Is Gentrification Ruining Los Angeles, or Saving It? Pick a Side

A gathering in Echo ParkEXPAND
A gathering in Echo Park

[Editor's note: What better topic than gentrification to split people in Los Angeles into distinct camps? Below, writers Art Tavana and Isaac Simpson passionately argue the point and counterpoint of L.A.'s gentrification boom.]

Just Say "Yes" to Gentrification
By Art Tavana

Angelenos are sun-addicted colonizers who expect the pristine charm of their Victorian homes in Echo Park, the hippie stank of Venice, and daily weather patterns to respond to their personal preferences. When someone interferes with their self-entitled chi, they freak out and rely on loaded words like "gentrification" to identify the boogeyman: middle-class hipsters. We're spoiled enough here to have "tall-fence critics," who whine that residents of Venice won't let drunks run around their front lawns.  

Angelenos don't know their history from a 99-cent store: Before the film studios, in the mid-1800s, ranches and prostitution houses reigned. Then posh coastal resorts, the automobile business and film studios turned L.A. into what it is today. The hipster-hating mob ignores evidence that gentrification helps eradicate gang violence, strengthens the local economy, and encourages diversity in neighborhoods separated by racial lines. These positives far outweigh the only logical advantage to opposing progress: Cheaper rents and Spanish Colonial architecture that will crumble like Jenga pieces in the next big earthquake.

1. Safer streets are more important than nostalgia
The "psychological toll" of watching a gritty neighborhood fixed up by hipsters is far less damaging than being stabbed near Dodger Stadium. For 11 years, crime rates in L.A. have generally dropped, many argue as a result of gentrification and improved policing. Gang members on a street corner throwing gang signs are now equivalent to members of the Tea Party hanging out in West Hollywood. Like it or not, turning gang enclaves into "IKEA-hoods" is saving lives. For anyone who complains about waking up in a neighborhood they no longer recognize, just go back to Northeast L.A. in the '90s, where gangs like Echo Park Locos and Toonerville would mug single mothers and track police officers like wild game.

Allison Anders' 1993 film Mi Vida Loca wasn't just a fictional depiction of gang life, it documented a time when low-flying police helicopters would haunt families living near Echo Park Lake. Today, thanks to a $45 million renovation, Echo Park Lake is an eco-friendly oasis surrounded by glossy-white condos. The nearby "Magic Gas" station, a drug-dealing epicenter in the 90s, is now a brightly lit Chevron across from a strip of craft coffee, vegan and boho-chic shops that cater to people who don't carry guns. 

2. Gentrification improves the economy
More than half of Angelenos are renters, and most of the rest are buying homes. Without reverting to socioeconomic discrimination and classism (after all, this isn't the U.K.), the truth is that doggy parks, bike lanes and redevelopment lead to more investment, which in turn increases property values. Those homeowners are building equity — which is the whole point, right?

Yes, greedy landlords raise the rent, and L.A. has little affordable housing and it lacks strong rent control laws. But that doesn't change the fact that renovations to the Los Angeles River will eventually lead to billions of dollars in investment in mostly rundown areas where the river flows — which could generate 18,000 jobs. Starbucks, Whole Foods, and open-air malls invest where hip consumers are willing to swipe their credit cards for ornate goods, and whose manufacturers hire more people than drug dealers and sketchy massage parlors. Welcome to globalization, and if you're still freaking out about it, maybe you'd be happier in a bygone era reading The Lexus and the Olive Tree. Or move to Cuba, where everything is basically the same as it was in 1960.

3. There's nothing wrong with finer living
First-wave gentrifiers include middle-class gay couples who, yes, bring with them tasteful decor, farmers markets, vintage bookstores, diversity, gorgeous condos and hygienic toilets. Gated pawn shops are replaced with storefronts festooned with antique chandeliers. If you want your liquor stores and gun shops, hop on a plane and head to Detroit — L.A. is moving on. Places like Silver Lake are littered with healthy food options like trendy grocery stores and vegan restaurants. But what's the point of revitalizing a neighborhood nobody can afford to live in, right?

Not exactly. There's a lack of empirical data demonstrating a causal relationship between gentrification and the outmigration of the urban poor. Lance Freeman, professor of urban planning at Columbia University, found that as neighborhoods in New York were gentrified in the 1990s, residents tended to move less frequently. "As neighborhoods gentrify," said Freeman, "they improve in many ways that may be as appreciated by their disadvantaged residents as their more affluent ones."

Guests dining at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles
Guests dining at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles
Photo by Anne Fishbein

4. Downtown L.A. is no longer embarrassing
Going to a Lakers game at the Forum, circa 1992, required you to watch your back. Walking to your car (assuming it was still there), you were prey to gang members. Then Staples Center gentrified the shit out of L.A.'s city center, and by the mid-2000s parts of DTLA were looking more like Times Square: Walkable streets, speakeasies like the Varnish serving great cocktails, crime rates plummeting. Then the Arts District (once a row of piss-drenched warehouses) stole the buzz from New York's Meatpacking District to give L.A. the trophy for coolest city.

Today, New Yorkers aren't laughing at us for missing out on the city experience. The Ace Hotel has helped revitalize Broadway's historic core, and we don't have to explain anymore why you can't go to Skid Row — because now you can, especially if you want artisan cupcakes. "But gentrification is pushing out the homeless population." But wait, isn't the real problem a lack of shelters and transitional housing? Thanks to developers, the slums of DTLA are now a Disneyland of doggy parks nestled between lofts, dimly-lit mixology joints and apartments for USC students. L.A. is finally an authentic city. Give me the Last Bookstore over my Miranda rights (or last rites), any day. 

5. Desegregation is good for us
Today, the Grand Central Market, which originally catered strictly to a Mexican food palate, now includes a diverse menu of vendors. Grand Central Market's diversification is the result of gentrification, often unfairly maligned as a form of white-washing. It's really just cultural exchange, an authentic city experience, which is better than what goes on in some of L.A.'s jigsaw puzzle of 88 neighborhoods, where ethnocentrism can still dominate like a form of cultural Jim Crow.

Gentrification offers L.A. a historic opportunity to create more diverse schools. In a sense, gentrification is multiculturalism — a type of community cohesion in the form, for example, of improved public transportation that connects the creative class with the working class. The long-awaited Expo Light Rail, connecting DTLA to Santa Monica, will help. It isn't about homogenizing the city into one giant shopping mall for white people; it's about reconstructing L.A. into America's greatest city — where the Wild West mentality of "sticking to your kind" is washed away into a metropolis where everyone can eat, drink and ride together. Without gentrification, L.A. would remain a sprawled-out mess that resembled nothing close to an authentic city.

Follow Art Tavana on Twitter @NoiseJourno.

And now, a look at the other side of the argument...

Street artist Wild Life directs passers-by towards "Gentrification" via street signsEXPAND
Street artist Wild Life directs passers-by towards "Gentrification" via street signs
Photo by Stephen Ziegler

Gentrification Is a Form of Oppression
By Isaac Simpson

Stephen Ziegler hangs out near his studio on the edge of Skid Row and watches the community drift by. After seven years there he knows the homeless people, the restaurant people and the artists. Across the street a new neighbor, a young woman in high heels and business clothes, walks her small Yorkie. A homeless woman lurches into her path and shrieks, “Aww! Look at the doggie!” and bends to pet it. The suited woman pulls her dog away, but trips and falls. She climbs to her feet and screams, “Don’t fucking touch me!” and stomps across the street to Ziegler. 

“She tried to touch my dog!” she says. “I don’t know what that bitch has!” Gentrification, illustrated. Gentrification is white flight in reverse, but it's worse than that because it’s based on the belief that you're doing the right thing. It wasn’t I who decided our society was done oppressing the poor and the brown-skinned. I was taught that in school and on TV. My heroes are men and women who fought for equality—that's who I was taught to idolize. These are the standards with which we measure ourselves.

But gentrification puts those standards to the test. We say we’ll do it responsibly, that we’re making things “safer” and “better for everyone.” No one is actually hurt.  But what are the results? Displacement. Eviction. Forced homelessness. Police violence. Destroyed communities. That's oppression.

1. Gentrification is classist
Money can be isolating. Rich people stay rich, in part, because they don’t share their stuff. Poor people are far more generous than, say, my rich grandfather. The rich are envious of those in tight-knit communities because they hate thinking that money can’t buy what the poor enjoy. Developers are smart enough to cater to this, building homes for the rich in low-income areas. When housing costs skyrocket, those few residents who can afford to stay feel pressure to live more quietly and neatly, the very lifestyle that made the rich so unsatisfied in the first place.

In Highland Park, long-term residents are being given 90 days to move to make room for upscale, whiter newcomers. In San Francisco, landlords are evicting lifelong residents of the once-poor Mission neighborhood to build palaces for tech millionaires. Some say it’s capitalism working at its best. They're right. But it’s also about making the homeless stay the fuck away from your dog. Is that really asking so much?

"They say they don’t want affordable housing on Main Street,” says Joe Thomas, a resident of Skid Row, “But what they really don’t want is us.”

2. Here come the hypocrites
You are probably sick of the artists in gentrifying neighborhoods complaining about changes that they are, in part, responsible for. But it was not Stephen Ziegler’s intent to bring the monied hordes with him to Skid Row, nor did artist Damien Robinson intend to lead them to Frogtown. These artists had a taste for grittiness and were looking for affordable spaces to do their work. They'd already been priced out of the Westside and other areas.

The real hypocrisy behind gentrification emanates from those who claim to be implementing it responsibly. The Salvation Army in Skid Row, part of a large corporation, put sprinklers on the side of its building to "clean the sidewalks." Good, right? Well actually, the sprinklers prevent the homeless from sleeping there. For certain developers in Skid Row who claim they wish to help the poor, the area's homeless are both a bane and a commodity. They want to keep some modicum of poverty around — to provide their profitable buildings with an edgy vibe. 

Los Angeles, near USCEXPAND
Los Angeles, near USC
Neil Kremer/Flickr

3. Gentrification is an endless, useless cycle
“Basically, everything will be gentrified and ... people of color and little means will gradually [be] phased out," says Joe Thomas of Skid Row. People want authentic community, so the market shifts to accommodate that demand by providing authentic community as a buyable commodity. Yet turning authentic community into a buyable commodity destroys the product. The result is a cycle of masturbatory exploitation.

In the Arts District downtown, locals founded Handsome Coffee Roasters, a community-based coffee roaster and cafe, in a warehouse. It got so popular that it attracted San Francisco-based Blue Bottle Coffee, a former community-based coffee shop that got so popular it was commodified into a chain. Despite protests from Handsome's original founders, Blue Bottle bought Handsome to increase profits for investors on both sides. Handsome is now a Blue Bottle chain store and takes its orders from NorCal. Everyone has good intentions. No one seeks to destroy community. Quite the contrary, everyone wants it. Community sells. But, "It’s not how you build a community,” says Skid Row community organizer General Jeff, “What they realize ten years from now is, 'Oops, maybe we should have done this differently.'”

4. A lot more people end up unhappy
“Displacement is not the accidental and unintended side effect of gentrification, but its core,” says a 2011 German study on the subject. This is something people like General Jeff and Joe Thomas know inherently. “Folks in the streets of Boyle Heights who have lived there forever [but] developers are coming in. They look at it as a blank canvas,” says General Jeff.

Working, functional communities are what gentrification eats up.

For what, exactly? To satisfy the perennially unsatisfied wishes of the upscale. It’s all so interesting and diverse to live among “them.” But is social experimentation for a bored elite truly worth booting people out of their homes? The establishment seems to think so. “The bulldozers are hungry," says General Jeff. "They need some dirt to dig into. Then they’re talking about job creation. And then the Feds want it. And there’s no political will to stop it. ... Everybody’s working, the money’s flowing. But they’re not thinking of the canvas that’s already there.”

5. Clashes and violence will only increase
Gentrification increases violence in two ways, by ramping up police mistreatment of existing low-income residents of gentrifying areas, and by forcing class conflict to the breaking point. Luis Trujillo, an activist in Highland Park, told Takepart.com, “There’s a very literal violence with the policing that happens with gentrification for the sole purpose of keeping the neighborhoods consumable.” He pointed to such pro-gentrification law enforcement tools as gang injunctions. During anti-gentrification protests in Highland Park, eviction signs warned the high-end new owners to get out of the historically Latino area.

Anti-“broken-windows” laws, part of a program called Safer Cities Initiative, have banned sleeping on Skid Row streets from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., leading to conflicts because police now have more cause to harass street dwellers. Yet many gentrifiers don’t see police-on-homeless or police-on-gang member violence as violence. Recent acts of protest against gentrification signal future clashes that don't involve the police at all. Developer Geoff Palmer’s high-rise downtown was torched, leading to a massive fire. Some saw the arson as an “architectural hate crime” against Palmer's pricey vision of DTLA.

So go ahead and move to the cool, artsy neighborhood and pay the high rent with that Christmas check from your parents. Go ahead and buy that $4 cup of coffee and splurge on that designer apron from the boutique that opened down the street. That’s what I do. Just don’t look in the mirror and say you believe in social justice.

Follow Isaac Simpson on Twitter @simpdapimp00.

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