By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Father Greg "G-Dog" Boyle is a pillar of Boyle Heights, a Jesuit priest who with his nonprofit Homeboy Industries provides former gang members, including several former residents of Pico-Aliso, with a job and a way out of "the life." Father Boyle, who in just this past year buried two of his homeboys — victims of gang retribution — has long included Pico Gardens and Aliso Village as part of his turf. He’s hopeful that the new projects really will provide the community with a new start, but he acknowledges the significance of what has been lost. "For all the problems in the projects, there was also a sense of community that was so strong it was palpable," he says. "As advocates for the poor, we had for years demanded more humane living conditions. And then one day, much to our surprise, the federal government said, ‘Okay.’ Should we have said, ‘No thanks’? My mind still isn’t made up about it."
Decades of persistent poverty have made community advocates desperate for a change of fortune in Boyle Heights — once a flourishing mixed-race, mixed-income community, its busy streets lined with shops and residences and trolleys until the combined effect of slum and freeway clearance set East L.A. on a half-century-long downward spiral, and many residents fled to the suburbs. But the reconstruction of the projects and the new popularity of urban neighborhoods has buoyed hopes of an economic renaissance. "What do I think about gentrification? I think it’s great," says Frank Villalobos of Barrio Planners. "Homeownership is the way to build wealth in America. Is there a reason Eastside property owners shouldn’t get the same return on their investment as Westside property owners?"
No shill for the real estate industry, Villalobos is an architect by vocation but a community organizer by avocation who has long soldiered in the cause of economic and environmental justice with the venerable Mothers of East L.A., a community advocacy group he helped found, and the Eastside Business Assistance Center. He’s tried to jump-start economic development in East L.A., if for no other reason than "I’d go broke trying to work here as an architect and planner. There’s no money here. So we have to make it, and then recycle it in the community."
Villalobos has incubated homegrown entrepreneurial efforts, helping to hatch El Pollo Loco and Pescado Mojado and other ventures, especially in the booming Mexican-food industry. "But our kids grow up and leave East L.A. They move to the East or the West, following economic growth. East L.A. has not been an economically dynamic community."
But East L.A.’s stars seem to be coming into alignment: The MTA will spend nearly $1 billion on the light-rail line and its nine stations, which should attract further public and private investment; $650 million is being spent on the new L.A. County/USC Medical Center; there’s the $150 million expansion of White Memorial Hospital; and two planned high schools, likely to cost another $100 million. And now there are conversations about a gigantic $350 million venture to convert the abandoned Sears distribution center and its vast parking lot, which overlooks the downtown skyline on 23 acres at Olympic and Soto, into an "open town center" that’s been likened to Westwood.
The Sears site was bought last year by a risk taker named Mark Weinstein, whose grandparents and great-grandparents had lived in Boyle Heights, and who vaulted into the spotlight last year with the redevelopment of five historic garment-district buildings downtown into 550 mixed-income lofts collectively known as Santee Court. Plans are being drawn up at Sears for 480 lofts and 180 apartments, stores and offices and a charter school, with a rooftop pool, gardens and tennis courts.
Villalobos is among those dreaming of restoring Boyle Heights to the vital community it once was, but bigger — expanded to include a revitalized L.A. River, its industrialized riverbanks reclaimed for new homes and schools and shops and parks. "The river will reconnect East L.A. to Chinatown and to Little Tokyo and to downtown from Aliso Village all the way down to the Sears site," Villalobos says. "We need a mayoral candidate with that broad vision. East L.A.’s time has come."