With a Hit on Hulu and Now a Nike Megastore, Is East L.A. Getting Hot? (VIDEO)

The scent of fresh-baked bread from Sonora Bakery fills the morning air at the corner of Whittier Boulevard and McDonnell Avenue, not far from the massive freeway interchange that marks East Los Angeles. Well-kept mom-and-pop stores like Wenger Furniture, Appliances and Electronics and Whittier Craft dot this stretch, marked by an archway proclaiming "Whittier Boulevard East Los Angeles." Since last week, there’s been another fragrance — that of new shirts, socks, sweatbands and shoes shipped in and un-boxed in a huge, modern open space where athletes can think big.

Sports apparel and shoe conglomerate Nike Inc. has just opened a store that pays homage to "East Los." Called a Nike Community Store, it's the sixth to open in the United States — other locations include Flatbush in Brooklyn and Ivy City in Washington, D.C. — as part of Nike's move into mostly tough, but trying not to be, working-class neighborhoods. 

“We’ve had a long-standing relationship with Nike in the 13 years that I’ve been in this position with the Boys & Girls Clubs,” says Anna Araujo, CEO of East Los Angeles Boys & Girls Clubs. “They've taken our kids to events at Venice Beach, the Beverly Hills stores, and they come here to the center two to three times a week to work out with the kids. When that store opened, there was not one kid that wasn’t there from this community.”

Nike’s motto is “Everyone that walks through these doors is an athlete,” but it takes more than hot equipment and shoes — things like relentless dedication and years of perseverance.

“We started this journey — Anna [Araujo] and I—almost 14 years ago with the hopes of giving opportunities to kids in the area, [and] access to sports activities,” says Blanca Gonzalez, vice president of Nike West Territory.

“We’ve been supporting East Los for years because we know there’s a need," Gonzalez says. "Nike is most known for its support of the big football game between Roosevelt High School and Garfield High School, providing all the gear and shoes to the team.”

The rivalry between Roosevelt and Garfield has been an integral part of this more-than–90 percent Hispanic community's identity since tough guys rode lowrider convertibles down Whittier Boulevard. "East Los," a nickname made even more popular of late thanks to the Hulu hit TV series East Los High, has had its share of positive and negative press. It's known for its deadly Mexican gangs as well as its Latina Walk of Fame.

“Our [Boys & Girls] club has a 100 percent graduation rate in a community [where] 34 percent of its adults are high school graduates," Araujo says. "And the only way that was able to happen is by having people that don’t live in our community come and visit. ... It does take a village to run our programs well and efficiently, and to give our children everything that they need."

Nike runs a Marathon Kids programs, trying to motivate children to set running goals throughout the school year, and a Community Ambassadors program, which brings the store manager and staff of employees into the Boys & Girls Club.

"They play soccer with the kids three times a month, and the kids get to see them and know what they do for a living,” Araujo says.

The vast new store is designed to be a community store rather than a showplace, although it's that, too. More than 80 percent of the employees and athletes live within a five-mile radius of Nike East Los. And the store can boast that mostly local high school students and professional athletes clock in for the shifts.

There’s no sign of community backlash in reaction to what many will call a key sign of gentrification coming to the Eastside. 

The sleek new Nike megastore is unlike anything seen in East Los Angeles in modern times.
The sleek new Nike megastore is unlike anything seen in East Los Angeles in modern times.
Courtesy of Nike

The store's manager remembered a time during the store buildout, with construction going on everywhere, when somebody knocked on the door one night. "It was my cousin, bringing us enchiladas that my aunt had made for the crew," says the manager. 

"I regularly volunteer with my teammates in all kinds of programs," says one graduate of the Community Ambassador program, Alfred Trejo. “We choose to be here and we're here for the long run.”

Some believe that the opening of the Whittier Boulevard store is just the beginning of a corporate takeover in East Los, similar to corporate elbowing-out of local businesses in parts of Detroit, Atlanta and Harlem. Signs that surely follow include spikes in rent, mom-and-pops forced out of business, and the arrival of outsiders who've never bothered with the area before.

“I know there’s been a lot of articles written, and I have my own personal opinions of gentrification that’s happening in East L.A.,” says Araujo.

But, she adds, “If we can have partners that are coming in with the community in mind, that serve the community — not just abuse the  community — the community can be very loyal to those corporations that show them respect.”

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