Neighborhood’s Charm At Risk in Shadow of LA’s Boom

Downtown Los Angeles is only minutes away from Mariachi Plaza, a community gathering space and Gold Line station in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. The plaza is named for the mariachi musicians that gather there hoping to be hired to perform at events. (Martin Macias Jr./CNS)

LOS ANGELES (CN) – Reyna Camacho has deep roots in Boyle Heights. She grew up within a three-block radius in a section of this Eastside community she has called home for 30 years.

Her neighbors have known each other for decades, greeting familiar passersby on the sidewalk. They ask each other how their families are doing. There is a spirit of mutual support, she said.

“You can ask [neighbors] to keep an eye on your house and they really will,” she said. “They pay attention.”

That reality contrasts sharply with issues Angelenos often face: social isolation, heavy traffic, competition for space and transience.

Boyle Heights is steeped in a rich history of diversity, activism and art. Residents are tight-knit. Situated between downtown and East Los Angeles, the neighborhood is also a prime location in the eyes of developers and renters looking for easy access to the city’s hot spots.

Residents live at the precarious junction of being in a cultural sanctuary and a hotbed of political upheaval. Gentrification, pollution, and immigration are sources of concern; community leaders clash with developers over proposed housing projects. The question of who will ultimately benefit from these projects sits heavily on the minds of many.

An illustration of the head of skeleton with a cyclist cap is posted on a window of Espacio 1839, a community space on 1st Street in the Boyle Heights community of Los Angeles. Espacio 1839, meaning “space” in Spanish, contains a gallery, storefront and radio station. The image of the cyclist draws from depictions of the “catrin,” a male figure prominent in Day of the Dead celebrations. (Martin Macias Jr./CNS)

Camacho said her neighbors are anxious about the spike in housing costs.

“If you wanna purchase a home in Boyle Heights, starter or fix-up homes are really expensive,” she said. “I don’t know anyone [my age] that has moved away from their parents’ home and purchased their own home.”

Many families cram into homes together for urgent affordability reasons. Camacho lives with her parents and five other family members, including an aunt and nephew.

She teaches U.S history at Oscar Romero Middle School, a charter school near Koreatown. With her educator’s salary, she could get her own place but she wrestles with the guilt of potentially displacing another working-class family.

“I always have this dilemma of wanting my own house,” she said. “But I don’t want that at the expense of others.”

Camacho’s parents own a home only blocks away from the famed Evergreen Cemetery, a vast emerald sanctum founded in 1877. A cushioned jogging path was installed a decade ago, making recreation more accessible to residents who didn’t have much park space.

Multi-station workout equipment now sits on the southeast border of the cemetery. The community hub of food and entrepreneurialism, El Mercadito de Los Angeles, stands in the backdrop with its murals and food stalls visible from a distance.

Camacho says people in Boyle Heights transform public spaces in alluring and dignifying ways. Residents come together in spaces such as the Mariachi Plaza Gold Line Station to celebrate their cultures with music, food, crafts and dancing. The community also mourns together in public spaces.

“When there are tragedies, people acknowledge the loss of life,” Camacho said.

This past November, a man crashed his speeding car into a crowd at a taco stand. The community, in short supply of public spaces, created an altar with candles, signs and prayer beads.

“Skateboarding saved my life”

Access to public space doesn’t always extend to all residents equally. Skateboarders, always present at Mariachi Plaza, get tickets for skating and hanging around.

Eric Diaz, 18, manages The Garage, a skate shop and community hub on First Street in the Boyle Heights community of Los Angeles. The Cal State LA student also helps run the Skate for Education program, offering homework support to young skaters and teaching them problem-solving skills. (Martin Macias Jr./CNS)

Eric Diaz, a skater from East LA and civil engineering student at California State University LA, challenges community residents to look deeper.

“Give skateboarding a chance,” he said. “If not, take the time to see what’s going on in your community.”

Diaz manages The Garage, a skate shop a half block from Mariachi Plaza. Open two years, the shop has become a hub for young skaters looking for a sense of place and belonging.

The shop runs an after-school program called Skate for Education, welcoming young people from Boyle Heights and surrounding communities. One young skater in the shop came from South Central, some seven miles away.

Diaz said the program takes in kids whose parents work double or triple shifts. Some don’t want to go home to their foster families. Diaz often pulls from his own pocket to supply materials, snacks and other items.

“These kids are like younger brothers to me,” he said. “You wanna give them something brighter, a little more beautiful.”

Diaz has the kids help him build ramps and other skating obstacles, teaching them about tools and problem solving. Another program at The Garage adopts walls tagged by gangs and covers them in murals painted by young people, with the owner’s permission.

According to Diaz, many kids no longer come into the shop because their families were forced out of Boyle Heights by rising rent, driven by an economic and building boom in nearby Downtown LA.

“We’re really close to downtown. That could either make you or break you.”

“Not just a Latino community”

A mural featuring a band of mariachis welcomes visitors to El Mercado de Los Angeles, a market in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. The community market, also known as “El Mercadito,” was founded in 1968 and once served Italian and Japanese communities in addition to the Mexican population. (Martin Macias Jr./CNS)

At the community market day in Mariachi Plaza, Jennifer Estrada sat with her Girl Scouts troop, selling their famous cookies. Estrada grew up in Boyle Heights, just like her parents, aunts and uncles and grandmother.

Her parents told her stories about the history of rich diversity in the community, when you could find Japanese, Chinese, Armenian, black and Jewish businesses and households.

“The multicultural dynamic is something to be proud of,” Estrada said. “It’s not, and wasn’t ever, only a Latino community.”

She remembers when the plaza was just an empty lot. Now her troop sells its wares along with other people from the community. Outsiders would never believe Boyle Heights has a farmers market, she said.

“People have this perspective that Boyle Heights is a low-income, high-crime area,” Estrada said. “When other [Scout] troops ask us where we are based we get this look like we aren’t from the best area.”

Estrada now lives in Rancho Cucamonga, 42 miles to the east, and drives 90 minutes each way to teach at Boyle Heights’ Puente Learning Center. She moved with her family after the LA riots in 1992, when her mom decided the community was no longer a safe place.

“We moved out of the area but I still feel like this area has a lot to offer children,” Estrada said. “We still keep coming back.”

Vendors sell their fabrics, apparel, instruments and other goods inside El Mercado de Los Angeles in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. The complex resembles a traditional Latin American marketplace and is a hub for local entrepreneurs. (Martin Macias Jr./CNS)

Estrada said many of her students’ parents fear proposed apartment projects in the community, with rents hovering around $1,600. She worries that housing and youth programs will become inaccessible to working families; programs at Puente had to expand after-school hours for parents who work late.

“Rent and housing is not what it used to be, especially for working parents,” Estrada said.

“At least this was our community”

Belen’s is a small community shop on First Street not unlike other corners stores in Boyle Heights. Nestled between Tortilleria San Marcos and Taqueria El Sol, Belen’s is one-stop shop for food, snacks, household goods, medicine and cleaning supplies.

Belen Delgado has operated the shop since December 2016. She came to LA in 1995, hailing from the city of Gómez Palacio in the Mexican state of Durango. Now she has two kids, one in high school and another in college.

When Delgado arrived, she moved in with an aunt and took jobs at laundromats, restaurants and other shops. Eventually one of her bosses offered to rent a storefront to her and she opened Belen’s.

“Every day, for the past 23 years, I’ve dedicated my time to working,” she said. “I live two blocks away and the walk to and from work has been my only routine.”

Everything in Boyle Heights was different when she arrived. The neighborhood was a way that it isn’t anymore. There were grand buildings that are no longer there.

“The people have been like this too in my experience – unstable,” she said. “Some are still here and others have moved away.”

As housing prices have increased, Delgado has seen some positive improvements to road and sidewalk infrastructure. Still, she feels like most development is done to displace low-income, Latino residents.

Delgado says her rent has gone up slightly, but feels lucky her building is under rent control. She remains vigilant because change can happen quickly. Her neighbors have seen men come to inspect the building in recent weeks, likely looking to buy it.

“You see neighbors month after month, then one week they are gone,” she said. “Their building is remodeled then suddenly there are new residents there.”

Delgado says she and others like her fear speaking out against injustices will have repercussions. She speaks to people who, like her, have permanent residency status but live in fear of deportation in the era of the Donald Trump presidency.

“When I arrived, I learned in school that we had freedom of speech. We can see that is changing with current politics,” she said. “Maybe it’s not our country but we used to say that at least this was our community.”

“Neighbors taking care of each other”

A group of residents and housing activists gathered outside an apartment complex near Second and Boyle Avenue on

Two men fish at the manmade pond in Hollenbeck Park, a city park in the Boyle Heights community of Los Angeles. The pond is part of the great Pacific Flyway, a critical migratory route for birds in the Western Hemisphere. A section of Highway 5 runs through the park. (Martin Macias Jr./CNS)

Feb. 15. News cameras and photojournalists arrived and a buzz filled the air. Mariachis stood before the crowd and launched into renditions of classic Mexican ballads.

The people gathered to celebrate a victory. After months of negotiation, protests and court sessions, residents of the “Mariachi Crossing” complex reached an agreement with the new owner to allow them to stay in their homes.

Upon purchasing the building in 2016, Frank “BJ” Turner hiked the rent of several longtime tenants in the 25-unit complex between 60 and 80 percent.

For the mariachi musicians who lived in the building, the increase threatened their well-being. Several tenants went on rent strike.

Luis Valdivia, a mariachi musician, has lived in Boyle Heights for 30 years and in the complex over 22 years. At the celebration event, Valdivia told the crowd he felt demoralized and hopeless.

“The mariachi depend on being close to the [Mariachi] plaza since that is our main source of income,” he said.

Irma Aguilar, a tenant of the building for over 20 years, said the group could not have stopped the rent increase on their own. Indeed, the efforts were supported by neighbors, the Los Angeles Tenant Union, Union de Vecinos (“Neighbors”) and other local groups.

“We are so thankful to the community that came out to support us,” Aguilar told the crowd. “This is neighbors taking care of each other.”

The victory stands as an example of a solutions-based method of addressing gentrification: developers don’t feel like they are losing out, activists see they are making an impact and, most importantly, residents get to stay in their homes.

As one of the organizers put it, perhaps gentrification is not inevitable.

The view through a fence of the fabled Evergreen Cemetery in the Boyle Heights community of Los Angeles. The cemetery holds the remains of prominent founding families of Los Angeles. (Martin Macias Jr./CNS)
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