I was disappointed by Hector’s Tobar article “Viva Gentrification!” Truth be told, Hector is one of the more political Latino journalists, but his portrayal of the barrio was at best quaint.
Tobar writes that his wife grew up in Highland Park “in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was still integrated, before ‘white flight’ was complete … before Spanish-language ads took over the billboards, and the complexions of the locals became almost exclusively cinnamon and café con leche.” He quotes his wife as saying, “‘I saw them all move out,’… And now I’m watching them move back in.” (Who, the white residents who fled?)
Tobar continues, “Racial integration is on the upswing; for that, a cry of ‘Viva gentrification!’ is in order”. While I appreciate Tobar’s enthusiasm for an integrated society, gentrification is no friend of his dream. Gentrification is a consequence of privatization of land and must be put into that historical context.
Tobar knows the problems of Main Streeting Highland Park. He knows the pitfalls of a largely white middle-class families “coming home.” Gentrification is more than white flight or Mexican versus white. It is part of a process occurring over the past three centuries as land has become liquid and a medium of exchange.
Land speculation is part of the culture of the City of the Angels; it pits developers against homeowners and landlords against renters. Billions if not trillions of dollars have been made bulldozing people. Gentrification just takes it to higher level impacting not only Highland Park but places such as Silver Lake, Echo Park, Boyle Heights and South Central L.A.
In 1941 California had a Mexican population of 354,432; Los Angeles had about 100,000. Public and private facilities were routinely dumped east of the L.A. River with many people believing that Boyle Heights, only a mile from the Civic Center, would eventually become a middle-class enclave. In 1939, the huge Wynerwood Apartment complex was built in anticipation of middle class renters.
The working class was attracted to the area because of the proximity to employment. Homeowners opposed low cost housing for the poor and many supported “slum clearance.” For the most part, this class rarely criticized police brutality. Joseph Kovner, the publisher of the Eastside Sun, was an exception and as early as1937 he criticized white flight and called for rent controls. There were progressives of other colors who never left.
The siege of the resources of Boyle Heights and other Mexican enclaves increased after World War II as freeways crisscrossed the Eastside displacing about 10,000 living units. In contrast, a projected freeway through Beverly Hills and West LA was blocked by wealthy homeowners. Eastside renters were powerless to stop the uprooting. “By 1963 609,000 [were] uprooted 2/3s minority urban land …When plans for freeways were proposed, these sections [east of the Los Angeles River] were considered expendable… …Freeways ultimately displaced ten percent of the area’s inhabitants” (Acuña, OA, 3d)
The best study on the gentrification of Boyle Heights is Lydia Avila-Hernandez’ “The Boyle Heights Landscape: The Pressures of Gentrification and the Need for Grassroots Community Action and Accountable Development.” It synthesizes the long struggle of the residents of Boyle Heights to preserve their community.
According to Avila-Hernandez, “Boyle Heights is a community primarily of renters. 75% of residents in Boyle Heights rent compared to the City of Los Angeles where 61% of residents are renters (City of L.A. General Plan). On average, 51% of occupied housing units are overcrowded, with 55% of renter-occupied units overcrowded and 40% of renter-occupied units severely overcrowded.”
The Eastside community of Boyle Heights will soon be the home of the second largest development in the City’s history; the Sears Town Center is spearheaded by developer Mark J. Weinstein of MJW Investments. He is a power house: his company has acquired approximately $800 million in real estate holdings including residential, commercial, industrial and self-storage properties.
Gentrification has a clear racial component. It is the displacement of lower income minority residents by more affluent middle class whites and Latinos. This displacement is not a natural phenomenon and it involves significant public or non- profit redevelopment investment. The motive in most cases is profit.
When prices escalate, those coming home develop a lower tolerance for social service facilities such as public housing that they view as undesirable. The ultimate obsession is protecting their investment.
A forgotten history is that of Prospect Park situated in what was once known as Brooklyn Heights, a neighborhood just south of Boyle Heights. It falls within the orbit of the White Memorial Hospital that according to a city planner friend still has, “expansion plans for [the area]. It is within recent history that they have actually moved forward with those plans. The original plans were to connect with LA County-USC Medical Center and build a mini-community for doctors, nurses and other personnel. A very ambitious plan.”
In the 1950s, simultaneous with “Bunker Hill and Chavez Ravine were falling prey to the bulldozers as the southwestern quadrant of Boyle Heights was set aside to provide apartments and recreational facilities for doctors, nurses and other personnel of White Memorial Hospital. The whole area was going to be bulldozed to make room for bicycle paths to take the beautiful people in suits to their downtown offices.” (Acuña, 2-15-2008)
Politicians and government are natural allies of gentrification: “local government receives more taxes, property values rise, and gangs disappear, while the neighborhoods become racially integrated.” The rhetoric is progress.
Avila-Hernández writes that improvements “will cause the in-migration of whites which will further spread the misperception that the neighborhood will get better as the number of white people increase.” Few renters can afford to buy a home –housing prices doubled from 2001 to 2005, reaching $400,000.
As pointed out, the theme is progress or integration as Tobar idealizes. However, there can be no progress as long as integration does not include a leveling of income and wealth.
The Los Angeles Times in a recent article titled “Two bars — one Mexicano, one ‘Chipster’ — show how an L.A. neighborhood is changing” underscores the perversity of gentrification. The reporter features two bars on First and Boyle—one Mexican and the other mixed:
“the two bars sit side-by-side like an immigrant father and his Americanized son, springing from the same root but not quite always getting each other. The Mexicano and the ‘Chipster’ —Chicano hipster…. right next door to a renovated Mariachi Plaza and a Gold Line subway station. The bars are across the street from a coffeehouse as well as the M Bar/The Metropolitan, where bands play.”
Gentrification is not about cultural integration, and it is not about racial or social integration. In order to stop the siege we cannot trivialize its effects. This is illustrated by a woman at the hipster bar who said: “Every community always has room for improvement….If we are going to experience gentrification … then it might as well be from people that are from the community, that are familiar with this Mexican American community.”
Exploitation comes in all colors, like with previous displacements, its name is greed.
(Postscript: Articles and studies on other neighborhoods that are being gentrified are not readily available. Boyle Heights is unique because it has middle-class and working-class activists such as Avila-Hernandez, David Cid and Carlos Montes and many others who have integrated into the community and fought for it. Desperately needed are in-depth studies on the effects of gentrification on communities such as Highland Park where people are “coming home”. After all, scholars and journalists are supposed to advocate for the community.)
See RODOLFO F. ACUÑA. “No Country for Renters Or Boyle Heights Without Mexicans,”
2 Feb 15, 2008. Published in Spanish in La Opinión on Feb 17 2008; RODOLFO ACUÑA, “The American Nightmare: Hedge Funds and the Death of the Peasant Landowner,” Counterpunch, June 7-9, 2013, http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/06/07/hedge-funds-and-the-death-of-the-peasant-landowner/
— by Rodolfo F. Acuña