LA Neighborhood Looks to Preserve Cultural – and Culinary – Identity

Murals, like this one behind the Chase bank on Figueroa Avenue, cover dozens of walls on storefronts and back alleys in LA’s northeast neighborhood of Highland Park. Local mural preservation activists say these murals are under threat from the city. (Martin Macias, Jr./CNS)

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.

Chicano art and identity, which often celebrates lowrider car culture and “cruising,” features heavily in many of the murals in Highland Park. This mural, resting high across from a car maintenance store, is under threat of erasure, local mural preservationists say. (Martin Macias Jr./CNS)

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.

On a recent evening outside Good Girl Dinette, a popular Vietnamese restaurant off Figueroa that announced recently it’s closing its doors, Mia Cordero said in an interview that she moved to Highland Park after arriving to LA from Atlanta because she wanted to live in the kind of diverse community she grew up with back home.

But longtime Highland Park resident Jessica Ceballos cautions new residents against “fetishizing” the diversity of longtime, mostly Latino residents.

“For new people coming in, they will say they love how diverse a place is but won’t establish or seek connections,” Ceballos said in an interview at La Monarca Bakery.

Ceballos, a former member of the local neighborhood council, said she wants the local LA City Council member Gil Cedillo to preserve spaces for longtime residents, especially immigrants, and ensure they won’t be displaced by rising housing prices.

Ceballos said she doesn’t want to describe changes in Highland Park under the “catch-all term gentrification” because it doesn’t articulate the everyday, increasing problems around traffic, health and rising rents.

Brenda Perez, a local art preservation activist, was less diplomatic when describing the changes in Highland Park and the effects on local artists.

The first thing one notices when passing the historic Chico’s Café in Highland Park is the sombero-wearing, mustachioed red pepper that looks back at you with a coy smile. The Mexican restaurant has been a pillar for Figueroa Avenue. businesses that cater to longtime residents in the community. (Martin Macias Jr./CNS)

“This is a category-five gentrification storm,” Perez said while dipping tortilla chips into guacamole freshly made by cooks at Chico’s, her favorite local restaurant.

Perez leads the organization Restorative Justice For The Arts and has mobilized community members against what she describes as the erasure of local cultural identity.

In recent years, at least seven Chicano murals have been painted over or slowly erased whenever older business close their doors, Perez said.

“It’s horrible, it’s deliberate and it’s not a mistake,” Perez said, acknowledging she has clashed with Cedillo’s office over the years on mural preservation. “I’m public enemy number one.”

In a statement, Cedillo said it’s up to the Department of Cultural Affairs to track and preserve murals.

But Perez said she checked with the department and found that the murals in question were never registered.

“The people who are supposed to protect our art are the ones erasing it and lying about preserving it,” Perez said.

Cedillo said he is “proud of the arts and culture throughout our district,” but that often, murals are defaced with graffiti, which must be painted over.

“The city tries to preserve murals to the best of our ability,” he said.

Tropical Fruits and Juices is an old-school Mexican juice shop that has been in business for decades, offering fresh, healthy and affordable juices to folks on Figueroa Avenue in Highland Park. Recently, hipster juice spots have opened up close to Tropical, offering “cold-pressed organic” juices for more than double the price of what Tropical sells them for. (Martin Macias Jr./CNS)

Cedillo said that he wants to balance preserving longtime businesses with the excitement around the “infusion of economic activity” along Figueroa.

“We are challenged in Highland Park with the introduction of new businesses and rising commercial rents for legacy businesses,” Cedillo said in the statement, adding he’s tapped the city’s small business support services to offer community shops “guidance to continue succeeding.”

Ceballos, the former neighborhood council member, said she remembers a time – before the $15 jackfruit crab cakes at local veggie eatery Kitchen Mouse – when Figueroa Avenue was a hub of Latino, working-class business and culture.

A time when panaderias only sold buttery, warm conchas and taco joints didn’t offer Wi-Fi for customers munching on cremini mushroom tacos. Chicano art murals co-existed with graffiti and gang tags on the walls.

Customers weren’t as ethnically diverse as they are today, Ceballos said, but the stores back then “had what residents wanted and needed; now they’re having to travel farther to get those things.”

Back then, kids confidently walked barefoot across lopsided sidewalks and played in their front yards. Neighbors protected each other, Ceballos said, adding, “You had a sense that even the cholos protected the community.”

But as she finishes her coffee at La Monarca – a more modern panaderia on Figueroa that offers garbanzo salads and vegetarian chorizo quiche – Ceballos wrestles with the tension of working to preserve a community while also enjoying the things that come with change, even if that change is not wholly embraced.

“I think about the struggle to preserve [our culture] in this community and how hard we fight,” Ceballos said. “Why can’t this community have nice things, too?”

On a wall outside of Monte Vista Elementary School in Highland Park, a mural by Los Angeles artists Daniel Cervantes, Joe Galarza, and Ozomatli depicts the mythical Aztec goddess Tonantzin. Local mural preservationist Brenda Perez is rallying the community to ensure the mural is not defaced or painted over. “Murals are the art of the people,” Perez said in an interview. (Martin Macias Jr./CNS)
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