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Social Agency: Art, Gentrification and Reclaiming in Northeast L.A. Neighborhoods

Sunset over Arroyo Seco Parkway at York Boulevard. | Waltarrrr/Creative Commons
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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.

The rampant gentrification of Eagle Rock and Highland Park is one of the most talked about issues in Los Angeles over the last decade and it continues at a breakneck pace. “Taking Back the Boulevard,” a new book from Occidental College Professor Jan Lin, not only documents the current situation in these two adjacent neighborhoods but it tells a bigger story of the artists and activists that have called Eagle Rock and Highland Park home for over a century. The key question of the book that its narrative centers on is: “Will the streets of Northeast L.A. remain a place for immigrants to pursue their American dreams as gentrification continues to unfold?”

The title of the book refers to a number of methods of “taking back the boulevard.” Initially the term came from a campaign of the Eagle Rock Association called Take Back the Boulevard (TBIB). But in the book, “taking back refers to the social agency of people who take to the streets to oppose unwanted urban development, gentrification, and the accompanying eviction and displacement process and demands for housing rights.” 

Lin celebrates the social agency and heroic efforts of programs including TBIB, and groups such as the Northeast Los Angeles Alliance (NELA), the Occidental College Students United Against Gentrification, Friends of Highland Park and the LA Tenants Union to take back their boulevard and hold on to their neighborhood even in spite of market forces and the efforts of carpetbagger developers and emerging transplants. He spotlights a litany of strategies these groups are using to fight gentrification in order to create “a more socially just, inclusive, and environmentally sustainable urban future.” Lin knows all of these groups because he lives in the area and he has been a participant-observer in the processes he writes about.

The book’s subtitle outlines further its larger purpose: “Art, Activism and Gentrification in Los Angeles.” The text examines the evolving built environment along Figueroa and Colorado Boulevards over the last 100 plus years to meticulously document the history of Highland Park and Eagle Rock’s historic architecture, their patterns of development, their shifts in migration, the residential succession, the rise of community movements and most recently, waves of gentrification. Lin’s account mixes his 20 years of field experience in the area with quantitative research using street- and community-level experiences of neighborhood transition to document the shifts.

Neighborhood Shifts

Lin shows that what has happened along these two key boulevards in these adjacent neighborhoods has made the locale an epicenter for social, economic and political upheaval. “By the 2010s,” he writes, “the gentrification of Highland Park and Eagle Rock had become evident and the boulevards were brimming with new cafes, art galleries, vintage record stores, and retail boutiques. Many businesses featured handmade, artisanal, do-it-yourself (DIY), and repurposed vintage products. Journalists and food and culture critics in Los Angeles and New York wrote articles that portrayed and defined the new bohemian and hipster cultural scene.”    

The author addresses the pros and cons of the creative economy and the sociology of bohemian neighborhoods. One critique he offers in this regard is: “Rather than being artistic producers of bohemian culture, hipsters are rebel consumers of déclassé culture.” He is critical of the transaction-oriented economy and the idea of extraction that hipster consumers practice rather than residents who organically create and contribute to their local streetscape. Lin differentiates between urban tourism and emerging hipsters to celebrate the stories of determined community activists, preservationists, environmentalists, citizen protestors and arts organizers.

Lin “follow(s) the rise, decline, and reemergence of the Northeast L.A. neighborhoods against the broader cycle of urban economic and demographic change from the late 19th to the early 21st century.” The titles of the seven chapters go a long way to explicate the narrative: “Introduction: Scenes from Northeast Los Angeles, 1) Boulevards, Gentrification, and Urban Culture, 2) The Stages of Neighborhood Transition, 3) From Arroyo Culture to NELA Arts, 4) Neighborhood Activism and Slow Growth, 5) Gentrification, Displacement, and the Right to the City, and Conclusion: Going Back to the Future.” 

Panoramic view of N. Figueroa Street in Highland Park, near the intersection of Avenue 50. Monte Vista Ave. parallels it to the left. Circa 1908. | Public Domain
Panoramic view of N. Figueroa Street in Highland Park, near the intersection of Avenue 50. Monte Vista Ave. parallels it to the left. Circa 1908. | Public Domain

One of the first topics Lin addresses is a quick history of gentrification and how the word came to rise in 1964. “British sociologist Ruth Glass (1964),” Lin writes, “is popularly credited with coining the term ‘gentrification’ in her study of residential rehabilitation in the north London neighborhood of Islington, where middle-class home buyers were displacing working-class families.” Before he goes in further about how Northeast Los Angeles is a good illustration of the “stage model of gentrification,” he gives a quick breakdown of how this model has affected Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Brooklyn and he then goes into a few other models of gentrification like “the high-technology venture-capital-fueled transformation of San Francisco’s ‘dot-com’ neighborhoods” and “the phenomenon of green gentrification.” Considering how widespread these practices are across America from Portland to Miami and even internationally, Lin’s explanations offer a useful primer into the different types of gentrification afflicting cities worldwide. 

His exegesis on green gentrification is particularly pertinent because in an era of global warming, most citizens want to contribute to the regreening of the city. “The special locational characteristics of Northeast Los Angeles in the bucolic green setting of the Arroyo Seco tributary and restoration efforts for new parks along the adjacent Los Angeles River are also prime attractions,” Lin states. Moreover, he adds, “A bohemian and green variant of gentrification is evident in Northeast Los Angeles that contrasts from the corporate super-gentrification seen in Downtown Los Angeles around the Convention Center.” Lin continues that the closeness to nature in Northeast Los Angeles is a type of “Southern California Portlandia.”

The narrative of “Taking Back the Boulevard” covers an A to Z of the residential and economic shifts that have happened in the area and even briefly describes related processes that have occurred across Southern California in areas like Venice, the San Fernando Valley and Monterey Park. One of the processes Lin does best is spotlighting dozens of the transformative moments and events that have made Highland Park and Eagle Rock and Los Angeles at large what they all are now. 

Urban History Model of Neighborhood Change 

The “Urban History Model of Neighborhood Change” is Lin’s coined phrase for the last 130 years of neighborhood transition in Northeast Los Angeles. He describes it as “a four-stage cycle of Investment, Disinvestment, Revitalization and Gentrification.” The Investment phase obviously began in the 1880s when the neighborhoods emerged with the streetcar system and shortly after that with the rise of the Craftsmen movement in architecture that really blossomed along the Arroyo Seco in conjunction with the beautiful local landscape “replete with sycamore trees, native plants, wildflowers, and geologic curiosa such as Eagle Rock, a granite spherical monolith.” The natural beauty indigenous to this region is why some of the earliest suburbs of Los Angeles were here. As anyone who has studied Los Angeles history knows, “The Arroyo Seco has also been a key contributor to the cultural mythology of Los Angeles as a place of endless sunshine, an agricultural paradise, and a suburban utopia.” 

Lin does an excellent job of documenting not only this cultural mythology but the many artists that have called these areas home over the last 130 years including more recent movements like the dozens of Chicano artists in the district of the last four decades. After briefly spotlighting the early boosters of the craftsmen era like Charles Fletcher Lummis, the author moves chronologically through the four-stage cycle highlighted above. 

The Arroyo Seco Parkway | Steve Boland/Creative Commons
The Arroyo Seco Parkway | Steve Boland/Creative Commons

The Disinvestment phase is characterized by White Flight and suburbanization. The rise of the freeway system and aerospace industry promoted the disenfranchisement of Northeast Los Angeles. “The freeways,” Lin states, “effectively enabled white flight while fostering racial removal, erasing and obscuring the visibility of racial minorities while promoting edifices of redevelopmental progress and utopian white modernity like Dodger Stadium, Disneyland, and an elite civic center at Bunker Hill.” 

Drawing on the work of writers like Eric Avila, Lin catalogs this transition of white flight in Northeast L.A. while showcasing the emergence of the Latin American and Asian immigrants who replaced former residents. “By the 1970s,” Lin adds, “Chicano/a art collectives would emerge to activate a cultural renaissance through their iconography and social practices of self-help, youth education and mentorship, public art, and community building.” One of these artists was Richard Duardo whose family moved to Highland Park in the early 1960s.    

Lin quotes Duardo in the text: “I remember we were the first Mexican family probably within the blocks. We were the first sign of the Mexican migration into Highland Park,” Duardo told Lin in an earlier interview. Though Duardo passed in 2014 at only 62, he was a critical figure in the Chicano art community. He was a master print maker and co-founder of Centro de Arte Publico. “Duardo,” Lin explains, “like other Latino/as in the 1960s and 1970s, came of age carrying the spirit of political protest and community empowerment through their affiliation with the Chicano/a movement that went through successive campaigns, including East L.A. Walkouts/Chicano Blowouts of 1968 protesting unequal conditions in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) schools and the Chicano Moratorium protests of 1970 against the Vietnam War.”

Art Collectives and Neighborhood Transformation

The art collectives, Lin writes, were influenced by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, protests against the freeways and campaigns for emerging Chicano elected officials like U.S. Congressman Ed Roybal and city council member Richard Alatorre. Needless to say, these Latino families and art collectives brought “new life to its declining residential neighborhoods and commercial boulevards.” Mike Davis called this process, “tropicalizing cold urban space,” in his book “Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. Big City.”

Lin also briefly details the smaller influx of Asian residents like Filipino and Korean families who settled in Highland Park and Eagle Rock beginning in the 1970s. “Residential succession,” Lin writes, “by incoming Latin American and Asian immigrants helped stabilize the residential and commercial property market. One of the more exceptional immigrant stories was Korean immigrants Do Won Chang and Jin Sook Chang who in 1984 established Fashion 21, a discount woman’s clothing and beauty retailer on North Figueroa Street. Their highly successful business eventually became Forever 21, now the fifth largest specialty clothing retailer in the United States with over six hundred stores globally.” 

Lin shows the Latino cultural renaissance in Highland Park “contributed to the movement of white artists back to Northeast L.A.” Along with his portraits of the Chicano art collectives, there are brief sections on the L.A. School of Urban Studies, the Friends of the Los Angeles River, the Arroyo Arts Collective, emerging ethnic enclaves, the “slow growth” movement, “hipster-flipper outfits,” and many other groups of people that have been active in the area.

For instance, the singer-songwriter Jackson Browne “lived recurring periods of his life in Highland Park at Abbey San Encino, a local landmark of the Arts and Crafts Movement built by his grandfather Clyde Browne.” The house was finished in 1924 and even features stained glass by Judson Studios and a tiled fireplace by Ernest Batchelder. Lin writes that Browne lived in the house during the late 1960s and “the cover of his second album, “For Everyman,” features him seated in the courtyard at Abbey San Encino.”

Browne’s grandfather was an expert printer that assisted in the publishing of many early works of California literature at the Abbey. He even briefly helped Ward Ritchie and Lawrence Clark Powell begin their publishing career at the Abbey in the 1930s before they would both go on to become influential figures in literary Los Angeles. Jackson Browne’s brother Severin continues to live at the Abbey San Encino to this day. I was there for a poetry event in 2017 and it is a truly remarkable time capsule of the Arts and Crafts era.

Another equally fascinating fact Lin shares is that in the early 1990s, Zack de la Rocha, the vocalist and front-man of Rage Against the Machine “founded the Public Resource Center/Centro de Regeneración at the location of the former Sunbeam Theater in Highland Park on North Figueroa Street and Avenue 56 that became an important local center for globally influenced music and activism.” De la Rocha’s space was an important center for political consciousness and independent radio. His father, Roberto de la Rocha was a member of the influential 1970s muralist collective, Los Four, which included Gilbert Lujan, Frank E. Romero and Carlos Almaraz along with de la Rocha.

In 1999, Kathy Gallegos opened Avenue 50 Studio in Highland Park on Avenue 50, a block west of Figueroa and it continues to flourish to this day. Lin credits Gallegos with carrying on the spirit of the pioneering Chicano/a art collectives of the 1970s and 80s along with curating “exhibitions for artists working in media marginalized by the established arts world, such as graffiti and tattoos, and those with strong political messages.” Avenue 50 has also hosted frequent poetry events over the last two decades organized by locals like Jessica Ceballos, Angelina Saenz and Karineh Mahdessian.

Lin is very thorough in his coverage of the active artists around Highland Park and Eagle Rock. He uses a poem by Lisa Marie Sandoval to open up the book. In addition to covering all of the artists mentioned above, he also mentions Judy Baca’s mural project “History of Highland Park,” the pioneering muralist Chaz Bojorquez and seminal artists like Barbara Carrasco, Dolores Cruz, Judithe Hernandez and John Valadez among many others.

Left to right, back: John Valadez, Judithe Hernandez, Dolores Guerrero. Front: Barbara Carrasco and other CRA employees in 1981. Image courtesy of Barbara Carrasco.
Left to right, back: John Valadez, Judithe Hernandez, Dolores Guerrero. Front: Barbara Carrasco and other CRA employees in 1981. Image courtesy of Barbara Carrasco.

Social Agency is the Solution

Lin accomplishes several objectives throughout the book. He does a comprehensive job of highlighting the neighborhood histories, he explicates different types of gentrification and then finally “excavates strategies” residents can use to take back their boulevard. He achieves this by making “visible the social agency of the people of Northeast Los Angeles who created revolutionary art and protested for preservation and neighborhood quality of life, local ownership of their historical cultural landmarks, community review of land-use development policies, tenant protections, and rights to affordable housing.” Another final note that needs to be said is that Lin knew each of these groups personally from the 21 years he has lived in the area. The book was written from his direct experience watching all of these processes unfold in front of him.

His narrative shows how “the victims of the redevelopment and gentrification process in Highland Park and their supporters protest(ed) their right to the city as a touchstone for social inclusion. They assert(ed) their sense of ownership over their communities and rights as urban citizens.” This sense of ownership taken by these citizens lionized by Lin is also the same spirit of ownership that the late Nipsey Hussle practiced in the Crenshaw District. It is about long-term residents owning property and businesses in their own community and playing a direct role in the future of their neighborhood rather than letting the developers or corrupt politicians control the boulevard’s fate.

Lin’s book tells an important story of citizens protecting their neighborhoods but not in a method that is exclusionary or elitist. Rather he “seek(s) to contribute to conceptual clarification of the local character of neighborhood activism. Neighborhood action can often be perceived by the general public as localism or NIMBYism and local community actors as provincial, clannish and antimodernist.” In this account though, Lin shows “how slow growth movements for preservation and neighborhood quality of life and anti-gentrification struggles of housing rights and environmental impact review are not backward but progressive social effervescences of local organizational activity to mobilize participants to defend neighborhood integrity from external influences.”

Ultimately, Lin celebrates the oppositional artists of Highland Park and Eagle Rock and activist groups like the Friends of Highland Park, Northeast Los Angeles Alliance, the LA Tenants Union and others because their social agency has activated neighborhood participation across the board. The success of their methods is why he titled the book, “Taking Back the Boulevard.”

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