Notes on Gentrification: Highland Park, Los Angeles

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.

USC Logo

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.

The Highland Park Theatre Sign was Restored by the new wave of residents.

The Highland Park Theatre Sign was Restored by the new wave of residents.

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.

Mystic Dharma Buddhist Temple

Chicken Boy


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.

sin turistas

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.

Elsas Bakery

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.

Elsa's Before

Elsa’s Before

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.



An Open Letter to a Query about Queer Vietnam


You may have noticed my inactivity on this blog over the past few weeks.  There is good reason for this:  my academic book has gone to outside reviewers and I was doing all sorts of last-minute fiddling:  proofreading and proofreading and proofreading.  My eyes are kind of dead.  But this morning, I got a reminder of the wonderfulness that this blog brings to my life—a letter from a college student who is actually taking a class with someone I know! She had a question for me, and so I thought responding with an open letter would be a wonderful way to get back into the blogosphere and wash that book out of my hair!

*  *  *

Hello, I am an Asian American studies major at the University of California, Davis. A couple of classmates and I are writing a research paper on Vietnamese queer diaspora and its different levels of acceptance and how policies are affected by it for a class taught by professor Caroline Valverde. So I was just wondering if I could get your opinion on this topic. What are the differences in levels of queer acceptance in Vietnam and in Vietnamese diasporas? How are these differing sentiments reflected in government policies and in the climate of these queer communities? It would be extremely helpful to get your input on this.

Thank you.

 *  *  *

Dear Miss,

Thanks for contacting me with such a thoughtful question.  I’m glad to hear that you are taking classes with Professor Valverde; she is an innovative scholar and all-around awesome individual…and I really do wish that I could pull up a plastic chair in the room and listen to the fountain of her mind spill forth its tinkling secrets.

That said, I am no expert on Queer Vietnam.

But coincidentally, I just attended a screening of Vietnamese short films at the YXine Film Festival, hosted at USC.  Two of the films addressed the topic of queer Vietnamese issues in Vietnam and they may give you a viewfinder into this world.  One was about Vietnamese lesbianism in the city; the other was about Vietnamese gay identity in the countryside.  I’ll give you a run-down of the stories in a second.

But first, I have some good news and bad news.  Both films appear to document hostile environments in Vietnamese contemporary culture.  Whether it’s in the city classroom or the emerald rice paddies of the countryside, Vietnamese gay youth suffer the usual injustices–queer baiting, bashing, bullying, name-calling.

Vietnamese culture often thinks of homosexuality as a Western imposition.  The word for homosexual—bede—is a corruption of the French pederaste.  During my first trip to Vietnam, straight out of college back in 1993, I remember hearing that word for the first time while walking down the alley with some friends.

Up ahead was a girl.

Bede.  Bede.  Bede.  That’s all my crew said, over and over again.  It was a taunt, said quietly under the breath but loud enough to hear in the tenebrous half-light of that dark alley.  These were my friends—a bunch of upper middle class kids—and I was traveling with them in a pack.  And there was that girl, only a silhouette, and I was realizing that she wasn’t a girl.

Bede.  Bede.  Bede.  It must have been scary and lonely to hear a bunch of low clamoring whispers behind you, like moth wings beating at a light bulb.

“You can always tell a bede.  It’s in their shoulders.”  But my eyes had not yet begun to grow accustomed to Vietnamese proportions.  “Look at that V of her back.”  The girl did not dress like drag queens or transvestites in the United States—Rupaul-ish.  She was going for what they call “realness”: those earrings, the frumpy calico dress—so un-flashy. Had it not been for those whispers, had it not been for the taunting, which I was very much a part of, she would have remained a girl in my mind’s eye.

No, I had not said a word.  But I did not doubt that I was a part of the brooding, male presence behind her.  My body had leant its weight to the words that followed her.

I’d like to say things have changed but I’m not sure; I’m not part of the gay scene in Vietnam.  But the short films suggest that it’s still oppressive there.

The short about a gay tailor in the countryside is told in everybody else’s voice except his own.  The frame for the story—a village ferry—allows us to hear all the rumors circulating around this young man:  everybody knows he is gay and there emerge detractors and defenders.  Even the defenses, though, are tailored around gay stereotypes:

They’re so good with their hands.  There’s a gay guy in the other town who knows how to do my hair. 

The central consciousness of the movie—the nephew of the gay man who has been abandoned by his father—hears all this talk.  He sits in the middle of the boat with his book bag clutched to his chest.  But he is too young, too confused to figure things out.  He just wants his uncle to get married, wants him to be normal.

“Why don’t you marry and be normal?”  He asks this, naively.  The uncle will not marry.  He is waiting for an old flame, whose picture is kept locked away in a cabinet we never see.

The woman in the conical hat who runs the ferry—the uncle’s staunchest defender—refuses the kid’s fare. “Tell your uncle that I’ll apply it to a shirt.”  She adds, “your uncle makes such nice shirts.”  And what she means is gay people are “kheo tay”—good with their hands:   precise, mincing, preening

The boy runs away.  Conflicted by all the rumors about his Uncle.  Motivated by the emptiness of abandonment.  He runs off to Saigon.  The uncle follows.

The final frame of the movie is like an O. Henry story, with the kind of irony that Vietnamese people love:  a handsome young man sits on the ferry, inquiring after the tailor.  “He ran after his nephew who left in search of his father and the city has swallowed them both up.”  It is only then that we realize that the handsome young man, caught between two shores on a flimsy boat, is the tailor’s old flame—the picture locked in a cabinet—whom he will never know came back for him.

If it sucks to be gay in the countryside, it sucks to be gay in the city.  The next movie documents a dawning lesbianism, which emerges in the form of a schoolgirl crush.  Vietnamese people—men and women—are extremely touchy-feely.

When I was in Vietnam, it was not uncommon for men—straight men—to hold hands walking down the street.

So the emerging lesbianism in these two young girls seems almost natural in the many ways Vietnamese same-sex interaction unfolds:  the necessary embrace on the motorcycle is supposed to be meaningless, isn’t it?

The school is one of those solid structures that makes me nostalgic for colonialism.  The French left  some good-looking buildings behind.  And these kids are the inheritors of all that is both good and bad of the lingering colonial presence; they are the well-to-do of an emerging generation that has smart phones, a generation that never experienced war.

The trick of the film hinges on a moment of intimacy, caught with a camera-phone—a kiss on the ear lobe given by one girl while the other sleeps on the desk.  The image is sent to everybody, including the girls (yes, cyberbullying is international!) and the girls become the butt of a joke.

They break up, never having been technically together.  The kisser—she becomes a victim of the usual hate:  desk graffiti, spitballs, laughter, microaggressions.

But in being ostracized, she finds community.  She takes a stab at normalcy and dates a guy who searches her out because, it turns out, he is gay.  She gets a rainbow bracelet, passed to her secretly in the hallway by two thuggish looking guys.  And then voila:  she puts it on and her friend—that girl who is the apple of her eye—slips it on, too.

They end the movie walking hand in hand down the hallway.

So, what do these movies mean about being gay in Vietnam?  The short answer: it sucks.  Just as it sucks, too, to be a gay Vietnamese person in the United States, where you are not allowed full civic participation in community-building events like the yearly New Years parade (I assume Professor Valverde shared with you my Huffington Post editorial about gays being excluded in the Vietnamese Lunar New Year Parade.  If not, here is the link).

But there is a silver lining:  even as these movies document the marginal status of gays in the Vietnam, their very act of documentation shows that this condition is changing.  That the movies are allowed to be produced, that they have shown up within the context of film festivals means that we are not just walking down a long, dark alley, listening dumbly to the echo of those words—bede bede bede bede bede—but that there is something that we can imagine to be a light at the end of it all:  a place where a small path empties out into a boulevard.

I wish you the very best with your studies.  And please do send my highest regards to Professor Caroline Kieu-Linh Valverde.


Khanh Ho