Longtime residents of Boyle Heights have legitimate reasons to fear the market forces reshaping their neighborhood. Rents are already going up as more affluent people move in and property values increase. Tenant groups say landlords are evicting longtime residents and business in the hopes of making more money from new tenants. Demonstrations and activism are becoming more common — last month, 100 people rallied in support of mariachis and other tenants in danger of losing their homes — as neighborhood residents worry they may become outsiders in their own community.
This is not just a Boyle Heights problem. Communities all over Los Angeles are changing as young professionals move eastward chasing affordable houses to buy — and looking for the next cool neighborhood. From Venice to Koreatown to Echo Park to Downtown Los Angeles, neighborhood grocery stores and panaderias have given way to hipster coffee houses, artisanal ice cream parlors and vinyl record outlets. Apartment buildings have turned luxury and low-income renters have found themselves priced out of their neighborhoods.
In Boyle Heights, this tension has turned angry, leading to efforts to chase away businesses that may be the harbingers of gentrification — notably art galleries and coffee shops (though, curiously, not the local Starbucks). The demonstrations and online trolling have succeeded in at least one case: Earlier this year, the PSSST art gallery closed, citing the constant harassment. Now protesters have turned their attention to Weird Wave Coffee Brewers, a new business on Cesar Chavez Boulevard.
The demonstrators, to their credit, have focused attention on how gentrification benefits some people and crushes others, and, in so doing, have highlighted the feeble response from city officials to to the threat residents face from displacement. But even as they have taken on some tough issues, the demonstrators have also showed signs of an intolerance that threatens to undermine their own arguments.
For instance, the demonstrators at the coffee shop have passed out fliers calling it "White Wave" Coffee Brewers (although one of the owners is Latino). Another sign at the demonstrations mentioned the Ku Klux Klan and others made derogatory (and obscene) use of the word "white." The unfortunate decision to frame the gentrification debate in racial terms was made early on. A profanity about "white art" was scrawled on one of the art galleries targeted by the protesters. Latinos who defended the galleries or the coffee shop were derided as "coconuts." (Brown on outside, white on the inside.)
No doubt many of the higher income people moving into this mostly Latino neighborhood are white. But at its core, gentrification is an economic force, not a racial one, and low-income people of all races — especially those who rent rather than own — are at risk when they live in a newly hot neighborhood. It's also worth remembering that gentrification often comes with certain benefits; new residents bring in new businesses, which in turn can mean new jobs and other advantages for local residents.
Displacement due to gentrification is a serious issue. But activists would do more for their cause if they'd stop focusing on running new businesses out of town and alienating people with offensive racial comments, and take their signs instead to City Hall to demand more policies that help protect longtime residents and businesses in Boyle Heights from being forced out of their neighborhood.