(Photo: Lauren Wade)

TakePart Features

Gentrification Destroys Communities: True or False?

Highland Park hopes to succeed where Williamsburg failed.
Aug 28, 2014· 17 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

“Can we come in?”

Although Elsa’s had been a mainstay of Los Angeles’ Highland Park neighborhood for more than 40 years, when it reopened last summer under new ownership, at the same York Boulevard location, some Latino customers from the area would knock on the door before stepping inside.

“Of course you can come in!” Edmundo Rodriguez, who bought the panadería after retiring from a career in education a couple of years ago, would tell them. These patrons may have bought pan dulce at Elsa’s their entire lives, yet they no longer felt comfortable just walking in, like they did before.

“OK,” they would say, “we just didn’t know if we had to get permission.”

Rodriguez, wearing a guayabera-like shirt, told the story sitting in his store, right in front of the display case packed with traditional Mexican sweet breads—the seashell-shaped conchas, the sprinkle-dotted cookies. Behind the counter, his son, Oscar, waited on customers using an iPad. The music playing on the stereo is invariably, deliberately, all in Spanish.

Why would Latino customers in a majority-Latino neighborhood feel the need to ask for permission to enter a Latino-owned business known for its Mexican baked goods? The simple answer is that Highland Park is gentrifying. With rumors circulating that the new owners were “hipsters” who had hired Rodriguez and his son as a front, longtime customers had their doubts about whether this was a new guise or the same panadería they had always known. Other nearby businesses, after all, had been bought, overhauled, and reopened with the same name and signage, like the dive bar converted into a wine bar down the street, where some of the old clientele might not feel welcome.

Edmundo Rodriguez earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University, served in the Clinton administration, and worked for the Los Angeles Unified School District before buying Elsa's in his retirement. (Photo: Lauren Wade)

From New York’s Williamsburg to North Portland, Ore., it’s a familiar (if not always completely true) story: Artists who can’t afford anything else discover a part of town that’s fallen on hard times as a cheap place to live and work. The resulting buzz draws more newcomers, people seeking a bit of that cool factor, and eventually businesses start opening that cater to the growing population of new residents, serving them the farm-to-table food, thoughtfully curated wedding presents, and craft beer they so desire. The New York Times will likely sweep in at some point—as it did in Highland Park in 2009, declaring, “What was once a sleepy strip of garish 99-cent stores and auto parts shops is turning into a thriving neighborhood of cool restaurants and boutiques.” Finally the families come. And that’s pretty much game over for the original residents and arrivistes who made the place desirable to them in the first place.

In Highland Park, boutiques, cafés, and gastropubs are opening like shovel stores during a gold rush. When I was covering new restaurants and bars in the L.A. area a couple of years ago, I found myself heading to Highland Park with such regularity that the culinary website where I worked named the neighborhood itself one of 2012’s trends. Between 2000 and 2010, the community’s Latino population decreased slightly—from 70.2 percent to 70 percent. But the overall population dropped too, a demographic signal that smaller families—a hallmark of bourgeois households, regardless of ethnicity—were moving in. That’s when the economy and, more important, the housing market were still suffering through the Great Recession. The most recent Case-Shiller Home Price Index for Los Angeles stood at 221, a level unseen in the region before last decade’s housing bubble and a 28 percent increase in just over two years. Zeroing in further, the real estate website Redfin last year named Highland Park the hottest market in the country. In May, two area homes sold for north of $1 million for the first time. In August, Marketplace (American Public Media’s long-running radio program on the economy) opened a bureau, run by its wealth and poverty desk, on one of the neighborhood’s retail strips. Within a month, this had happened:

With Highland Park sandwiched halfway between two recent examples of gentrification—to the northeast, the blur of chain stores that is Old Town Pasadena; to the southwest, Los Angeles’ Silver Lake, formerly mostly poor and mostly Latino, now sought after by film industry executives—many there are working for a different outcome.

They’d like gentrification to look more like Fusion Burgers, a family-owned restaurant that brings a Latin twist to the gourmet style of Umami Burger, a famed establishment where both the owners previously worked. Fusion and Elsa’s, while so far the exceptions to the businesses mushrooming up in the vicinity, suggest that Highland Park can grow on the surface while remaining the same at its heart.

The “epicenter of gentrification” in Highland Park, as photographer and longtime resident John Urquiza has dubbed it, is Café de Leche, at the intersection of York and Avenue 50. When the café opened in 2008, taking over a space formerly occupied by an insurance office, co-owner Matt Schodorf, who runs the café with his Nicaraguan wife, Anya, told a local food blog the decor has a “modern Central American feel, which fits into our neighborhood, which is primarily working-class Latino.”

The crowd at the café tends to the younger side, usually featuring a good percentage of darker-hued faces. Among the clientele at all times is at least one young tattooed mother, newborn in tow. In a nod to Anya’s heritage, there’s a map of Nicaragua painted on the bathroom wall, but unlike at Elsa’s, no one is speaking Spanish, and the Roots and Frank Ocean are playing through the speakers.

Urquiza has thought a lot about the idea of an epicenter of gentrification. He defines it as a “business that had a lot of visual and economic impact,” and it’s part of a grand theory of Highland Park’s gentrification that his photography collective, Sin Turistas, has come up with. While other businesses on York catering largely to non-Latino residents predate Café de Leche, it’s seen as an anchor, or proof-of-concept, establishment making the case to entrepreneurs and potential residents scoping out the scene that the retail strip is ripe for growth—a certain kind of growth, at that. If a place can sell coffee for $16 a pound on York, then why not high-design furniture, selvage denim, or $4 doughnuts?

While Café de Leche has the air of a friendly neighborhood joint, only months ago the tension its presence created was, if not palpable, at least very visible: Seeking out the café’s wireless network in December, a computer or smartphone could find a dozen or so others—presumably emanating from routers owned by long-term area residents whose apartments are in Wi-Fi range—including one named “FUCK YOU HIPSTERS 130” and another called “FUCK YOU HIPSTERS 300.” Locals have turned the café into a public discourse space, knowing they have a captive audience of newcomers here—the young “creatives” who seek out free wireless and single-origin coffee like manna.

These residents have reason to be anxious about what gentrification may bring to Highland Park: In California, 46 percent of housing units were renter-occupied in 2010, according to census data. In Highland Park (as defined by the 90042 zip code, which includes small parts of bordering neighborhoods), 55 percent of housing is occupied by rent-paying tenants, 37 percent of whom identify as Latino or Hispanic. While rising property values allow homeowners to cash out, there’s no economic upside to gentrification for renters, many of whom are likely already stretched financially: In Los Angeles, which has the highest percentage of renters in the country, the average tenant spends 47 percent of his or her paycheck on rent, according to UCLA’s Ziman Center for Real Estate. Nationwide that figure is just below 30 percent, including utilities, marking a 30-year high. (Financial advisers generally say not to spend more than a third of pretax income on housing.)

Maybe the hostile owners of those Wi-Fi connections aren’t aware of recent data showing that gentrification often helps a district’s original residents. A 2013 study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland suggests that for longtime residents, living in a gentrifying area is better than living in an area that isn’t undergoing change. “This is true whether residents of the gentrifying neighborhood own homes or do not and whether or not they move out,” writes the author, economist Daniel Hartley. How could it be that even the seemingly most vulnerable residents, renters, are benefiting—even if they’re displaced? Hartley found that between 2000 and 2007, living in a gentrified area was associated with an eight-point increase in credit score and lower credit delinquency rates. The credit scores of residents who were pushed out saw an even larger increase.

The Highland Theatre opened in 1925; the Greyhound, a gastropub, opened in 2014. (Photo: Lauren Wade)

Economists like Hartley and urban planners like Lance Freeman of Columbia University are among those who seek to dispel the notion that “gentrification” is a dirty word. Freeman’s research on displacement in the late 1980s, when the Tompkins Square Park riot in Lower Manhattan first made gentrification a national issue, shows that low-income, long-term residents moved out of gentrifying neighborhoods at a similar rate to those living in other areas. Still, in Highland Park, the white population rose by 14 percent between 2000 and 2010, and income was lifted 11 percent while the rest of the country’s wages stagnated. In light of the slight reduction in the Latino population and the overall population decline, this suggests that lower-income nonwhites have been pushed out.

There’s no denying that today’s East Village bears little resemblance to the 1980s version; locals noted with shock the opening, in the mid-’90s, of an ATM on Avenue B, a former shooting gallery where residents once wouldn’t want to be seen opening a wallet containing paper money. In Highland Park, residents are seeking to preserve more than their ability to hold on to their homes. Urquiza, who kept an office off York until his rent was tripled, worries it is marching toward the uniformity of Silver Lake or Old Town Pasadena, one the Southern California hallmark of hipsterdom and the other an outdoor mall that sacrificed its individuality to corporate retailers in return for preserving its early-20th-century architecture. Proving his point, Highland Park’s first Starbucks opened in July. “They’re the forerunner of all this,” said Urquiza. “They bring the sameness.”

Today’s “creative class” couple moving into a two-bedroom bungalow may be living in the same space artists or writers called home a generation ago, or even earlier. Highland Park’s history as a bohemian enclave for white and Mexican artists alike dates back more than a century. The legacy of creative professions can be seen in the neighborhood’s housing, much of which was built in the style known as arts and crafts, an architectural movement emphasizing natural materials and skilled handiwork that Highland Park and surrounding areas helped give rise to in the early 1900s.

More recently, in the 1970s, the community was home to many members of the Chicano arts movement. But there never would have been talk of a Mexican American revolution along York and Figueroa if it hadn’t been for the Duardos moving in.

“In ’63, my mom and my grandmother scraped together $1,400 and put 10 percent down on a Victorian,” Richard Duardo, 62, a printer and an artist who grew up in Highland Park, told me in the kitchen of his printmaking studio on the edge of downtown L.A. That would be $109,000 in today’s dollars. A smoldering American Spirit between his fingers, he jabbed at the air, counting out the rooms on an invisible floor plan—six bedrooms and three baths.

We were the tip of the spear that totally freaked out the neighborhood.... But there’s all these old ladies that need their lawns cut, their garbage taken out, their garages organized. So eventually they fell in love with our family.

Richard Duardo, artist

“We were the tip of the spear that totally freaked out the neighborhood,” he said, “because my mom rolled in with a teenage aunt, a teenage uncle, my grandmother, two parents, and nine kids—that’s 14 people.”

The Duardos were one of the first Mexican families to move to Highland Park, which, to Richard, at the time resembled nothing more than Mayberry, the idealized version of small-town America depicted on The Andy Griffith Show in the 1950s, one where everyone has enough money and no one isn’t white.

“But there’s all these old ladies that need their lawns cut, their garbage taken out, their garages organized. So eventually they fucking fell in love with our family,” Duardo continued. “Then we slowly watched them all die. Usually the next family in was Mexican.” Duardo estimated that when he was a freshman at Franklin High School, 25 percent of the student body was Mexican. “Three years later, by the time I graduated, it flipped.”

In 1977, Duardo cofounded Centro de Arte de Publica on Figueroa Street with a group of fellow artists. It was part of a network of community arts spaces scattered throughout Latino neighborhoods in cities between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and it aimed to be the Chicano arts version of California’s Catholic missions of two centuries earlier.

Each of the six artists in the collective needed to scrounge up $40 a month to pay for the 5,000-square-foot space, and as Duardo remembered it, “we struggled to pay our rent every month. That’s how broke we were.”

Long before he became a panadería owner, Rodriguez was working a few miles away at Plaza de la Raza, a community arts space serving the Latino communities of L.A.’s Eastside.

Although he was a few years older, he knew Duardo and the others in the Centro collective, as well as artists based in East L.A. “I used to lend them money,” he said, laughing. More recently, he had a series of lithographs from the 1970s Chicano arts movement hanging on the walls at Elsa’s.

Back when, Duardo remembered, “there were no taco stands. There were no businesses in Highland Park that were Mexican American owned.”

Sales at the Ivers Department Store, an anchor retailer on Figueroa, peaked at $3.1 million in 1974, according to the Los Angeles Times, and declined steadily until the store closed a decade later. Retailers on Fig in 1985, the paper wrote, were hoping that “the influx of young, upwardly mobile Latino and Asian businessmen into the community will add a spark” to the area. Sound familiar?

By the late ’70s, as the artists started to move out and space at the Centro opened up, bands began to hold their practice sessions there; gigs soon followed. Early Los Angeles punk bands X and Fear played shows in the Figueroa space. Instead of printing Chavez posters, Duardo started creating images for bands, and he soon moved his studio to be closer to clients on L.A.’s Westside.

The changes that began with Duardo’s family purchasing a Victorian on Echo Street were complete. In 1990, Highland Park was 61 percent Latino. Today, the former Centro space is home to the offices of Stones Throw Records, an independent music label.

St. Louis–based developer McCormack Baron Salazar has its eye on a stretch of Marmion Way and plans to break ground soon on the Highland Park Transit Village, a mixed-use development built around the Highland Park station of the Metro Gold Line, which links Pasadena and the San Gabriel Valley with downtown L.A. The project, partly financed with public money, would replace several public parking lots a block off Figueroa. Even with its Craftsman-inspired architecture, though, the proposed development is an insidious threat to the vicinity’s character, said Richard’s sister, Lisa, who grew up in Highland Park, moved away as a young adult, then returned with her two kids in 1998. A flier she was handing out on a recent morning asked, on behalf of the community activist group Friends of Highland Park, “In an era of ‘look alike’ neighborhoods, what are our chances of keeping Highland Park’s charms in place?”

Friends of Highland Park is suing the city over what Lisa Duardo said is a faulty environmental impact report, a lawsuit that she’s hoping will delay breaking ground on the project, which is slated for June. The three-story development would sit a block off Figueroa and bring new housing, including 49 units that would rent for 30 percent of the area median income.

When the Historic Preservation Overlay Zone was introduced in Highland Park in 1994, the city limited the height of new developments. But McCormack Baron Salazar was allowed to build taller, more densely populated buildings than the HPOZ allows for—as Los Angeles has grown, many have argued that increased density will reduce both auto emissions and rents. The proposed development is geared to both. Nonetheless, Lisa pointed out that at the same time that these affordable units are set to be built, apartments built 20 years ago, also with some public funds, are hitting the end of their state rental subsidy periods, allowing owners to push out tenants paying far below market rate. (McCormack Baron Salazar did not respond to requests for comment.)

“Everybody in the neighborhood knows, and [tenants in] the building know, that they’re being pushed out to have higher renters and a different-color renter come in,” Lisa said. “And that’s against federal fair housing laws. But someone would have to take up that battle.” According to Redfin, the current monthly gross income that can be earned from the building’s tenants is $14,450.

Lisa Duardo also has a personal stake in Highland Park’s changing real estate market. Now that her two kids are finished with high school, she’s moving out of the second-floor duplex apartment in the building her mother owns and into a smaller place. She knows she can rent the place at market value and use the income to help support her mother, who is retired. But that would price out today’s version of her 1998 self. “I certainly wouldn’t be able to raise my two kids in an apartment like that,” she said, considering how much more expensive Highland Park has become. She was debating listing the apartment for a third to a half below what she expects to be able to get for it—Lisa doesn’t want to become the kind of landlord her activism opposes—but that’s a hard position to maintain while her mother keeps hearing from friends how much Lisa could get and “letters are coming every week saying, ‘We’ll buy your house, cash.’ ”

Fusion Burgers was started by a father and his son, both of whom used to work in the kitchen of a branch of a local restaurant chain. (Photo: Lauren Wade)

Aside from her dogged opposition to the Highland Park Transit Village, Lisa is less concerned with any one business than she is with the makeup of the community overall. She supports efforts to revive the stretch of Historic Route 66 along Figueroa, including a section where an old hotel, a retro-but-doesn’t-know-it bowling alley, and a classic movie palace all are within a few blocks. The bowling alley was recently purchased and will reopen with a revamped bar and restaurant.

“If I had the cash to blow and I could walk into the Greyhound [the quintessential gastropub of the new Highland Park] and buy a cocktail and $11 french fries and hang out there,” then that’s great, she said. Both for her, in theory, and for the neighborhood.

That is, as long as the counterpoint exists. “I think it’s also great that if I only have $5 in my pocket,” she continued, “I can walk into Las Cazuelas and order a pitcher of beer, and it comes with chips and salsa.”

That’s the beer-and-bar-snacks example of why some Highland Park residents—new and old, white and Latino—are tempted by the notion that they might be able to bend gentrification to their will. With its craft beers and pitchers of Tecate across the street from each other, Highland Park is the kind of socially and economically diverse place that so many socially conscious people wish to live in. I’m personally tempted because in 2013 I bought a house just over the border from Highland Park—a house my real estate agent is now convinced we could make a near 30 percent profit on if we turned around and sold it. Tempted because I am raising my daughter here, and I want her to grow up in a diverse community. Tempted because I don’t want to discover in 10 years that by moving to the neighborhood, I helped ruin everything that made me fall in love with Highland Park.

Since gentrification is viewed as an economic market force, and it’s just capitalism working at its best, the human aspects of that tend to get erased.

Luis Trujillo, member, Northeast Los Angeles Collective

Luis Trujillo, a member of the Northeast Los Angeles Collective—a group of roughly 15 activists from Highland Park and other nearby areas undergoing gentrification—believes that restaurant menus and architectural details are beside the point. “There’s too much emphasis on aesthetics—the spectacle of gentrification as it occurs on the main streets and in the business district,” he said. Though these are the most obvious symbols, “there’s a different violence that isn’t seen, and that’s what we want to highlight.”

The group, many of whose members are first-generation U.S. citizens of Latino descent, hopes to change the discourse by bringing long-term residents into the conversation and addressing the issue as a facet of “postindustrial capitalism and neo-liberalism, although not in those exact terms,” Trujillo said, through bilingual pamphlets and a podcast.

One of the arguments the 24-year-old finds troubling is that “gentrification is good because it erases violence in the neighborhood, it gets rid of the criminal element,” such as members of the Avenues gang, which has wreaked violence on Northeast Los Angeles communities for decades and has been subjected to LAPD roundups.

“There’s a very literal violence with the policing that happens with gentrification,” Trujillo said, including gang injunctions and what he described as the militarization of police responses. Funneling undesirable residents into the prison system is all “for the sole purpose of keeping the neighborhoods consumable,” in the eyes of the collective, just like pushing out the poor.

“We wanted to highlight the other kinds of violence—like the displacement—that comes along with gentrification,” Trujillo said. He noted that many of the area’s renters are in an even more precarious position: Because they might not be in the U.S. legally, they are subject to being pushed not only out of their homes but out of the country altogether.

“Since gentrification is viewed as an economic market force, and it’s just capitalism working at its best, the human aspects of that tend to get erased,” he said.

A view of Highland Park from across the Arroyo Seco. (Photo: Willy Blackmore)

The two most significant institutions of turn-of-the-century Highland Park—El Alisal (also known as the Lummis House) and the Southwest Museum, also founded and built by Charles Lummis, a journalist and a Native American–rights activist, have had their share of troubles of late. The Southwest Museum has essentially been mothballed for a decade; the house Lummis built 117 years ago, with the distinctive round river stones hauled up from the nearby Arroyo Seco, only recently found a tenant, Occidental College, to run its museum and gardens. Community organization around these hallmarks of the area, along with the trendiness of Highland Park’s remodeled Craftsmans, have contributed to the arts and crafts movement’s resurgence.

Jan Lin, a professor of sociology at Occidental College (on Highland Park’s western edge) who is writing a book about arts activism in Northeast Los Angeles, believes the revival could present an opportunity for the various factions in the community to come together. Cultural events that have been planned, such as “Lummis Day” and retrospectives of Chicano artists at area museums, Lin said, “are one arena where the old-timers can interact with the Latino and Asian immigrants that came into the community in the late 20th century, and connect with the newest, white arrivals.” He noted that the programming for Lummis Day appears to include activities deliberately aiming to attract people from any background.

“I’m not saying it’s a perfect kind of ‘Kumbaya’ interaction,” he continued, “but I do think that these festivals help to create a public space where these communities can interact.”

Edmundo Rodriguez of Elsa’s said he thinks of Highland Park not in terms of one historic community or another but as a once and future home of creative individuals.

“When the arts are so deeply rooted in Highland Park, it doesn’t matter whether the vine dries up a little bit,” he said about the area’s historic relationship with the arts. “Within time, the roots are so strong, a brand-new vine will come up, but still nourished from the same root.”

With the arts and crafts, Chicano, and hipster branches that have sprouted over the years, he continued, “it’s not a totally different plant. It’s not a totally different neighborhood.”

Lin points out that the strong historic preservation movement in Highland Park hasn’t always reached the Latino community. The Highland Park Heritage Trust, begun in the early 1980s, started out as mainly white, he said, “but they’re more recently bringing Latinos in.” The group now has a Latino president, Antonio Castillo, who is an urban planner.

Photographer Urquiza is more wary of such historic-minded renovation: “I could see it very easily as an extension of South Pasadena,” just across the Arroyo Seco, where the streets are lined with perfectly restored Craftsmans. But the work of preserving Arroyo-stone walls and chimneys in these houses “doesn’t include the brown people who are living in them,” Urquiza says. The contractors doing the remodeling may largely be minorities, but the occupants often change even as the architecture is preserved.

As more houses in Highland Park have been flipped, the bungalows that dot the hills remodeled with incoming, gentrifying residents in mind, an architectural shorthand has appeared. Urquiza said the ubiquitous, most obvious features are brushed-nickel address numbers in Futura and horizontal-slatted fencing—what’s been called the “Ikea-fying” of Los Angeles. (My house, a flip that features plenty of Ikea fixtures, has just such brushed-nickel street numbers beside the front door.)

While I talked with Urquiza, he swiped through photographs on his iPad shot by members of his collective, looking for the portrait of the tenant who had his rent tripled, the busy barber who, when asked, said that gentrification was a good thing—though he depends on a clientele of cowboy-boot-wearing Mexicans.

The second epicenter of gentrification the collective has identified is Avenue 56 and Figueroa, where the Greyhound opened earlier this year. The restaurant sits more or less across the street from where Duardo and his friends opened the Centro nearly 40 years ago. A vegan spot recently joined the bar on Fig, and nearly every variety of trendy exercise experience can be had within a couple of blocks—from hot yoga to CrossFit to a studio offering a kind of ballet barre–meets–Jane Fonda aerobics. That place is part of a local chain called Pop Physique that claims it “began as more of an art project than business endeavor” and has its own brand of thong.

Such recreational and retail opportunities may be exciting to some, but Urquiza pointed out that “there’s an economy there already.” The stores that thrived by serving the existing community, he said, are being replaced “with a bigger economy that benefits” newcomers. On his iPad, images of a mattress-store owner and a street-cart vendor, both of whom make their living on the street, slide by. According to Lin, a crackdown on street-food vendors has arrived along with the new businesses.

I asked Urquiza if he’s documenting a tragedy. “I don’t know,” he answered, shaking his head of long graying hair. “I haven’t come to that answer yet.”

Rodriguez doesn’t see a divide. “I personally think the combination of peoples is the best thing that can happen to any country—[like] the United States, although we have problems—can happen in neighborhoods, can happen in schools,” he told me as we sat at Elsa’s, watching paisanos wearing cowboy hats and white girls with yoga mats slung over their shoulders walk past on the sidewalk. “What I do not like is when we see, for economic reasons and sometimes cultural reasons, the segregation of communities.”