The NELA Riverfront Collaborative is an interdisciplinary project that builds upon the growing momentum of efforts already underway to transform the Los Angeles River into a "riverfront district" and to create a focal point of community revitalization. For more information visit our website www.mylariver.org
KCET Departures is the media partner of the Northeast Los Angeles Riverfront Collaborative.
The Northeast Los Angeles Riverfront Collaborative is preparing for a summer that will be brimming with activity. From community events like the April 27 Bike-Walk Spectacular to distributing surveys in five neighborhoods -- Atwater Village, Elysian Valley, Glassell Park, Cypress Park, Lincoln Heights -- that comprise the NELA RC study area, the NELA RC is inviting the residents, business owners, and other stakeholders to join us in exploring the possibilities of creating a "riverfront district" in Northeast L.A.
As part of the process, we begin a series of profiles of the people and places of Northeast Los Angeles. First up is the charismatic proprietor of Cypress Park's Antigua Coffee House, Yancey Quiñones. A long time resident of Cypress Park, Quiñones has been at 3400 North Figueroa Street since 2009. In this interview Quiñones discusses his vision of a community center coffee house, the L.A. River, and his thoughts on gentrification.
As a longtime resident of Cypress Park, how does it feel to be running a successful business in the community?
It means a lot being able to open a coffee house, more like a community coffee house. It's a resource center, a networking center, a super, in my opinion, progressive center. . . Just an opportunity to have a space in our community that didn't exist before. As I grew up a place like this never existed. As I got older, I went to college and came back and realized that we needed to develop our own community as community members. Taking care of our own neighborhood and helping out our own kids. And not relying on big corporations or conglomerates to come in and do that for us, when they don't really do that for us. So that's really what it was for me -- giving back to the community where I grew up and wanting to change it for the good.
There are many groups working for the river right now: Friends of the L.A. River, L.A. River Corp, NELA RC, just to name a few. These organizations have many objectives: to clean up the river and/or revitalize the riverfront, possibly develop certain areas for commercial or recreational use. What do you feel would be beneficial for the river, and what does revitalization look like to you?
I know a lot about the river and I know about the master plan, including the roundabout that's getting built on San Fernando Road and Figueroa right now. I'm a longtime resident of Cypress Park so I hear about a lot of the new bike paths that are in the works, and all of the other projects that stem from the master plan. And to me it's a benefit for the community.
When you think about the history of Cypress Park -- when they had street cars and then suddenly they were removed in the sixties; and we used to have a theater, the Arroyo Seco Theater, the building's still there but it's just a relic now. Anyway, the master plan is a great plan and we've had a lot of consistent political support in the last 30 years, starting with Mike Hernandez when he was on city council. I think the master plan could be a great way for our community to bloom in ways that you've never imagined before.
Through that process you're going to have a little bit of change, or what they call gentrification. Because apparently the people who are here get pushed out. But then, you have to look at our situation, for example my mother and father were immigrants and my mother came from Guatemala, and my father came from Mexico. But they settled here in Cypress Park, at a time when no one wanted to be here. White Flight had already occurred, so what happened was that you had a lot of immigrants coming in, a lot of people who were renting, and my parents' goal was to buy a property. That was the American Dream, to buy your own house.
It was hard times, but they lived that American Dream, and they bought their house, then they worried about educating their kids. So we grew up in this community very strongly and this whole thing about community gardens. . . we were doing that in our own backyards before it became popular! Going downtown to Grand Central Market and selling our products to the vendors. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to grow up very knowledgeable, in the process of things and seeing it. But like everything it takes time. I still remember when they were talking about building a high school over at Taylor Yard, when they called it Taylor Yard. Eighteen years later the High School is open. So it takes time, it's a process. You have to be patient, but things are going to happen.
Sometimes there is a conflict about "revitalization" in communities -- which critics are quick to relate with the word "gentrification" -- especially when the community is not asked about how they feel regarding some of these projects. Other times some of the harshest critics of revitalization are outsiders. What are your thoughts on that?
Well let me tell you this community fact: South Gate, Maywood, Huntington Park -- all these neighborhoods were at one point White communities. Super White. Then you had White Flight, and they left and the neighborhoods got gentrified by Mexicans and new immigrants. Now these communities are 100%, if not 110% Mexican. It was reverse gentrification.
Now you have the communities here -- Highland Park, Cypress Park, Glassell Park, Elysian Valley and so forth. I remember as a kid, my mom used to clean a house just down the street from here, Mrs. Andrews' house. They were White/Italian areas. You had Russians and Eastern Europeans that actually settled here, over at Sycamore Park. There are old pictures of these families having picnics at the park.
Over time, the street cars disappear and people leave because the convenience of transportation is gone. So what happens? They leave and who comes in? Immigrants. They settle there because you're always going to give the immigrants the worst. You want a neighborhood? Here. You gotta walk all the way down the street. We're not going to give you any buses or nothing. So they packed us up in to the areas, but then we eventually start to get educated and start to move up the ladder. So when that happens they start to call it gentrification. So how can you call it gentrification when it's people who were raised here that want to make their community a better place. It's an oxymoron if you think about it because it doesn't make sense.
Right. I remember when I lived and worked in Glassell Park several years ago, I would see other young Latinos move in to the neighborhood -- maybe they were working in creative fields because they looked kind of hip. And I began to ask myself: Am I a gentrifier? Can a Latino gentrify their own neighborhood where they've been living and working all these years? It was very perplexing, but I realize that slowly communities begin to change.
[Laughs] All you have to do is get a high school diploma and a B.A. and you're a gentrifier! It's very bizarre and it's complicated. Look at Boyle Heights over near Plaza Mariachi. They have beautiful craftsmen and Victorian homes -- like we do on this side of town. And the thing is that there are people who are coming in to these neighborhoods and saying, "Wow look at what we left. Let's fix it up." Yeah they're coming in with more money, it's true. They're coming in with more money, things are getting a little more expensive, and they're pushing people away.
So I think the solution for that is what we haven't done in the past 30 years -- to educate the immigrant community and show them how to be independent and how to be entrepreneurs in that sense. There are many who are already doing this. But I think we need more of a push. There is a lack of knowledge about how to do this for many people in these communities, a lack of resources on how to open up your own business. That's one of the issues.
While we're on the subject, can you tell us about your process in starting Antigua?
This project began 2007. Before that I had opened up the shop in the community of El Sereno. I opened there in 2005. It was there for 3 years. But in 2007 I was going home one night and I saw this space for lease. Now this spot, this building here used to be the old ice cream shop when I was a kid. It was one of these memorable places that you would go to when you got out of Loreto Elementary school down the block. You would stop by and the old grumpy guy would give you ice cream and once he scooped it up you couldn't change your mind anymore...one of those guys. He was a cool guy though, he had a huge cowbell on the door so he could hear you come in.
So I got in touch with the landlord, and I remember when I first walked in it was a wreck. I realized that if I was to put something in this space I was going to spend a lot of money. . . but was it worth it? At that time there was still a lot of gang graffiti going on, it was still kind of shady. But then I thought, if I bring something like this here I know we're going to, quote-unquote "gentrify." Cuz that's just what's going to happen. But I thought: I'm a dreamer, I'm a go-getter, I just do stuff. I don't think about it too much. I do it and when I'm done, here you go we have a coffee house.
I opened in 2009 with no employees, just me. I thought what the hell, I'll figure it out. I was hugely in debt, but I didn't think about it. I went on Facebook and really promoted it. Even two years before I opened it I was promoting it. But I made it look like it was open. Because you want to make it look like that. And little by little people started trickling in. In 2010 we worked really hard. Still in major debt. Basically at the beginning you're just paying off your debt. You're not even living. You don't even exist. You're a zombie. But you're paying off your debt. And then 2011 came by and it's getting better. Then I thought maybe I could do something next door, where we now have a bike shop.
There's something cool about being able to look in to the bike shop from the inside of your coffee house. You've designed it so that there are windows between each other's businesses. What's the history of your collaboration with the Flying Pigeon?
It was a rundown little office before. I came in and I gutted the place out to the bare bones, and eventually I lured over a business that was up the street, The Flying Pigeon. I said hey let's get more foot traffic together! So we stared building a community little by little. I reached out the Flying Pigeon, Josef, and he jumped on board, and we took it from there. And again it was the same thing -- work work work and marketing marketing marketing.
[takes break to take orders from a growing line of customers]
It was insane because once he put everything in it was like I had designed the space for him, even though initially it was meant to house my coffee roasters. Honestly I didn't know I could do anything like that. Again, you can do anything you want. You can build whatever you want, you've just got to believe in it. It's that old saying about whatever you want to create you have to believe in it first. I've always guided myself through that. So after we did these things I started thinking, what do I do now?
I get the impression you're on to something new. What's next on the horizon for you?
Well there's a concept I've always wanted to do. We have these tunnels. They're underground walkways that existed back when we had streetcars up on Figueroa. When I was a kid we used to go through those when we wanted to cross the street, but then they locked them up about 18 years ago because it got really violent. Even when I was a kid it used to be violent. We used to get beat up in those tunnels.
So. . . I thought hey, these things are not being used. Some of them had been covered up by the city, sealed off. Some of them are used as storage by the city. And I thought, look at our tunnel -- what can we do that's going to revitalize this community? So it occurred to me that we could open it up to have an underground art gallery. It could be opened up once a month with the Art Walk. We'll clean it out and work with the city and the schools on this project, and we get to showcase up and coming artists in this area. We get to hold their hand through the process. We'll block the street and we'll have music and workshops, and create a community where a community should be.
So I wrote the proposal to the councilman at the time, Ed Reyes, and they sat on it for two years, though I was always bugging him about it. Miraculously election year came and I heard, "Yancey, remember that proposal you put on our desk, we think we should do it." So I said WOW who am I supposed to vote for here? Anyway. . . the process got moving and it's going to open up in May 2013.