Last week the Los Angeles Times covered a story on a neighborhood known as Boyle Heights in Los Angeles that is as alarming as it is ironic. The crux of the story entitled Vandal Targets Coffee Shop at Center of Anti-Gentrification Protests in Boyle Heights is an ongoing battle between a group of residents fighting what they see as gentrification of their community and small businessmen who own galleries and coffee shops looking to relocate to that neighborhood.
But before delving into the alarming and ironic, let us first take a look at the neighborhood itself. Way back when California was part of Mexico, the area that is present day Boyle Heights was known as “Paredon Blanco” or White Bluff. 142 years ago, William Henry Workman along with 2 other partners developed the area. Workman named the subdivision after his father-in-law Andrew Boyle, an Irishman. The intent of Workman was to create large, desirable residences for the City of Los Angeles’ growing professional and managerial elite. One of the partners on the project was Isaias Hellman, immigrant and respected banker who would later take over the banking and financial assets of the transport company, Wells Fargo. But, that is a story for another day. . .
Soon Boyle Heights was no longer home to the elites of Los Angeles. Starting in the late teens it had become a predominantly Jewish, but mixed Eastern European middle class neighborhood. Late into the 1940s the neighborhood became solidly working class; a racially and ethnically diverse community of Jews, Mexicans, Serbians, Croatians, Portuguese, and Japanese.
Today the area has become racially, linguistically, and religiously homogeneous and is in no way as diverse as it had been in the first six decades of the 20th Century. The Boyle Heights community is 95% Hispanic and Latino, solidly Catholic, and working class. Boyle Heights is as monolithic as Los Angeles’ Protestant White suburbs of the 1950’s once were.
Of course, diversity exists between the Mexican and Central American ethnic residents. But the population is now decidedly Latino. According to the 2000 census, the Boyle Heights neighborhood has one of the highest percentages of Latinos in Los Angeles.
As was the case with the monolithic White Protestant Suburbs of the 1950’s, in the Latino Boyle Heights of 2017, those from different races, religions, and class levels are NOT WELCOME. The “you are not welcome mat” in Boyle Heights is manifesting the same way it did in the White suburbs of the 1950’s and 1960’s. This brand of fear and loathing we thought we outgrew in the US is conveyed in Boyle Heights by subtle personal distance, avoidance, and by outright organized public rejection.
As was the case in White suburbs of the past, people who are different, who have different tastes in food, music, clothing, religion and automobiles are seen as a direct clear and present unwelcome danger to the existing treasured way of life. Sticky warm acrid fear of the other was in the air in those mid century enclaves. A fear that fueled otherwise decent kind people into unfounded classist and racist public hyperbole.
My family has been in California for five generations and I remember those suburbs. I remember that the Latino’s next door were considered “White” back in a world where race was constructed of White, Black and Asian. It was a pretty uncomplicated world. When Sam Sheets, a well educated professional Black man moved into the Meadows in Altadena, the fear, stereotypes and hate filled racial epithets flew wildly as white families fled in fear, anger and racial solidarity. It didn’t help that as the number of Black children grew, so did the neighborhood violence against White, Latino and Asian kids. These things fueled each other like gasoline and oxygen in a combustion chamber, constantly seeking a spark and causing resultant explosions.
Some of us remained in those once white protestant monolithic suburbs. We learned of other peoples’ lives. We developed understanding, compassion and respect for the “Other” to the point that the “Other” just became a part of “us”. Much of American society has pretended to do this work, even our white friends who fled to Orange County or Idaho, and who speak harshly of California while carefully avoiding any hint that so much of their hatred is based on two dimensional cartoons of people who they never actually met as three dimensional people.
What I find alarming about the LA Times article are the misstatements, racially charged epithets, and cartoonish flat misinformed representations of the “Other”. Yes the “Other” in this case are Whites. Yes, the “Other” in this case, seem to be more affluent than the present majority of the inhabitants of that neighborhood. My question is, does their difference make them in fact any less human? Are they because of their skin color less deserving of respect than were those newcomers in Altadena in 1965?
I have lived in two working class neighborhoods that have been gentrified (a kinder way to say the destruction of a community) My present neighborhood, is again the one I grew up in, that 1950’s Los Angeles Protestant Suburb that became 66% Black between 1965 and 1970. Black people are now less than 20% of my neighborhood. I wince every time a Black owned home goes up for sale. It means another person who lives in my neighborhood is departing primarily for real estate appreciation and the flip to the next place and the next real estate opportunity.
The irony comes when the article quotes 38 year-old Fernando Ramirez, a resident of East Los Angeles who states, “don’t contribute to the displacement of the people in the community right here in Boyle Heights. Our rents are going up because of art galleries, please don’t cross the picket line!” Ramirez, according to his Facebook page is a Field Organizer at United Electrical Workers and posted several images on his page that included one that stated, “F*** Your Orders, F*** Your Borders, F*** Your Laws.” The ironic thing is what is contributing to rent inflation is not necessarily “gentrifiers.” Rather it is unbridled immigration and foreign investment in US housing real estate. For instance, almost 100% of the California “housing need” is driven by foreign born immigrants, legal and illegal aliens. This is at time when native-born Californians are leaving the state at a faster rate than they are being born. Moreover, US born citizens are leaving and moving into the state in roughly equal numbers.
Foreign investment is also a driver. Granted, we all watched with woe the Japanese buying iconic properties like Rockefeller Center in NYC only to see them change hands a decade later. But what is going on in California is that foreigners are purchasing houses at an alarming rate and in many instances paying cash. This combined with low interest rates helps to inflate real estate prices.
People like Mario Chavarria, one of the owners of Weird Coffee and gallery owners are constantly on the prowl for low rents and growth opportunities because they have been priced out of other areas. For example, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment just across the river in downtown Los Angeles is $2,030. For those that may recall, 15 years ago hardly anyone lived in downtown Los Angeles.
So, Mr. Ramirez, what is driving your high rents and overcrowded conditions is not the handful of gallery and coffee shop owners moving into your neighborhood. It is the systemic growth in California’s population fueled largely by unchecked immigration – the very thing you think is just dandy. Well, perhaps you wouldn’t think it were just dandy if the majority of those entering the country were from places other than Mexico. . .
Regardless, I admire the activists of Boyle Heights for wanting to save their neighborhood from what must seem like a horde of locusts. But misinforming people in ways such as calling a coffee outlet owned by a partnership of a White and Latino persons a “White Coffee shop”, hating people for their skin color or class, these are things we had believed as Californians had been overcome. Decades ago most Americans looked in the mirror and developed a sense of empathy and tolerance for groups who had been abused and disenfranchised sine the country’s founding. The underlying issues creating gentrification is demand for real estate. Circling the wagons has in the past proven to be a poor strategy. As a state we must look at where that demand comes from, and with empathy and in a manner that unites as opposed to divides, seek to alleviate it in a way that benefits all citizens of our Golden State.