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The Positive Actions New Restaurants Can Take in Gentrifying Neighborhoods

The Mar Vista

It’s undeniable that the Los Angeles restaurant scene is booming, so much so that it’s sometimes hard keeping up with the slew of hot new restaurants opening in the next “up-and-coming” neighborhoods. There’s a growing market for food, as well as an entrepreneurial drive that’s galvanizing restaurateurs to open up shop in any way they can, including launching in neighborhoods with cheap rents that are at risk or in the midst of gentrification. But can restaurant owners do good for a neighborhood that’s in transition and help lessen the negative effects that come with that change? As we discussed this complex issue with restaurant owners, urban planning scholars and experts, we found that it is possible — if they do it right.

What Role Do Restaurants Play in Gentrification?

Existing community members may view new eateries as a threat, as drivers of gentrification, because restaurants are a very visible symbol of that change. However, when you look at the big picture, they are the byproduct of a transformation that already started long ago.

Before we jump into how restaurateurs can positively contribute to communities, it’s important to first understand the role they play in transitioning neighborhoods. Existing community members may view new eateries as a threat, as drivers of gentrification, because restaurants are a very visible symbol of that change. However, when you look at the big picture, they are the byproduct of a transformation that already started long ago, according to Maria Cabildo, a longtime affordable housing advocate who is currently running for a seat in Congress. “I don’t think that restaurants in and of themselves drive gentrification,” she says. “They’re something that follows after there’s already been some kind of shift in the rental and homeownership market in the neighborhoods.” Gilda Haas, an urban planner and adjunct professor of economic development at Antioch University, is on the same page as Cabildo.“They are more like indicators that it has already happened, that the area can command higher rents, [and] that new people are moving in who have a need or desire for expensive coffee or toast,” Haas says.

That doesn’t mean that these restaurants don’t play a role at all in the transformation of a community. Cabildo believes that they do contribute to establishing a new marketplace and creating a different brand for the neighborhood, but again they’re not one of the driving factors of the transition. She points out that there are times when a merchant is ahead of its time, that their business ends up being unsuccessful operating in a commercial corridor because they’re trying to attract a certain type of clientele in a marketplace that doesn’t exist yet in the neighborhood.

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, an urban planning professor at UCLA, says she thinks it’s unlikely that a restaurant will move into a neighborhood where nothing else is around, but rather is following other developments that are happening in the area. Loukaitou-Sideris, who is currently researching residential and commercial gentrification, is studying this in conjunction with how new transit stations affect communities. In her findings, she’s noticed that gentrification happens most near transit stops, using the Metro Gold Line Chinatown station and Boyle Heights’ Mariachi Plaza station as examples. Those are the areas where new residential and commercial developments are getting built, but don’t quite fit in with the needs of the existing community.

Mariachi Plaza Metro
Metro Gold Line stop at Mariachi Plaza | Jean Trinh

Catering to the Needs of Local Residents

Regardless of how strong of a role restaurants play in a transitioning community, they are still intertwined in the fabric of that neighborhood. In fitting in with an area that is in danger of displacement, merchants can bring about more positive changes and take proactive steps to help the community, like hiring locally, keeping prices affordable and really listening to the feedback of longtime residents.

When Cabildo was the president of East LA Community Corporation (ELACC), a nonprofit whose mission is advocating for economic and social justice in Boyle Heights and East L.A., the organization led the renovation of the historic Boyle Hotel landmark in Boyle Heights. It reopened in 2012 as a mixed-use development with affordable housing. ELACC cautiously went through a lengthy community engagement process to select La Monarca, a bakery chain that sells Mexican pastries and coffee, as the commercial tenant for Boyle Hotel. Cabildo says they wanted a business that really catered to the existing Boyle Heights residents, offering accessible price points and committing to hiring locally, which is what La Monarca did. ELACC members even took community residents out to visit La Monarca’s other locations like in South Pasadena so they could get a feel for what the bakery was all about.

Boyle Hotel, La Monarca
La Monarca bakery occupies the bottom floor of the historic Boyle Hotel. | Jean Trinh

Cabildo feels La Monarca is fitting in nicely with the community. “You’ll have people working at White Memorial Hospital, [which is a couple of blocks away from La Monarca], and people from the community going in and having a cup of coffee and some sweet bread,” Cabildo says. “It’s a great example of a business that is upscale but still caters to a local community and is accessible to them.”

Longtime Boyle Heights resident Carlos Vasquez is a real estate agent who helped broker the lease deal with La Monarca. Even though La Monarca has nine locations throughout Southern California, Vasquez considers them to be local and not like chains. Vasquez says the cafe’s owner had promised his wife, who’s from Boyle Heights, that he would one day open a restaurant or cafe in the neighborhood. “They’re very successful because they’re catering to the needs of the community — the community that’s already here,” Vasquez says. “Even then, I see them as locals because the ownership is local.”

In terms of culinary options for the neighborhood, Cabildo warns about making assumptions that everyone in the community is going to want Mexican food or sweet breads and coffee just because the residents of Boyle Heights are predominantly Latino. When ELACC surveyed the neighborhood, they found that there was a huge request for Chinese food in the area. “I think people are willing to try new things,” she says.

Vasquez says if new restaurants do move into the neighborhood, he wants them to cater to the needs of the existing community, and also wants more parking in the area so that locals can actually be able to get to them. He doesn’t want chain restaurants or hip bars to move in, and adds that not everyone wants a street taco. Vasquez uses existing restaurants like Un Solo Sol, Primera Taza Coffee House and La 1st Street Taqueria as examples of places that provide a service to the community by offering healthy alternatives to Latin cuisine and still having a “Mexican flair” to their food. He’s also excited about a sports bar that is soon coming into the neighborhood and says, “It’s pretty cool because we have somewhere to sit, somewhere to hang out.”

La Monarca food
Baked goods at La Monarca  | Jean Trinh

On the other side of town in Mar Vista, things are changing for the community as well. As the tech industry is growing on the Westside in what’s dubbed as “Silicon Beach” and housing is becoming unaffordable, residents are looking towards neighboring areas like Mar Vista. As a result, the neighborhood is transforming, and chef D. Brandon Walker, who opened his restaurant The Mar Vista on Venice Boulevard in January, is acutely aware of these changes and is listening to the community about its needs.

Walker has deep roots in the area. His restaurant partner and Co-Executive Chef Jill Davie, and his wife were both born and raised in the neighborhood. Walker and his wife own a house in the community and their three children have attended or are currently attending Mar Vista Elementary School. He says the neighborhood is very much still occupied by mom-and-pop businesses, but there is a change in the vibe as it’s started to cater more to the young professionals moving in.

The Mar Vista
Inside The Mar Vista on Venice Boulevard | Erik Borzi

He says his restaurant is part of the transition that is happening in Mar Vista and notes that “we’re probably at the forefront of that.” Walker adds that The Mar Vista is one the first of its kind in the neighborhood, one that is chef-driven and serves farm-to-table, global-inspired dishes. He mentions some of the newer restaurants that have moved into Mar Vista over the last few years like Louie’s of Mar Vista and Little Fatty (formerly Status Kuo). The local bowling alley, Bowlero, reopened with a modern makeover, and more surf and skate shops that weren’t in the area 10 or 20 years ago are now calling Mar Vista home. For the most part, the shops and restaurants are still independently owned, but to Walker’s dismay, a Starbucks moved onto Venice Boulevard in 2014. “It’s just a different feel, a different look,” Walker says. “I think it’s catering to the new generation, the new population of the neighborhood.”

In the two years leading up to The Mar Vista’s opening, Walker and his partners attended city council meetings, went door-to-door talking to neighboring businesses and residents about their plans to move in and asked for their feedback. He went to local schools including Mar Vista Elementary to speak to teachers and parents about The Mar Vista. In the school’s classrooms, he held cooking demos and presentations teaching children about vegetables and healthy eating.

It was a way for the team to test the waters. “I think if we hadn’t gotten such positive responses, there was a good chance we wouldn’t have gone forward with it,” Walker says.

Walker’s passion for operating a restaurant that serves and benefits the surrounding community has led to his concerted efforts to make The Mar Vista easily accessible to locals. In conjunction with Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Great Streets Initiative — a program that focuses on improving L.A. corridors, including a stretch of Mar Vista’s Venice Boulevard — Walker has been involved in having bike racks installed in front of his restaurant. He hopes that they can get a crosswalk with blinking lights put in so people can safely cross the main street.

“We were super involved [with this program] and the community was very knowledgeable about what was going on and I think that led to the anticipation for [The Mar Vista’s] opening,” Walker says.

The Mar Vista may still be in its infancy stage, but Walker has more plans to keep contributing to the community. He’s currently leveling a huge plot of land that runs along his restaurant’s retaining wall in the back of the building. He plans on building raised beds along it and inviting the community for planting parties. Walker wants to bring kids from the local Mar Vista Elementary and Grand View Boulevard Elementary on field trips to visit and plant in the community garden.

How to Build Unity and Empowerment in a Transitioning Neighborhood

Un Solo Sol Kitchen in Boyle Heights is a prime example of a restaurant that is successfully fulfilling the needs of a community through the variety of food it offers and other activist-driven efforts. The small eatery, which is located across from Mariachi Plaza on First Street, is primarily vegan, though customers can request meat to be added to their plates. There is global inspiration to Un Solo Sol’s dishes: Diners might find dishes on the menu like an Indian mango lassi, Chinese bok choy soup or Syrian fatteh. “‘Un Solo Sol’ means ‘a single sun,’” says owner Carlos Ortez. “What we mean is this unity, this food we are providing [to the community] as an alternative type of food, we are trying to gain the world in our little kitchen and to promote peace. [It helps us] look at our similarities instead of our differences.”

Ortez is a community activist who’s been involved in Boyle Heights for decades. From 2005 to 2010, Ortez catered lunches for charter schools and prepared them in the space that Un Solo Sol operates out of now. When the state of California had school budget cuts, he stopped catering and began using the space as a restaurant. In that first year of business in 2011, Ortez sold $5 meals to the community once a week on Wednesdays. He told his customers that if he was able to sell 50 meals over each two-week span, he would host a party outside and hire a mariachi band to play. He ended up doing this five times that summer. “That got me to be known by everybody, but at the same time it was clear [to them] that I was for the arts and culture of the area,” Ortez says. “It was clear that I was for the community itself, that I was part of them and at the same time I was bringing in a different type of food.”

Un Solo Sol, enchiladas
Enchiladas served at Un Solo Sol |  Un Solo Sol

It’s important to Ortez that he preserves the arts and culture of Boyle Heights. Local artists’ work are hung up on his restaurant’s walls. For a while, Ortez hired flamenco dancers to perform, but had to stop because he realized his restaurant was too tiny to host those kind of performances. He still hires local mariachi bands to play outside his restaurant in the summertime.

Ortez has made it a mission of his to unite the community. Yet, despite his efforts to foster a renewed sense of solidarity in the community, Ortez says the future of the residents and business owners still lies in uncertainty. Last year, the popular Carnitas Michoacan #3 in Boyle Heights closed after being open for 33 years because the landlord wanted to rent out the space to Panda Express. Ortez says that although his restaurant is doing well, he fears a similar fate. After all, Un Solo Sol is located in a desirable spot right next to the train station.

Ortez says that because Boyle Heights has such “tremendous roots” with “families who have been here since forever,” there can be a strong backlash when it comes to new businesses moving in. An example of this pushback are local activists who have been fervently protesting new art galleries that have moved into the neighborhood.

He says it’s a shame that because developers want to make downtown L.A. into a New York City, surrounding communities have to be kicked out little by little.

Mariachi Plaza
Community members and mariachi musicians hanging out by a mural at Mariachi Plaza | Jean Trinh

How Restaurants Can Do Good

If Andrew Meieran hadn’t bought downtown L.A.’s 82-year-old landmark Clifton’s Cafeteria, he believes there was a 95 percent chance that the space would have been converted into housing.

After four years and $10 million worth of renovations, Clifton’s reopened its doors in 2015. There’s a homage to the original cafeteria on the woodland-themed eatery located on the main floor, but Meieran has updated the massive space to also include a variety of themed bars, from tiki to Gothic-style rooms.

Not everyone is on board with the changes, however. In a 2015 New York Times article about Clifton’s, Brook Barnes writes, “Some Angelenos see the supersize complex as a symbol of overly aggressive gentrification.”

The real estate developer says he put a lot of thought and effort into the planning of Clifton’s future. He had many discussions with people during the infancy stage of the project about what Clifton’s meant to downtown as a whole, while still being able to create something that was economically viable. He wanted to make Clifton’s into something that was multi-generational, a place that attracted old-school customers as well as a whole new generation. His new version of Clifton’s included new services that reflected the changing demographic of the neighborhood, but still be a sort of community center like it was in the past.

Clifton's Gothic Bar
Inside the Gothic Bar at Clifton's |  Clifton's

Back in the 1930s, the Science Fiction Society, whose members included the likes of Ray Bradbury, used to meet up at Clifton’s. Since it’s reopened, he’s been seeing groups and clubs set up their own events at the venue, becoming “their de facto clubhouse again.”

Meieran says, “It’s kind of a tough balancing act with lots of moving parts.” Since millions of people have visited the restaurant since it opened in 1935, it has an incredibly devout following. Because Clifton’s is so historic and customers have had such nostalgic memories tied into it, “people have taken a very personal ‘ownership’ of the place,” Meieran says.

It’s hard for him to compete with the memories patrons have of the cafeteria, especially the menu prices. Meieran says that when he initially reopened Clifton’s, the old clientele was shocked at the new costs of the dishes. He says they didn’t understand that the original Clifton’s owners managed to keep the same low prices for their dishes as they had in the ‘60s and ‘70s by lowering the quality of the ingredients and cutting corners. Meieran didn’t want to do that. One of the biggest customer pushbacks is when they changed the cafeteria’s old-school spinach dish, by using fresh instead of frozen greens. Meieran says a ton of regulars told them that they had destroyed the dish. “People automatically walk into a cafeteria and even if you gave them filet mignon that is as good as any [great] steakhouse in the world, they’re going to wonder why they’re paying more than $12 to have a tray,” Meieran says. “It just clashed with their sensibilities.”

Clifton's Cafeteria
Inside the cafeteria at Clifton's | Clifton's

Hiring From Within the Community

In terms of community empowerment, about 25 to 30 percent of Clifton’s staff comes from The Midnight Mission’s food service training program, which is designed to help reintegrate disadvantaged people who’ve been homeless, have had substance abuse problems or mental health issues, back into the community and the workforce. “They are some of the best trained people,” Meieran says. “We help take them to the next step, which is to reintegrate them into new jobs that allow them to earn money to pay rent for local apartments and housing that aren’t subsidized. That’s a big portion of what we do now.”

He says he first and foremost tries to hire locally because he always wanted to create a walking urban environment with The Edison and Clifton’s. “We definitely want to encourage people to work with us and there are a lot of people moving downtown that are literally coming in and saying, ‘I just moved downtown and I’d love to work here,’” Meieran says. “It’s incredible how many people work within three blocks of the place.”

The Mar Vista
Inside The Mar Vista on Venice Boulevard | Erik Borzi

The owner of Mar Vista, who has a long history of being a community leader, is taking similar actions as Meieran. For the last decade, Walker ran the St. Joseph’s Center’s Culinary Training Program (CTP) in Venice, where he taught over 900 students who have experienced barriers when entering the workforce, due to issues like homelessness, drug addiction and former incarceration. The program is a 10-week course that teaches culinary skills to the students and helps the graduates obtain externships at L.A. restaurants.

One of Walker’s graduates from CTP, Jorge Rivas, who later moved on to become the executive chef at Blue Plate Oysterette, is also a partner and co-executive-chef at The Mar Vista. In fact, 50 percent of Walker’s kitchen staff are former students of his from the program, and 80 percent of his hired employees live locally. Most of them ride their bikes or walk to work, and live within a mile of the restaurant.

Advice for Incoming Restaurant Owners

For these restaurant owners, they view community involvement as a major consideration for businesses that are entering transitioning neighborhoods. Walker feels that restaurateurs need to be authentic and share their story with the neighborhood they’re moving into, so they can build trust with community members. “I don’t think restaurant owners should be ultra hip and chic to the point where they’re like, ‘Oh! We got no signage, we’re really covert. We do what we want. We’re super hipster cool,’” Walker says. “That’s totally the wrong approach. Community engagement is the way to go, being honest and transparent and engaging a community and listening to their feedback.”

Meieran thinks merchants sometimes get so caught up with an original idea they have that they don’t take into consideration what the community needs, and that leads them to having unsuccessful businesses. For example, if they want to open a pizza shop, they really have to see what makes it unique for the community and location, and to respect the community’s desires from both design and programming points. “It’s important for people not to get discouraged,” he says. “Keep trying and investing in the communities because the ones that do find that the rewards are amazing both financially and from a personal perspective,” Meieran says. “They can create a true legacy and something that is lasting. Perseverance is key.”

The advice Ortez gives to new business owners who want to open in changing neighborhoods like Boyle Heights is to make the community feel that you’re not trying to destroy the existing art and culture of the area, and that you will not be a part of their displacement. He adds that it’s important to do the kinds of things he’s doing, like hiring locally, including employing youth in the area and being a mentor to them; providing alternative food options to an impoverished community; and promoting the arts and culture of the area.

Un Solo Sol
Un Solo Sol is located on First Street, across from Mariachi Plaza, and serves vegan food in the Boyle Heights neighborhood. | Jean Trinh

It doesn’t all rest in the hands of restaurant owners to combat displacement. While there are policies in place that fight residential displacement, like rent-controlled housing and just-cause eviction, Loukaitou-Sideris wants city planners involved in creating more tools that help prevent commercial displacement.

She warns incoming business owners to really look at the situation and determine if they’re causing cultural gentrification in a neighborhood. “All of a sudden you live in a neighborhood where the amenities and services and restaurants are not gearing so much towards your needs but to the needs of a different public,” Loukaitou-Sideris says. “[It’s important to] keep an eye on what are the types of services and needs, and types of food that the population in the neighborhood needs, and gear towards that.”

For creating positive changes in a community, Haas recommends businesses hire locally, pay well and offer affordable items. But she also brings up the idea of a worker cooperative, which gives employees a stake in the ownership of the business, and gives them a democratic vote in decisions involving the company.

“Part of what makes gentrification possible is that working class communities of color have been starved and denied capital and credit for decades, and when the money comes, the jobs, profits and services end up being for other people,” Haas says. “That is something that can definitely be changed with some will and skill.”

If you liked this article, you may be interested in KCET's upcoming series, City Rising, which will examine issues of gentrification and displacement across California. Sign up to be informed of its launch later this year. Articles and digital videos coming soon.  

Top image: Outside The Mar Vista on Venice Boulevard | Erik Borzi

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