Janet Favela is making one of her regular visits to the Boyle Hotel. The 25-year-old organizer with East Los Angeles Community Corp. is carrying a stack of fliers in a brightly colored bag emblazoned with the image of Mexico City's famous Garibaldi Plaza, a popular destination for mariachis.
Favela walks through a gate shuttering the front door and proceeds up a long staircase in the four-story residential hotel, built in 1889. She proudly points out some of the changes her agency has made to the shabby Boyle Heights building: newly painted hallways, security cameras and clean bathrooms.
The nonprofit organization bought the hotel a year ago, promising to restore it from slum-like conditions while preserving it as an affordable residence. Most tenants are among the dozens of mariachi musicians who gather daily in the nearby Mariachi Plaza looking for work.
This day, Favela is handing out fliers about free tax preparation services offered by her agency. But when she knocks on doors, few tenants answer. When they do, they look at her skeptically, grab a flier and quickly shut the door.
It's been the same response for months. It doesn't matter whether East Los Angeles Community Corp. is offering free computer classes or inviting tenants to community meetings to solicit their input on the building's renovation. Residents distrust the nonprofit's promises to help them.
Favela, whose family was displaced years ago when Staples Center was built downtown, looks resigned as she leaves the building. She thinks her agency's efforts to renovate the hotel may be the last chance to preserve a community landmark as affordable housing.
"People don't see the urgency," she said. "This is our attempt at trying to keep a part of Boyle Heights alive."
In 2004, the mariachis waged a public battle over the fate of the Boyle Hotel, saying the evangelical congregation that owned it had allowed already dire living conditions to worsen.
When the nonprofit stepped in to buy the building, the move was greeted as a victory for local residents who worried about the tide of new development planned around the $900-million Gold Line commuter rail extension, which would include a plaza stop.
One year later, residents say the new owner is just as bad as the old -- pushing them out of the hotel by making living conditions unbearable. The tensions underscore the difficulties the agency has encountered in a community that fears the many changes gentrification brings, especially higher rents.
Musician Joel Ramirez, 67, who has lived in the building for 25 years, doesn't have much faith in the nonprofit's professed good intentions. "They're pretty much the same as the previous owners," he said. "They say they're going to fix things and they don't."
Agency officials said that improvements were being made to bring the building up to code but that the necessary disruptions have sparked fear and anger among residents. They said the $200 to $300 monthly rent that most tenants pay could double when the remodel is complete, but stressed that would still be affordable.
Isela Gracian, also an organizer for East Los Angeles Community Corp., acknowledged that all tenants might be temporarily displaced during renovations, which could take more than three years. The agency would try to help residents find housing nearby, she said.
"Even though they aren't going to be in the building for a certain amount of time, we still want them to be in the plaza," Gracian said.
The problems her nonprofit is grappling with are not unusual, housing advocates said.
"It doesn't matter if you did this in East L.A. or downtown or Brentwood, it would be the same," said Mike Alvidrez, executive director of the Skid Row Housing Trust, which has developed affordable housing downtown. "It's an intrusion into [tenants] lives. It is disruptive. None of us want to move from our homes, but sometimes for the greater good that's what has to happen."
For decades, mariachi musicians, dressed in their handsomely embroidered charro outfits, have gathered at 1st Street and Boyle Avenue, hoping to lure customers for a wedding or quinceanera. In 1998, the Mexican state of Jalisco, the birthplace of mariachi music, donated a stone kiosk built by local artisans to stand in what is now Mariachi Plaza.
It is the centerpiece of what city officials hope will one day be a flourishing cultural center and tourist attraction at the gateway to East Los Angeles. Development plans call for a 100,000-square-foot retail, office and residential project surrounding the plaza.
"This is going to be the hottest place in L.A.," said architect Frank Villalobos of Barrio Planners Inc., which helped design the plaza. "It's going to be the center of mariachi culture."
But whether the mariachis will be there to help celebrate the new development may depend on what happens at the Boyle Hotel.
When East Los Angeles Community Corp. bought the hotel, it pledged to raise $5 million to restore the building. The agency has a long and successful history of renovating and constructing affordable-housing projects.
"Our model as a nonprofit developer is to build based on community input," said Maria Cabildo, president of the agency.
But its team of organizers -- mostly young college graduates with a background in social activism -- has met with little success. Only a handful of residents ever attend tenant meetings.
Part of the problem, agency officials and residents concede, is that previous owners left a legacy of distrust. Asamblea de Dios, a Spanish evangelical congregation, bought the building in 2003, quickly renamed it Vista de la Plaza and began remodeling with little concern or input from tenants.
Some tenants who sued the church group said they were considering doing the same against East Los Angeles Community Corp. over deplorable living conditions.
"Rats run up and down the walls. They come inside our rooms and climb onto our beds," said Ramirez, the longtime tenant. He points to a hole in the foundation of the building. "The wood is rotted. The building is rotting. Water leaks through the ceiling."
The community agency also has failed to convince residents that some changes were for their benefit. After the nonprofit installed several security cameras, a group of tenants petitioned the owners to take them down. The agency refused and some of the cameras were stolen.
In January, six illegally built kitchens and a bathroom in occupied units were ripped out to comply with city housing codes, organizers said. Now residents use a communal kitchen and bathroom.
"I think what they want is to frustrate us to the point where we won't want to live here anymore," said Jose Raul Cortez, 65, another mariachi tenant whose kitchen and bathroom were removed.
Since it was established in 1996, the community organization has invested almost $70 million in housing and community development projects, organizers said. It's signature project is Lorena Terrace, which includes three apartment buildings with a large plaza. There is also a child care center and a community room with a striking view of the city's skyline.
As for the Boyle Hotel, organizers want to see its bricks restored to their original appearance and a long-missing cupola on the building's southeast corner replaced. Inside, they hope to establish a dry cleaner to care for mariachi uniforms and to build a fourth-floor community room with a view overlooking Mariachi Plaza.
But for the musicians who live in the hotel, such promises are hard to believe. Indeed, they said every day presents a new challenge.
Since construction started on the new rail line, the plaza has been practically inaccessible to motorists because of large barricades. The 1st Street Bridge is temporarily closed.
All of this makes it difficult for the mariachis to earn a living. But agency officials said the long-term benefits that the changes would bring to the community outweighed any temporary hardships they might create for the musicians.
"We knew it was going to be difficult but it was something we had to do," said Gracian, the organizer. "We weren't planning on this. . . . Sometimes it feels like, 'Did we do the right thing?' But at the end of the day, we did."