Mass Transition The Gold Line's challenge to our community By Steven L. Anderson
Northeast Los Angeles is at a pivotal point in its history. Over 120 years ago, Charles Lummis established a salon along the Arroyo Seco, bringing artists and intellectuals from the east to Los Angeles for the first time. The neighborhoods of Highland Park, Eagle Rock, Glassell Park, Mt. Washington and Lincoln Heights have since been a place that has been proud of its artists and local culture. Several hundred artists now make their homes and studios in the area, finding affordable space, kindred sprits and a network of supportive arts institutions.
This summer the Gold Line light-rail train will finally be in operation, after several years of construction and litigation. An estimated 30,000 riders per day will hurtle through time and space between Pasadena and Downtown L.A. The return of mass transit to the area brings some exciting possibilities. The train will reduce the daily commute by thousands of cars, and the Arroyo area will find less gridlock, cleaner air and more pedestrian-friendly areas. We can begin to undo some of the damage to the social fabric and the environment that our auto-centric culture has wrought for the last 60 years. But this new conduit of man and machine can also bring gentrification, and changes that could scatter the families, businesses and culture that make these communities unique and livable.
Tafarai Bayne, of L.A.'s Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) defines gentrification as a process that begins in "areas that have a history of massive disinvestment," which are "identified for intense redevelopment and investment" by government agencies looking for tax revenues and developers seeking high profits. "As development begins to come in, property values start to climb, and with them rents. Once affordable housing becomes unaffordable for those who lived there, gentrification has occurred."
Northeast Los Angeles certainly fits the profile of a community that took a hit from the "white flight" of the 1960s and '70s, when much of the city's white middle-class residents fled for the promised land of the suburbs. Industry then pulled up its roots due to the recession of the early '80s and to cheap labor abroad. The effects of this disinvestment is still felt today. The Figueroa Street Improvement Project, a recent survey of Highland Park merchants, found that a majority of the businesses along Figueroa do not own their place of business, are sole proprietors, and average only three employees. And capital is leaking from the area: Highland Parkers tend to spend less money in their own neighborhood than does the rest of L.A. Add to this the fact that only half of Los Angelenos own their homes, and we're looking at an area that is not what many would call "capital intensive."
The increasing number of cafés and restaurants in Eagle Rock, the area's affordable spaces, the new crackdown on the Avenue gangs and the Gold Line's quality-of-life panacea could give Northeast L.A. a hipness that could rival Silver Lake. And when all the new people come here to take advantage, many of us will be forced out.
Now I don't mean to throw out an "orange alert." The odds are just as good that development could continue to bypass our little homeland here. But if we look at other similar situations around the country and around the city, it will become clear that it is time for people to take action.
New York's SoHo district may be the mother of all gentrification. The concept of the artist's loft was born here as our favorite pop/minimalist/feminist art stars moved into the empty shells of industry in the seventies. Their spirits still live on in these lofts, auras effectively marketed as big sweaters in the GAP stores that now occupy SoHo.
Even worse is the state of the East Village. Bohemian bourgeoisie have co-opted the very real history of social and artistic dissent that made its home here for over a century. Squatters and the homeless were forcibly removed by the police in the late 1980s, and anyone who was not a stockbroker soon fled as well. Artists regrouped in the 1990s across the river in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, which is now in danger of gentrifying as well. You can run but you can't hide?
Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood in the 1980s was populated by Blacks, Latinos and Polish immigrants, where the police would just as soon break your arm as look at you. Artists were able to find affordable working space and established a viable artists community. Developers saw potential in the area, raising new condos and converting apartments. Three-flat apartment buildings saw their prices nearly triple in the late nineties, and artists and the poor were forced to move to the inner suburbs or nearby slummy areas. Wicker Park's swansong came in the summer of 2001 when MTV's *The Real World* brought their monoculture steamroller into the center of the neighborhood. A loose coalition of artists, activists and rabble-rousers (including yours truly) were able to disrupt their plans through spontaneous situationist-style actions. But it was too late to affect the gentrification process, as most affordable housing in the area was already gone.
The most drastic effects of gentrification has been in the internet boomtowns of the west coast. As dotcoms gobbled up urban space, the March 30, 2000 *Seattle Weekly* headline asked "Will the last artist to leave Seattle please turn out the lights?"
In San Francisco, a century's legacy of immigrants, leftists and artists was wiped clean within a few years. Rebecca Solnit follows the bubble's path of destruction through the city in her book *Hollow City*. The easy money and lavish spending of the internet boom cost the city 30 to 40 percent of its artist population.
E-businesses and condo developers preyed on the artist's live/work spaces--a well-intentioned but ill-fated attempt by artists to legitimize their practice though zoning laws. A majority of nonprofit operations in the city found their leases due to expire in 2000, and with rents increasing by as much as 600 percent, few were able to stay. The Mission District, which over the last thirty years had become a vibrant center for Latino and punk cultures, began losing its heritage as landmarks, murals and hangouts were ethnically cleansed by the runaway housing market. By the time the Mission Yuppie Eradication Project began calls for the defacement of SUVs, over 60 Starbucks franchises had taken hold in the city. Now that the boom economy has turned to bust, there is hope for San Francisco and Seattle. But at this moment, these cities are filled with more vacant spaces and more homeless people than ever before.
Los Angeles is no stranger to gentrification. Since the 1992 L.A. uprising, the steady influx of immigrants and the Clinton economy has helped to create a growing gap between the rich and poor. This has only increased the instability of L.A.'s neighborhoods, forcing changes in (formerly) working class and poor areas all over the city. Silver Lake and Los Feliz have seen rents and home prices skyrocket, and the fallout has begun to claim affordable housing in nearby Echo Park, Atwater Village and Chinatown.
Leimert Park Village, an urban enclave in L.A.'s Crenshaw area is enduring a similar problem. Activist Phyllis Battle's call for a rally to save the neighborhood describes a community that "...has stood synonymous with the voices of African American culture and art in Los Angeles. It is a place carved out by artists, musicians and poets--fought for in every note, beat, word and image." But the self-sufficiency and pride began to smell like profit to the forces of capital. The city government began to direct riot-recovery money and tax breaks for redevelopment to the area. Recently the police and building inspectors have been giving out more and more citations. Wal-Mart has laid plans to move into the neighborhood. Real estate speculator Russell Associates has just doubled the rents of locally owned shops, artist studios and The World Stage, a jazz and poetry performance space. Local activists see gentrification as just another tool for controlling minorities--to keep them consuming or to make them homeless, but never to create their own vision of community.
Another struggle against gentrification is in the areas around USC. These working class Latino neighborhoods have suffered from disinvestment over the past thirty years, but local groups have begun to see their efforts to improve the community reach fruition. But as the neighborhoods have gotten better, USC students who can pay more for housing have moved in. "We are seeing wide scale eviction, harassment of tenants and threats of INS and police," says Andrea Gibbons of SAJE. Recently, Over the past year, Norwood Elementary school has lost 150 students due mainly to evictions in the area.
To combat the forces of gentrification, SAJE has concentrated its efforts into a "Non-Displacement Zone," organizing tenants, defending against evictions, and advocating for the people of the community. SAJE also teamed up with Self Help Graphics and the Center for the Study of Political Graphics to organize the We Shall Not Be Moved project. Seven artists were selected to involve themselves in the local struggle and, working with a master printer, to create posters as a tool for reclaiming their neighborhoods.
In Northeast Los Angeles, it is not too late to hold "growth" accountable to the people of the community. As artists are often unjustly blamed for starting the process of gentrification, they should also realize that they do play a significant role in the future of their neighborhoods. Artists need to become members of their community and get involved in local grass-roots groups. Artists must begin to see that they are just as much of a stakeholder as the local homeless person, banker, gardener or grocer. Artists as regular people with skills and abilities to offer in the struggle.
Can we, as members of the community, use our talent of keen observation to look for changes in our neighborhood such as rising rents and property taxes, condo conversions, closing businesses or the arrival of corporate chain stores? Can we articulate abstract ideas like local power structures and global economics? Can we use our imagination to dream of a community where "growth" can benefit everyone in the area? Can we raise our voices and our hearts for the things we believe in? Yes, we can do these things and take action in the development of our surroundings. This is how the people of Northeast Los Angeles can keep the culture of our community alive, living through us and our efforts together.
Steve Anderson is an artist, co-publisher of *Cakewalk Magazine* and a Mt. Washington resident. For information and resources about the issues raised in this article, email: firstname.lastname@example.org