A protester rallies against a coffee shop that opened in June on Cesar Chavez Boulevard in Boyle Heights.
A protester rallies against a coffee shop that opened in June on Cesar Chavez Boulevard in Boyle Heights.
Ted Soqui

Who's Winning and Losing in the Boyle Heights Gentrification War

On a warm weekday afternoon in late June, a couple of young radicals with handmade protest signs were resting in the shade of the kiosk in Mariachi Plaza. They were coming from one anti-gentrification protest in Boyle Heights and would soon be heading to another.

The young man was a ponytailed 21-year-old, serious and circumspect, who gave his name as "Anonymous." The woman, with a Bettie Page haircut and a septum piercing, was 18-year-old Marisol García.

García held up a square piece of cardboard and flipped it around. The words "No Coffee" were painted on one side and "People Over Profit" on the other. The first side was for picketing a hipster coffee shop that had opened the week before on Cesar Chavez Boulevard, the other for protesting the eviction of mariachis and other low-income tenants from an apartment building on Second Street.

García, who has lived in Boyle Heights all her life, says the issue underlying the protests is the same: gentrification. "We're being colonized," she says. "It's like we're supposed to adapt to what's becoming their neighborhood."

"It's urban colonialism," Anonymous added from his seat on the next step. "They move in, we move out because of the rising prices here in the local economy."

Words such as "colonist," "sellout," "scab," "collaborator" and even "coconut" (referring to someone who is "brown on the outside and white on the inside") are common currency among gentrification foes in Boyle Heights. They are words as a means of apportioning blame, and anyone who buys a cold-brewed iced coffee at Weird Wave on Cesar Chavez or attends an art opening on Anderson Street ("a hipster playground for future gentrifiers") is liable to hear them.

Many of the protesters wear masks at demonstrations, and according to Newsweek one breakaway group reportedly went into the new gallery district and threw detergent on people attending an art opening; art was reportedly ruined as well. Protesters have driven one art gallery out of the neighborhood and recently forced another gallery to relocate its free concert a venue outside the area. La Opinión has compared the protesters to the Zapatistas.

García and Anonymous said they aren't with one of the headliner groups, ad hoc coalitions such as Boyle Heights Against Artwashing and Displacement, or Defend Boyle Heights. They are part of a new group, they said, sounding almost shy. "We're a group of friends trying to inform the community the best we can," García said.

The eviction protest was about to start, and as they stood up to resume their protesting, Anonymous turned around the cardboard sign from the side that said "Gentrification Is Urban Colonialism" to the one that read "Boyle Heights No Se Vende" (Boyle Heights is not for sale).

They crossed First Street, where the Victorian-era Boyle Hotel rose before the downtown skyline, pretty as a postcard. They took a shortcut down an alley that connects First and Second, passing by a vacant lot on the corner that city officials recently awarded to a developer of affordable housing.

The strings and trumpet of a mariachi band sounded at their approach.

Boyle Heights has become the front line in the battle against the rising costs and threats of displacement caused by gentrification. Activists have railed against the "artwashing" of Boyle Heights, converging on the art galleries that populate the industrial district by the river and calling for supposed gentrifying businesses to withdraw from the neighborhood.

No other community in Los Angeles has resorted to such aggressive tactics to stop (or at least slow down) the approach of urban revitalization. Some real estate analysts say the guerrilla tactics are discouraging conflict-averse investors. "The negative response from the surrounding neighborhood is a downer," says Joseph Borda, a property manager for seven years in the neighborhood. "The land will be developed but probably slower than we expect because of it."

Or as David, the real estate agent responsible for the pink "We Buy Homes Cash" signs on the telephone poles (he declined to give his last name), puts it: "It's just the mentality, the culture of being in Boyle Heights — there are a lot of revolutionaries. It's going to push a few investors out. Some people just don't want to deal with the headaches."

Dana Cuff, a professor of architecture/urban design and urban planning at UCLA, says what sets Boyle Heights apart from other gentrifying areas is that residents are speaking up before it is too late. "I think they are slowing things down there," Cuff says. "I think they're actually making their voices clear. And I think people, development interests and gentrifiers, have to listen."

Others, like Fernando Arevalos, a native son and owner of the T-shirt and accessory label Boyle Heights Area Brand, are more skeptical of the ability of protesters to slow gentrification. "You can win some battles but you can't stop the whole thing. It'll be Echo Park here in 15 years."

Perhaps never before in the up-and-down history of Boyle Heights has the neighborhood garnered so much interest from investors. Driven by rising property values elsewhere in the city, developers are eyeing what historically has been one of Los Angeles's most neglected neighborhoods.

"We've run out of room; it's just pure economics," Borda says. "You're seeing more yuppies, Caucasians coming in, and they're willing to pay the higher prices for rent. As a result, it's going to wreak havoc on the existing community."

Property values in Boyle Heights have been trending upward for years, aided by the area's timeless Victorian-era architecture and desirable location across the river from downtown's burgeoning Arts District. According to the real estate website Trulia, the median value of a single-family home in Boyle Heights has increased 35 percent over the past three years. That's a faster rate of increase than Silver Lake (28 percent), Echo Park (32 percent) and L.A. County as a whole (22 percent), though it's less than the city's poster child for gentrification, Highland Park (41 percent).

The fact that the median sale price for a single-family home in Boyle Heights is $216,000 less than the median value for all of L.A. County suggests the upward trend will continue.

Major developments in the neighborhood's more derelict south end will likely contribute to the continued rise: The Sears Building, a long-vacant art deco landmark on Olympic Boulevard, is being gut-renovated for 1,028 new units of market-rate housing and 99,000 square feet of ground-floor retail. A few blocks away on Olympic, the Depression-era Wyvernwood Garden Apartments could see 1,187 existing rent-controlled units on the property demolished and replaced with 4,400 condominiums and apartments with 300,000 square feet of retail and office space. The proposal is under review by the city.

In recent years, the city also has been making investments in Boyle Heights: The Metro Gold Line's Eastside extension in 2009 opened stations at Soto Street, Mariachi Plaza and Pico Aliso, and the planned $500 million Sixth Street Viaduct will provide yet another connection for the neighborhood to downtown by 2020 (with a 12-acre park below). Even the concrete tangle of freeways that has long divided the landscape of Boyle Heights is a kind of selling point to more affluent new residents seeking proximity to the highway.

With the housing-cost crisis in L.A. showing no signs of abating and so much money at stake, how long will it be before Boyle Heights reaches a tipping point?

Carlos Esparza filled a glass with cold draft beer and put more popcorn in the bowl on the bar. Esparza, 45, earlier this year opened Pizza Beer and Wings on Soto Street, across from the Gold Line station.  "People grow up here, they raise their children here, they stay here," he says of Boyle Heights. "There's a lot of pride in the neighborhood. It's tight-knit and family-oriented. Places like this need to be invested in."

According to historian Ricardo Romo, author of East Los Angeles: History of a Barrio, the bonds of family and community in Eastside areas such as Boyle Heights are exceptional in Los Angeles, a city he calls the "fragmented metropolis par excellence." Romo pegged the emergence of the Mexican identity in the area to the 1930s, the result of a racially discriminatory policy that prohibited many Mexicans from owning or renting homes in other parts of the city and restricted them to areas "east of the river."

Once known as the Ellis Island of the West Coast, Boyle Heights was, in the 1930s and 40s, the heart of L.A.'s Jewish community and home to large numbers of Japanese, Russian and Serbian residents. After the construction of four freeways that expropriated 10 percent of the 6 square miles of the neighborhood, land values plummeted in the 50s, 60s and 70s — and the era of white flight began in earnest. In subsequent years, Boyle Heights transformed into the mostly low-income Mexican neighborhood it is today, a community made famous in films such as Stand and Deliver, Born in East L.A. and American Me, all of which were filmed there.

Of the 92,000 people who live in Boyle Heights today, 81 percent have Mexican ancestry and 94 percent are Latino, making it one of a handful of ethnically monolithic communities in L.A. County.

"There's a lot of history here," says Carlos Montes, a member of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council and a former Brown Beret. "In the '50s you have the fight against police brutality and the election of Edward Roybal, the first Latino congressperson from California in the 20th century. Then in the '60s you've got the East L.A. walkouts, the Chicano Moratorium against the war in Vietnam, the Chicano Power Decade, the Brown Berets."

Montes says the neighborhood activism of the past was focused on fighting a public policy of neglect. Community-led efforts blocked an above-ground pipeline that was supposed to carry oil from Santa Barbara to Long Beach through the heart of Boyle Heights in 1987, rolled back plans to install a hazardous-waste incinerator downwind from Boyle Heights in 1990 and stopped the construction of a state prison in nearby East L.A. in 1992.

Arevalos remembers the '90s as an era when Boyle Heights was marred by gang violence. "For four years we slept on the floor of the living room every night, because every night there were drive-bys," Arevalos says. "Gentrification is what will stop violence in the neighborhood."

One of the comforts of home for Kenny Sanchez is the view of the downtown skyline from the front porch of his house perched on the crest of a hill in Boyle Heights. From the window of his living room upstairs, he can watch the postgame fireworks at Dodger Stadium.

"I live in the good part of Boyle Heights," he says, which I learn is an inside joke. Everyone in Boyle Heights thinks the bad part of the neighborhood is somewhere else.

Sanchez has an interesting résumé. He was a jockey who raced thoroughbred horses for two decades. He lives in a part of Boyle Heights where several of the houses, including his own, are turn-of-the-century Victorians designated by the city as historic properties. Some of them look as though they haven't been painted in this century. "A lot of homes haven't been upgraded," he says. "They're falling apart."

Kenny Sanchez in front of his multifamily Boyle Heights home, which his mother bought in 1980
Kenny Sanchez in front of his multifamily Boyle Heights home, which his mother bought in 1980
Ted Soqui

The condition of the houses does not discourage admirers. People stop their cars to gawk at the houses, which have what a real estate blurb might describe as good bones. Sometimes the admirers get out and take pictures. For most of the 20 years he has lived there, he says, Boyle Heights was more notorious than sought-after. He appreciates the attention.

As if given the signal from Sanchez, a tour guide on a bicycle leads a peloton of cyclists around the bend. Several of them scan the house as they pass by. Cyclists in Spandex riding gear used to be a novelty on Pleasant Avenue. Now he sees them all the time, more often than graffiti taggers.

Sanchez shows me the most recent flyer a real estate broker put in his mailbox. The headline is a screamer: "Prices of Properties Are Rising!!!"

It also says, "We have several buyers wanting to invest in property in your area. .... We have more buyers than properties for sale."

There are photos of a few houses in the neighborhood that sold recently and their sale price.

"A car wreck knocked that one off the foundation," Sanchez says, pointing at one of the photos. "Owner sold it for $450,000 and they tore down the house. The duplex next to that sold for $880,000."

Houses on Pleasant Avenue are flipping like flapjacks. Real estate records confirm what Sanchez senses all around him. According to the real estate database ProspectNow, 10 of his neighbors have sold since last March. That's nearly a quarter of the 43 residential properties in the three-block area — and more houses than have sold there in the previous 10 years combined.

"We knew it was going to change," Sanchez says, "but not this much."

The Victorian next door to Sanchez's is a historic home built in 1875, with a sagging roof and paint chipped off the wood paneling and trim. The owner, a furtive man in his 60s who declined to give his name, told me he inherited the house from an elderly aunt and that he sold it that week for $430,000 (the median home price in the city is $629,900). It all happened so quickly; he says the second visitor to the house offered the asking price. There wasn't even time to put a For Sale sign in the yard.

According to real estate brokers in Boyle Heights, many of the homes in the neighborhood are too far gone for their owners to afford repairs. Many take what they can get. Boyle Heights ranks in the bottom 10 percent of L.A. neighborhoods in terms of median household income.

Sanchez says he is holding on tight to his house.

Strips of wood molding rest on the porch behind him, and the buzz of an electric drill drifts up from one of the downstairs apartments. When Sanchez's mother bought the house in 1980, she divided it into four units. He and his mother live in separate units upstairs, and he is doing a gut renovation of the lower units and installing brand-new appliances. "Keeping up with the times," he says.

"We're not going anywhere," he says of himself and his mother, "even if someone throws money at us. I love it here."

Many commercial and residential buildings in Boyle Heights have belonged to the same families since as far back as the 1940s. Many owners have kept the rents low, which is why the mostly working-class residents can afford to live and run businesses there. The relationship between landlord and tenant can go back generations on both sides.

But market pressure from outside the neighborhood is building.

"The [residents of] other East L.A. neighborhoods are getting priced out," says Nicole Deflorian, a commercial realtor who has worked to transform the York and Figueroa corridors of Highland Park. "Investors are looking to buy, and a lot of areas are overpriced."

She says of Boyle Heights: "That's the one area on the Eastside that's still decently priced as far as purchasing goes."

Jorge Tello, a tailor who has sewn mariachi suits or charro costumes for the likes of Anthony Quinn, Carlos Santana and Plácido Domingo, has run La Casa del Mariachi in Boyle Heights since 1982. But business isn't what it used to be, and he says that once a month a gaggle of white people in suits comes in to ask who owns the building.

Jorge Tello has operated a tailor shop on East First Street for 35 years.
Jorge Tello has operated a tailor shop on East First Street for 35 years.
Ted Soqui

Hardly any of the proprietors on First Street even has a lease, Tello says, and the owners can ask them to leave at a month's notice. The owner of Tello's building is 75-year-old Pedro Prieto, who operates the sporting goods store next door. Prieto tells Tello he won't sell. "But if he gets a multimillion-dollar offer ... as we say in Spanish, con dinero baila el perro," Tello says.

Prieto is an former welterweight prizefighter from Mexico who moved to Boyle Heights at age 19 on a boxing visa. He says in-the-know people in the neighborhood have told him it's too early to sell. "Investors have come and offered to buy," he says, "but I don't need the money and I haven't sold."

Dr. Feliciano Serrano, a nephrologist from Huntington Park, paid $4 million for the building next door. (He could not be reached for comment.) "We were given until January," says Guadalupe Barajas, co-owner of Yeya's, a Mexican kitchenette.

Sonny Rouel purchased four properties in Boyle Heights last year for just short of $5 million. He drove me to see them in his Rolls-Royce.

He says of his real estate strategy: "I like to get in ahead of the path." Hollywood and Vine in 2002. Silver Lake in 2010. He went on a $10 million shopping spree last year in Boyle Heights and Koreatown.

Boyle Heights reminds him of Hollywood and Vine, he says, "after the Red Line, before the W."

The recent purchase he likes best is the old bank building at Cesar Chavez and Soto. It's a red-brick historic landmark built in 1913 and covered on the Soto Street side with one of the neighborhood's largest and most prominent murals: El Corrido de Boyle Heights, painted in 1983. "Where I'm from in the Valley, you don't see architecture like that," he says. He paid $2.68 million.

"Someone else tried to buy the building from me already," he says. "I've gotten offers on all of them, for considerably more than what I paid for them." He says 40 to 100 percent more, $3 million more. He's looking to buy three more properties in Boyle Heights this year.

Sonny Rouel at his building on Soto Street and Cesar Chavez Avenue
Sonny Rouel at his building on Soto Street and Cesar Chavez Avenue
Ted Soqui

Rouel says he isn't familiar with the protests in the neighborhood. "I don't know much about Boyle Heights," he says. "There was stuff for sale, it was relatively close to downtown, and the price — well, downtown is very expensive."

He doesn't care for the term gentrification ("for obvious reasons," he says) and has little patience for superlatives ("I don't know about the hottest market," he says, "but it's one of them").

He steers the Rolls onto Eighth Street and two women waiting for a bus at the corner lift their eyes. The next set of his holdings whizzes past the window: a family restaurant, a clinic, the apartments upstairs and the single-family home in the back. He paid $2.1 million for two buildings.

He says he's keeping rents the same, keeping the tenants the same. He prefers stability. He waits — he plays the long game. Bigger buyers are coming in and sellers are raising the asking price.

The tipping point is coming, he says. He doesn't know when, but things in Boyle Heights are changing quickly. "It's already happening," he says. "I already see it just driving around. Everybody's getting priced out of downtown — residential and commercial buyers. You wouldn't believe the people coming into Boyle Heights."

Tenants of the apartment building at 1815 E. Second St. went on rent strike on June 28. The windows on one side of the apartment building are covered with handmade protest signs. "I got $800 rent hike," says one sign. "The landlord BJ Turner doesn't care about us."

Frank "BJ" Turner is one example of what affordable-housing advocates say is a growing trend among new buyers of Boyle Heights apartment buildings. He bought the building earlier this year, and tenants say he put in central air conditioning and a washer-dryer, and at the entrance installed an accent wall and accent lighting, along with a privacy fence and a row of potted succulents. Tenants say their rents immediately increased between 60 and 80 percent, and they complain about problems not addressed by the improvements: water damage from a leaky roof, dark mold on a shower ceiling, rusted and filthy bedroom vents, a door partially devoured by termites.

"This is not an increase, it's an outrage," says a 62-year-old tenant named Pedro Zúñiga, who got a letter from Turner's property management firm in January informing him of a 60 percent rent increase, to $1,495 from $945, on the one-bedroom apartment he shares with his wife and teenage daughter.

Zúñiga is one of 10 mariachis who live in the building. Living a block from Mariachi Plaza is "extremely important" to his livelihood, he says. "It's where the customers know they can find mariachis. It's where one mariachi comes to hire another mariachi to join him on a job. You won't get that work if you live far away."

The activists say that, adding insult to injury, they recently came across an advertisement for the building on Craigslist; it has been rebranded as "affordable luxury apartments" and rechristened in an online advertisement as "Mariachi Crossing."

The tenants, who are members of the Boyle Heights–based affordable-housing advocacy group Unión de Vecinos, say they have continued to pay rent in the previous amount while they attempt to meet with Turner to negotiate a more affordable rent increase. Turner has declined to meet with them, and in late June he filed in court to have them evicted. (Turner did not respond to a request for comment for this story. A representative from Turner’s property manager, Crescent Canyon Management, said: “All I can tell you is that we have no comment at this time, but thank you for calling.”)

According to real estate website Zillow, Boyle Heights ranked 11th in terms of rent increases among L.A. neighborhoods from January 2015 to May 2017. The median rent for an apartment in Boyle Heights has risen by more than 40 percent in the past three years.

The rise in rents is impressive considering that 88 percent of the renters in Boyle Heights are protected by city rent-control laws, according to City Councilmember José Huizar's office — meaning that by law landlords usually cannot raise the rent on those units any more than 3 percent a year.

According to Elizabeth Blaney, co-director of Unión de Vecinos, landlords are resorting to more aggressive means to pressure tenants to vacate. Blaney says landlords are known to offer "cash for keys" or two months rent-free to entice tenants to move out, as well as ignoring requests for repairs to rent-controlled units and in some cases even threatening to call U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and have tenants deported.

Larry Gross, founder of the L.A. tenants rights organization Coalition for Economic Survival, points out that rental units in L.A. built after 1978, including the mariachis' building, have no rent control — and so the landlord has the right to raise the rent without reason. "They're in a rowboat in rough seas without a lifesaver," he says. "Thus it becomes a straight political public pressure fight to get a landlord to back off without rent control."

The nonprofit L.A. Center for Community Law & Action is representing the mariachi building tenants in their eviction proceedings.

Led by a quintet of mariachis playing trumpet and guitars, a crowd of 50 affordable-housing supporters marched from Turner's building to a rally at Mariachi Plaza on June 28. A flyer made for the event said "Displacing Mariachis = Destroying the Culture of Boyle Heights."

"Gentrification is a process — it's not a single person," said one of the marchers, Melissa Castro, a recent graduate of Mills College who lives at her parents' home in the neighborhood. "How do we get our public officials to come out in person publicly and say they do not support what is happening?

"We all want to see Boyle Heights become a more beautiful place," she continues. "The problem is they haven't done that for us in the last 50 years. So now we have to wonder who they're making it pretty for, and will we be here in five or 10 years to enjoy it."

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the redevelopment plan at Wyvernwood Garden Apartments was approved by the city; it is still under review.

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