By Joy Hepp
Residents of the Boyle Heights community in East LA already know how to protect their community from outside dangers. Years of protests in the 1980s halted the construction of a nearby prison; legal action spearheaded by Councilmember Jose Huizar staved off the expansion of a hazardous waste facility; and efforts by Jesuit priest Gregory Boyle helped to rehabilitate gang members by giving them opportunities that they hadn’t found on the streets.
Now residents of this historic neighborhood are learning how to hold onto the neighbors and customs that have provided its rich cultural heritage.
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The largely Spanish-speaking community is still feeling the repercussions of losing more than 900 families that were displaced when the city of Los Angeles remodeled a major housing development a decade ago. Many believe that a similar exodus will occur when the city approves similar plans to convert Wyvernwood, a 1,187-unit, 70-acre property eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, into an upscale development with room for up to 4,000 condominiums. A 2008 plan suggested by the developer would set aside 600 low-income units. Community members are wondering what will happen to the residents of the remaining 587 units.
Community leaders say the economic downturn has given them the chance to educate and organize Boyle Heights residents so they will be part of the planning process for Wyvernwood and other potential projects. The financial slowdown has also given non-profit organizations time to ensure historic properties remain accessible to current residents.
The East LA Community Corporation (ELACC), a nonprofit group that works to build low-income housing and organize existing residents, has been given the go-ahead to renovate and convert the “Mariachi Hotel” into affordable single men’s housing units.
The landmark building overlooks Mariachi Plaza, a place where local musicians have come to look for work for since the 1960’s. Because of the area’s proximity to the Pico-Aliso Metro stop, it’s quickly becoming a place where the musicians are in danger of being priced out.
Gentrification is not a foreign concept in Los Angeles. Yet while now-hip neighborhoods like Venice and Silverlake have been transformed by market forces, in Boyle Heights the government is driving the change.
“Public investment and public entities are coming in and assembling land that a private developer would never be able to on their own,” explains Maria Cabildo, president of the community corporation.
The most recent population shuffle happened in the late ‘90s when the city of Los Angeles demolished both the Pico-Aliso and Aliso Village low-income housing projects. More than 940 families were displaced and there was a net loss of 661 affordable housing units. In addition, the construction of the Edward R. Roybal Metro Gold Line Eastside Extension, the expanded Rudy de Leon/Hollenbeck Police Station, and the expansion of the General Hospital have displaced more than 1,000 families.
Not long after the new units were built, developers began to take notice of the neighborhood’s proximity to downtown Los Angeles and the unique architecture dating back to the early 20th century when Mexican, Russian and Japanese immigrants all called the area home.
“Suddenly you could rent out a one bedroom apartment in Boyle Heights for $1,000 a month,” Cabildo says.
In 2008 organizations like ELACC were inundated with calls for help from residents who claimed their landlords were trying to illegally evict them or significantly raise the price on their rent-controlled properties.
Twenty-one-year-old Claudia Gomez says she lost several neighbors during that period because they were not aware of their legal rights. One family bought property elsewhere, lost it in foreclosure and are currently living with family members.
“They tried to do the same thing with us, but because my mom got involved. Now they’re afraid of my mom,” says Gomez, who, along with her mother, is active with Union de Vecinos, a grassroots community organization that got its start when a group of residents wanted to fight to preserve their low income housing. Despite her family’s victories, there are still battles to be fought. There’s a persistent mold problem in both her family’s home and in its adjoining unit. Traffic is a concern on nearby Wabash Avenue, a thoroughfare that runs in front of Evergreen Ave. Elementary school, so Gomez organized a group of neighborhood moms and elementary school children to make signs urging drivers to slow down.
Cabildo believes this type of neighborhood unity is in danger when residents are priced out of low-income housing. Oftentimes residents who eke out a living cutting hair or collecting recyclable goods also provide important links and services to the community.
“The strength of social networks helps you get by,” Cabildo says. “In our community people are really dependent on neighbors for things like help with kids after school. You’re not paying a market childcare rate because you have that relationship where you’re kind of helping each other in different ways.”
Strong social networks have also been integral in fighting gang violence. In the 1990s Father Gregory Boyle started Homeboy Industries, a non-profit job placement program that was founded in the heart of the old Pico-Aliso projects. According to Union de Vecinos director Leonardo Vilchis, figures like Boyle and other neighborhood elders were “able to negotiate from the point of authority with the gang members.”
“Now all these families that used to live here are dispersed all across the city in places that look like what used to be here without a network of support, without the leadership and without the ability to intervene and reduce these conditions,” Vilchis says. Residents believe a similar story may unfold if the city of Los Angeles gives Wyvernwood’s redevelopment proposal the go-ahead.
Some members of the community are more enthusiastic about the prospects of big-time development. Around the time properties started selling for $300,000, architect and founder of Barrio Planners, Frank Villalobos told LA Weekly he thought gentrification was “great.” This comment raised a lot of eyebrows with community leaders, but Villalobos stands by it.
“You have other multicultural groups in Los Angeles today, and so when I referenced gentrification, you have to define who is the gentry, and the gentry of course is other minorities that are moving in,” he explains.
Regardless of which groups are moving in, the area is set for even more change. Barrio Planners is working with a developer to create a multi-story mixed-used property to be built on the site of Mariachi plaza.
“I would like to see that we develop things that match the community …and we don’t end up with the typical stores,” he says. “That’s the intent, but the market place will find what’s doable. Unfortunately, what drives our society are the ones who come in and invest.”
For now, the economic downturn and the efforts of community organizers may be keeping gentrification at bay. Located across the street from the proposed Mariachi plaza development is Primera Taza. With espresso made from beans imported by a local Guatemalan business owner and muffins made in a neighborhood bakery, the coffee shop and art gallery is the kind of locally owned business everyone can get excited about.
On a recent Friday afternoon a reporter quizzed the barista preparing her Mexican mocha. “Do you ever see any hipsters in here?”
She replied, “What’s a hipster?”