- at $4,000 a plate -- is expected to raise $4.4 million for the prince's foundation that benefits a number of charities. The prince and his brother Harry often play in polo matches at home as fundraisers.
Early Sunday, Prince William and Catherine will attend a private breakfast with American patrons of Tusk Trust, an African conservation charity.
Administrators at Inner-City Arts, which has worked closely with the British Consulate-General in Los Angeles in the past, hope the visit will raise awareness of the importance of arts in children's lives and how Inner-City Arts benefits underprivileged youngsters who otherwise rarely get a chance at creative expression.
"It puts Inner-City Arts in a different category of visibility," said Beth Tischler, Inner-City Arts' director of education.
The trip's emphasis on charity reflects the fundamental role of the modern British monarchy, especially that of the "satellite royals," the relatives who surround Queen Elizabeth II, said Philippa Levine, co-director of the British studies program at the University of Texas at Austin.
A stop in a place like Skid Row is not out of the ordinary these days as modern royals have aimed to reach out to commoners since World War II when the Queen Mother, mother of Queen Elizabeth II, sought to rally Britons' spirits through years of bombing raids and rationing.
That tradition was enlarged upon by Princess Diana, William's mother, making her a revered personality the world over.
"It's a very, very long history with the British monarchy, and it's at every level -- the rich stuff at $4,000 a plate, and at the most basic level," Levine said.
Skid Row residents seemed largely oblivious to the royal visit, but they didn't think it would do much for the neighborhood as the couple's visit focused on Inner-City Arts.
"It's good for the kids," shrugged Michael Nicholson, 58, who was sitting in a wheelchair on a street corner a couple blocks from the academy. "But I don't think it will do anything for Skid Row."
At the academy, the dancers were gleaming with sweat as instructor Marissa Herrera put them through their paces during rehearsal. She said she hoped to impress the royals with how empowering the arts can be to disadvantaged youth. "These youth really have hope for the future," she said.