Boulevard Revitalization and Neighborhood Change in Northeast Los Angeles

Artist rendering of parklet planned on York Boulevard between Avenue 50 and 51

Los Angeles is well known as a sprawling metropolis that is multi-nucleated rather than focused around a central civic center. The freeways are monuments to automobility and freedom in Los Angeles, but they also historically destroyed or bypassed established communities and contributed to economic and social separation. After decades of decline, the boulevards of Los Angeles are experiencing a revitalization that presents new possibilities for advancing local economic development and enhancing urban public life at the neighborhood level. Christopher Hawthorne, the architectural critic of the Los Angeles Times, has recently written a series of articles about the changes under way on Atlantic Boulevard, Sunset Boulevard and Crenshaw Boulevard.

Located in the foothills of Northeast Los Angeles, Occidental College is surrounded by the neighborhoods of Eagle Rock and Highland Park that are known for their traditions of architectural preservation, artistic and bohemian cultural life, independent small businesses, and immigrant diversity. The neighborhoods are framed by four boulevards: Figueroa Street, Colorado Boulevard, Eagle Rock Boulevard and York Boulevard. These boulevards were originally major corridors of commercial activity and public life in the days of the electric railways; they fell into decline in the middle decades of the twentieth century with the rise of the automobile and the construction of freeways, such as the Arroyo Seco Parkway (Interstate 110), State Route 2, and Interstate 134, that fostered commercial and residential decentralization and the development of peripheral suburbs. Business life on the boulevards was furthermore bypassed by the construction of the Eagle Rock Mall and other malls and commercial zones in Glendale and Pasadena.

In the last two decades, however, new interest has emerged in downtown and inner-ring neighborhoods such as Northeast Los Angeles, as a counter-trend to urban sprawl and the long commutes experienced by residents in exurban locations. The appeal of older neighborhoods with historically significant architecture close to central city cultural amenities has drawn young professionals and business investors to communities like Eagle Rock and Highland Park. The economic revitalization of the boulevards is palpable, but so are concerns about the displacement effects of residential and commercial gentrification.

Councilman José Huizar poses with community members in front of site of planned park on York Boulevard and Avenue 50

The revitalization of the boulevards has spawned community-based movements such as the Take Back the Boulevard campaign, which seeks to slow traffic on Colorado Boulevard, and includes measures for beautification and making the boulevard more pedestrian and bike-friendly. On York Boulevard, Councilman José Huizar's office has helped procure public monies for a park and parklet, street beautification, and traffic management. On Figueroa Street, the North Figueroa Association is working with the assistance of Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative funding to improvement the boulevard through streetscape enhancements.

Last fall, students in my Los Angeles Field Research class at Occidental College interviewed business leaders and public characters who provided personal perspectives on the economic and social transition underway in the boulevards of Northeast Los Angeles. This classroom field project was supported by the Keck Grant. These interviews document the personal histories, achievements, and aspirations of some leaders of the community, including both long-time residents and more recent in-movers.

We asked our informants to reflect on the changes in the boulevards and neighborhoods. We asked them to reflect on the complex dynamics caused by the arrival of bohemian hipsters and middle-class residents, including gentrification and racial transition that fosters the displacement of the low-income and immigrant population. We probed deep to discover their ideas on how economic growth can be managed while promoting livability, the arts, youth participation and an inclusive community life that represents the full diversity of the Northeast foothill neighborhoods. As a microcosm of the broader metropolis, the experiences of the boulevards in the Northeast foothills may enhance our perspective on comparable dynamics in other neighborhoods of Los Angeles experiencing similar cycles of decline and renewal.

Read the interviews conducted by Professor Lin's students here.

About the Author

Jan Lin is Professor of Sociology at Occidental College where he has been teaching since 1998. He is working on a new book, "Taking Back the Boulevard: Art, Activism and Gentrification in Northeast Los Angeles" under contract with NYU Press.
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