Welcome to Gentrification City
Paul Giannotti couldn’t wait another day to embrace the big city. Bored in his placid corner of the San Fernando Valley, he had been searching for a shorter commute, an apartment with charm and a much larger selection of restaurants. So he and his girlfriend, Dianne Marti, uprooted themselves from their three-bedroom ranch house in Granada Hills and headed for Koreatown, where they found a three-story walkup with two bathrooms and a balcony.
The move alarmed Giannotti’s family and friends, who warned the pair they were risking their lives by placing themselves in such a crowded, ethnically complex environment. Yet the couple swooned at the sight of their Spanish Colonial Revival apartment, with its arched doorways and coved ceilings. They loved Koreatown too, and got to know the neighbors, the local businesses and the community’s cultural life cycle — L.A. Marathon in the spring, Korean cultural parade in the fall.
In demographic terms, the pair were tiny minnows swimming against the tide. Los Angeles in 1987 was changing fast, with Mexican, Central American and Korean immigrants pouring into the central city and Anglos moving ever outward, to West Hills, Calabasas, Alta Loma, Costa Mesa. The city was in a state of churn, with the civic elite acquainting themselves with the concept of multiculturalism and the city’s white middle classes voting with their feet.
In those years, Los Angeles was still hung-over from more than a decade of civic combat over busing, the court-ordered desegregation of the city’s public schools. Families with means had migrated to the suburbs in search of lower crime rates, better schools and a more homogenous culture. With so much talk about white flight — and later, middle-class flight — no one seemed to entertain the possibility that a comfortable middle class, Anglo or otherwise, might one day come back.
Disregarding the trends, Giannotti plunged into the life of the neighborhood. When Pope John Paul II came to Los Angeles, the couple held a party, serving guests a round of Bloody Marys before rushing down to Olympic Boulevard to see the papal motorcade. When their street got hit with a spate of thefts, Giannotti confronted a man stripping a car and even took the witness stand to testify against a burglar. Even when the crime situation got dicey, Giannotti and Marti marveled at the fantastic sunsets they saw from their balcony, and the 360-degree fireworks display visible from their roof on the Fourth of July.
The city is once again in a state of churn, and from the roof of his 1927 apartment building, Giannotti sees the signs. Apartment buildings have been razed. Office buildings are being reinvented as housing. Construction craters occupy half a block. But Giannotti did not experience the disruption firsthand until July 14, the day he received a letter telling him his landlord plans to demolish his rent-controlled apartment building and replace it with a pricey, six-story condominium complex. “After 20 years, how can I replace this?” asked the 58-year-old Giannotti, as he walked past the sliding glass-pocket doors of his $1,250-per-month apartment. “It’s impossible. I can’t do it.”
Giannotti, Marti and their neighbors decided to fight back, sending letters to the planning department and hanging a banner from the apartment that reads: “Save our neighborhood. Your building could be next.” But while Los Angeles provides rent control to more than 600,000 households, nothing in its legal arsenal can prevent a property owner from invoking the Ellis Act, the state law allowing landlords to remove themselves from the rental market and offer residential units for sale instead. And there is the bitter irony. Giannotti could soon be rewarded for his good civic behavior by being expelled from the very neighborhood be embraced.
“It’s not just having to pick up and find another apartment, which will be smaller and more expensive,” said Giannotti, who runs a company that repairs espresso machines. “It’s also breaking the ties to the community that we’ve had for 20 years now. We’ve been to various neighborhood parties. We’ve hosted neighborhood parties. We’ve patronized the local businesses here. It’s total upheaval.”
Koreatown is just one small section of Los Angeles being transformed by soaring real estate values. In Echo Park, apartment houses are being cleaned out, with speculators paying off — or forcing out — tenants who have lived in their homes 20 and 30 years. In Venice, old-timers are fuming over the oversize fences that are being erected around beach cottages, saying wealthy newcomers won’t engage the community. Even in South Los Angeles, where political leaders have long despaired over redlining and a lack of investment, middle-income home buyers are exploring neighborhoods they would have ignored five years ago.
Welcome to Gentrification City, where an overheated real estate market is dramatically reshaping neighborhood after neighborhood, where no one — from Salvadoran immigrants living in tenements to homeowners in affluent coastal neighborhoods — is being spared by the dramatic changes wrought by a condo-fueled, property-mad economy. Tenants are appalled by rising rents, fearing the day their buildings could be demolished or cleaned out for a new class of buyer. Homeowners who have built up a ridiculous amount of equity have watched even as their communities change before their eyes. The sense of dislocation is everywhere.
For those higher up the economic food chain, the transformation wrought by gentrification can be a heady, if occasionally disorienting, experience. Homes have tripled and even quadrupled in value. Fix-’n’-flip artists are buying up cottages and adding the telltale signs of the comfortable class — ornamental grasses on the outside, refinished floors on the inside, earth tones throughout. Low-income neighborhoods long dominated by 99-cent stores, with their discount tube socks and corn flakes from Mexico, are suddenly sporting Zagat-worthy businesses. Can you believe there’s a terrific wine bar on Spring Street? It’s practically in Skid Row! Did you see that gelato place on Sunset? Finally, a place I can take my kids! Those who live in comfort are happy to see Los Angeles behave like a big city — with big-city comforts and a steady arrival of new amenities.
For those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, the dislocation is far more precarious. Landlords, developers and even government agencies are pushing tenants out of hard-to-find rental units, sending them to the outer reaches of Los Angeles or even neighboring counties and states. With rents reaching historic highs, the departure of a single roommate can throw a household into disarray, leaving those behind to scramble for a new roommate or another scarce apartment.
Everyone wants to talk about gentrification — unless, of course, that conversation is on the record, printable in a newspaper. A shopkeeper on the Eastside did not want to be named as she voiced fears that one day her neighborhood could lose its Mexican-American residents. A contractor, rehabbing a house in South Los Angeles, would not produce a business card after he explained how he had cleaned out a house once occupied by prostitutes and addicts. In other words, the conversation gets uncomfortable once the topic shifts from real estate to class, or race. Yet shouldn’t the neighborhood rejoice that a drug house has disappeared? And why can’t we talk openly about a whole class of people moving out?
And that, in a nutshell, is the most maddening thing about gentrification — its very duality, the way in which it simultaneously delivers pleasure and pain, miraculous benefits and terrible consequences. As middle-income residents move in, neighborhoods that once heard low-flying helicopters and automatic-weapons fire have found a greater measure of peace. Working-class families who scraped together the money to buy homes in the mid-1990s have happily cashed out, making hundreds of thousands of dollars en route to a five-bedroom home in Fontana, Las Vegas or Phoenix. Those who stay behind, however, frequently find themselves in a neighborhood they don’t recognize. And those who rent in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood discover that they gained physical security while losing economic security, with rents rising steadily and the inventory of reasonably priced homes shrinking.
“If you’re a long-term tenant with low rent, you are walking around these days with a bullseye target on your back,” said Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, which has been pushing a legislative package to counter mass evictions. “Because that landlord is going to do whatever they can to get you out and raise the rent.”
The nine architects, academics and land-use experts who serve on the L.A. City Planning Commission got one glimpse of the out-of-control real estate market last March, sitting patiently through a three-hour study session devoted to the balance between jobs and housing. The marble-lined chambers were packed with lobbyists and land-use lawyers, many of them representing real estate developers like Trammell Crow and the Kor Group. But on that day, a small band of critics also emerged, stepping forward to issue dire warnings about a city hellbent on creating new upscale housing.
One speaker warned that loft and condo dwellers too often move in with a sense of entitlement, then try to push out anyone who is loud, messy or beneath their aesthetic standards. A second accused the city of engaging in “spot zoning,” putting high-density condo projects in places where they would not normally be permitted. A third, an angry woman from the Westside, voiced her fear of condo developers like Miami-based Lennar Corp., then implored the commission to protect her “pristine” section of West Los Angeles.
The thing is, these critics weren’t from homeowner associations looking to block high-density housing, or tenants’ rights groups trying to protect renters. They were the owners of industrial property, manufacturing businesses that need vast amounts of space, like cold-storage companies and food-processing plants. Like Giannotti, they weighed the prospect of being priced out or pushed out, as the city decides whether to turn manufacturing zones in Hollywood, West L.A. and downtown Los Angeles into the latest loft hub.
Twelve weeks later, a different type of city planner — Los Angeles City Councilman Ed Reyes — stood before another room full of land-use lawyers and lobbyists. Speaking at a luncheon at the Wilshire Grand, Reyes described with pride how he had orchestrated a dramatic turnaround of MacArthur Park, a heavily low-income, predominantly Mexican and Central American neighborhood that is the most densely populated in Los Angeles.
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.
The region even has gentrification microclimates — Hollywood, Pasadena, downtown Los Angeles — where a surge in condo construction and new-home buying has been egged on by aggressive government intervention. Think of them as whirlpools spun off by a hot real estate market, dispersing longtime residents and reshaping entire blocks.
Some neighborhood groups refuse to see gentrification as a storm system, viewing it instead as something that can be halted, like a bulldozer. That, however, leaves them sounding somewhat clueless as they demand that the city put a stop to the phenomenon. Stop it? That’s like trying to stop the weather. The most rational thing to do is prepare for it, just as states along the Gulf of Mexico batten down for a hurricane, and hang on until the storm has passed.
The tropical-storm metaphor has been embraced enthusiastically by David Ewing, a resident of Venice who has spent the past year trying to help the remaining tenants at Lincoln Place, a 795-unit apartment complex being demolished and replaced by condominiums. Ewing described gentrification as a classic storm pattern, with a high-pressure system — a contingent of wealthy buyers — colliding with a low-pressure system — a community of lower-income residents. “With wars around the world, with tsunamis, you have a tremendous outpouring of sympathy for people who are refugees,” he said. “But right here in Los Angeles, we have a growing wave of refugees — renters who are being turned into refugees.”
With home sales finally starting to cool off, some tenants are determined to hold on and let the storm blow through. But for those who couldn’t hang on, the city must provide compassionate assistance, Ewing said. “When you have a force-5 hurricane, you better have emergency measures ready,” he added. “The city didn’t.”
The City Falters
Los Angeles County is a patchwork quilt of 88 cities, taking in Long Beach on the south, Claremont on the east and Palmdale on the north. Yet only four of those 88 cities have a rent-control law, the largest being Los Angeles. Even in Los Angeles, tenants don’t always know that their landlords can only raise their rent by 4 percent annually, or that they must receive a minimum relocation payment if they agree to leave.
Although real estate values have risen steadily over the past decade, city officials did not dramatically beef up the city’s force of housing investigators. Over the past three years, the housing department retained 17 investigators, charged with making sure that landlords are not evicting tenants illegally or raising rent by more than permitted by law. The only problem is, there are roughly 626,000 rent-controlled apartments stretching from Winnetka to Wilmington.
The head of the city’s housing department defended her agency, saying it scrambled over the past three years to open satellite offices, count every rental unit and clear a huge backlog of tenant complaints. But she also conceded that her agency cannot guarantee that anyone will get to stay in their own community.
“Unless you own something, it is difficult to say that life’s circumstances will always permit you to live in your neighborhood of choice,” said Mercedes Márquez, the housing department’s general manager. “That doesn’t mean, however, that the public sector shouldn’t do what it can to help maintain community stability, and create a sense of neighborhood cohesiveness.”
The City Council also created a $100 million housing trust fund in 2001, although it was not fully funded until four years later, after Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa took office. And in November, the council will ask voters to tax themselves to fund a $1 billion affordable-housing bond, designed to pay for 1,000 new units of housing over each of the next 10 years. By then, however, the storm easily could have passed through. Any aficionado of Los Angeles real estate knows that the region has a cyclical economy, and that for every boom there is a bust.
Housing advocates were equally vocal about the affordable-housing crisis of the early 1990s, right before the real estate market collapsed, flattened by the disappearance of aerospace jobs and the Los Angeles riots. By 1995, Los Angeles had once again become a buyers’ market, and a decent place for renters too. Is that the picture for 2007? Councilman Bill Rosendahl — the outspoken representative for coastal communities stretching from Westchester to Pacific Palisades — doesn’t think so.
Flanked by a half-dozen community activists, Rosendahl responded in early August with perhaps the most dramatic response to gentrification so far. Frustrated by his battle to save Lincoln Place, Rosendahl called for a temporary ban on all condominium conversions throughout his district — the wealthiest in the city, and a huge beneficiary of the ongoing economic boom.
Rosendahl’s coastal district has been at the epicenter of the condo-conversion craze, with neighborhoods like Playa del Rey, Venice and Brentwood losing 1,051 rent-controlled units in his district since January, according to housing-department records. Another 3,058 rent-controlled units disappeared between 2001 and 2005, comprising one-third of the citywide total. “We are losing the middle class in the 11th District, and we’re not going to tolerate it anymore,” said the councilman, standing just a few feet from cheering Lincoln Place tenants.
Yet while Rosendahl spelled out the number of rent-controlled units that have disappeared from his district, he had no idea how many new homes and apartments have been built since 2001, let alone the number of affordable units. In fact, none of the projects being funded by the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund have gone into Rosendahl’s coastal district.
Then there are Rosendahl’s other housing policies. Before he won his council seat last year, he campaigned aggressively against Playa Vista, the biggest initiative to bring new housing to the Westside, which added 5,800 units, with 10 percent of the condos and 15 percent of the apartments priced affordably.
Housing advocates were nevertheless cheered by Rosendahl’s proposal, saying they hope that it will spur council members in other sections of the city — West Los Angeles, Sherman Oaks, Studio City — to propose their own temporary ban on condo conversions. Rosendahl’s colleagues have responded much more coolly to the concept, raising questions about whether they will even allow it to come up for a vote.
“I understand the passions of all this,” said Councilman Jack Weiss, a former prosecutor who lives in Bel Air. “But underlying all this are iron laws of economics. And it sure would be helpful to see him use some nonpartisan, non-aligned, hard-nosed economists before the city starts regulating basic economic activity.”
Economics are only one aspect of gentrification, however. Swelling real estate prices also have left a mark on the region's culture, consumer centers and architecture. In Silver Lake, Highland Park, even Skid Row, a sudden surge in economic investment has left behind art galleries and boutiques, fine dining and refurbished homes. In even pricier communities, soaring real estate values can cause entire blocks to be leveled, replaced by homes that are far more extravagant than what was there before. And that phenomenon has its own psychological toll.
Manhattan Beach’s?Fading Memories
Middle-class and even wealthy communities are not immune to gentrification, although residents rarely call it by that name. In Manhattan Beach, a bedroom community of 33,000 that has reached an apex of high property values and disposable income, middle-class families are fast being replaced by the rich and even the super-rich — high-powered attorneys, entertainment-industry types, professional athletes. It’s no accident that the town’s old Metlox pottery plant, once a contaminated brownfield, is now the site of a 38-room boutique hotel and day spa.
With wealthy buyers craving space, proximity to the surf and, if possible, a view of the ocean, developers in Manhattan Beach have been willing to spend more than a million dollars to buy up bungalows and ’60s ranch houses. In just five years, from 2001 to 2005, developers systematically eradicated 881 residences — the vast majority of them single-family residences — and built 928 new homes and condos in their place. The new single-family home of Manhattan Beach is at least twice as big as the one it replaced, covers the entire lot, and will very likely have an entryway up to 20 feet high. On the hill streets, the hulking new structures can measure as much as 10,000, even 20,000 square feet in size, towering over the few postwar houses that remain.
Homeowners who bought 25 or 30 years ago in the beach cities — shorthand for the section of Los Angeles County that takes in Manhattan, Hermosa and Redondo — now reside on land worth 10 or even 20 times the amount they originally paid. On the Multiple Listing Service, a Web marketplace for Los Angeles real estate, the least expensive house advertised in Manhattan Beach is currently listed for $1.4 million — and will very likely be razed and replaced. The most expensive one on the site is just under $4 million, and resembles the luxury homes that serve as the backdrop to the pampered teens of MTV’s reality show, Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County.
“People who bought their homes, like my parents did in Hermosa Beach, for less than $100,000, that house is now worth millions and millions of dollars,” said Garrison Frost, who spent eight years writing for The Beach Reporter, a weekly newspaper. “And everyone who’s sitting on millions and millions of dollars thinks that they earned it somehow, and that they’re special.”
Frost, who now writes the South Bay arts blog The Aesthetic, grew up in the old Manhattan Beach, the one where children of the region’s aerospace workers bragged about their parents’ security clearances. By the time he married, Frost knew that if he ever wanted to buy a home, he would have to move inland, away from the water he had grown up near as a child. In 2003, he did just that, buying a place in Lomita. “One thing about the beach cities: It drives out its children,” he said. “I’m a classic example.”
From the inflated home values to the appearance of Humvees on city streets, Manhattan Beach’s burgeoning wealth has proved disorienting to 73-year-old Frank Matranga, who purchased a home in the coastal community for $27,500 in 1970 and never left. Matranga, a ceramics artist, reminisced about his community over the hammering and sawing of the construction of a new home next door. And though he talked gamely about adapting to change, Matranga clearly misses the smaller houses, the kinds that had front- and backyards. Even worse, he is starting to have trouble picturing the old city.
“All of a sudden, you’ll see that a house has gone down, and you can’t remember what was there,” he said. “It’s really weird. It’s just changing completely. It gives you a very strange feeling. I don’t know what this town is all about anymore.”
Matranga knows that his own home, a place where he created 36 years’ worth of memories, will disappear if he ever sells. But some homeowners are leaving before they are ready, spurred on by a demand from the newer residents for unmarred ocean views. For months, sections of Manhattan Beach have been voting on whether to assess themselves higher property taxes to pay for “undergrounding” — the placement of overhead electrical wires under the street.
Because properties with a higher assessed value receive a greater proportion of the vote, the owners of minimansions sometimes outnumber old-timers who have neither the money nor a desire to remove the wires. One retiree who got a bill for $38,000 faced a choice: sell her house or see a lien placed on the property. She sold and moved out of state, Matranga said.
“I just paid my house off a few years ago, and now, all of a sudden, I have to go back into debt for more than I paid for my house,” he said. “The young people who come in with all their money, they’re pretty insensitive to the other people in town. They would love all of us who have been here awhile to die or sell their house, so they can have nothing but million-dollar homes.”
Venice Is No Garden Tour
If Manhattan Beach was the first coastal community to see a dramatic influx of wealth, then Venice — the community known for its tiny beach cottages and bustling boardwalk — was almost certainly the last. Despite tiny pockets of poverty in the Oakwood section, the neighborhood long known for its artists community has been spruced up dramatically since the recession of the 1990s.
In Venice, however, debate has been raging not just about the homes, but the fences that surround them. In Los Angeles, the municipal code requires that fences around a front yard reach no higher than 42 inches. But buyers, including those willing to pay $925,000 for a two-bedroom house, have sent their walls, shrubs and fences much higher, sealing the pedestrians on the outside.
For Jataun Valentine, a 49-year resident of Venice, the fences represent more than a phone call to the city’s code-enforcement office. Valentine described them as symbols of an affluent home-buying class that has enveloped the neighborhood, putting up boxy three-story houses and staying out of sight. “We have a lot of new people that are coming in that don’t really want to have anything to do with the neighbors,” said Valentine, a retired maintenance worker. “They want to hide behind these big walls and high fences.”
Valentine’s family came to Venice in 1917 — no mean feat, considering they were African-American, and many Southern California communities had restrictive racial covenants prohibiting black buyers from moving in. In those days, Venice was a resort town separate from Los Angeles, the creation of Abbot Kinney, an asthmatic, insomniac real estate developer who wanted his stretch of coastline to resemble Italy. Valentine’s grandfather managed not only to buy a humble house in Venice, but to operate a successful cement business, laying the “walk streets” — the sidewalks that serve as de facto streets — for which the neighborhood is famous.
Nonprofit fund-raiser Linda Lucks lives on one of those walk streets, the type that guides pedestrians to the ocean. Lucks has noticed the fences too, chalking them up to a “fortress mentality” among the newcomers. The Venice that Lucks moved into in 1970 resembled Greenwich Village, with artistic inhabitants and bohemian ways. The community now shows up in celebrity magazines, as home to actress Julia Roberts.
“I’m not a real estate expert, but it seemed like [the market] would go up and plateau, up and plateau,” Lucks said. “But the last six years it’s been out of control — crazy, in terms of the inflated values. The people who have come moved here to make money, as opposed to wanting to stay here. It’s changed the dynamic of the community. And, obviously, people can’t even afford to rent here.”
Lucks said she still sees Venice as a “wonderful, creative community.” Yet with each passing year, she has a greater difficulty finding neighbors to participate in the annual garden tour, which gives ticket buyers a chance to see the landscaping and interiors of 30 Venice homes. Lucks wondered if some of the more recent buyers simply don’t trust having an outsider come in and look around.
“I don’t have a problem with a tradeoff,” she said. “I just don’t want to ruin a sense of community, and walling ourselves off would separate us from each other. And that’s not what the Venice I love represents.”
Venice resident Shep Stern has been taking on the tall-fence critics, saying he and his neighbors have every right to a sense of privacy and security — and a buffer against drunks, drug addicts and prostitutes. Stern, who bought a house on a walk street in 1984 for less than $250,000, said he too is trying to protect the neighborhood’s character, by preserving its “live and let live” ethos and disregarding rigid aesthetic codes.
Stern described the changes in Venice as positive, saying “gorgeous new homes” had replaced decades-old eyesores. Because home prices have reached seven figures, speculators have moved on to less expensive places, he added.
“There’s always that element everywhere you go — people buying real estate and flipping it,” Stern said. “Now it’s too expensive to do that [in Venice], and so you have people actually moving in. Yes, they’re young. Yes, they’re moneyed. But they want to be in this neighborhood. It’s not because they’re sensing an opportunity.”
Echo Park’s Commuter Taggers
Economically, ethnically and visually, Echo Park is a world away from the city’s coastal communities. While Manhattan Beach has stunning ocean views and Venice has walk streets to the beach, Echo Park has hills — not to mention a whole lot of mattresses and shopping carts dumped on the side of the road. While Manhattan Beach is nearly 90 percent white, Echo Park is an eclectic ethnic mix — Mexicans, Central Americans, Filipinos, Chinese, Anglos. What both communities have in common, at least for now, is a greater influx of money than ever before.
In Echo Park, a neighborhood of Los Angeles just west of Dodger Stadium, the signs of newly arriving affluence are different from those in Manhattan Beach, but no less subtle. Duplexes that once were the color of washed-out Silly Putty now have edgy color schemes, like metallic gray or even black. Homes that once had dried-out lawn now sport drought-tolerant landscaping, like sage and fountain grass. Hipsters are everywhere, sitting outdoors at one of the neighborhood’s three new coffeehouses or stopping off at the avatar of neighborhood coolness, American Apparel. But while Manhattan Beach can be identified by its oversize minimansions, Echo Park is currently marked by homes that stand curiously empty.
The line is six deep on a Thursday morning at Chango, the coffeehouse that stands at the corner of Echo Park and Morton avenues. Two years have passed since the opening of the café, one of nine businesses that occupy the ground floor of a brick apartment building. In 1993, the storefronts served as a crucial backdrop for Mi Vida Loca, the Allison Anders movie that cemented Echo Park in the minds of Angelenos as the epicenter of Latino gang life. These days, Anders can be seen having her eyebrows done at an upscale salon at the other end of the building. Thirteen years after Mi Vida Loca, the same building appeared in the background of a commercial for Ambien, the sleeping pill.
Walk 30 paces from Chango — toward a staircase known as the Delta Street steps — and you will find a 1911 bungalow on Delta Street, sitting at one corner of a huge vacant lot. The lot used to be called Chicken Corner, largely because the man who used to live in the bungalow, 68-year-old maintenance worker Salvador Macias, housed chickens, rabbits and even the occasional goat. Macias loves animals. When he wasn’t working at the nearby convalescent hospital or raising three children, he went to rodeos and even brought horses to the lot on weekends.
“He’s always liked the outdoors, the ranch life,” said Macias’ son, Joe Macias. “Back in Mexico, he had access to all of that stuff. He was a Mexican cowboy.”
Macias moved to Long Beach from the house on Delta Street last year, after the new owner decided to replace it, the lot and the nearby convalescent home with 36 townhomes — each of which is expected to fetch $400,000 and up. Had he lived in an apartment, Macias would have been eligible under rent-control laws to receive $8,550, since he is both a senior citizen and disabled. But because he rented a single-family house, he and his family are ineligible for relocation assistance.
Still, the old Macias house is not the only house that stands vacant. So do six other residential buildings within a block. One is at the top of the Delta Street steps, a clapboard shack so dingy it looks like it could have housed Jed Clampett. One is a 1912 apartment house, where each of the four apartments have been gutted and cleaned out. Perhaps most astonishing, a 16-unit apartment building —directly across from the Macias house — stands completely empty of tenants.
While some buildings will be demolished and replaced with townhouses, others are being cleaned out so that landlords can charge much higher rents without disobeying the city’s rent-stabilization ordinance. Although the law prohibits landlords from hiking rents by more than 4 percent annually when an apartment is occupied, that law is suspended once a unit goes vacant. At that point, landlords can legally double or triple the rent, as long as they paid the minimum relocation expense to the household they ushered out the door.
What does it mean to have such a massive out-migration? For one thing, the number of schoolchildren has plummeted. At Logan Street Elementary School, a campus three blocks away from the Chango coffeehouse, enrollment has dropped from nearly 1,300 children in 2001 to 928 this year. Reyes, who represents neighborhoods just south of Echo Park, said he is already thinking that some of the new campuses being built by the Los Angeles Unified School District might have to become housing, if there are no longer enough students to attend them.
The economic displacement doesn’t mean Echo Park no longer has gang graffiti. But it does mean that on the border between Echo Park and Silver Lake, many of the gang members who spray their tags on the cinder-block walls of Mohawk Street and Scott Avenue don’t actually live in the neighborhood. And that’s one of the strangest products of gentrification: commuter taggers. Gang graffiti, an act of marking territory, is being carried out by taggers who have been priced out of that very territory.
“You wonder why they keep coming back,” said LAPD Officer Sam Salazar, who serves as one of the department’s community liaisons, or senior lead officers. “They don’t live there no more, but they think, ‘Hey, that’s our old hood.’ That’s the only thing I can think of.”
In Echo Park, the nearest source of help for a struggling tenant can be found at Inquilinos Unidos, a nonprofit group that operates in a dingy upstairs office just east of MacArthur Park. On a typical Wednesday, the group will field questions from 40 or 50 anxious tenants, some needing help in securing repairs, others facing the threat of eviction. On a recent August afternoon, 51-year-old Abel Munguia had asked a counselor at Inquilinos Unidos what he should do about his home in Highland Park. Only a day earlier, a real estate agent called him to tell him the house he rents on Avenue 52 had been purchased — and that he needed to leave.
Munguia, a truck driver who came to Los Angeles from El Salvador in 1977, had moved into his rental house only a year earlier, trying to outrun the rising rent at another, nearby apartment. Because he lived in a single-family house, the counselor told him there was nothing he could do but look for another place while he awaits the 30-day notice.
A 17-year resident of Highland Park, Munguia has noticed the increasingly Anglo buyers who were willing to pay $500,000 for a house in his neighborhood. “The monthly payment is $3,000 and up,” he said. “Three thousand dollars for one family is a lot of money, I think. These people must have really good jobs.”
Asked how he and his wife would find an apartment to rent for less than $1,250 a month within 30 days, Munguia could not answer. “We might go to San Bernardino,” he said. “I hear it’s cheaper.”
Because Munguia’s family is renting a single-family house, his departure will not register on the city’s list of statistics regarding the disappearance of rent-controlled units. Indeed, city officials have been struggling to identify the scale of the housing shortage, in large part because of a history of poor record keeping. The housing department’s Web site shows an increase in L.A.’s rent-controlled apartments over the past five years, from nearly 463,000 to more than 626,000 currently.
Such an increase is mathematically impossible, however. Because rent control applies only to buildings that existed before October 1978, not newly constructed complexes, the number of rent-regulated apartments has nowhere to go but down. Although housing officials say that more aggressive inspections turned up a greater number of rent-controlled units, the city’s housing inventory has been a constantly moving target — one that makes it nearly impossible to know if the city is winning or losing the battle for reasonable rents.
Meanwhile, renters who can no longer afford much of Los Angeles have been moving steadily outward, trying South Gate, Florence and East Los Angeles, said Aníbal Valdez-Ortega, one of the tenant organizers at Inquilinos Unidos. What those families frequently do not know, however, is that they have moved just beyond the neighborhoods where rent control exists. Some think they have moved to Watts or South-Central, sections of Los Angeles, only to learn they actually live in Florence or Firestone — unincorporated sections of Los Angeles County where rent control no longer applies, Valdez-Ortega said.
“They find a place for $800, then a month later they get a letter saying it’s not $800 anymore, it’s $1,200,” he said. “And the only protection they have is a 60-day notice for rent increases, 30 days for evictions.”
South L.A.’s Westside Refugees
Perhaps gentrification isn’t a storm system at all. Maybe it’s more like the 100-year flood that accompanies the storm, washing over the economic barriers that are erected around a neighborhood. The greater the level of poverty, the higher the flood wall to keep gentrification from washing in. The Los Angeles Times wrote as early as 1971 about the arrival of middle-class residents to Echo Park, a community recognized even then as struggling and low income. But the transformation didn’t take hold, and the neighborhood found itself coping with more serious poverty and crime a decade later. The economic waves lapped even higher in Echo Park in the late 1980s, as the succeeding real estate boom took hold. But the financial floodwaters didn’t truly wash over the barriers until after 2000, when the spillover from Silver Lake arrived.
If gentrification is indeed a flood, then the highest levees in the city have been erected around South Los Angeles. The barriers are thicker and stronger for many reasons — poverty, racism, high crime rates, a reputation in the media and public that, to put it mildly, discourages investment. Yet the surge in real estate values has been knocking down barrier after barrier. White and multiracial middle-class home buyers who might never have looked south of the Santa Monica Freeway have taken the leap, discovering nice neighbors, clean streets and a killer housing stock — Craftsman bungalows from the 1910s and charming Spanish homes from the 1920s.
Real estate agent Adam Janeiro has spent years catering to the multiethnic, largely well-heeled home buyers who want to buy, restore and live in the historic houses in and around West Adams, a section of South Los Angeles that takes in Arlington Heights, Halldale and other neighborhoods. In short, Janeiro is sowing the seeds of gentrification, by showing newcomers from Philadelphia and West L.A. alike what those neighborhoods have to offer. As middle-class money keeps pressing south, so the levees begin to crack and crumble — Exposition Boulevard, King Boulevard, Coliseum Drive, places where a three-bedroom house can run for $550,000, even with all the talk of underinvestment. “Slauson is where people stop in their tracks,” Janeiro said. “They say, ‘Don’t take me any further south. It’s fine to drive around with you, Adam, but turn the car around.’ ”
Buyers from out of state are far more open to the idea of South Los Angeles than those who grew up here, Janeiro explained. But even Angelenos who grew up on the Westside and can no longer afford it are beginning to acquaint themselves with names like Magnolia Square, Canterbury Knolls and Vermont Square.
“There are these places that are just off the map. People don’t know they exist, they don’t know where they are, and they can’t imagine living there,” Janeiro explained. “And it takes a movement, a shift, something to happen to delineate that [place]. Every day that Maginot Line is getting pushed farther south. For a lot of people, it’s only pushed as far south as Exposition. For now, Jefferson Park has become that place.”
Even with the real estate market showing serious signs of softening, Janeiro believes the changes will be lasting in Jefferson Park, a neighborhood whose western flank runs along Crenshaw Boulevard, the cultural center of African-American Los Angeles. In Jefferson Park, where Janeiro lives, buyers were intrigued by the “esprit de corps” of the neighborhood — the block clubs, the civic groups, the progressive parties. Now, the buying pool has moved beyond the pioneers and the immigrants to a group he calls “mixed-ethnic, liberal-democrat, social-justice urbanists.”
“As the neighborhood became more multiethnic, it became more comfortable for people to consider as a destination,” Janeiro said. “There are people that are trailblazers, who don’t care if no one in the surrounding four blocks looks like them. And then there are people who don’t want Westchester or West Covina, but feel a little more comfortable if one person in 10 looks like them. They want multiethnic, not something that’s monolithic one way or another.”
One buyer ushered into South Los Angeles by Janeiro was Patricia Diefenderfer, a planner for the city of Los Angeles who has devoted much of her energies to preparing neighborhoods to accommodate more housing. Priced out of Echo Park, the neighborhood where she rented for the past five years, Diefenderfer bought a bungalow for less than $400,000 on 49th Street near Normandie Avenue, in a section of the city known as Vermont Square.
Diefenderfer is happy with the neighborhood, especially the 1913 library that is only a few blocks away. But she longs for a greater selection of businesses on Normandie, beyond the liquor stores, auto-body shops and storefront churches. “I’m not just talking about chichi stuff, like coffee, although that would be nice,” she said. “Basically, I would just love to be able to step out my door and have that be a destination, walk out my door and buy a few groceries, have coffee, find something to eat, go to the dry cleaners — what neighborhoods have always been like, and what I believe should be like.”
Diefenderfer said she knows what would happen if she got the businesses she craves. Her neighborhood would have become a different place, with fewer working-class families and more affluent ones. Diefenderfer speaks sadly as she acknowledges this, saying it’s almost as if Los Angeles is designed to deny lower-income families decent stores and anything approaching urban street life.
“To have those things, in this city, you have to be privileged. That is how I feel. And that’s one of the very unfortunate things about this city,” Diefenderfer said. “The other unfortunate thing is that neighborhoods like South L.A. have .?.?. all the right ingredients, and yet somehow, [the amenities] are just not there. And when they get there, the same people will not be there living in it and appreciating it. And I don’t know why that is.”
You’d have thought an entire block of Crenshaw Boulevard was having a party on a recent bright June morning, when basketball star turned entrepreneur Earvin “Magic” Johnson unveiled his latest development project in South Los Angeles — a Starbucks outlet carved out of an old bowling alley and coffee shop. A van driven by KJLH-FM blasted the Gap Band’s “Early in the Morning” out of its considerable speakers, while a line of customers 50 deep snaked out of the Starbucks into the parking lot.
Some were eager to get an iced whipped-coffee drink, the kind that is more dessert than coffee. Others clutched basketballs and eagerly waited for a seated Johnson to sign them. The event reinforced a truism long understood by the city’s political leaders: Residents across South Los Angeles are starving for swankier businesses, from coffeehouses to sit-down restaurants.
When Villaraigosa distributed opinion surveys to neighborhood councils last year, the panels in South Los Angeles identified the need for new amenities as their No. 1 policy priority, narrowly ahead of public safety, which tops the polls in many other neighborhoods. The Starbucks at Crenshaw and 37th Street began to satisfy that need, part of a new shopping center that houses a handful of new businesses — Washington Mutual, Big 5, Verizon. “You have all this new development happening in our community, and what that means is jobs for our young people,” Johnson said. “What that means is, now we have options to spend our disposable income. What that means is, property values go up.”
Or to put it another way, Johnson and his many political allies are looking for something akin to gentrification — an influx of investment that will transform the neighborhood. Or maybe they are already achieving it. After all, Los Angeles city councilmen Herb Wesson and Bernard Parks both want to bring higher-density, for-sale housing to Crenshaw. Parks has been particularly adamant about bringing in market-rate homes — not a spate of rent-subsidized complexes — to expand opportunities for first-time homebuyers.
Wesson and Parks plan on linking the development of new condos to the opening, possibly as soon as 2010, of a light-rail line down Exposition Boulevard. Janeiro, the real estate agent, is equally excited, saying Westside rail riders won’t be able to ignore the beautiful neighborhoods of South Los Angeles as they pass through on their way to downtown. But here comes that nagging question: If the neighborhood improves that much, will the people who live there now be able to afford to stay?
Standing on the sidelines of the Starbucks opening was Steven Anderson, a social worker employed by the nearby Goodwill store on Crenshaw. He was clearly impressed by the event, and the arrival of the new businesses. But he said his own neighborhood, at Normandie Avenue and Adams Boulevard near USC, is seeing its own positive changes.
“Middle-class people are moving in, which is a good thing,” he said. “They’re more community involved. There’s more people walking at night. And people feel more comfortable going to the parks. The parks are just overwhelmed now because more people are playing in them.”
Perhaps Anderson is experiencing the sweet spot for gentrification — when things slowly start to get better, but haven’t gotten out of control. To live in a neighborhood that is showing promise, making itself better — planting trees, fixing up houses, maybe even building a rail line — can be exciting. But in Los Angeles, at the turn of the 21st century, you can’t freeze that moment in time. Whatever appears today could soon be gone, washed away by the deluge.?
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