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Beauty Without the Pain: Can Cambodian Americans Revitalize Their Town Without Displacing Their Own?


Launching September 13, City Rising is a multimedia documentary program that traces gentrification and displacement through a lens of historical discriminatory laws and practices. Fearing the loss of their community’s soul, residents are gathering into a movement, not just in California, but across the nation as the rights to property, home, community and the city are taking center stage in a local and global debate. Learn more.

This article was produced in collaboration with VoiceWaves, a Long Beach youth-led journalism and media-training project. The youth, ages 15-25, are learning to report, write and create digital journalism content.

Sayon Syprasoeuth glides his 3-inch paint roller over a large, cartoon outline of a Cambodian dancer’s face. Her orange-toned head towers between two window panes on a second-story building. To the right of her are three other dancers, each with their right arms angled like a backward “Z,” palms faced up and decorated with ancient Cambodian jewelry.

Syprasoeuth reaches his long and slender body to his mural. On his left hand, he holds a small paint tray and uses his right to soak his roller. He draws artistic influence from the 1970s Cambodian genocide and the country’s endangered animals, like Asian elephants and bulls, as inspiration.

The building he paints on, located on the corner of Dawson Avenue and Anaheim Street, shares space with a beauty salon, a tax preparation service and a few Cambodian organizations. He wants places like these to get fixed up and beautified, and he says he hopes to bring “visibility and inclusion” through his artistic contribution. But while he sees his work as a celebration of culture, he may be unintentionally part of gentrification in Cambodia Town.

Interdisciplinary artist Sayon Syprasoeuth paints his Cambodia-themed mural located on the corner of Dawson Avenue and Anaheim Street on June 30, 2017. He is one of eight artists selected for the Cambodia Town Mural Project.  | Crystal Niebla
Sayon Syprasoeuth’s mural on 2201 E. Anaheim St. was inspired by Cambodian seniors in Long Beach who wanted to celebrate artistic expression, like dance and colorful clothing, when many Cambodians were stripped of those freedoms during the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia during the 1970s. This photo was taken on June 30, 2017. | Crystal Niebla

The “G” Word

Depending on who you ask, you might get a different word to describe investors pouring money into city projects. From a beneficiary’s perspective, like, say, a luxury apartment developer, they may call it “revitalization.” They may also argue that driving up rent with their $2,000-lofts will attract higher-income people to live in the city and ultimately stimulate the economy. Win-win, right?

Developments like apartments or new corporate stores at The Pike are great and all, but not until higher property values push out low-income residents with rising rent. As housing prices continue to increase in the city, many low-income renters say incoming development is only a win for the rich.

That’s where the “G” Word comes in: gentrification. It’s a word that alienates the wealthier, incoming residents, which many say tend to lack ethnic diversity.

For Long Beach, diversity is everything. Mayor Robert Garcia even called it an “international city” once, with its collage of Latinx, black and Asian communities. But out of all that diversity, the Cambodian community is a one-of-a-kind. The city has the largest concentration of this population outside of Cambodia. It’s part of the Long Beach brand.

Arts Council for Long Beach hosted an informal meeting at a bar on the eastside that showcased muralists participating in their Cambodia Town Mural Project, where eight selected artists paint a mural throughout Cambodian Town. Shortly after, they encouraged dialogue on “preserving cultural assets” in the city, which was the bigger talking point that evening.

A woman, who admitted she’s a part of “the gentrification movement,” was bold enough to say people of color needed to just buy more facilities to maintain their cultural presence like she did for her art warehouse. As if it were that easy, many muttered to themselves.

“It’s a point well taken, but you need money,” a man rebuttals as people pass him the mic.

And that’s precisely the problem: locals don’t have enough money to buy a home or shop.

Individual Poverty Rates by Race & Ethnicity, 2007-2011. Low educational attainment, language barriers, a primarily agricultural background and more are some of the major socioeconomic issues that contribute to the high poverty level for Cambodian Americans in Cambodia Town.  |  2013 Report on The State of Cambodian Town by UCLA
The Pike Outlets in Long Beach. 2017. |  Tracie Hall/Flickr/Creative Commons​

A Double-Edged Sword

Where else can businesses go than to the city for help?

Monorom Neth, who serves as Executive Director for the Midtown Business Improvement District, oversees businesses on Anaheim Street between Alamitos and Raymond avenues, where the highest concentration of Cambodian businesses sit. There are 183 active business licenses in this district, about 20 pending approval, and 15-20 delinquent on payments, Neth says.

Businesses in his district want to appropriate the money it collects off fees to make the area clean, safe and beautiful.

To keep it clean, the district hires Conservation Corps of Long Beach to pick up trash twice a week and power-wash the sidewalks once a week.

To keep it safe, the district is in the process of hiring a security company for the area, which may become controversial.

To make it beautiful, they have eight murals, those of which are part of the Cambodia Town Mural Project, and seven are in within the district.

“Small business is the backbone of every community, and that is why you need to take care of it,” he adds.

Fixing up businesses would not only strengthen and preserve the Cambodian culture, the money collected from more tourism is the end goal.

But can tourism drive displacement?

Economy expert Christopher Thornberg, the founder of Beacon Economics, thinks so.

He explains that when a community increases its demand, people will take notice and want to be there. New, more affluent people — whether they’re individuals or businesses — would then drive up property values.

While more businesses can also translate to more job opportunities for the low-income residents in a city, he also says one could argue that the wealthiest people tend to benefit disproportionately from positive growth trends. Consequently, as mentioned before, wealthier people tend to lack ethnic diversity, which can change the face of a cultured community as minority groups often make up low-income populations.

“You can’t make things better and the same at the same time,” Thornberg says about communities wanting city development without displacement.

“There’s no simple answer here. But … to try to stop economic progress in order to maintain a current lifestyle for low-income residents is ultimately self-defeating,” he says grimly.

Noble Fashion clothing store in Little Phnom Penh, Long Beach, California. |  UC Irvine, Southeast Asian Archive/Online Archive of California
Little Phnom Penh Pacific restaurant and bakery in Long Beach, California.  |  UC Irvine, Southeast Asian Archive/Online Archive of California

The Reality

Rent-burdened households, 2007-2011. |  2013 Report on The State of Cambodian Town by UCLA

Neth explains the cold, hard truth about the cost of housing: it’s not getting any cheaper. Understanding so, he bought a home in Bellflower because he couldn’t afford it in Long Beach.

For Long Beach Cambodian Americans that save enough money, they usually move to places like Cerritos, Lakewood or North Long Beach, he says.

While a common solution for Long Beach’s unaffordable rent is for tenants to move away, Tongratha Veng from Cambodian Association of American, a human rights organization, says his often low-income Cambodian clients tend to move in with each other.

“... There’s no place to sit usually,” he says after visiting Cambodian American homes.

He explains that they don’t move away because they get used to Cambodian markets, public transportation, culture and language accessibility.

Veng’s colleague, Gary Colfax, worked with a family where 22 people lived in a 2-bedroom apartment in Long Beach. He could not disclose their identity for privacy reasons.

These crammed living conditions lead to health problems, mental distress or even poor academic performance for youth who lack healthy study environments, they explain.

Average Household Size by Race & Ethnicity, 2007-2011. |  2013 Report on The State of Cambodian Town by UCLA

Although tenants have seen a spike in rent, the cost of housing has been rising long before.

In past city announcements for downtown housing, many Long Beach residents are baffled by the little amount of affordable units relative to the high need.

“It’s never enough,” Neth says about the amount of affordable housing availability. “But at least you’re doing something verses you do nothing.”

Neth hopes beautification of Anaheim will attract more tourism, and they can’t accomplish that without the city’s support. He hopes to get Carnival Cruise tourists from the port precisely because they’re far away visitors. They can stop by and spend their money in Cambodia Town, he says.

Gorlia Xiong in modern White Hmong dress holding genj, 2545 Adriatic Ave., Long Beach, California, May, 1999. |  California State Library/Archive
Youth from United Cambodian Community participate in a canning program, Long Beach, California, ca. 1994.  |  California State Library/Archive

What’s Next?

Syprasoeuth, the muralist, says he honestly doesn’t know what will come with the incoming change to Cambodia Town, including his artistic contribution. He refers to revitalization without displacement as a balancing act. Having been displaced himself three times in Orange County apartments due to high rent, he experienced the negative results when a community becomes beautified and developed.

“Once things are fixed up, I’m sure things are going to go up a little bit. That just kind of comes with the territory,” he concludes. “I hope it doesn’t. It’d be great if it didn’t.”

A local volunteer stops by to help paint the bottom right portion of a Cambodian-themed mural on the corner of Dawson Avenue and Anaheim Street in Long Beach on June 30, 2017. The mural is part of the Cambodia Town Mural Project led by Arts Council for Long Beach. | Crystal Niebla
Tracy Negrete, one of eight artists selected for the Cambodia Town Mural Project, adds finishing touches to her mural on 1436 E. Anaheim St. in Long Beach on June 30, 2017. Negrete used Cambodian and Aztec symbols to epitomize the theme of unity of cultures in a diverse Cambodia Town. | Crystal Niebla

Top Image: United Cambodian Community Center Plaza Building, 2338 East Anaheim Street, Long Beach, California. | 2013 Report on The State of Cambodian Town by UCLA

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