Earlier this month, a Starbucks coffee shop opened on Soto Street and Olympic Boulevard in Boyle Heights. Photo by Art Torres.
Earlier this month, a Starbucks coffee shop opened on Soto Street and Olympic Boulevard in Boyle Heights. Photo by Art Torres.
Earlier this month, a Starbucks coffee shop opened on Soto Street and Olympic Boulevard in Boyle Heights. Photo by Art Torres.

Walking into the new Starbucks location on Soto Street and Olympic Boulevard, there are plenty of people in business attire picking up their morning coffee before heading to work. But, on a recent morning this month, father and son Eddie and John Frias are in casual dress and ordering their “usual” before sitting down to enjoy their coffee.

“I’m a regular customer,” said Eddie Frias. “I always buy Starbucks.”

For the Frias, lifelong residents of Boyle Heights, the July opening of the first free-standing Starbucks in their neighborhood is a matter of simple convenience.

Though a Starbucks addendum to the USC Health Sciences Campus in Boyle Heights has been open for years, the closest free-standing Starbucks locations were previously in Little Tokyo and East Los Angeles (on 3rd Street and Gage Avenue) on the eastside and two locations in Huntington Park on the south side.

As a major corporate franchise that mostly targets an affluent demographic, there is an imminent fear that Starbucks represents the threat of gentrification in a historically immigrant community that is mostly made up of small businesses, local organizations and a working-class Latino population.

However, recent commercial additions to Boyle Heights, including Walgreens in 2012 and the large-scale retail and condo renovation announced earlier this year for the Sears Tower in the near future, suggests that Boyle Heights is as vulnerable to gentrification seen in other neighborhoods of Los Angeles, such as Silver Lake, Echo Park and Highland Park.

When Boyle Heights Beat first shared news that the coffee franchise would soon open in the neighborhood, readers reacted with a mix of convulsion and concern on Facebook.

Matthew Bronson suggested that Starbucks is nothing new by pointing out that there are already multiple franchise fast food restaurants including McDonalds, KFC, Subway, in addition the franchise pharmacy Walgreens.

A majority of the comments, however, expressed concern as to whether Starbucks would serve the local community.

Ruben Soria and Jose Luis Morales questioned if Starbucks would accept EBT or electronic benefit transfers.

While many fear gentrification will increase rents or property taxes, and may drive out lower-income residents that have called Boyle Heights home for generations, others welcome it.

“It’s exciting to see how the community will be better for my son compared to how it was for me or for my father,” explained John Frias, a third-generation Mexican American who has worked at Starbucks for six years””first, at the Commerce location and now in Boyle Heights.

“There’ve been a lot of changes””more stores, more housing, more jobs,” he says.

As the first corporate coffee retailer in Boyle Heights, Starbucks not only signifies a change in real estate but also a potential threat to local, independent coffee businesses such as Primera Taza Coffee House, Vees Café or Arctic Hotspot Bakery and Cafe.

Christina Mora, owner of Arctic Hotspot on 4th and Matthews streets, suggests that as a corporate business, Starbucks is not meant for the community of Boyle Heights.

“This is the type of business that draws a line between the people””not a lot of people from the neighborhood and not a lot of people in general can afford Starbucks,” said Mora.

Mora, however, is not worried about the competition.

“It doesn’t bother me as a business owner,” said Mora. “We have different options.”

Founded nine years ago by Roosevelt High School graduates, Arctic Hotspot is one of Boyle Heights’ few coffee shops. It focuses on fresh, healthy meals and serves a diverse food menu including sandwiches, tostadas, wraps and salads.

Although one of the major threats of gentrification suggests that Boyle Heights may lose its history and culture in favor of a largely consumerist one, Mora is confident that Boyle Heights residents will remain “tied to their roots.”

“The majority of our customers are connected to Boyle Heights through school, work, or family,” said Mora. “There will always be new businesses, but people will connect with and support what [they] consider their home.”

This story is one in a series of articles on gentrification in Boyle Heights.

Tiffany Lam

Tiffany Lam is a lifelong resident of Boyle Heights and attending Wellesley College near Boston, Massachusetts. Her ambitions include engaging with her community through writing and organizing.

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