In the 1960s, Mercedes Cortes arrived in Hollywood after fleeing her homeland of Guatemala, which was roiled by bloody unrest. After moving around a bit, she and her husband and their three sons settled in a two-bedroom apartment on Eleanor Avenue, a community of run-down apartment buildings and old Craftsman-style houses, which is a short walk from Paramount Pictures and Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where many stars are buried.
A decade later, Cortes' world was shattered again — when gang violence and drug dealing hit her beloved neighborhood. This time, the affable, soft-spoken housekeeper bravely stood her ground as Hollywood was engulfed in the wave of bloodletting that gripped Los Angeles from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. A small, unimposing woman, she became a visible member of Neighborhood Watch, walking the dark streets in candlelight vigils to confront the thugs.
And it worked. Cortes and her neighbors slowly won back Eleanor Avenue. She never dreamed that she'd be evicted — for being too poor to live in her improved, more livable community.
But in 2002 her apartment building changed hands during the real estate bubble, a particularly frenzied phenomenon in Hollywood, where the taxpayer-subsidized, nearly $1 billion Hollywood Redevelopment Project Area helped fueled a Wild West of land speculation, building flipping, profit-seeking — and skyrocketing rents. In 2003, projects such as the stylish face-lift of the Cinerama Dome were completed. In 2004, Cortes' new landlord told her she had to go.
"I was working and doing good things for my neighborhood and they treated me like that," Cortes says. "For what? They wanted more money."
A gracious, churchgoing woman, Cortes represents a Latino diaspora of working families priced out of Hollywood and East Hollywood, a mass departure that has fueled an unexpected — and, for City Hall, increasingly embarrassing — net population plunge of 12,878 people in those two neighborhoods between 2000 and 2010.
Hollywood, defined here as the huge flatlands roughly bounded by La Brea, Melrose, Western and Franklin avenues, has lost one in every 12 of its residents. Latinos are streaming out, as a much smaller number of higher-income whites takes their place. The Latino population plummeted 17 percent, about 6,000 adults and children gone.
East Hollywood, roughly bounded by Western, Beverly, Hollywood and Hoover, has seen a net loss of more than 5,000 Latinos.
Hollywood-area City Councilman Eric Garcetti, who is running for mayor in the March 5 primary and has for 12 years avidly led the urban renewal in Hollywood, won't discuss the census data, the outflow of Latinos or the area's net population loss, none of which were foreseen by his office. But Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, a tenants' rights advocacy group, says, "It was an economic tsunami that pushed low-income people out. There was massive displacement."
Representing more than 8 percent of Hollywood and East Hollywood's population, the exodus of nearly 13,000 mostly Latinos is believed to be the largest mass departure from an L.A. neighborhood since "black flight," between 1980 and 1990. In that demographic upheaval, 50,000 residents fled the violence and shattered neighborhoods of South Central and South Los Angeles.
Garcetti and other L.A. politicians have insisted that growth is as inevitable as summer tourists, and that City Hall is merely facilitating Hollywood's unavoidable, denser future with smart planning. But census data and the stories of those who have fled suggest that city planners and political leaders are facilitating what some criticize as the urban cleansing of Hollywood.
Father Michael Mandala, who was pastor at the landmark Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church on Sunset Boulevard from 1998 to 2011, repeatedly saw landlords drive out Latino families of three or four in order to rent the same space to one or two white tenants. "I'm wondering if the policymakers are on the mark with fixing Hollywood," Mandala says, "or are they clearing out what they don't want?"
In mid-July, the Los Angeles City Council approved a new Hollywood Community Plan championed by Garcetti, which wipes out height limits in parts of Hollywood to allow skyscrapers, some of which would obscure the Hollywood Sign. At tense public hearings, hundreds of residents decried the plans for a Century City skyline in their community. Business owners, led by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, were among those who cheered the City Council's decision.
Three neighborhood groups have sued the city over the new skyscraper zoning. Brad Torgan, an attorney at The Silverstein Law Firm, which represents one of the groups, describes the Hollywood Community Plan as Garcetti's personal "vision for Hollywood — good and bad." But, Torgan says, "There's a perception that the plan was created for the development community at the expense of the residents."
Garcetti, the brainy, Ivy League–educated mayoral hopeful, revealed some of his thinking in a 2010 interview with Hollywood Patch: "We staged seminars in which we brought the New York banks to Hollywood and showed them the opportunities," Garcetti said. "Whatever the project's size, my philosophy is to let the creative entrepreneurs in." He added that "what we did was to use the nightlife to bring back the day life" — restaurants such as Beso, 25 Degrees, Cleo and Katsuya and night spots such as the Sayers Club, Drai's, My Studio and Eden.