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The Historical Roots of Gentrification in Boyle Heights

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.

 

“F*ck White Art.” Spray painted sentiments, like the one splattered on the Nicodim Gallery in Boyle Heights, have been widespread fodder for recent gentrification discourse. In 2016, when the aforementioned graffiti appeared, other grassroots actions against rent increases captivated Boyle Heights, one of the oldest Southland communities. Perhaps more than any other community, after fighting prisons, freeways, incinerators and a litany of other public and private works projects, Boyle Heights is facing a new adversary much more intricate, impactful and with multiple fronts: gentrification. Although the complex problem of gentrification appears to be a modern phenomenon, it is rooted in Jim Crow era legislation. Historical legacies of racism, coupled with the pressures of capitalism, are the driving forces pushing working-class residents out of some of the last affordable communities in Southern California.

On October 11, 2016, both Nicodim and Venus LA galleries were vandalized. | Liz O. Baylen/Getty Images
On October 11, 2016, both Nicodim and Venus LA galleries were vandalized. | Liz O. Baylen/Getty Images

Homeowners Associations

Although many reasons spawned recent gentrification battles, homeowners associations are among the earliest culprits. Homeowner associations guaranteed racial segregation by forbidding minorities from purchasing homes outside communities of color, or outside multi-ethnic communities like Boyle Heights (Notably, Boyle Heights was ethnically diverse before WWII, with significant Jewish, Japanese American and Mexican American populations). Groups like the Los Feliz Improvement Association and the University District Property Owners Association barred people of color from entering neighborhoods. In some communities, White homeowners resorted to racial violence and intimidation to prevent integration. As a result, people of color were concentrated in areas with less capital, whereby property values remained low and communities like Boyle Heights became easy targets for displacement, gentrification and freeway development in the following decades.

Historian Becky Nicolaides has shown how 1930s Eastside communities had the highest concentration of poor housing in the country; the Belvedere community had the highest percentage of homes under $3,000 (43%) and homes under $1,500 (11.5%) within Los Angeles. The 1940 census shows Westside areas like Beverly Hills maintained property values at $15,690 whereas East L.A. property values only earned $2,520, the lowest property values in the basin. The Boyle Heights median home value was $2,948. A 1949 study by the Haynes Foundation ranked neighborhoods between one and four and classified the Mexican communities of Belvedere, Boyle Heights and City Terrace as depressed Area II with average per capita rent at $6.15 a month.

A Japanese-American family pictured in 1949 at Evergreen Cementery, Boyle Heights, Los Angeles. | Los Angeles Public Library
A Japanese-American family pictured in 1949 at Evergreen Cemetery, Boyle Heights, Los Angeles. | Los Angeles Public Library
Workman's Circle School's Jewish Ameriacn students pictured in 1935 in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles. |
Workman's Circle School's Jewish American students pictured in 1935 in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles. | Los Angeles Public Library

Unable to live where they wanted, Boyle Heights residents would eventually be traversed with six freeways resulting in the displacement of over 10,000 Eastside inhabitants. In comparison, freeways planned within wealthier and ethnically homogeneous communities never saw the completion of hundreds of miles of freeways, including the Beverly Hills Freeway, the Whitnall Freeway and the Pacific Coast Freeway. By 2001, only about 61 percent of planned freeways were actually built throughout L.A. County while over 100 percent of originally planned freeways were constructed in the Eastside. Boyle Heights freeways have also put up dozens of local roadblocks, cut through one of the poorest green space communities in L.A. and has made available housing more scarce.

White Memorial and L.A. County Medical, Los Angeles, looking northeast, which features the I-5 and I-10 freeways cutting through East LA in 1961.
White Memorial and L.A. County Medical, Los Angeles, looking northeast, which features the I-5 and I-10 freeways cutting through East L.A. in 1961. | Los Angeles Public Library

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Restrictive Covenants

Restrictive covenants, or deed restrictions, proved an even bigger obstacle to ethnic segregation and modern gentrification. In the 1920s, restrictive covenants became a nationwide phenomenon. Deed restrictions legally barred people of color, especially African-Americans and Mexican-Americans, from purchasing or living in specific neighborhoods, particularly in homogeneous White communities. Restrictive covenants were so popular, they were used as political platforms. During his run for municipal office in Los Angeles, Harry Burker ran on a platform which openly excluded Blacks and Mexicans. In 1919, Los Angeles Investment Co. v. Gary concluded people of color could purchase homes with restrictive covenants, but could not live inside their newly purchased homes. Restrictive covenants were legal until Shelley v. Kraemer in 1948 but continued de facto for years. Even after the Fair Housing Act in 1968, the government failed to end discriminatory zoning practices. In effect, racists codes like restrictive covenants and homeowners associations helped create and sustain diverse-ethnic communities like Boyle Heights because it was one of a handful of neighborhoods in Southern California where people of color were welcomed.

The federal government also furthered housing segregation through federal lending programs such as the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). Using an A-D grading system, which designated housing loans by calculating risks involved in lending money to specific neighborhoods, areas such as East Los Angeles were constantly diagnosed as “hazardous,” earning the lowest possible rating of a C or D score. But their lowered rating was principally multiracial, according to historian George J. Sanchez. As a result, it was virtually impossible to receive a home loan and invest in your community if you resided in a “hazardous” area such as East L.A.        

Historically, many White Angelenos preferred homogeneous communities, a preference that was actually cost effective, specifically with FOLC and FHA loans. Within the 2015 award winning documentary East LA Interchange, Sanchez elucidates how it cost more money to be a person of color and live in an ethnically diverse community like Boyle Heights than it was to be a White person and live in a brand new home in a homogeneous White community like post-WWII San Fernando Valley. “If you’re a returning serviceman trying to start a family, it is likely to cost you more to purchase a house in Boyle Heights, even the same house, as the San Fernando Valley. The San Fernando Valley, mostly White, is given the best rate to get a new mortgage. It is cheaper out in this new area that’s seen as homogeneous and not risky as opposed to Boyle Heights,” argues Sanchez. 

In the postwar era, White Flight exacerbated vanilla suburbs and multi-racial inner cities. For example, Chicago’s White population decreased by 13 percent, while its Black population rose by 65 percent. In New York City, the White population decreased by 7 percent while their black residents increased by 46 percent. Similarly, in Los Angeles, suburban communities like Irvine and Lakewood became “White spot” communities that pushed away people of color.

Redlining Map - Los Angeles
1939 HOLC redlining map of Central Los Angeles. | LaDale Winling/Urban Oasis
Boyle Heights Anti-Gentrification Sign
Anti-Gentrification sign put up in Boyle Heights by Self Help Graphics.

Contemporary Gentrification

Southern California rents are some of the highest in the nation and the low property values in former redlined communities like Boyle Heights create a perfect storm for gentrification. According to the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate, the Southern California rental market is the least affordable in history. From 2000-12, median rents increased by 25 percent in L.A. County. During the same period, income declined 9 percent. Boyle Heights single family dwellings abutting noisy freeways and 24-hour pollution can fetch a $600,000 asking price for homes that sold for approximately $2,520 in the 1940s. In 2016, the New York Times calculated for a two-bedroom in L.A. County, individuals needed to make at least $145,000 a year in order to spend only 30 percent of their income on rent — what the federal government classifies as affordable housing. This is more than three and a half times the median annual income in Boyle Heights.

Decades of racist and unjust housing policies against people of color have exploded into gentrification battles across the nation. In Boyle Heights, many residents see gentrification as a social, economic and cultural attack by WASPs against an overwhelming Latino community, despite the community’s history of ethnic diversity before WWII. Eastside anti-gentrification has become mainstream and anti-gentrification literature, posters, stickers and billboards have shown up on Eastside parks, traffic stop signs, social media, ofrendas and even T-shirts, like the ones sold by Defend Boyle Heights — one of the most vocal anti-gentrification groups — which read "F*ck White Art."

The Eastside is no stranger to developers looking to purchase their depressed land values to sell at a profit. In the 1950s, the Eastside Sun spoke out against displacement efforts and derided the condemnation of 480 homes, linking the displacement of thousands of Eastsiders to the construction of the San Bernardino 10 Freeway. Their “Give Me Land. Lots of Land” editorial bashed the Great Western Development Corporation for mailing Eastsiders offers of $18,000 if they would sell their homes without dispute. In 2015, a similar scenario ensued when Adaptive Realty littered the downtown L.A. Arts District with a “Why Rent Downtown When You Could Own in Boyle Heights?” flyer. Realtors promoted a bike tour through the “charming, historic, walkable and bikeable neighborhood.” After the realtor received messages like “Stay outta my hood” and “I hope your 60-minute bike ride is a total disaster,” the event was canceled. 

More than a dozen galleries have popped up in the industrial district along Anderson Street, nestled between the 101 and L.A. River. These galleries have become targeted by anti-gentrification movements, even confronting long-established Latino based artistic centers with roots in the community for more than 40 years, such as Self Help Graphics (SHG). Incorporated in 1973, SHG is a centerpiece of Eastside Latino culture, housing many free workshops, printmaking events, an artist in residence program and a Barrio Mobile Art Studio, a program that brought filmmaking, silkscreen, painting, puppetry and more to various East L.A. elementary schools. Their flagship event is an annual Dia de los Muertos festivity. Yet, in a gentrification irony, SHG was once located in a popular mosaic covered building on Cesar Chavez Avenue for decades. In 2011, however, they were forced to move after the owners sold the building in 2008 and SHG could no longer afford the rent. 

Barrio Mobile Art Studio
Barrio Mobile Art Studio, Community Workshops | Self-Help Graphics & Art/UC Santa Barbara, Special Collections

Gentrification battles in Boyle Heights have attracted nationwide media. During an anti-gentrification protest, community protesters entered a gallery event and posted mock eviction notices for galleries. The mock eviction notice was addressed to many celebrities, including the Coen brothers, Wes Anderson and “others of Beverly Hills.” The gist of their eviction is as follows:

Former Psst art gallery
The former Pssst art gallery in Boyle Heights, which opened in June 2016 and was closed this past February due to tension over the tendency of artists and cultural spaces to displace the low-income communities that it moves into. | Laurie Avocado/Flickr/Creative Commons

Coffee shops, art galleries and a community art center have all met some anti-gentrification protest. This past June, Weird Wave Coffee shop opened up next to a Cambio de Cheques and a pawn shop on Cesar Chavez Avenue. It was met with similar anti-gentrification dissent. Protesters showed up and passed out “White Wave Gentrifiers” flyers decrying the coffee shop as yet another proponent of gentrifying change in the community. Developments that might be welcomed in other communities have been frowned upon by many Boyle Heights residents, such as light rail, housing projects, national corporations and independent businesses. So where does community consensus begin and end, in what gets developed? Is change driven by local residents the only acceptable procedure in a city where change is inevitable and a consensus is difficult? Democracy is dissent, but so are urban streetscapes with affordable housing. What’s at stake in community planning and protests are investment dollars, necessary infrastructure and services and cultural and community preservation. With inevitable neighborhood change, how can policy makers, urban planners and residents collaborate?

Defend Boyle Heights Flyer Pages 1 and 2
Defend Boyle Heights flyer protesting against Weird Wave Coffee, whose landlord raised the rent and subsequently displaced Gogo's Bistro, one of the few Black operated businesses in Boyle Heights | Umberto Brayj/Flickr/Creative Commons | Umberto Brayj/Flickr/Creative Commons

Top Image: Paul Bailey/Flickr/Creative Commons

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Sources

Heinz Heckeroth (Lead Engineer of the East Los Angeles Interchange) interviewed by the author, July 2001.  

Josh Sides, L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present (2003), 18; Scott Kurashige, The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multi-ethnic Los Angeles (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

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