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Reyes had worked with the LAPD to install surveillance cameras in the park, bringing about a double-digit reduction in crime. He had spurred housing inspectors to crack down on slumlords. And by hustling politically, he had overseen the completion of a new library on Alvarado Street. By all rights, Reyes should have ended his speech with a feel-good message about neighborhood revitalization, one that would send the audience optimistically out the door. Instead, Reyes ventured into darker territory.
As the business crowd finished their chicken Marsala, the councilman began to describe a community meeting in MacArthur Park where he told residents of his efforts to improve the neighborhood. But one woman, a Spanish-speaking parent at Gratts Elementary School, was more sad than grateful. We won’t enjoy the improvements, she told Reyes, because we won’t be around to see them. So many neighbors had been pushed out by their landlords, either through harassment or the relocation process, that she now believed a new, more affluent group of tenants would wind up enjoying the neighborhood’s safer streets and rejuvenated park.
“It was a blow,” Reyes later recalled. “You push hard to create these pockets, these revitalized pockets with improved quality of life, and you pull in people that you wouldn’t expect would want to live there. They start coming in, in large numbers, and they start pushing out the people who’ve been there for decades.”
As long as real estate prices remain out of reach, each positive development — from the planting of street trees to the elimination of graffiti — leads policymakers to a nagging question: Won’t these changes lure people with more money, which will, in turn, lead to higher housing prices, followed by the displacement of the people already there?
In Boyle Heights, community activists have already responded to the construction of a new police station, hospital and light-rail line by demanding that the city make sure residents aren’t forced out. In downtown San Pedro, where residents complained for years that no serious businesses would invest there, the construction of 1,000 new condominium units is being greeted anxiously by some who fear that the character of the community is about to change. In South Los Angeles, residents near Crenshaw Boulevard and 43rd Street have greeted proposals for new investment with a flurry of lawn signs: “Save Leimert Park.”
With so many contradictory demands, it’s hard not to ask: Can’t the city’s civic elites — its policymakers and its politicians, community groups and business leaders — just make up their minds? After all, they want to boost the city’s rate of home ownership, but not necessarily at the expense of rental units. They want neighborhoods to improve, then blanch when those communities improve too quickly, making it economically prohibitive to stay. They spend years voicing anxiety about middle-class flight, then they are shocked to discover that a reverse migration might displace the working poor.
Ten years ago, neighborhood advocates in L.A.’s Pico-Union district complained about overcrowded classrooms. Now, a new generation of advocates is voicing alarm over the decline in enrollment, as families are forced into less expensive neighborhoods. Even more ironically, these advocates have directed some of their ire at the Los Angeles Unified School District, which eradicated hundreds of affordable apartments in its march to build new classrooms.
The problem is, neighborhoods in large cities tend to go in only two directions: up or down. And no one wants to see a neighborhood decline. But once the faucet of financial investment is turned on, and a neighborhood manages to attract a critical mass of buyers and businesses, it can be almost impossible to turn that faucet off. Until the next recession, that is. With Southern California home sales for July dropping by double digits, has that day finally arrived?
The Storm System
Perhaps the best way to understand gentrification is to view it as something akin to a weather pattern, like a tsunami, a hurricane or a driving rainstorm. Like the storm systems that pass through Los Angeles each winter, gentrification starts with the ocean, where buyers have shown themselves willing to pay outrageous sums to live near the water. The most expensive property in Los Angeles — and in the United States as a whole — is along the coastline, where properties routinely run in the seven figures.
Like most weather patterns that sweep across Southern California, gentrification primarily moved from west to east throughout the late 1990s, passing through neighborhood after neighborhood as buyers and renters alike realized they could no longer afford the places they wanted. Buyers priced out of Santa Monica tried Venice. Those who gave up on the Westside headed east to Los Feliz. As the 20th century drew to a close, the weather pattern kept driving east, making its way into Silver Lake — where it branched off in multiple directions.
The economic weather pattern pushed its way north and northeast, into middle-class neighborhoods like Atwater Village and Eagle Rock. It headed south and southeast into MacArthur Park, Pico-Union and even South Los Angeles. Perhaps most significantly, it slammed headlong into a neighborhood long known for its gang violence, pockets of poverty and liberal activism, Echo Park. Now, Echo Park stands as the poster child for gentrification, even sparking a movie on the topic, Quinceañera, written by two gay men of means who moved to Echo Park. Perhaps most disturbing, singer-actress Jennifer Lopez is now producing a sitcom about “the yuppie, hipster and Latino cultures” of Echo Park for the cable channel FX downtown.