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The Right to Live: Southeast Los Angeles Life in Three Moments

710 freeway
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From the displacement of Native peoples to the enforcement of Jim Crow, the history of U.S. land policy and practice is a history of inequi¬ties. Gold rush-era Chinese workers and Blacks fleeing Southern racism were barred from California’s housing market and segregated to particular communities. After the Great Depression, the federal government backed mortgage lending as a route to homeownership and wealth accumulation, but redlined minority communities. White flight to suburbia left the urban core starved for investment and government services. Predatory lending and the 2010 foreclosure crisis further depressed rates of homeownership in the inner cities. Today, housing deeds still bear restrictive language such as “no lot in said tract shall at any time be lived upon by a person whose blood is not entirely that of the Caucasian race.” The restrictions have lost their legal standing but their spirit lingers in more nuanced ways.
Ch. 1: Legacy

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.


Purple jacaranda blooms cover the sidewalk on Loveland Street under a blue sky. This could be any street in Los Angeles: rose bushes in the front yards of modest stucco homes; apartment buildings bustling with children; cars squeezing by on streets not built for so much traffic. However, this street is in Southeast Los Angeles, what historian Mike Davis calls the Rust Belt of Los Angeles. Here, we mistake planes for stars. Electrical wires spider web over lots where landowners crowd renters and structures. It is also a place where many middle and working class Latina/os moved and bought homes starting in the 70s and 80s. Lurking underneath so much hard work and so much everyday beauty is deadly pollution and the threat of displacement.

Located 20 minutes from downtown, the southeast suffers from life-threatening pollution across the cities of Bell, Bell Gardens, Cudahy, Huntington Park, Lynwood, Maywood and Vernon. The Long Beach and 5 Freeways, Santa Fe train yards, and dozens of manufacturing and battery recycling plants like Exide, each release poisons that affect children, soil and water. Three of my four family members have respiratory issues. We know dozens who’ve died from cancer, lupus or who are still fighting for their lives. The one thing they have in common is where they live: Southeast L.A. Multiply this anecdote by more than 353,000 people and another portrait of a place emerges.

The main draw of Southeast Los Angeles has always been that it was an affordable place to rent or own. A series of floodplains between the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers, it is a place marked by manufacturing districts and towns that could not demand the kind of high prices other outer ring suburbs charged. It may even seem that Southeast Los Angeles may get skipped over by gentrification’s unaffordable rents, cold-brew coffee shops and art galleries. But when southeast cities like Cudahy have renter rates as high as 83 percent, the truth is that climbing rents and displacement are already occurring.

"I lived in Bell for 25 years,” said Edith Arias, “But in 2008, our rent went up really high and my parents had to move in with one of my cousins.” Edith is a community organizer and yoga teacher. For eight years, Edith’s parents, one of whom is disabled, were literally houseless. Her family “went from house to house. They could not afford rent anywhere” in Southeast L.A. Their family is one of the 247,000 Southeast L.A. renters whose families are at the whim of landlords raising rents. While state renter’s rights do exist, many don’t know to use them, much less demand enforcement. There is no rent control and tenants’ unions have not yet made their way to the southeast.

According to a recent KPCC story, people rent more in Los Angeles than any other city in the country. “We have had essentially no new supply of apartments until quite recently so vacancy rates are very low, and that gives landlords a lot of pricing power so they can push rents, and they have to the point where they’re beyond record levels,” said Richard K. Green, Director of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate in that interview. The effects of a limited housing supply on the southeast from the City of Los Angeles are clear. The owners of the modest five-plex where I grew up in Bell Gardens have raised the rent every year in homes with about 400 square feet of space. My family began renting it in 1975 when it cost $50 a month. Now at $850, it is a bargain no longer. Retired parents living on limited income worry where they might go if the rent goes up beyond their reach, like Edith’s parents. Her family moved from one family members’ home to the next for eight years until last year when they found an apartment in Hawthorne. Edith’s father still travels to Bell to see doctors and friends.

It wasn’t always like this.

Jacarandas South LA
Jacarandas in Southeast L.A. | Vickie Vértiz

Back Then

"Ya-Ya’s Pastrami. McCoy’s market.<br> Milkshakes, malts and egg creams<br> the Rodgers brothers lived on Marlowe Avenue<br> welcomed punk rock to the neighborhood<br> wore dirty sneakers and clean Driftwood patches on their jackets<br> they are the last remaining<br> white boys in my neighborhood."<br> – Raquel Gutierrez, from “Malathion: Low Human Toxicity”

In the early 1900s, the southeast was a part of the Eastside Central Manufacturing District, a mostly Anglo region by design. Created by the City of Los Angeles, the district was an area zoned to house workers and nearby companies, such as automakers, tire factories, steel plants, and later, aerospace, brick masonry, and rendering plants. Factories mainly hired Anglo workers, homes sales were restricted by redlining and restrictive covenants, and kicking people of color out of their homes for development was practiced openly. The land was parceled off by developers who enticed manufacturers and lower class whites with whimsical advertisements. South Gate, for example, was dubbed "The Gateway to the Pacific." The lots were long so people could pitch a tent and build their homes a little at a time, sometimes purchasing the land in a deal that included timber.

The land was never an empty frontier. Native Americans and Mexicans were already on this land but were frequently and forcibly removed. In Vernon, for instance, “the creation of the Central Manufacturing District followed the displacement of Mexican village’ and the tearing down of this colonia.” This is the long, bloody history of Mexican and Native people being kicked off their land one generation after the next.

If you were the right race and gender, the southeast of the 1900s through 1960s offered cheap land, a job nearby and space to grow your own food. You could grow anything on the wide floodplains next to and between the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers: cauliflower, walnuts. But what is now up to 98 percent Latina/o was envisioned by developers as “Anglo-only enclaves."

Southeast LA
Anglo businessmen with a map of the region in the 1950s, which included Compton. | City of Bell Gardens photo archive
Bell Gardens High School 1960s
Photo of young white women in a garden at Bell Gardens High, 1960s. | City of Bell Gardens photo archive

In the late 1970s, this all changed. The region was hemorrhaging jobs as factories and manufacturers closed down: Bethlehem Steel, Firestone and dozens of union jobs closed. People transferred back to the places they came from: Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. By the 1980s, most white people had left the southeast like the union jobs that disappeared with them, just as Black and Latina/o workers were moving into the higher ranks.

Though many white people fled the area, however, poorer whites did not. Angelo Logan, an environmental activist and policymaker, saw this in Commerce. “White people lived in Southeast Los Angeles because they were the poorest white folks,” said Logan, the Moving Forward Network Policy Director at the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute. “Where I grew up in Commerce, I knew three or four white folks who lived in tents and built a small dwelling (on their lots). It took several years for them to build a home.” They too had few other places to go.

During this shift, social exchanges in the southeast were friendly yet very tense. “My brother-in-law was at a party in his senior year,” Commerce writer Steve Gutierrez  recollects, “and some underlying tensions finally […] broke out into a race war for a while.”

Hector De La Torre, former California State Assembly member and city councilman, recalls a similar experience. After moving near downtown South Gate with his family and the help of Joe Henville, “an Okie guy” realtor, De La Torre remembers playing baseball with boys on his block and experiencing no ill will from their Anglo neighbors. However, he also recollects feeling the hard hits of the manufacturing implosion: a friends’ father killed himself when he lost his job; another moved back to Texas.

Change came fast. Bell Gardens had been known as Billy Goat Acres with stores called Dixie Farms and McCoy’s, but by the early 1980s, commercial names on Eastern Avenue changed to El Ranchito and El Pescador. Thousands of Central Americans fleeing civil wars in the 1980s also came to the region and created small businesses and worked in the same service industry jobs. By the 1990s, Colmar Elementary changed its name to Cesar E. Chavez Elementary.

colmar elementary school
1983-84, Ms. Jeannie and Ms. Joan’s kinder and first-grade class at Colmar Elementary School in Bell Gardens. By the 1990s, Colmar Elementary changed its name to Cesar E. Chavez Elementary.  |  Vickie Vértiz

By 2013, approximately 122,000 homeowners in the southeast were Latina/o; a region where, prior to 1965, families of color could not live due to restrictive covenants. When it came time to buy his own home, De La Torre had a feeling that restrictive covenants were included in the deed to his South Gate home in Circle Park. It stated that no lot in the tract be lived on:

“by a person whose blood is not entirely that of the Caucasian Race, […], no Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, Hindu or any person of Ethiopian, Indian, or Mongolian Race be deemed Caucasian […].”

De La Torre proposed legislation in 2008 to strike the language from the public record at the point of the next sale, “so that over time they’d all be wiped away.” But the measure met a deluge of opposition from realtor groups, among others and was not signed into law. 

Now, these cities are densely populated by Latina/os, Lebanese people, Black people, Native Americans, Samoans, Asian immigrants and a small number of white people. De La Torre said the last person to represent the 50th District from South Gate was an Anglo segregationist who was anti-fair housing and owned a gun store. “[…] When I left the city council, I said wherever he’s buried, he’s rolling over in his grave that I’m the next one after him to represent South Gate in Sacramento.” The working and middle classes of the southeast turned the tables against racism in the region, at least for a while.

Bell Gardens College Recepient
City of Bell Gardens college loan recipients, 1995 or 1996. |  The City of Bell Gardens photo archive

The Future

In 2001, after the community successfully fought and shut down the Exide Battery Recycling plant in Vernon, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice (EYCEJ) volunteers and members informed people about the lead hazards and testing soil for contamination. During the education campaign, Jessica Prieto of EYCEJ said that the majority of people she met in the southeast were renters and most wouldn’t sign the testing forms. If they signed forms, Jessica said, “Families were worried about repercussions from the owners, or landlords and were confused about whether they were authorized to test the soil at all.” This highlighted a great need for tenants’ rights education and organizing in the area. Other communities in Los Angeles have formed tenants’ unions while some have the benefits of rent control or a rent stabilization order which regulates rent increases and evictions in the city. Southeast L.A. does not fall under this jurisdiction.  

De La Torre is uncertain that gentrification will arrive there, or that rent control will be adopted by Southeast L.A. governments. “You have a lot of entrepreneurial Latinos who own a lot of these properties and rent them out. There are large owners’ groups that have property management companies who manage them, a whole industry that’s very powerful. We also have a Prop 13 mentality in California, our own version of homesteading, where people think, I have my land and the government better not mess with it, otherwise you’ll have a voter revolt. It’s a tough sell."

Prieto admits that their environmental “victories are going to attract developers.” While activists are trying to improve the quality of life, their “organization wants the benefits of the clean up to be enjoyed by the people who suffered the most,” although “trying to get rid of contamination may also bring attention to these regions,” said Prieto. For example, in January 2017, the USC Alumni Real Estate Network sponsored a reception titled, “Navigating the L.A. River: Real Estate Opportunities and Challenges.” Faculty, architects, developers and a public works representative gathered with alumni discuss lower L.A. River investment, which includes the highly polluted, densely populated southeast.

“Because of [L.A.] River development, there could be pockets in which gentrification could happen along the river,” said Angelo Logan. “All you need is just a little bit of gentrification for it to spread.” The Lower Los Angeles River Working Group is already meeting and discussing plans for the river. To represent community voice, mark! Lopez is a community organizer and the Executive Director of EYCEJ who also won the 2017 North American Goldman Environmental Prize. Angelo and mark! openly represent resident and working-class community interests in their work.

“Just because displacement isn't visible right now,” said Prieto, “politicians haven't put these [rent control policies] in place and when we’ll need them, then it will be too late.” It is unclear if Los Angeles tenants unions are expanding into Southeast L.A. There is an existing culture of resistance in the region — thousands of southeast young people and families have already defeated power plants, corrupt politicians and fought anti-immigrant policies like Proposition 187. This current generation is organizing through regional solidarity groups, in the literary arts, with local businesses and through art and wellness collectives. Even more, the southeast could become an interest group of working class people if they had to unite for the same thing: the right to live.

Gratitude to the following people who made this story possible: mark! Lopez, Jessica Prieto, Chicano Resource Center librarian Daniel Hernandez at the County of Los Angeles Public Library, Angelo Logan, the City of Bell Gardens photo archive, Rep. Cristina Garcia, Hector De La Torre and the Southeast Solidarity Group.

Top Image: The 710, Long Beach Freeway in 1970 which runs through Bell Gardens and dozens of southeast cities in L.A. county. | Hal Link/City of Bell Gardens Archive

If you liked this article, sign up to be informed of further City Rising content, which examines issues of gentrification and displacement across California.


2009-2013 American Community Survey (ACS) five-year population estimate for southeast Los Angeles County.

Raquel Gutierrez from “Malathion: Low Human Toxicity,” in Chicana/Latina Studies, vol. 8:1/2, SPRING 2009.

Mike Davis, “Sunshine and the Open Shop,” in Metropolis in the Making: Los Angeles in the 1920s.

Greg Hise, “Industry and Imaginative Geographies,” in Metropolis in the Making: Los Angeles in the 1920s.

Becky Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-Class Suburb of Los Angeles, 1920-1965.

Mike Davis, Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. Big City.

“Though shootings raise fears of backlash, Lebanese Muslims feel at home in Bell,” Ruben Vives, Dec. 6, 2015.

Karen Brodkin, Power Politics: Environmental Activism in South Los Angeles, Rutgers University Press, 2009.

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