A coffee shop that opened last week on a busy commercial strip in Boyle Heights has prompted days of protest from groups opposed to it as a symbol of creeping gentrification in the neighborhood. A crowd of activists set up a picket line at the entrance to the shop on Thursday, urging would-be customers not to enter and taunting those who did with words like “sellout,” “colonist” and “collaborator.” They have returned every day since.
Weird Wave Coffee occupies a narrow storefront space and offers iced lattes, almond croissants, sourdough BLTs and the typical gourmet-variety coffee shop fare that many Angelenos take for granted. But the shop is conspicuous on East Cesar E. Chavez Avenue, on a block that includes a 24-hour pawn shop and a check-cashing and loans agency.
Similar to last year's “artwashing” protests against new art galleries in Boyle Heights, the demonstrators regard the presence of the coffee shop as a harbinger of coming threats to affordable housing for low-income families in the largely working-class and Mexican neighborhood. Some say Boyle Heights could experience the same redevelopment boom that transformed its neighbor, downtown's Arts District, from a deteriorating industrial zone to one of the most desirable and costly rental markets in the city.
“I feel welcomed. I don’t feel [the protesters] represent the local community — I don’t think they speak for them.” —Weird Wave Coffee co-owner John Schwarz
Protesters, many of whom declined to give their names, say the arrival of a craft coffee shop offers encouragement to real estate buyers and developers and eventually will contribute to rising rents. They say the community boycott and picket is intended to retract the welcome mat for the relatively more educated, “whiter” and more well-to-do newcomers to the neighborhood.
The flyers handed out by demonstrators refer to the coffee shop as “White Wave Gentrifiers.”
One of the protesters, Gregorio Inés, who was born and raised in Boyle Heights, says he wants new shops that address the needs of the existing community — such as an affordable grocery store and a laundromat — rather than as a lure to attract more well-to-do residents from elsewhere.
As protesters walked the picket line, they chanted, “Boyle Heights no se vende.” Elderly people carrying shopping bags and young parents with children ventured a glance at the signs without stopping.
The protest was led by the Boyle Heights activists who waged a similarly aggressive public campaign against the dozen-plus art galleries that have appeared in recent years in the industrial zone of Boyle Heights just west of the 101 Freeway. PSST Gallery closed in February after the nonprofit struggled to cope with the constant attacks.
The protest organizers include members from activist groups Defend Boyle Heights, Unión de Vecinos, L.A. Tenants Union and the broader coalition called Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement. Activists from other anti-gentrification groups, from areas including Highland Park and El Sereno, came to show support.
Inside the coffee shop, the three owners watched the protest with a mix of alarm and disbelief. “We were blindsided by this,” says Jackson Defa, who moved to California from Utah a decade ago and previously managed a coffee shop in West Hollywood. “We’re not doing a political thing. We just want to open a coffee shop.”
The interior decor is modest — a copper countertop lined with black subway tiles, a wood counter and stools against the wall. Defa rested an elbow on the antique Synesso coffee maker. He was wearing a T-shirt that said “All You Need Is Love.”
John Schwarz, one of Defa's partners and a childhood friend of his from Utah, says the idea behind the shop is to serve high-quality organic coffee without the pretension of “mustaches and aprons.”
The shop's other partner is Mario Chavarria, a businessman born in El Salvador and raised in Inglewood. Chavarria met Defa and Schwarz when they rented an apartment from him in West Adams. “They’re calling me a sellout,” Chavarria says of the protesters. “I drove by and this place was available for lease. It looked almost ready to sell coffee. To me it just made sense. I didn’t think of it as some up-and-coming neighborhood.”
Defa says he was aware of the previous wave of protests against art galleries in Boyle Heights but that when he and his partners were renovating the shop, they didn't expect they would come to represent a “symptom.”
“We looked around, we talked to the neighbors, they were friendly, and so we decided to go for it,” he says. “Is there a demand? Yes. Let’s supply that demand.”
He says of the protest: “It’s been jarring for me. I’m not afraid of protesting, but it started edging on violence. There was a distinct hatred in the air.”
Schwarz says the protests have brought free publicity and attracted customers from as far away as Glendale and West Adams. On Saturday, he says, with 20 picketers outside, the shop ran out of bread, pastries and coffee. “I feel welcomed,” Schwarz says. “I don’t feel [the protesters] represent the local community — I don’t think they speak for them.”
One of the shop's customers, Steven Gontarski, lives in Boyle Heights with his elderly mother, in a house he bought four years ago. Gontarski, who works in retail downtown, says he identifies with some of what the protesters are saying, “but the way they’re going about it, I don’t. It’s shutting down dialogue; that’s why I’m coming back here every day.”
Alexander Martin, manager of a mobile phone store on Cesar Chavez, says the coffee shop may be a convenient scapegoat for rising tension in the neighborhood after a rash of immigration arrests. A local resident, who gave his name only as “Luganja,” held a sign over his head: “Stop being a dick. It’s ONLY coffee!”
Manuel and Mariana Sanchez, a married couple from Mexico who have lived in Boyle Heights for 15 years, stopped to watch the protest from across the street. “We’re working people making the minimum, of course it’s affecting us,” Manuel Sanchez says of the rise in the cost of living. “If only the wealthy are going to be able to move here, it’s not good.”
Mariana Sanchez said, “We know people in the neighborhood who’ve had to leave because they can’t afford the rent increase.”
Standing in the cool of the shade a few steps away, Boyle Heights native José Martinez shook his head. “I just don’t get why you protest a small business,” Martinez said.
Defa, the co-owner of the shop, says that as a result of the protests the owners have sought out ways to engage with the community. He says they are partnering with Homeboy Industries to supply the shop’s bread and pastries, that they are buying fruit and vegetables from a street vendor in the neighborhood, and they plan to start a job-training program to teach barista skills to local youth.
“These guys did make us take a step back and ask what we were doing for the community and can we do more,” Defa says.
Outside the coffee shop, Inés and other protesters said Weird Wave Coffee has to close its doors in Boyle Heights — that no other alternative will be acceptable. A pair of activists faced the window of the shop holding a banner with the word fuera, or “out,” painted in all caps.
The activists say they plan to continue protesting Weird Wave Coffee indefinitely.
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