Leon Arellano stands on a stage in front of Eastside Café and shouts into a megaphone. His fist is clenched tight, and he extends it high into the air as he makes a proclamation: “When I say ‘No!’ You say ‘gentrification!’” A few dozen people in the crowd shout the chant back in unison. They are local street food proprietors, artesanias vendors, activists, musicians and local families who regularly use this Zapatista-inspired community space in El Sereno, which recently came under threat of encroaching development.
The group had gathered in front of the popular dark blue edifice on Huntington Drive in El Sereno on a beautiful, balmy summer evening “in the name of a big FUCK YOU to gentrification!” according to its Facebook event page. The goal of the event was to raise enough funds to start the process of buying the building from Eastside Café's landlord — and for the collective to become 100 percent autonomous. The mission statement of the 13-year-old space lays out Eastside Café's ethos as a “multidisciplinary, autonomous space dedicated to rebuilding, reconstructing and reclaiming our communities through sustainable projects to empower one another.”
Saving the space will require a huge effort, so Angela Flores, her father, Roberto, and the rest of the 30 co-founders of Eastside Café reached out to their community, receiving help from the East Los Angeles Community Corporation and hefty donations by investors to their 2-month-old GoFundMe account from notable locals like musician couple Aloe Blacc and Maya Jupiter.
The news earlier this year of a new prospective owner with intentions to redevelop the property that houses Eastside Café caught the collective by surprise. “The building — and its seven units — had been for sale for two years now and the starting price was $1.2 million and he knew we were interested,” Flores says. Eastside Café’s core members got together and strategized how to raise the money over time to make an offer. They formed a co-op, talked to local investors who shared their vision and brainstormed ways of buying the property.
“Then we found out our landlord sold it without telling us, ” Flores says. “We told him, ‘We don’t need any gentrifiers here! We don’t need that shit and you are that! You are going to try and destroy us.’”
The landlord declined L.A. Weekly's request for comment.
Flores says that once their landlord found out about the unrest, he gave them 10 days to raise funds and make a “bona fide offer.”
According to Flores, if the landlord liked their offer, the new buyer would back out of his initial offer. (The core Eastside Cafe members say they got him saying this on camera.) If Eastside Café couldn't provide an acceptable offer, the new landlord asked for everyone to let him continue the selling process while remaining silent and without complicity, Flores says.
“We all went into emergency mode that day,” says Natividad Carrera, a member of Eastside Café’s son jarocho collective who has been helping in their campaign to save the space. He became involved with the space after he sought out Flores to pursue his passion in playing son jarocho music, the lively music from the Mexican state of Veracruz. After graduating from the beginner classes offered at Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural in Sylmar, he couldn’t find any intermediate classes until he heard about Eastside Café’s classes every Friday night.
“We got a lot of help from local real estate people and took a crash course on the process of buying a property,” he says. That is when they learned that they didn’t necessarily have to provide a down payment in full but just enough to start their escrow, he says.
They managed to raise $180,000 from community members, local restaurants and investors during those crucial 10 days. Now they had effectively raised enough funds to provide a worthwhile offer.
They say the other buyer kept his promise and backed out.
“We all knew that this was going to be a crucial moment in not just our history but the fight against gentrification in our communities,” says Michelle García, co-founder of El Sereno Against Gentrification, who also participates in Eastside Café’s son jarocho sessions as well as their “Warriors Self Defense” jiu-jitsu classes every Tuesday night. “I was born and raised in El Sereno. I have been here for the majority of my life. I want to die here. I want to be buried here. I am El Sereno por vida.”
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Her sentiment of community engagement, resilience and self-motivation mirrors the space’s co-founders’ philosophies, based on the Zapatista way of life that was spearheaded by Mexico’s EZLN uprising in 1994 and is still practiced to this day throughout the five caracoles (zones) in the southern state of Chiapas.
Although Eastside Café’s core members say their combined efforts and steady community donations were able to convince the landlord to sell to them, they are not completely safe yet.
While they managed to raise sufficient funds to start the escrow process, they now face the daunting task of raising enough money to keep the rent stable on the rest of the property’s mom-and-pop tenants: a barber shop, a party supply store, a corner market, an upholstery shop and a threading salon. Long-term sustainability is another challenge, but they have been working on ways to survive. These plans include opening up a coffee shop that will double as a community workspace and sell affordable, single-origin coffee from Chiapas that Eastside Café calls “Fuck You [Gentrification] Coffee.” It was inspired by Flores’ father, who frequently visits Chiapas to get briefed on Zapatista strategies and who also is an OG Brown Beret who lived through the Chicano Moratorium in the 1970s.
“We don’t want to be like every other property owner and have top-down relationships with tenants,” Garcia says. “We want to be horizontal, work with them and figure out other ways of being sustainable.”