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Northeast Los Angeles Gentrification in Comparative and Historical Context

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York Boulevard in Highland Park | Photo: emilyd10/Flickr/Creative Commons

The Arroyo Seco neighborhoods of Northeast Los Angeles (NELA), especially Highland Park and Eagle Rock, are among the leading edges of the gentrification frontier in contemporary Los Angeles. This article situates NELA gentrification in comparative and historical context.

Along with neighborhoods like Boyle Heights, Little Tokyo, and the downtown Arts District, NELA represents the latest wave of what David Zahniser described in the L.A. Weekly in 2006 as a "tsunami" or storm system that started in Venice in the 1990s, flowing from west to east into Los Angeles neighborhoods like Los Feliz, Silver Lake, Echo Park, and Atwater Village. The gentrification of Venice has been well chronicled by Andrew Deener, whose book "Venice: A Contested Bohemia in Los Angeles" (2012) was based on several years of field research while he was a graduate student in Sociology at UCLA. Gentrification in Eagle Rock started as early as 2001, as evidenced in articles like Dave Gardetta's Sunday L.A. Times feature that described the neighborhood as transitioning from "Mayberry, R.F.D." to "Hipster U.S.A." And most recently Highland Park has become the new gentrification hot spot coming out of the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

Gentrification in Northeast L.A. is quite evident with new white homeowners entering neighborhoods like Eagle Rock, Highland Park, Montecito Heights, and Mt. Washington, and also cafes, restaurants, and retail boutiques appearing on major commercial boulevards like Colorado Boulevard, Eagle Rock Boulevard, York Boulevard, and North Figueroa Street. The focal neighborhoods of Highland Park and Eagle Rock are adjacent inner-ring suburbs popularly known for historic architecture, bohemian art life, independent small businesses, and immigrant diversity. Among the first railway and streetcar suburbs to be developed in early Los Angeles, the Arroyo Seco/Northeast L.A. region flowered with bohemian art colonies of Arts and Crafts architects and designers, plein air painters, writers, performers, and luminaries like Charles Lummis and William Judson at the turn-of-the-20th century (see Highland Park articles in KCET Departures: Highland Park).

L.A. Times Magazine, July, 2001
L.A. Times Magazine, July, 2001

But the Northeast neighborhoods became disinvested as they were superseded by freeways and mass production of outer suburbs in the mid-century. Latina/o and Asian immigrant households settled in the late 20th century in the wake of white flight, followed by a period of revitalization sparked by artists and neighborhood activists. This revitalization process set the stage for gentrification and white return in the new millennium.

I present the case of Northeast Los Angeles in the context of the "stage model of gentrification" in social science and urban studies. The stage model takes a long historical perspective on gentrification that recognizes how urban neighborhoods have gone through larger economic cycles, including initial development, disinvestment, revitalization, and gentrification. Northeast L.A. exhibits elements of "neobohemian" and "green" gentrification, as contrasted from the corporate "super-gentrification" pattern found in places like the Staples Center-Figueroa Corridor in downtown L.A. and the dot-com districts of San Francisco. The boulevards of northeast L.A. have been a key factor of gentrification, at a point when transit-oriented planning and the urban biking movement have converged to revitalize boulevards and public culture all through Los Angeles. Hipsters and newcomer gentrifiers are lured by the "authentic urbanism" and small-town intimacy of the Northeast L.A. boulevards, which are crossroads of ethnic culture (mostly Latino and Asian) and vintage Americana. While gentrification in Northeast L.A. generally involves white newcomers and investors displacing low-income Latino residents and businesses, there is some participation of more affluent Latinos in the gentrification process.

 

The Stage Model of Gentrification

Northeast Los Angeles is a good illustration of the "stage model of gentrification," where homebuyer pioneers, artists, and neighborhood activists who contribute to neighborhood preservation and revitalization of the built environment and urban culture are subsequently threatened with displacement by speculator-investors and more affluent gentrifiers. To convey this, I'd like to draw focal attention to the emergence of Chicana(o)/Latina(o) art collectives in the 1970s and white artists through the Arroyo Arts Collective in the 1980s; and the flowering of Avenue 50 Studio and the Center for the Arts Eagle Rock in the 2000s. They created opportunities for artists, enlivened public space, and fostered regional cultural identity and community through their exhibitions, murals, public art, and youth involvement projects.

It would be useful to cite also the rise of regional neighborhood activism in the 1980s by organizations like The Eagle Rock Association (TERA) and the Highland Park Heritage Trust (HPHT) against mini-malls, uninspired condominiums, and "big box" and franchise chain stores, in favor of coordinated land-use planning, preservation of small businesses and historic-cultural landmarks, and a campaign to "Take Back the Boulevard" in Eagle Rock for bikers and pedestrians.

By addressing the collective efflorescence of arts and activism in stages of neighborhood revitalization preceding gentrification, it can be suggested that gentrification doesn't just happen anywhere, but especially in certain focal neighborhoods that go through earlier phases of cultural change and economic renewal.

Judson Studios has been creating stained glass works since the heyday of Highland Park's Arts and Craft scene in the early 1900s | Photo: Justin Cram/KCET Departures
Judson Studios has been creating stained glass works since the heyday of Highland Park's Arts and Craft scene in the early 1900s | Photo: Justin Cram/KCET Departures

British sociologist Ruth Glass is popularly credited with coining the term "gentrification" in her 1964 study of residential rehabilitation in the north London neighborhood of Islington, where middle-class homebuyers were displacing working-class families. The concept of the stage model of gentrification originated with studies of American cities experiencing private reinvestment in the late 1970s. 1 Clay's model was based upon comparative work across a range of neighborhoods, including Boston's South End, Philadelphia's Society Hill, San Francisco's Western Addition, and Washington, D.C.'s Capitol Hill. Gale focused on three areas experiencing different stages of gentrification in Washington, D.C.

The idea of a stage gentrification model is a classic social scientific ideal type or analytical construct that describes the generalized sequence of stages that the common social phenomenon of gentrification goes through across different urban locations. Other writers have critiqued the stage model, asserting gentrification is a more "chaotic" process involving multiple economic processes, housing factors, and resident motivations at different locations.

Loretta Lees, et al. have revisited the debate and proposed a "new stage theory of gentrification" that recognizes sequential "waves" of gentrification across the last four decades, separated by recessionary periods. 2 Adapting a three-wave model first applied by Jason Hackworth and Neil Smith to New York in their 2001 article "The Changing State of Gentrification," they recognize local residential pioneers and small investors in early waves, followed by later waves increasingly marked by "super-gentrification" linked to global financial markets and larger corporate developers, as evident in neighborhoods like Barnsbury in London and Brooklyn Heights in New York. The high-technology venture capital-fueled transformation of San Francisco's "dot-com" neighborhoods is another current manifestation of super-gentrification. Lees, et al. speculate upon the emergence of a "fourth wave" of super-gentrification marked by discontinuity from the earlier progression. In downtown Los Angeles in the Figueroa Corridor/Staples Center/L.A. Live area, transnational corporate investment capital from China (Greenland Group) and South Korea (Korean Airlines) is entering the mix with mixed-use high-rise projects, recalling the Japanese investment boom of the 1980s.

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Loretta Lees also observes there is a varying spatial "geography of gentrification" that includes new-build gentrification and rural gentrification, or "greentrification." The phenomenon of green gentrification suggests that gentrification is not just a "back to the city" movement but also includes urban and suburban expatriates seeking idyllic quality of life in quaint seaside resorts, rural communities, and college towns 3.

New homebuyers in Northeast Los Angeles are similarly attracted to the Arts and Crafts architecture and tradition of historic preservation, its bohemian arts scenes, the "indie" ethic of its small business community, and the small town pace of life on its boulevards where "road diets" and new bike lanes have slowed down automobile traffic and fostered a more lively public culture on the streets. 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. 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. Northeast Los Angles is an urban refuge, a Southern California "Portlandia" offering closeness to nature and more authentic quality of life that attracts escapees from the auto-centric and cookie-cutter suburban sprawl of the larger metropolis, in pursuit of cultural diversity and a more environmentally aware urban future.

Commercial bulidings are renovated to reveal their historic character | Photo: Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council
Commercial bulidings are renovated to reveal their historic character | Photo: Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council

The Arts and Crafts and Mission Revival bungalows of Highland Park and Eagle Rock comprise an architecturally distinct built environment that has drawn renovators and home buyers to stake their investment claims. Comparable gentrification districts would include such iconic built environments as industrial artist lofts in New York's Soho district 4, Victorian row houses in San Francisco, tenement row houses in New York's East Village 5 and brownstone row houses in New York's Harlem 6 and Brooklyn 7. The gentrifying "bungalow heaven" of Northeast L.A. differs from other U.S. gentrification districts in being a landscape of detached homes more typical of suburbia. This relates to the particularities of Los Angeles urban history as a prototypical sprawling "suburban metropolis," where the first inner-ring residential suburbs featured single-family homes in close proximity to downtown.

The long gestation process and late timing of gentrification in Northeast Los Angeles coming some 30-40 years after gentrification emerged in East coast cities invites a revisiting of the stage model that recognizes the role of earlier pioneers in revitalization, and setting the stage for later gentrifiers to come. My presentation of stage theory furthermore pushes back the chronology of neighborhood transition to stages of initial development and disinvestment before the stages of reinvestment. I highlight the initial phase of postwar government incentivized suburban out-movement and white flight from urban unrest, during which the turn-of-the 20th century streetcar suburbs of Northeast Los Angeles were disinvested, and the housing and commercial property stock filtered down to Latino/a and Asian American immigrants. The subsequent phase of revitalization, reinvestment, and white middle-class return exhibits signs of socioeconomic transition and interracial tension beyond the black-white dynamics commonly found in other gentrification districts, like New York's Harlem 8 or the Capitol Hill and Shaw/U Street neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. The displacement of Latina/o immigrants by returning whites in Northeast Los Angeles is comparable to gentrification dynamics found in New York's Lower East Side 9, Chicago's Wicker Park 10, and San Francisco's Mission District 11.

 

Neighborhood Activism and the Future of Northeast L.A.

The cadre of artists and neighborhood activists that emerged from the 1970s to 1990s helped to revitalize Northeast L.A. in the wake of white flight, and create a more culturally enriched and livable city. They beautified public spaces, fostered arts programs, and pushed for community input in local land-use planning policies. They promoted regional identity through festivals like Lummis Day Festival and the Eagle Rock Music Festival, which helped reach across cultural divides and fostered social mixing between newcomer affluent white homeowners and hipsters, and Latino/o and Asian immigrant families and white old-timers. They worked with City Councilman Jose Huizar to create a parklet on York Boulevard and Avenue 50, and promote bike lanes on Northeast L.A. boulevards. The growing influence of arts leaders and neighborhood activists marks a transition in the political culture from the older, civic pro-business boosterism of Chamber of Commerce and Kiwanis Club mixers and street parades, to a more socially progressive coalition of artists, preservationists, environmentalists, and neighborhood activists. This neighborhood activism is associated with the "slow growth" movement that emerged around Southern California in the late 1980s against rampant high-density growth and rising property taxes.

Northeast Los Angeles Alliance holds a tenants rights workshop | Photo: Northeast Los Angeles Alliance Facebook
Northeast Los Angeles Alliance holds a tenants rights workshop | Photo: Northeast Los Angeles Alliance Facebook

Yet the creation of a more culturally vibrant and livable city also created the right conditions of social and economic reinvestment for accelerated gentrification coming out of the Great Recession in the 2010s -- with the entry of speculator-flippers and new displacement pressures. This may not be "super-gentrification" at the venture capital and transnational investment level, like seen in San Francisco or downtown L.A., but there are hardening the edges of gentrification in Northeast L.A., suggesting that now is a time of reckoning. The politics of "slow growth" must now contend with new dynamics of rapid growth.

A new generation of activist organizations is already emerging to activate the community. They include the bicycle activists with Figueroa for All that have been waging protests and lobbying for bike lanes on North Figueroa Street, and the Northeast Los Angeles Alliance that has been addressing gentrification by organizing residents through community dialogues, street marches, and demonstrations, and tenant rights workshops. The Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council includes many new Latina/o officers and board members. These activists will contend with the pros and cons of gentrification as they help define the politics of progressive northeast Los Angeles in the future.

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1 Clay, Phillip. 1979. Neighborhood Renewal: Middle-Class Resettlement and Incumbent Upgrading in American Neighborhoods. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath; Clay 1979, Gale, Dennis E. 1979. "Middle Class Resettlement in Older Urban Neighborhoods: the Evidence and the Implications," Journal of the American Planning Association 45: 293-304.
2 Lees, Loretta, Tom Slater and Elvin Wyly. 2008. Gentrification. London: Routledge.
3 Saracino-Brown, Japonica. 2009. A Neighborhood That Never Changes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
4 Zukin, Sharon. 1982. Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
5 Abu-Lughod, Janet. 1994. From Urban Village to East Village: The Battle for New York's Lower East Side. Oxford: Blackwell; Mele, Christopher. 2000. Selling the Lower East Side: Culture, Real Estate, and Resistance in New York City. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
6 Taylor, Monique. 2002. Harlem: Between Heaven and Hell. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
7 Osman, Suleiman. 2011. The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
8 Taylor, Monique. 2002. Harlem: Between Heaven and Hell. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
9 Abu-Lughod, Janet. 1994. From Urban Village to East Village: The Battle for New York's Lower East Side. Oxford: Blackwell; Mele, Christopher. 2000. Selling the Lower East Side: Culture, Real Estate, and Resistance in New York City. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
10 Lloyd, Richard. 2010. Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City, 2nd edition. New York: Routledge.
11 Beitel, Karl. 2013. Local Protest, Global Movements: Capital, Community and State in San Francisco. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

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