Monday, April 20, 2015

Unintended Positive Consequences

Postcard Los Angeles and Mount Washington Railway
Hello Everyone:

Can gentrification be good for an ethnic neighborhood?  This is something that Los Angeles-based Héctor Tobar ponders in his opinion piece "Viva Gentrification!" in the New York Times.  Mr. Tobar and family have lived in the Mount Washington area of Los Angeles for years recalls traveling "...into the flatlands of the Latino barrios that My wife, Virginia Espino, who is Mexican-American, knows these neighborhoods well, especially the community called Highland Park."  Ms. Espino grew up in Highland Park during the sixties and seventies, when it was still a multi-cultural neighborhood, before "white flight" firmly took hold.  Mr. Tobar wistfully recollects, "In the decades that followed, Spanish-language ads took over billboards, and the complexions of the locals became almost exclusively cinnamon and café con leche."

Highland Park, Los Angeles, California
Barrios have a certain charm.  Barrios also have their of "highly visible urban dysfunction, including a brick tenement where groups of young men gather.  Police cruisers aggressively patrol against alleged neighborhood ne'er-do-wells, who are often arrested in full public view."  These days, Highland Park is changing, for the better or worse depending on your opinion.  There is vegan restaurant parked near a very vegan-unfriendly armada of taco trucks.  The bodegas sell espressos and expensive bottles of wines with corks, not twist-off caps, on the same aisles has homemade salsa and phone cards. Quoting his wife, Mr. Tobar writes, "I saw them all move out," referring to the neighborhood's Caucasian residents.  "And now I'm watching them move back in." An ironic circle.

Florist on Figueroa in Highland Park

In Latino neighborhoods like Highland Park, gentrification has produced a little noticed but undeniable situation: ending decades of de facto racial segregation.  Who would have thought that for all the hand-wringing over how gentrification destroys established communities, pushes long-term low-income residents out, makes property values zoom through the roof, that it could end de facto racial segregation.  Mr. Tobar muses, "It's possible to imagine a future in which 'the hood' passes into memory.  Racial integration is on the upswing; for that, a cry of 'Viva gentrification!' is in order."  Indeed it is.

Cafe Oxy Plaza
Glassell Park, Los Angeles, California
This upswing in racial integration was driven home to Mr. Tobar when he, "...stepped in that same bodega and saw fair-skinned child of about 6 wandering past the stack of tortillas. It's one thing to see a 20-something white dude walking with freshly picked organic lettuce in his backpack.  But the presence of this girl in that small retail space, filled with Spanish chatter, pork rinds and other symbols of Mexican-ness, bespoke a deeper shift."  In one respect this scene at the bodega fulfills the dream of the Rev. Dr. Marting Luther King Jr. of children of all races and ethnicities walking hand-in-hand, living in peace.  Gentrification is supposed to be the "Great Satan" of the urban landscape.  Gentrification drives hard working- and middle-class from their homes by real estate developer; guilty of a type of "cultural murder."  Héctor Tobar agrees with the great Beat poet Lawrence Ferilinghetti, who denounced it as "'corporate monoculture' and skyrocketing rents that are turning San Francisco into 'an artistic theme park without artists.'"  While the social media sites bemoan encroaching gentrification, there is no similar fury over the growing racial segregation , in cities across the United States, with flourishing Latino populations.

Echo Park Lake
  In 2008 Héctor Tobar, with the help of a colleague at the Los Angeles Times, reported   "that about one million people in Los Angeles  lived in communities that were 90 percent or  more Latino."  East Los Angeles has the distinction of being the most ethnically homogenous community in the region-98 percent Latino.  The 2010 Census, confirmed "that Los Angeles was the country's most segregated major metropolitan area, in the distribution of whites and Latinos."  (

Downtown Eagle Rock
Los Angeles, California
Despite all the pride Latinos have in their barrios, no one actually wants to live in a racially separate neighborhood or go to a segregated.  There are volumes of scholarship available on effects of segregation on self-image, most notably by the psychologists used by attorneys arguing for the plaintiffs, before the United States Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education.  ( African-American and Latino communities have far fewer services and the schools offer less opportunities.  Last year, the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, published a study that concluded, "California has had an extremely dramatic increase in the segregation of Latinos, who on the average attended schools that were 54 precent white in 1970, but now attend schools that 84 percent nonwhite." (

City of Montebello, California banner
Héctor Tobar grew up in the communities of Montebello and South Whittier, California, which were integrated when his Guatemalan-born family moved in, but experienced 'white-flight" in the years that followed.  Mr. Tobar and his wife's Franklin High School (in Highland Park) yearbook are a document of what once was.  Mr. Tobar writes, " wife grew up alongside Asian kids, and blond kids with feathered haircuts and names like Koch and McDowell."  The new integration experience in Highland Park differs from the previous one.  The new residents are not working-class Caucasians and Asians, rather, they are millennials.  The New York Times described them as "young trendsetters in skinny jeans, flannel shirts and Converse high tops...patronize stores around York Boulevard."

South Whittier, California
Héctor Tobar describes about a walk he and his wife took on York, one night, which nearly caused her to burst into tears.  He writes,

The vibe and ethos of her old neighborhood had shifted before her eyes; from a place where Latino people scraped by and took pride in doing so, to one where newcomers practiced conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure.  Our local panadería underwent a major renovation, and jacked up the price of the Mexican sweet bread.  A beloved mural with kitschy Latino themes was painted over to make way for a French restaurant.

Sad is it not?

In the true spirit of gentrification as the "Great Satan" of the urban landscape, residents in the neighborhood beyond York are being priced out of their homes.  "Tenant groups have protested rising rents and last year The Los Angeles Times detailed how property-flipping investors targeted renters not covered by the city's rent-control ordinance."  Mr. Tobar suggests a deceptively simple remedy for this burgeoning problem, "Strengthen rent control laws, and develop new ways to fund housing for poor and middle-income people."  Quoting Rick Coca a spokesperson for City Council member José Huizar who district includes part of Highland Park, Mr. Tobar writes, "We need to make it so it's not just people with six-figure salaries moving in."

Elysian Park, Los Angeles, California
Rick Coca's statement aside, the demographics tell the tale of just how much of Los Angeles has changed.  Latinos are the majority in both the city and county-thus making it impossible for gentrification to completely erase Latino culture in Highland Park or similar communities.  Mr. Tobar concludes, "The new non-Latino minority will live, for the foreseeable future, in a majority-Latino community."  In the meantime, the disposable income the newcomers bring with them will benefit all Latinos.  Near the bodega where Mr. Tobar witnessed the little girl strolling through the aisles, there is a gallery run by Latino whose opening drew an ethnically diverse crowd.  The nearby Latino-owned cafes cater to this hipster clientele, the newest, Tierra Mía, serves a hipster-mexicano mashup drink "horchata frappé."  In planners-speak, we can use the word agglomeration to describe the benefits of the newcomers's disposable income and the location of these new businesses.

Highland Park is becoming a more integrated community and this is a good thing.  The community can grow and thrive in ways never imaged.  Sometimes change can bring about unintended positive changes.       

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