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Bringing Attention to Gentrification in Highland Park

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Bike corral in front of a coffee shop on York Boulevard in Highland Park | Photo: LADOT People St/Flickr/Creative Commons

Gentrification in the neighborhood of Highland Park has recently become a hot topic in Los Angeles media (see L.A. Times story "Highland Park renters feel squeezed," N.Y. Times story "Viva Gentrification!" and NPR "York and Fig" series). On the evening of Tuesday, February 24, 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union - Occidental College chapter convened a panel of community leaders that drew an audience of well over 100 people to reflect on how these forces of residential reinvestment and commercial opportunism were changing the neighborhood and how to address the racial conflicts and displacement dilemmas arising from the gentrification process.

Julia Gould, a Sociology major, opened the event by addressing how Oxy student organizers felt impelled by economic justice concerns relating to the College being at the center of important socioeconomic shifts in the surrounding neighborhood. She introduced the moderator, Diego Silva of the Occidental College of Student Life, who is also Second Vice President of the Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council and longtime Highland Park resident. The panelists included Jose Fernandez, organizer with the East L.A. Community Corporation (ELACC); Rosemarie Molina, organizer with the L.A. Raise the Wage Campaign; Miguel Ramos, organizer with the Northeast L.A. Alliance, born and raised in Highland Park; Edmundo Rodriguez, the owner of Elsa's Bakery on York Boulevard; and Harvey Slater, Land-Use Committee chair of the Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council (HPNC).

Diego Silva opened by asking how to define gentrification. Rosemarie Molina argued that gentrification is the outgrowth of public policy that pushes low-income people out of neighborhoods. Edmundo Rodriguez said he first experienced gentrification when growing up in Venice. He remarked that "Gentrification discourse suggests there was decay previously, but Highland Park was never in decay. Highland Park is a beautiful small bedroom community that has become more desirable." Miguel Ramos said he didn't like to use the term as an organizer because people in the community often don't understand the term. He further noted "there were multiple forces or institutions producing gentrification." Jose Fernandez observed that gentrification leads to a kind of displacement over which there is no oversight.

Below is a transcript of the panel discussion.

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Diego Silva: What kinds of actual changes has gentrification produced?

Harvey Slater: In the last six years I've seen changes in restaurants, shift from Mexican to French and Italian food. For a while I was very surprised to see a very expensive furniture store on York Boulevard.

Edmundo Rodriguez (laughing): It was called Showplace consisting of items I'd accumulated from various TV sets that I was selling off, preparing to open Elsa's Bakery. In the last five years there is something new every day. There are people saying hello and goodbye as they move away. People come in my bakery asking about new commercial spaces for rent. New businesses can serve the neighborhood. We need a variety of services. Businesses should serve everybody. We need to infuse newness into the existing and respect the existing to help the community grow as a whole. Art gallery sometimes hang art alien to neighborhood people who feel they don't belong there. I think the gallery has a responsibility to open their doors and invite old timers who may not understand the work. Older residents feel alienated by the changes.

Miguel Ramos: We've seen the displacement of families from apartment complexes. They no longer have a say in the community. There is an increase in homeless encampments, kids and pregnant moms, people with fixed income, even people with full time jobs raised in Highland Park who can't afford it anymore so they live in the Arroyo Seco. There is policing of the front-line of communities of color along with the gentrification process. Gang injunctions occurred previously. I'm a bicycle safety instructor and I give workshops on rules of the road, and day laborers in Cypress Park talk about how they get ticketed on bikes. Newcomers should open their eyes up to their neighbors before they are gone.

Rosemarie Molina: Gentrification is leading to increased organizing as workers can't reside here anymore. To survive they've been activated to organize in their shops. At the car wash at Figueroa and 52nd, workers have been organizing around immigration reform and getting legal documentation.

Diego Silva: What are the broader economic and political forces leading people to gentrify neighborhoods?

Rosemarie Molina: Redevelopment policy at the city level and board of supervisors promotes redevelopment without thinking of affordable housing, private/public partnerships like in the USC area. Low-income families are already living there. But you can't redevelop without addressing low-income families and their experience of "wage theft."

Edmundo Rodriguez: Profit motivates incomers that understand economic trends and the potential for increase. More people are flipping properties versus incumbent upgraders. Profit is okay but who are you hurting? Tax assessments on flipped properties will affect neighboring properties.

Jose Fernandez: A back story of this question is looking at the 1930s-1950s. We see how politicians navigated the course of real estate in certain neighborhoods. Redlining was a force. Financial decision makers gave premium loans to white families, while the worst loans possible were given to Black, Latino, and Asian families. Today we still face some of those circumstances of redlining and racial covenants even if they are not as overt as then. It's no coincidence that many working-class families can't secure loans as easily for homes, repairs, education, or to save for a new home. West Side middle-class families or recent college graduates are coming to the East Side. What about more moderate income housing in wealthy areas. Wealthy families don't want minority families living next to them. The low income can't compete if there isn't housing being built for them. Funding affordable housing at ELACC is getting more challenging. It's a pattern that's not being solved."

The panel on gentrification at Occidental College | Photo: Jan Lin
The panel on gentrification at Occidental College | Photo: Jan Lin

Harvey Slater: There are opportunities, necessities, and threats. People, artists, moved here in the '70s and '80s out of necessity. But getting into the 2000s as Venice, Silver Lake, and Echo Park became gentrified and people who were priced out moved to Highland Park as the "last bastion" for affordable home purchase. The move from necessity to opportunity threatens old timers.

Miguel Ramos: Investment comes from different angles in the political structure. There are "we buy homes cash" signs around the neighborhood. Highland Park's renters are facing disadvantages and consequences of historical processes, like the Tongva Indians who were the first to be displaced.

Rosemarie Molina: In South L.A. in the USC area, along Hoover and 23rd, multigenerational families are being illegally evicted from housing. There is a lack of community benefits agreements that can address housing sustainability. We need redevelopment, like grocery stores next to the low-income residents and consumers, but not high end grocery stores.

Diego Silva: Now we move to several questions submitted by our audience. Is there a different process in gentrification with small businesses vs. large corporations?

Edmundo Rodriguez: There's a big difference between a Café de Leche (on York Boulevard) vs. Starbucks, or Fashion 21 vs. the small boutiques of local business owners. Small business owners behave differently from large corporations. Do workers come locally or from the outside? Small businesses and individual owned is the best approach to bring together the community.

Jose Fernandez: Neighborhoods have different existing infrastructures. In Boyle Heights big box stores can displace small business. But in Boyle Heights, 1st Street doesn't have infrastructure for big box stores. But property owners are leasing to bigger investors on small lots to make profit. Recently 4-5 business experienced rents skyrocketing, increases of $1000 a month. Mom and pop businesses can't compete with rising rents.

Diego Silva: Is there change in building ownership?

Harvey Slater: The HPNC Land Use Committee has been assisting buyers with zoning variances on Figueroa Street and York Boulevard. There is a mixture of commercial building owners renting under market (or "sleeping") and also there is new opportunism for higher rents. Property owners of lots vacant for decades now see opportunities. Family-owned lots may be subdivided after generations of ownership.

Diego Silva: What kind of racial tension is there?

Miguel Ramos: There is lack of dialogue amidst the changes; no one is engaged in conversation. There are new people vs. old timers who feel intimidated, who don't know full dynamics of what's happening.

Edmundo Rodriguez: There is socioeconomic class distinction. White or Latino professionals may say it's a nuisance seeing tents in front of houses for entertainment. What is appropriate? What kind of fencing? Chain link fencing or different material for fencing? What color and aesthetics? Core values around colors. Lime green, purple? It has to do with core values of people and residents. Transfer of cultural values onto the environment can bring class issues to the surface.

Diego Silva (laughing): Even my parents home still has 1990s fencing.

Jose Fernandez: There is outright racial conflict. Neighborhoods experiencing reinvestment are still segregated. There are misconceptions about neighborhood safety. Boyle Heights still has cholos, gang members, but they are part of the fabric of neighborhoods. If you don't bother them they won't bother you. But whites feel they are helping the neighborhood to improve. They have a colonizer mindset of contributing to a better environment. Newcomers have more money for nicer homes and secluded fences. Latinos like to have gatherings in front yards, but they are not wine tastings. We have Spanish music, carne asada, families, cerveza not craft beer. Newcomers complain about noise. These are the tensions and conflicts faced.

Rosemarie Molina: In South L.A. passing MLK is seen as "unsafe," the border to the ghetto. Newcomers perceive it's unsafe, but they have to "check their privilege" when they move in.

Edmundo Rodriguez: Latino families whisper about white families, are in a powerless position but thanking or blessing newcomer whites as cholos are declining. Among Latinos staying, they don't want cholos at all.

The new York Park in Highland Park | Photo: Councilman Jose Huizar Facebook
The new York Park in Highland Park | Photo: Councilman Jose Huizar Facebook

Diego Silva: Are there positive effects of gentrification?

Edmundo Rodriguez: A story -- a neighborhood girl came to my bakery to buy cookies for Doctor Miller, her next door neighbor. She said, "I want to be a doctor too." In the 1950s it was wrong to make projects that stagnate the poor.

Rosemarie Molina: Gentrification causes people to organize. They are forced to organize for survival around a living wage, against wage theft. People are activated now.

Harvey Slater: It's brought more awareness and empowerment among residents going to meetings of HPNC. Opportunities have occurred for some long-time residents who sold their homes to new investors. The problem is that our society and public policy is oriented to profit but doesn't protect rights of or empower underserved people.

Jose Fernandez: I don't see the positives in gentrification. I want community development. Organizing grows out of the pressure. Small businesses are getting attention as landlords seek higher rents. More residents like in Boyle Heights are becoming more empowered. They may not own their property, but they're owning their presence in the community. It's shedding light on the need for more affordable housing, rent control, public housing. People are becoming more involved in land use decision making. At ELACC we have the Plan de Pueblo or Peoples' Plan, an 80 page document proposing ways of alleviating pressures of gentrification in Boyle Heights. These are developments previously unheard of. We don't need to be professionals to have our experiences heard. We are becoming more included.

Diego Silva: What practices can help provide residents with affordable housing or education?

Jose Fernandez: The Peoples Plan in the Mission District [in San Francisco], Barrio Logan in San Diego, and in Boyle Heights. In these Latino neighborhoods we need people to help guide land use policy to address needs of families that live there now. In a few years there is potential for the Sears Building to be redeveloped with 1000 market rate units. That contrasts to the addition of just 500 affordable housing units in the last 20 years. In the property that I live in they are proposing 3200 condo units for sale. Imagine the power of market rate housing developer vs. affordable housing. Tenant rights are crucial. There are not enough lawyers to defend residents from eviction. We have to get people in the neighborhood involved in these conversations.

Harvey Slater: Policy makers are not doing anything. They want you to "show me the money." Rent control laws are antiquated. The transit village project in Highland Park has only a few affordable housing units.

Miguel Ramos: There is an ordinance in Oakland against house flipping. We need more organizing to put pressure on public officials. We need renters unions to apply political pressure citywide.

Rosemarie Molina: Address the cost of living in like the L.A. Raise the [Minimum] Wage campaign. Stop wage theft and put money in the pockets of workers.

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At the end of the event panelists announced a variety of ways that participants could take action and support efforts to educate and organize neighborhood responses to gentrification.

Miguel Ramos thanked ACLU-Oxy for their collaboration and urged participants to get involved and join the Facebook page of the Northeast L.A. Alliance for forthcoming dialogues and community workshops in the coming months to educate residents on tenants rights and organize the community. Rosemarie Molina encouraged audience members to support the L.A. Raise the Wage campaign. Jose Fernandez announced that East LA Community Corporation would be holding a series community dialogues on the gentrification issue in Boyle Heights in the coming year.