2016: The Year of the Nimby
Anti-gentrification protest in Boyle Heights
BHAAAD (Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement)
Nimbys were everywhere in 2016 – from Boyle Heights to Venice, from the shorelines of San Pedro to the foothills of Sylmar. They didn't always win, but their ideology drove public discourse throughout the city.
So named for the phrase "Not in My Back Yard," Nimbys have long been a potent force in local politics. Traditional Nimbys fought things such as railway lines, rehabs and high-rise apartments and they were, for the most part, homeowners. As Mike Davis so viciously put it in his magnum opus, City of Quartz: "Los Angeles homeowners, like the Sicilians in Prizzi's Honor, love their children, but they love their property values more."
In 2016, Nimbyism spread to L.A.'s renting class.
Take Boyle Heights, where activists of various ages, races and social classes banded together to fight gentrification. (Gentrification — that process by which a neighborhood becomes more upscale and therefore less affordable — is a far greater threat to renters than to homeowners, whose property values go up when an area gentrifies.) Their primary target? Art galleries. They say galleries are being used by developers to drive up property values, acting as the shock troops of gentrification. The activists have demanded that every single art gallery vacate Boyle Heights, post-haste.
That's a pretty extreme case, to be sure. But the point is that Boyle Heights, like so much of the city, is changing at a rather rapid pace — or at least that's the perception. L.A. (like most cities) is getting ridiculously expensive, which forces more and more people out of their preferred neighborhoods, even out of the city itself. So renters now have a reason to react.
Anti-gentrification sentiment has led to anger over new development, new stores and, in the case of Boyle Heights, art galleries. It's not clear that any of these things actually drive gentrification. In fact, data suggests it's the absence of development that constrains the housing supply, sending prices up and sending lower-income residents looking for a new neighborhood.
There's a quote that's often attributed to Dorothy Parker (though it's doubtful she said it): "Los Angeles is 72 suburbs in search of a city." But L.A. is starting to feel more and more like 72 suburbs that want nothing to do with one another.
In Silver Lake, the mere suggestion that the reservoir – which no longer serves an actual non-aesthetic function – be turned into something useful such as, say, a park, was met with apoplectic shrieks from nearby residents. Their objections were familiar: the traffic, the parking, the other people from other neighborhoods. The DWP quickly scrambled to find a solution. Now the agency says the lake will be refilled by 2018.
Just down the street, at the world-famous intersection known as Sunset Junction, residents are fighting what was once a proposal for a new mixed-use apartment building. Now it's supposed to be a hotel. Apartment, hotel, no matter. The resistance, led by the owners of Cafe Stella, which is across the street from the site in question, has threatened to file a lawsuit the first chance it gets.
At times in 2016, L.A. seemed in the grips of an anti-density fever. Communities lashed out against proposed high-rises in Hollywood, South L.A., even downtown Los Angeles, of all places, where residents of tall buildings worried that an even taller and newer building, the Alexan Broadway, would harm the character of downtown's Historic Core.
Michael Weinstein, president of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which is bankrolling the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative
It's this anti-development sentiment that's driving support for Measure S, aka the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative. Set to go before voters in March, the ballot measure would place a two-year moratorium on all General Plan amendments and zoning code variances, and aims, in the long run, to curb large-scale development.
The measure is being paid for by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, whose president, Michael Weinstein, told us earlier this year: "People moved here for the L.A. lifestyle. And that's a lifestyle that I love. If I wanted to live in Manhattan, I would live there."
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It's worth noting that Weinstein, who denies being a Nimby, got into the anti-density game after a developer proposed building a new high-rise on top of the Hollywood Palladium, which just happens to be across the street from Weinstein's office on the 21st floor.
The year ended on a sour note for Nimbyism, as Angelenos voted to fund the construction of light rail and supportive housing for the homeless. They also approved a new rule that should, in theory, allow for more density and affordable housing. And voters in Santa Monica rejected Measure LV, which would have drastically limited development in that city.
All of which would suggest that Angelenos actually want a denser, more walkable city that is affordable to average renters and takes care of its least fortunate.
That is what they want for the city. But do they want it in their backyard?
In the months before L.A. passed Measure HHH, which spends $1.2 billion to build supportive housing for the homeless, residents in both San Pedro and Venice fought plans to open storage units for people experiencing homelessness. Not shelters, not housing, but storage lockers, which neighborhoods need in order to be able to remove homeless encampments.
So what happens when L.A. starts building its Measure HHH–backed housing? Will neighborhoods quietly allow the housing to be built anywhere that isn't Skid Row?
Even if a majority of Angelenos believe in the vision of a more urban Los Angeles, neighborhood power remains a potent force. And more often than not, it's aimed at stopping change, at maintaining the status quo. And the anxiety isn't just economic. Even if people cheer density at a citywide level, they fear it at the neighborhood level. Where will they park? Where will they eat dinner? How long will it take to get home?
Those fears aren't going anywhere anytime soon. Traffic and rental prices have conspired to make Angelenos more neighborhood-minded than ever. We are now a city of Nimbys. Perhaps we always were.
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