By: Thomas Vossler
Emerging from the subway station, I was abruptly greeted by the smell of wet asphalt. I shot a quick glance upward, and for the first time that day registered the dark, swirling clouds above me. Dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, the only puddles I had expected to see in Los Angeles that day were via public urination. As I anxiously strode toward the city bus headed to my high school, more and more ill-dressed Angelenos joined my ranks. As the crowd grew, the momentum surged, and frenzied commuters began pushing and shoving for the last spots on the bus. In the midst of all this commotion one group of people remained out in the rain. They stood on the corner of Wilshire and Western about seven strong. They carried signs that read “Keep Beverly Hills out of Boyle Heights” and “Gentrification is Urban Colonialism”. While their passion was evident, their message was lost on me. Coming from the suburbs, I had always understood gentrification to be a good thing. The narrative I had learned as a kid was that downtown was a dilapidated, dangerous place, that was only recently being cleaned up. That young people, a movement of “hipsters”, had rediscovered downtown, and began occupying warehouse lofts and apartments, once again bringing cultural significance to the area. I never once considered the communities they displaced in their wake.
A major social issue currently affecting my home city of Los Angeles is gentrification. Over the past few decades, citizens of the suburbs have regained an interest in venturing downtown, prompting developers to responded in force. Because of this, downtown has seen an explosion of condominiums and outdoor malls, all catered to the urban millennial. Though this investment is largely considered to be positive by the casual observer, in reality it is having adverse effects on the original occupants of these neighborhoods. Coupled with one of the worst housing shortages in the nation, as the property values in downtown increase, so do the rent prices, which is culminating in the poorest demographics of the city being pushed out of their homes.
One neighborhood in Los Angeles notorious for gentrification is Highland Park. Historically, the neighborhood was an enclave of Latino immigrants; however, in early 2000’s low rent and gallery spaces began to attract artists, and the popularity of the area only increased from there. On the KCRW podcast, “There Goes The Neighborhood”, host Saul Gonzalez describes one particular Highland Park apartment building, named the Marmion Royal, which aggressively took advantage of this housing demand. Following the remodel of the apartment, the the landlord decided to raise rent by 50%. As of early 2017, fifty of the Marmion’s original tenets had either left or been evicted to make room for young professionals. This particular case study is indicative of a larger shift in demographics of Los Angeles as a whole. In the last decade, the LA metro area experienced a net gain of 20,000 new residents with college degrees; the most popular professions being computer programmers and physicians. However, this came at the cost of a net loss of 250,000 residents, near or at the poverty line, who were effectively pushed out.
Gentrification is not only exacerbated by the arrival of new young professionals, but companies as well. Venice beach, a traditionally quirky neighborhood of single family homes, has seen explosion of development as well. Most of it, in recent years, being attributed to the relocation of Snapchat’s parent company Snap Inc. Rather than establish a corporate campus like Google or Facebook, the tech giant has instead opted to buy up numerous storefront properties all across the neighborhood. This has resulted in the commercial districts that once serviced Venice’s residents being transformed into dead office space. Snapchat has also installed a private security force to patrol the neighborhood and ensure the safety of its employees, escalating tensions between the company and residents even more.
As city planners shift their focus away from urban sprawl and toward urban development, both Highland Park and Venice Beach raise important questions about the future of American cities. Specifically, what rights do renters have to resist their rising rents, and what rights do residents have to preserve the cultural identity of their neighborhoods. About a year after witnessing the protest on the corner of Wilshire and Western, I joined the Los Angeles Mayor’s Youth Council. I debated these issues with other students my age and formed my own opinions regarding the scarcity of housing. When tackling the first question, Los Angeles should require affordable housing quotas in each new development. For example, if a developer proposes a ninety unit apartment building, at least thirty-four of the units must be rent controlled. While it is tempting to enact sweeping rent control across neighborhoods, they are notorious for discouraging investment, and Los Angeles needs all the new housing it can get. Considering the second question of identity, the preservation of a neighborhood should be dealt with on a case by case basis. It is up to each community and homeowners association to organize, and be their own biggest advocate. Los Angeles will never be, and should never be a static, museum city like Venice or Paris. At the same time, however, property takeovers like that of Snapchat should be avoided with respect to the residents. City planners facing this problem should follow a slow growth model that considers the unique character of each neighborhood. This would include considering the relativity of building height and number of units before approving a project. As populations continue to rise, it is inevitable that American cities will have to further develop their urban areas; however, it is morally just that they do so while respecting the original residents.
Abcarian, Robin. “They Discover, They Gentrify, They Ruin: How ‘Progress’ Is Wrecking Los Angeles Neighborhoods.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 19 July 2017, http://www.latimes.com/local/abcarian/la-me-abcarian-venice-density-20170719-story.html
Barragan, Bianca. “Locals Are Staging Protests at Snapchat, Demanding the App Leave Venice.” Curbed LA, Curbed LA, 1 Mar. 2017, la.curbed.com/2017/3/1/14778860/snapchat-protests-venice-beach.
“Cal Tenant Law.” LA Rent Control Made Simple, LARSO, http://www.caltenantlaw.com/LARSO.htm.
Gonzales, Saul. “There Goes the Neighborhood.” KCRW, http://www.kcrw.com/news-culture/shows/there-goes-the-neighborhood.
image: Pexels, Expect Best