LOS ANGELES — When Juan Romero was a boy in the 1980s, people talked about his neighborhood, Boyle Heights, as a place to escape. The area was besieged by gangs, public schools were struggling, and a vast majority of residents were barely above the poverty line.
These days, the crime rate has plummeted. And while many residents in the largely immigrant neighborhood on the eastern edge of Los Angeles are still struggling to get by, there are signs of rapid change. Primera Taza, a coffee shop Mr. Romero opened, is one of them, evidence of what some local residents call gentefication, as more well-to-do and younger Mexican-Americans return to the neighborhood their parents fled.
The transition has provided a jolt of energy and a transfusion of money, but it has also created friction with working-class residents here. And tensions over just whom this neighborhood belongs to are a clear sign that Latinos have come of age in Los Angeles, where they are expected to become the majority this year. The changes highlight strong class divisions that continue — or are even worsened — among immigrants.
“We’re not trying to get out of the barrio, we’re trying to bring the barrio up,” said Marco Amador, who runs an Internet radio station out of a storefront he helped open in Boyle Heights last fall. It is just down the block from Mariachi Plaza, which for years has attracted musicians looking for jobs at weddings and quinceñeras — special 15th birthday celebrations.
Boyle Heights has historically attracted immigrants from Eastern Europe, Russia, Japan and Mexico. In the 1960s, it became a hotbed of Chicano activism, and many of the colorful murals over dozens of walls are a vivid reminder of the era. For those moving back now, the idea that they are pushing others out is the source of much consternation.
When Evonne Gallardo, the executive director of Self Help Graphics, an arts group that has worked in the area for decades, began to hear about plans to officially designate part of the neighborhood as an arts district, she welcomed the idea. But when she heard complaints from longtime residents, she organized discussions with community activists that turned into debates about the potential pitfalls of change.
“We all can think of examples of neighborhoods we don’t want to be,” Ms. Gallardo said. “But we don’t know exactly what we do want. It’s not just about staving off Starbucks, but how we keep the things that attract us to this neighborhood in the first place, where taco trucks were parked way before it was trendy.”
Just up the block from Self Help Graphics is Mr. Romero’s coffee shop, its name meaning First Cup in Spanish, selling $4 lattes. Next door is Eastside Luv, a sleek bar that attracts younger patrons whom some call Chipsters, for Chicano hipsters. To many, these newer landmarks along First Street are clear signs of gentrification.
To Guillermo Uribe, who opened the bar several years ago, it is something else: gentefication. These are people — in Spanish, gente — who enthusiastically talk about maintaining the area’s deep sense of Mexican-American history.
Whatever the changes are called, poor renters here are likely to suffer, said Leonardo Vilchis, an organizer with Union de Vecinos, a tenant rights organization.
“People want to pretend that their actions don’t have an impact on the people already living here, but when the prices go up, the poor have to go someplace else,” Mr. Vilchis said during a recent discussion at Self Help Graphics. “Coming back is emblematic of some kind of opportunism. We had children going to college two decades ago, but back then it wasn’t cool to live here.”
Mr. Uribe and others see change as inevitable — and say that if they do not take advantage of the opportunities, somebody else will. For years, he wanted to open a bar that would appeal to people like him: native Angelenos and the children of Mexican immigrants who listened to performers like Morrissey as well as mariachis. Unable to find a place he could afford downtown, he jumped at the small spot in Boyle Heights. Now, hundreds pack the bar for karaoke nights that also feature songs from David Bowie, Juan Gabriel and Selena.
“If we want to preserve the cultural integrity, the pride we have, the only shot we have is to do it ourselves,” he said. “My grandmother here covered everything in plastic because there wasn’t extra money to go buy another couch if one of us messed it up. That’s something we should celebrate now. I want to be amongst people who understand that and get it.”
When he was a child in East Los Angeles, just outside official city limits, Mr. Uribe said, the implicit goal was always to move out to the suburbs. Now he sees customers with six-figure salaries looking for homes here.
The residential real estate market has changed rapidly from boom to bust and now back to boom, said Maria Cabildo, the executive director of the East Los Angeles Community Corporation, which works to create low-price housing and helps first-time buyers in the area. These days, investors are making cash offers and quickly flipping homes for nearly double what they paid.
“Regular old people can’t just get in and buy anymore,” Ms. Cabildo said. Still, a neighborhood native, she sees the benefit of more young college graduates moving into the area. Many of the corporation’s staff members are doing just that.
“All over this city, people create these completely artificial spaces and call them communities, but we’ve had that here for the last 100 years,” she said. “It’s one of the few places in L.A. where you can go to the doctor, go to the bank, go to the pharmacy and get your groceries and stop at a bakery, just by walking around. It still has that sense of a pueblo. You say buenos días and buenas tardes to people on the street.”
When several light-rail stations opened in the area several years ago, they were met with a mix of excitement and despair. Some people welcomed better access to public transit, a vast change for the neighborhood, separated from the rest of the city by the Los Angeles River. Others worried that it would create fertile ground for the kind of large housing developments created in Hollywood. Current plans to replace a block of low-slung apartments with high-rise condominiums and retail space have been met with fierce opposition.
Mr. Romero opened Primera Taza four years ago, mostly to create the kind of place he wanted as a college student, when he drove miles from Boyle Heights to find a comfortable place to study. He has yet to make enough money to quit his full-time job working for the city.
“We grew up always talking about being a part of something bigger,” he said one recent afternoon outside his shop, which replaced a traditional Americano with a cafe Chicano. “We’ve learned just how to create it for ourselves. Making it doesn’t mean moving out.”
The stores along Cesar E. Chavez Avenue clearly cater to the immigrant working-class population of the neighborhood — there are discount clothing shops, small grocery stores and money wiring services. From the moment the popular taco restaurant Guisados opened in 2010, it stood out for its sparkling bright interior and clientele that often came from the west side of the city. Armando de La Torre, the owner, heard from critics right away, he said, with local passers-by asking him, “Can I come in if I’m not white?”
“At first I thought it was funny, but now it’s becoming a little bothersome,” said Mr. De La Torre, who grew up in the suburbs east of Los Angeles.
Like Mr. De La Torre, Alfred Fraijo was raised with the belief that the suburbs were synonymous with success. But when he became a partner in a large law firm, he bought a home in Boyle Heights. Now, he sees himself as a cheerleader for the neighborhood.
“For my colleagues and peers, the flight to suburbia is not appealing,” Mr. Fraijo said. “We want access to the things that make city living attractive.”
While others have fought against the creation of a large retail center, Mr. Fraijo champions it, arguing that it would stop people from traveling to the suburbs to shop.
“It’s really easy to say no to things, but the harder question is how do we change things and empower people at the same time,” he said. “If we’re closed to outsiders, we’re going to be stuck in the past. If we can figure out how to say yes to development and history at the same time, we can really be a model for this city that hasn’t had one yet.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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