The Gentrification of LA: Fight on Boyle Heights

What struck me the most after picking up a copy of the July/August 2017 edition of the Boyle Heights Beat a local newspaper is the image of what seems to be a Latino young man carrying a sign “Don’t be a dick, it is only coffee” in support of a contested coffee shop set up by gentrifying entrepreneurs in the heart of Boyle Heights a predominantly Latin@/Chican@ community in the City of Los Angeles.  It is not surprising the distorted view by some lacking historical references (mapping) to past experiences… I was holding the paper in hand when a historical reference came to mind, the annexation of TEXAS.  That is how it all started when Mexico’s government allowed Anglo sajones to settle in Texas but under specific conditions: foremost no slavery and son on.  At first it was agreed, but as history has proved there was never any intent to respect Mexico’s conditions for settlement.[1]  There were some Mexican hacendados with large estates that welcomed the arrival of Anglo Saxons with the hopes their properties would be protected by siding with the guests.  The hacendados also envisioned the growth of their estate would grow fat by joining the gringos.  That would not be the case. We all know what came after.  Most hacendados lost their estates and wealth to the land grabbing opportunists.  The colonized notion that with whiteness comes improvement continues to persist to this very day not just in Boyle Heights but in many parts of the world.  If improvements do come it’s for them and not the rest.

Second concern to point out, are the contradictions by those who gentrify. I’m sure they are progressive and liberal but with a big difference, that with their settlement in working class communities comes ‘class antagonism, privilege and class differences.’  A professor would often say “Not all liberals/progressives are alike, you want your first home and the liberal is thinking of adding a second story.”  A clear and poignant fact is living with contradictions instead of living through the contradictions.  Are such contradictions a concern?  Or are they ignored and justified in some way or the other?  This alone is a key factor that must be reiterated repeatedly.  Contradictions don’t get ironed out with a CUMBA YA party!  let’s all get along! it is only coffee— approach!  Gentrification is a political struggle not a block party!  There is no in-between!

I would also assume that many are also not with this whole thing about Trump, yet feel entitled to settle and push into working class African American and Latino neighborhoods.  This entitlement is the exercise of a slight micro version of the manifest destination and eminent domain that continues today by a more affluent and privileged class whose majority so happens to be Caucasian.  Not to mention the access to capital and finances to establish upscale galleries and business that accompanies gentrification or the anxiety, fear, pressure that comes with the loss of security on the poor and working families forced to relocate. It is revealing to see the City of Los Angeles officials, greedy propertiers, wealthy developers, business owners and real estate hawks who use the greedy act of speculation, on their knees aiding and abetting gentrified areas (urban renewal) in displacing families and workers.  There is also the question of perspective, of viewing specific areas of a community as uninhabited zones of existence.  Again, this recalls the arrival of the first European settlers in what is now known as America.  The first steps on dry land once off the ship was to see Native American land as uninhabited zones of existence open areas for exploitation and settlement. What about the Native Americans?[2]

Third, where is the presence of the local government of Boyle Heights district 14 political representatives and county supervisors.  What is there political stand on gentrification?  Are they being held accountable?  Where is the protection for the working class and families targeted and affected by gentrification?

Fourth, the paper Boyle Heights Beat makes no references to the Boyle heights political council representatives accountability.  Very briefly the paper skims through this question by allowing an interviewed person by one of its reporters make the point. Meaning it is indirectly addressed.  Why did the editors fail to bring up the direct accountability and safety in the hands of the politicians in its July/August edition is a question?

I would compare gentrification as a neoliberal aesthetic in where the pumping of capital in this case in Boyle Heights, is disguised as a social investment for the community by wealthy individuals and privatizing policies.  Another direct way of saying it, is the embedded belief that, what capital generates somehow automatically trickles vertically down to the masses.  This top down hierarchical approach compares to the large-scale capital investments syringed into a less prosperous country with the illusion they magically will acquire 1st world economic status.  One variable that must be understood is that capitalism is not, I repeat is not rehabilitating nor can it be humanized.  The logic of capital dictates all spheres of life and ways of being that put profit over people.  Much of the gentrification does not come alone, it is accompanied and encouraged by city officials (and well-informed Latin@ politicos) and misguided and misinformed local minorities who stand to lose not realizing they are aiding a privilege class who could care less what happens to friends, community, cultura and family.  They see no harm in gentrification as a means of prosperity and progress as does the young man holding the sign.  It is prosperity for us and not for you. Gentrifying needs a few local minorities that stand to profit (urban planning Latino firms located in Boyle Heights)[3] on their side to shield and protect their encroachment into a low income, working class community and neighborhood.  Why can’t progress accompany working class family’s vs forcing them out of the community. Any shortage of housing is not their fault it is the responsibility of the city.

Case in point is the gentrification taking place in the north-east side of Los Angeles, Highland Park a predominately Latino working community.  One of the main concerns is the rise of liquor licenses applicants for food and bar restaurants on one of the principle mom and pop business corridors in Highland Park; Figueroa Ave.  keep in mind, acquiring a liquor license is expensive.  The average liquor permit starts at $24,000 dollars and can go up to 300,00 in the City of Los Angeles.  The Latino community beginning with the Mexican American experience in the building of this nation has never been friendly.  The hostility accounts are many: The bulldozing and forced removal of Mexican Americans from their homes at Chavez Ravine to build Dodger Stadium that we all enjoy today,[4]  the deportation of “unwanted” Mexican Americans in the mid-1920s, the forced recruitment into Vietnam, the no dogs and Mexicans allowed signs, the hunt down of immigrants crossing the border (**), Operation Wet Back of the 60s and the Anglo sailor’s attack on Mexican American Zootsuiters.[5]

According to Professor Rodolfo F. Acuña, the construction of freeways in east Los Angeles:

“By 1963 609,000 [were] uprooted 2/3s minority urban land …When plans for freeways were proposed, these sections [east of the Los Angeles River] were considered expendable… …Freeways ultimately displaced ten percent of the area’s inhabitants.”[6]

Not to mention the health hazards that affect a community living near freeways.  Historically, the lived experiences between minorities and the City of Los Angeles, and the upper echelons is and continues to be conflicting.

The concerns with gentrification are the loss of the specificity of a community: its history, its contributions, its uniqueness, its culture, home and the sense of place.  It makes it less affordable to live by longtime residents and more accessible for those who can pay two, three or four time the rate of a working family.  It demonstrates that city employed representatives work faster around wealth, progress and development, and slow around justice and opportunities for working class people. Gentrification, literally grays a neighborhood with an industrial navy battle ship tones that dampens out a community’s specific color palette.  If investors and the gentrifying well-meaning crowd can bump out the poor and working people, it is with approval of city officials, politc@s and lobbyist.  Nothing comes about if there is a Nay on behalf of the city’s power brokers.  Power, Profit and profiteers come before children, families and people.  Every gain and protection of a community is never granted democratically it must be fought for.  Gentrification is historically rooted in the birth of this nation.

What’s behind gentrification is the normalizing of capital ideology that profit and gain supersede dignity and human rights.  City development in gentrifying zones is the accommodation for middle and upper-class whites at the expense of minorities.  For scholar and community activist Lydia Avila Hernandez, these historical changes have been disguised as revitalization:

“Historically, the City of Los Angeles’ definition of revitalization has been to destroy in order to create. Developers and the city planned to accomplish the revitalization of the Downtown Business District by bringing back the same professionals that were induced to move to the suburbs in the 1950’s and 60’s. City officials seem to believe profit equals progress. Traditional revitalization tries to bring life back to a community by tapping into a new market, through the promotion of a lifestyle that revolves around exclusivity, consumption and the culture of the white urban professional. Cities across the nation attributed blight to “white flight” from the city-center. Politicians, planners and developers identify progress with the White, professional, middle and upper-class locating in particular neighborhoods. Revitalization is an example of the perceived dependency of progress on the middle class.” [7]

Conclusion, it is not about ‘who wants to live in a racially segregated city’ as mention in a 2015 New York article titled ‘Viva Gentrification,’ it is the trident arsenal that comes with gentrification: property, privilege, and power.  The framing of an L.A weekly report 2016 ‘Here’s a map of L.A Most Gentrified neighborhoods’ puts gentrification as inevitable, despite the dislocation on behalf of the privilege that comes with it.  It is only inevitable when nothing is done against the clogged weight of injustices! Gentrification is CUSTOM DESIGNED to do precisely what it is doing today: allow free market values to dictate in favor of those who can and continue the neoliberal assault on grass root organizing and reshape the city’s landscape to the needs of middle and the upper classes.

Political policies that care to consider affordable public housing due to lack of federal, state and city investment is one of the main causes of gentrification.[8]   What do we make of a local framing shop in Highland Park that after inquiring to use their space for an art exhibit I was asked to send them images. So, I did.  I got no reply until I called the owner’s cell number.  The work I presented “was not what his customers would be interested in” said the young bearded Caucasian man.  I replied, “are you saying it’s too ethnic.”  There was a moment of silence.  I got it, Latino art was not welcomed, it was not white or Eurocentric enough.

I would hope that by know given the historical conflict between city and working people in barrios and hoods we would be onto their game of progress and development.  I’d hope that by know our local councilmen and council women would stop pimping the community with illusions of job opportunities that come with the destruction of mom and pop businesses and displacement of families.  I hope that by know we are onto Latin@s politicos who abuse the cultural similarities and Latino heritage inherited from their immigrant and Latino parents and stop waving the American Dream Doctrine that derives from exploitation in our faces to lure the community in accepting counter-productive political trinkets, like the magician in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude does to the residents of Macondo, with trinkets that spellbound a community with railroads and false illusions of an embellished monster called progress.[9]

The masquerading of kind words to the calculating doctrine of progress is no different than those who feel that to save a forest from a fire it must first be cut down.  For advocates who support gentrification and for those who are in a state of limbo(in-between) gentrifying is no different as believing: that to save a community it must first be torn down(destroyed) and gentrified for it to be saved.


** https://www.counterpunch.org/2012/10/09/shooting-to-kill-immigrants-on-the-mexican-border/

Note: Historical experiences should not be wasted in particularly when it relates to justice.  For writer Walter Benjamin, history is one of our best reliable retroactive force that should be called upon to question every victory, past and present of the ruling elite.[10]


[1] Juan Gonzalez, A History of Latinos in America: harvest of Empire. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.

[2] Please see sociologist Boaventura de Santos on uninhabited zones of existence.

[3] https://www.laprogressive.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/The-Boyle-Heights-Landscape.pdf

[4] Angelica Ortiz, Black Friday May 9th Evictions Versus Mexican Heritage Day at Dodger Stadium: May-June 2017,    Community Beacon News. www.community/beaconnews.com

[5] Luis Alvarez, The Power of The Zoot. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008.

[6] https://www.laprogressive.com/los-angeles-gentrification/

[7] https://www.laprogressive.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/The-Boyle-Heights-Landscape.pdf

[8] https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/08/04/los-angeles-and-the-nation-needs-a-new-deal-to-solve-its-lack-of-affordable-housing/

[9] Gabriel Garcia Marquez: 100 Years of Solitude.

[10] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, Theses on The Philosophy of History pg.255, New York: Schocken Books, 1968.

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