By Zola Cervantes
Boyle Heights Beat
Along York Boulevard in Highland Park, new businesses seem to pop up every couple of months, bearing minimalist names like Donut Friend or The York. They tend to be boutique shops that cater to the newer, hipster residents.
Here, customized donuts contrast sharply with the day-to-day reality of a neighborhood where many working class Latino residents live paycheck to paycheck.
Not long ago, Highland Park was considered “ground zero” for gentrification in Los Angeles. Residents of the Northeastern Los Angeles neighborhood speak of both evils and benefits of gentrification, and many agree that Boyle Heights may soon experience the same phenomenon.
“Change. It happens,” said Michael Baffico, the owner of a pet shop, one of the new businesses on York. “I remember when no one wanted to live in the Arts District. Now everybody wants to live [there]. I hate that it’s fancy now, so I understand that people are upset about their neighborhoods changing.”
Gentrification can result in the displacement of low-paying tenants, by landlords who want to charge higher market-value rents.
Brenda Pérez, a lifelong resident of Highland Park, complains that many of the mom and pop businesses that used to line York Boulevard are now gone.
“The woman who owned Hot Stuff Hair Salon was forced out,” she offered as an example. “She had to move to the other side of Figueroa because she was driven out. Leti’s Shoes, right next door to Hot Stuff. Michelle’s Nails, there for years, and she got displaced”.
In Highland Park, as in so many Los Angeles neighborhoods, lines are drawn across the gentrification
Twenty-three-year old Amy Zepeda has lived in the neighborhood her entire life. “I grew up down the street from where I live now,” she said. “The thing is we had to move out of a house and into an apartment. We couldn’t afford the rent any more.”
Ironically, Zepeda is the manager of Donut Friend, one of the shops that appeals to the new hipster crowd. “With all the new businesses, the prices have all shot up, which is partially why I have not moved out (of my parents’ home). I can’t afford to live in this area on my own, and I also can’t leave behind school, my job.”
But Zepeda welcomes the changes that have come to Highland Park. “I personally like the community doing better. I wasn’t proud of living here before,” she said.
She added that she prefers a gentrified neighborhood, in spite of the lack of affordable housing. “I think it’s manageable. If I wanted to live with five of my friends, I could do it. But if I wanted my own space, that’s definitely not possible.”
Sylvia Flores, who has owned a party supply store in Highland Park for 10 years, says that security in the neighborhood has improved with the new businesses – and residents – moving in.
“Before I was more fearful,” said Flores, who explained that gang violence was once as problematic in Highland Park as it is today in Boyle Heights.
“It’s not an area you wanted to be in at night,” agreed Zepeda. “It wasn’t really a place where people could hang out. And I think that now, the community really has a sense of community.”
But some believe that many of the new stores are for the exclusive benefit of the new, mostly non-Latino residents.
Angelica Vázquez has lived in Highland Park her entire life and has owned a barbershop in the neighborhood since 1991. Recently, she pointed to the nannies taking care of children at a new park built nearby, on Avenue 50 and York, that’s hardly used by the oldtimers.
“It’s because they designed it more for the white people,” said Vázquez. “And more white people go to this one, and the other one is solely for Latinos.”
The effects of gentrification on Highland Park are complex and nuanced.
The changes that have occurred in pricing, housing and safety in Highland Park are reflected in the neighborhood’s rising cost of living. Some of these changes are also beginning to occur in Boyle Heights’ main business corridor, César Chávez Avenue, where shops with names like Weird Wave Coffee and Other Books imitate the vintage and minimalistic trends evident in Highland Park.
One of the most obvious signs of gentrification is a sharp increase in housing prices. In Highland Park, a single-family home listed for $879,000 sold for $1 million in 2014 –reportedly the first time a Highland Park property reached that threshold since 2007,, when housing prices peaked citywide. A recent review of real estate websites found several homes in Highland Park listed for over $1 million, including a five-bedroom Craftsman going for $1.3 million.
Housing prices also have been rising in Boyle Heights, where there’s a small stock of attractive, well-preserved Victorian homes. Already, a Twitter account that highlights real estate opportunities in the neighborhood predicted that the first $1 million single-family home will be sold this year in Boyle Heights.
All photos by Ernesto Orozco.