In 2010, Jesse La Tour ran for Fullerton City Council. He didn't have a prayer. He refused donations. The photo he initially submitted to a local newspaper featured him in a ratty, one-size-too-small T-shirt that looked as though it came from babyGap. The image of him, shot at night, on his campaign sign was almost sinister-looking.
But if the election were held today, and downtown Fullerton had its own representative, he'd have no problems at the ballot box.
"If Jesse ran for office today and Fullerton [were] an eight-block radius, with Mulberry Street [restaurant] at the center, he'd be mayor," says Steven Baxter, a friend and collaborator.
As downtown Fullerton has grown and mutated during the past 10 years, 33-year-old La Tour has been one of its most influential residents. Through working with others artistically and politically, he has helped give this small sliver of Orange County something that shockingly resembles an identity.
He started the Downtown Fullerton Art Walk, held on the first Friday of every month which celebrated its third anniversary March 1. He co-founded Hibbleton Gallery in 2008; it later moved to the Magoski Arts Colony on the outskirts of downtown, joining the Violethour and PAS in a three-gallery building. He helped to organize the first Saturday-morning protests outside the Fullerton Police Department in response to the death of Kelly Thomas. He's organized or inspired benefits, concerts and events of all stripes.
Basically, if there's a proactive, creative endeavor going on in downtown Fullerton, La Tour is involved somehow.
"It's a bit surreal when I think about it," says La Tour of his proudest accomplishment, the art walk. "To think about how we had nothing like this before, and how it's grown? I'm really proud of that."
A Fullerton resident since age 7, La Tour is many things: writer, artist, musician, college English professor, videographer, art-gallery owner, local historian, activist. But his real talent may lie in the quiet, unassuming way that, through collaborating with others, he gets shit done.
His central role in helping foster, in Baxter's words, an "asshole-free downtown Fullerton of artists, musicians, activists and educators" would have shocked those who knew La Tour a decade ago. At the time, he was a "painfully shy" dude taking classes at Fullerton College and just "trying to figure himself out," he says. "I was the kind of person who would just be quiet, listen and observe and chime in from time to time."
In 2004, he moved downtown and into an apartment atop Mulberry Street Restaurant. Members of the Cold War Kids would hang out there, and coupled with "all these creative, artistic types I kept meeting," he turned the apartment into a hub for a small but real arts scene. "I think that's where it really started, and everything has just kind of evolved from that," La Tour says.
Working with fellow artists, as well as gaining a deep interest in local issues, helped draw La Tour from his insularity and into his role as downtown's unofficial mayor of the arts. And unlike so many creative types who can't wait to split somewhere else, La Tour's quite comfortable in Fullerton.
Shortly after opening Hibbleton, he bought an Amtrak pass and rode the rails across America for a month. It was an eye-opening experience, showing him "America's beauty and its problems," he says.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
When he returned to Fullerton's station, he hopped off the train and started walking to his apartment.
"Then one of those existential moments came, an epiphany," he says. "I think for the first time, I really realized this is where my roots are. This was my home."
So get used to it, Fullerton: Jesse La Tour isn't leaving any time soon.