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Gentrification divides Echo Park community in Los Angeles

Minority GroupsElectionsPoliticsRacismSocial Issues

In the span of three hours Tuesday night, the 21 men and women who form the Greater Echo Park Elysian Neighborhood Council found the time to accuse one another, loudly and publicly, of "whining" and "bullying," of racism and reverse racism, of violating the separation of church and state, and of cultural insensitivity.

Council President Jose Sigala was in dire need of a gavel, banging his pen on the table with increasing urgency while trying to shout down his out-of-order colleagues: "Mr. Cebada! Stick to the agenda!" "Mrs. Mendoza! There are children in the audience -- including your own!"

The audience at the school auditorium was no more civilized. One woman called a councilman an unprintable epithet.Sigala pleaded with another woman to wait to speak until a public comment period. "Rules?" she replied, incredulously. Sigala intimated that if she kept it up, she might have to be removed. She was 80 years old.

By 9:30, a councilwoman was slamming her palm on the table, pleading for one last vote -- on a $1,000 budget item that had been the source of more bickering. A school official flickered the lights, reminding them that once again they had gone past their allotted time at the school and forcing them, mercifully, to wrap it up.

"Well," Sigala said on his way out, without a hint of irony, "everyone decided to behave themselves tonight."

Considering how the council has behaved of late -- and that Echo Park is in the grips of a venomous dispute over gentrification and the future of the storied neighborhood -- he was right.

Power of the people

The Greater Echo Park Elysian Neighborhood Council is one of 88 neighborhood councils created in Los Angeles in the last nine years. Each is a junior varsity city council of sorts, with the ability to pass judgment on new development and other things, but its power lies largely in advising politicians who have real power.

The system was created with good intentions, to empower local neighborhoods that felt disconnected from City Hall.

But creating 1,500 new politicians was never going to be pretty. Some councils have degenerated into fiefdoms and glorified homeowners associations. There have been allegations of theft and brazen violations of open government laws. Echo Park is hardly the worst of the lot.

But the divide here is particularly resonant because at its heart is the sort of gentrification shaping so many neighborhoods in the interior of Los Angeles.

Echo Park was one of the first L.A. suburbs and, later, was the site of some the city's first white flight.Now, the Anglos are coming back -- white return? -- and in recent years, that has begun to redefine life in the ethnic enclave that developed in their absence. Latino businesses and families have been pushed out, largely by rising rents.

Construction proposals began popping up in the community, and many didn't look like the bungalows and cottages that had long peppered the hillsides of Elysian Heights, Angelino Heights and the neighborhoods around Dodger Stadium. They were condos.

Condos began to take on great symbolic meaning among some Latinos, because the perceived market -- younger people, many with money and without children -- did not look like Echo Park. Not like ethnic Echo Park, anyway.

Complaints were rising that the neighborhood council was rubber-stamping development with little regard for issues such as affordable housing.

"At the end of the day," Sigala said, "it was an issue of arrogance."

Latino leaders began looking at the makeup of the council, which in 2006, Sigala said, had one Latino but represented a neighborhood that was nearly 70% Latino.

"Race became a proxy," said Greg Morrow, an incoming member of the council's planning and land-use committee who is pursuing his doctorate in urban planning at UCLA and is building two homes he designed in Echo Park. "It became a proxy for the issues people were talking about -- for social change. Cities evolve, but when you get down to it, people are just not into change."

Line in the sand

The morning of June 12 started off pleasantly enough for Christine Peters, going to meet at a friend at Delilah Bakery on Echo Park Avenue.

Peters has lived here for 18 years, and she is the kind of activist that leaves you thinking, "I'm glad somebody does that stuff around here, and I'm glad it's not me." That morning, she walked in to hear another activist spitting through a description of a corrupt, racist politician who takes illicit money from developers. "I thought, 'My God, who is she talking about?' " Peters said. "Eventually it dawned on me, 'She's talking about me!' "

Earlier this month, after two years of rancor, leading candidates in the latest neighborhood council election divided themselves into two slates. Both made a variety of promises to voters. But there was no escaping the awkward fact that one slate, with Sigala at the top of the ticket, was made up almost entirely of Latinos; the other, with Peters at the top, challenging Sigala for the presidency, was almost entirely white.

Peters lost to Sigala, and her slate lost almost every race. Nine of the 10 people on Sigala's slate won their races. In two election cycles, the Latino community went from a single representative on the neighborhood council to a dozen, Sigala said.

Echo Park has a long and proud history of liberal politics; candidates on both sides considered themselves progressives committed to diversity and the working class. The caricature painted of those who lost, Peters said, was unrecognizable.

"People here seem to believe that because they are angry they don't have to be civil," Peters said. "From my perspective, we've lost a sense of community."

At this point, it is difficult to see how the two sides could come together.

This week, Peters and two allies challenged the results of the election with the Los Angeles city clerk. Their allegations included election notices mailed to the wrong addresses, mysterious bags of ballots brought to the polls and a flier distributed by the opposing slate that said it was the "official" poll guide, a misleading description, the challengers said.

It's little but sour grapes, said Francisco Torrero, the incumbent treasurer, who ran unopposed as a member of the winning slate.

"There was no hanky-panky," he said.

At the board meeting Tuesday, Councilman Augustine Cebada argued that the challenge itself was evidence of arrogance and racism. "Stop whining and crying!" he shouted. "It's over!"

Sitting in the audience, Morrow offered a weary smile. Morrow was among the losing candidates in the recent election, but he is still expected to serve on the planning and land-use committee, and he has acted recently as a liaison between developers and residents. At this point, he said with a sigh, "if you are neutral, you are treated with suspicion."

It will be difficult, Morrow said, for anyone to lay claim to the mantle of power, though many will try. Fewer than 800 people voted. And while in neighborhood council elections it is hard to estimate the number of potential voters -- the rules are more relaxed than in most elections -- it is believed that the council serves a minimum of 50,000 people. That means turnout was, at best, less than 2%.

"That's the thing," Morrow said. "Neither side can claim to really speak on behalf of the community."

scott.gold@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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