Recently, I attended a presentation at USC about gentrification in my neighborhood—Highland Park, an area north of downtown that has quickly become valuable because of its new Metro system and the rezoning of downtown for mixed use. HLP, as the locals call it, began its career at the turn of the century as a red light district. Later it became a bohemian zone, later still a white working class bedroom community of Ozzie & Harriet types.
More recently, it has become an ethnic enclave composed of Asians and Latinos. The neighborhood has become a refuge for recent immigrants arriving in waves that coincide with each decade’s wars: Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Vietnamese and Chinese. Its latest waves are a mix of young professionals—NPR types–who have been priced out of the bidding war that is the LA real estate market.
Gentrification is a fascination of my own writing, because the mystery novel-in-progress is preoccupied with the re-zoning of Los Angeles in general: the changing downtown, now the stomping ground of yuppies, has shifted the center of the city away from the beach communities of the Westside. It’s a different downtown from the one I knew in my twenties as a grad student: one populated by artists who lived like bromeliads—mostly on air. They have scattered.
My narrator absolutely despises gentrification. Robert is filled with self-righteous rage at the foul intruders who stink up his stomping grounds with dog piss and upscale boutiques.
But my narrator is not really me. Yes, I’m an LA native. Yes, I’m Vietnamese American. Yes, I can claim some kind of legitimate sense of belonging to the landscape not only because I have friends and family in HLP but, also, I lived there over a decade ago, well before it became a victim of hipsterfication. In my fiction, I love to channel the fire and brimstone of self-righteousness—it makes for great denunciations and a charismatic voice—but really I can see the good and the bad.
* * *
A huge orange Buddhist temple anchors the main drag—Figueroa Boulevard. It has been around longer than the over-sized Chicken Boy brought to the neighborhood by the first wave of hipster settlers and the Roaring Lions that are part of kitsch of the much-documented streetscape.
Vietnamese refugees settled in HLP during the 80s. You can sense their presence in little things—the front yards (which do not have lawns but vegetable gardens) and the doors (upon which are tacked red and orange banners that ward off bad luck).
I am the youngest boy from a sprawling family of eight and one brother ended up in the neighborhood next door three decades ago: South Pasadena, which has gone through a warp-speed gentrification upon whose heels Highland Park nips. This is sadly one of the elements that was lost in the presentation at USC—the fact that the transformation of the neighborhood was scripted as a Latino-White problem oversimplified the dynamics and marginalized already marginal residents.
There may be good reason for this oversight: the numbers of Latinos have declined, mainly because many don’t yet own property. In contrast, my Asian neighbors who live in multi-generational housing have not suffered as much of a decline because they have bought in.
* * *
John Tapia Urquiza–a photographer and the driving force behind the community arts organization Sin Turistas—made the presentation at USC. He leads workshops in which community members document the disappearing culture of this North East corner of Los Angeles. John grew up in Highland Park and owns a graphic arts business that once stood on the “hipster strip”—York & 50th—but was forced out when rent tripled. “I am a refugee of gentrification.” Mom & Pop bodegas, taco stands, pupserias—these are landmarks that John’s team captures as they fan out into the area. There is an element of wistful nostalgia in the project: the documentation of a disappearing world going the way of the last Mohican.
For John, the story of gentrification is black and white: it boils down to a question of outsiders–white outsiders–coming in and changing a neighborhood. “Neighborhoods are always in flux,” his official respondent, a really smart Art History professor with blocky purple glasses, pointed out.
“The first photography project, which began in Paris, was initiated by the need to document a changing urban landscape in the face of gentrification.” Another such project occurred in Paris in the 1970’s, a century later, ostensibly to capture that which was to be lost to time. “There is nothing new to your project. My question to you, as you formalize an understanding of your practice, is how you position yourself in relation to a tradition. Are you simply documenting? Or are you doing something else?”
But beyond this important question, the matter of what exactly constitutes an outsider remains (like the spider tending its cobweb) at the center of the gentrification debate. For instance, the new businesses that John trumpeted as local Latino businesses were initiated by geographical outsiders who arrived with the know-how that came of advanced degrees that the Salvadorans who run the juice stands and pupuserias just do not possess—MA’s, MFA’s, PhD’s.
Those who own these new businesses can successfully navigate commerce because owning a business represents a corporate affair that moves beyond the fact of skin color: each business owner is a pocket—a network, a flow of ideas, institutions, tastes and orientations. These newbies bring to bear a keen knowledge of financial products, professional networks, marketing savvy quite alien to commercial practices dominated by pupuserias, liquor stores and bodegas.
One such business, I know quite well because it is on my jogging route: Elsa’s Bakery, a panaderia owned for thirty years by the Vargas family. It was bought by Edmundo, a professor at UCLA who learned of it, not from a stroll through the neighborhood, but from a graduate student’s research paper.
Mr. Vargas, the previous owner, had health issues and it showed in the crumbling paint. The dereliction all seemed a shame. I even wrote a Yelp review that said that they should renovate and take advantage of their status as a long-time local business to compete with the hipster coffee shops down the street.
Within months of my Yelp review, Elsa’s was vastly retrofitted to look like a Disney version of the failing panaderia. The walls were painted purple. Day of the Dead memorabilia now is strewn everywhere: skulls, paper banners. An oversize painting of Frida Kahlo is the patron saint of the establishment, looming large over the cash register. The effect is a bit over-the-top.
Since then, the prices have tripled. They stay open late during the Art Walk to draw in the looky-loos who come from all parts of the city, something that the more established coffee shops just won’t do. They Facebook. They Tweet. They write press releases, allowing them to be quickly featured in the newspaper of record, The Los Angeles Times, in a story that trumpeted change in Highland Park need not force out businesses that are “authentic.”
The new owner Edmundo tells me that the couple–Elsy and Manuel–who sold him the business did quite well for themselves: they may have made a gesture to keep Elsa’s Latino, but the Vargas’s spent a lifetime amassing property throughout Highland Park at rock bottom prices, which they sold at a hefty margin to finance their retirement.
I’m happy for the success of everybody involved. I see all the changes but cannot feel self-righteous, unlike my narrator Robert, who would have a field day blasting this outsider. I still frequent the business. And I do enjoy the improvements, which more than make up for the price increase. But, of course, I can’t pretend otherwise: inasmuch as my people have roots in this community, I am still one of the gentrifiers and I bring my own tastes to this zone of contact. I like craft beer almost as much as I love me a good oversize Frida Kahlo standing guardian over the environs as I sip my half-caf ice capuccino.