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
Paul Giannotti couldn’t wait another day to embrace the big city. Bored in his placid corner of the San Fernando Valley, he had been searching for a shorter commute, an apartment with charm and a much larger selection of restaurants. So he and his girlfriend, Dianne Marti, uprooted themselves from their three-bedroom ranch house in Granada Hills and headed for Koreatown, where they found a three-story walkup with two bathrooms and a balcony.
The move alarmed Giannotti’s family and friends, who warned the pair they were risking their lives by placing themselves in such a crowded, ethnically complex environment. Yet the couple swooned at the sight of their Spanish Colonial Revival apartment, with its arched doorways and coved ceilings. They loved Koreatown too, and got to know the neighbors, the local businesses and the community’s cultural life cycle — L.A. Marathon in the spring, Korean cultural parade in the fall.
In demographic terms, the pair were tiny minnows swimming against the tide. Los Angeles in 1987 was changing fast, with Mexican, Central American and Korean immigrants pouring into the central city and Anglos moving ever outward, to West Hills, Calabasas, Alta Loma, Costa Mesa. The city was in a state of churn, with the civic elite acquainting themselves with the concept of multiculturalism and the city’s white middle classes voting with their feet.
In those years, Los Angeles was still hung-over from more than a decade of civic combat over busing, the court-ordered desegregation of the city’s public schools. Families with means had migrated to the suburbs in search of lower crime rates, better schools and a more homogenous culture. With so much talk about white flight — and later, middle-class flight —no one seemed to entertain the possibility that a comfortable middle class, Anglo or otherwise, might one day come back.
Disregarding the trends, Giannotti plunged into the life of the neighborhood. When Pope John Paul II came to Los Angeles, the couple held a party, serving guests a round of Bloody Marys before rushing down to Olympic Boulevard to see the papal motorcade. When their street got hit with a spate of thefts, Giannotti confronted a man stripping a car and even took the witness stand to testify against a burglar. Even when the crime situation got dicey, Giannotti and Marti marveled at the fantastic sunsets they saw from their balcony, and the 360-degree fireworks display visible from their roof on the Fourth of July.
The city is once again in a state of churn, and from the roof of his 1927 apartment building, Giannotti sees the signs. Apartment buildings have been razed. Office buildings are being reinvented as housing. Construction craters occupy half a block. But Giannotti did not experience the disruption firsthand until July 14, the day he received a letter telling him his landlord plans to demolish his rent-controlled apartment building and replace it with a pricey, six-story condominium complex. “After 20 years, how can I replace this?” asked the 58-year-old Giannotti, as he walked past the sliding glass-pocket doors of his $1,250-per-month apartment. “It’s impossible. I can’t do it.”
Giannotti, Marti and their neighbors decided to fight back, sending letters to the planning department and hanging a banner from the apartment that reads: “Save our neighborhood. Your building could be next.” But while Los Angeles provides rent control to more than 600,000 households, nothing in its legal arsenal can prevent a property owner from invoking the Ellis Act, the state law allowing landlords to remove themselves from the rental market and offer residential units for sale instead. And there is the bitter irony. Giannotti could soon be rewarded for his good civic behavior by being expelled from the very neighborhood be embraced.
“It’s not just having to pick up and find another apartment, which will be smaller and more expensive,” said Giannotti, who runs a company that repairs espresso machines. “It’s also breaking the ties to the community that we’ve had for 20 years now. We’ve been to various neighborhood parties. We’ve hosted neighborhood parties. We’ve patronized the local businesses here. It’s total upheaval.”
Koreatown is just one small section of Los Angeles being transformed by soaring real estate values. In Echo Park, apartment houses are being cleaned out, with speculators paying off — or forcing out — tenants who have lived in their homes 20 and 30 years. In Venice, old-timers are fuming over the oversize fences that are being erected around beach cottages, saying wealthy newcomers won’t engage the community. Even in South Los Angeles, where political leaders have long despaired over redlining and a lack of investment, middle-income home buyers are exploring neighborhoods they would have ignored five years ago.
Welcome to Gentrification City, where an overheated real estate market is dramatically reshaping neighborhood after neighborhood, where no one — from Salvadoran immigrants living in tenements to homeowners in affluent coastal neighborhoods — is being spared by the dramatic changes wrought by a condo-fueled, property-mad economy. Tenants are appalled by rising rents, fearing the day their buildings could be demolished or cleaned out for a new class of buyer. Homeowners who have built up a ridiculous amount of equity have watched even as their communities change before their eyes. The sense of dislocation is everywhere.