LOS ANGELES (CN) – In a hilly, northeast community of Los Angeles, a giant chicken statue towers over taquerias and elote vendors along Figueroa Avenue – the historically Latino commercial avenue in Highland Park that has evolved in recent years to satisfy the tastes and desires of new residents of a neighborhood in flux.
From his perch atop local Mexican eateries La Palapa and La Fuente, the Chicken Boy, a 22-foot fiberglass icon affectionately called the “Statue of Liberty of Highland Park,” watches over scenes of competing, parallel experiences of residents vying for space in the rapidly changing landscape.
At family-operated Las Delicias Bakery, the smell of freshly baked pan dulce – Mexican sweet bread – flavors the air as customers trickle in. Some wear tight jeans, patterned shirts and flashy shades hiding eyes that scan the shelves of bread, deciphering labels written in Spanish.
Other customers move around the bakery as if guided by muscle memory, expertly selecting the freshest bread placed at the back of the display cases. At a table, Juan Ortiz and his son eat cuernitos, Mexican croissants, as they laugh at Spanish-language cartoons playing on a cellphone.
Next to them, a woman in fluorescent yellow pants and a bright red shirt munches on vegan conchas and vegan empanada, two items Las Delicias started selling last year. The vegan concha is more than double the cost of a regular one.
Down the street, Brenda Rodriguez lines up four coolers on a table as she begins setting up her stall to sell fresh tamales. When a young woman asks if the tamales have any animal products in them, Brenda points to a handwritten sign on one cooler that says in Spanish “No manteca” – no lard.
Along York Boulevard, Highland Park’s other major commercial strip, new bars and coffee houses have replaced or set up shop next to longtime business and restaurants, carving out spaces where young chefs and entrepreneurs create some of the city’s most interesting culinary masterpieces.
Every week, up-and-coming food vendors bring pop-up stalls to what food bloggers have called “The York Zone,” a gathering of mostly vegan vendors selling tacos, burgers, pupusas, and mac and cheese.
Aurelio Osorno-Flores of vegan pop-up Tacos Sin Karma said in an interview that he cherishes The York Zone community vibe because it’s hard for him to find an affordable brick-and-mortar storefront.
“Other business areas are very territorial and would call the cops on us vendors in the past,” Osorno-Flores said. “Everyone hypes each other up here. I don’t know of any block like this in the state.”
Osorno-Flores said he started noticing how York was changing about five years ago, when old storefronts were replaced by fancy new bars, local homes were remodeled and streets started getting cleaned with more frequency.
“We talk about hipsters and how we see the signs of gentrification,” Osorno-Flores said. “But gentrification is happening everywhere.”
Highland Park, settled along the Arroyo Seco – a seasonal watershed and canyon that runs down to the city from the San Gabriel Mountains – became one of LA’s first suburbs when it was annexed by the city in the 1890s.
It has shifted over time from being a mostly bedroom community and intellectual hub to a working-class neighborhood that has rapidly become a prime location for residents seeking a short commute to and from downtown and access to interesting new restaurants.