Market forces threaten market


The sign was posted in the window by a loyal supporter when Evelia was away from her little grocery store, El Batey, on vacation.

We Love You Evelia

Always Happy 2008

We Support the Market

You already know the story.

The mom-and-pop operation gets crushed, yet again, by the corporate steamroller or some other cold-blooded agent of greed.

Happened in Larchmont Village, where the little hardware store is kaput and Sam’s Bagels is under the cleaver, thanks to rising rents.


It’s also happened, no doubt, in your neighborhood, too.

Evelia’s chapter of the story is in Echo Park, and today may be her day of reckoning. She’s slated to meet with the owner of her building and find out how much her rent will jump.

Evelia is more than the clerk at the register.

She’s history. She’s community. She’s block mother.

For 41 years, the market has been in her family. Her daughter owns the place, but for the last 17 years, Evelia has greeted everyone who passed into her labyrinth of pancake mix, spiritual trinkets and dust-covered kitchen utensils.

No money? No problem.

Into her accounting book you go. And bring the $30 with you when you have it.

El Batey is part general store, part time machine. Soft drinks from El Salvador and Mexico and bags of dried chiles take you back to when the area had many more new immigrants. But the neighborhood changed long ago, to a more gentrified mix of this and that.

Nearby merchants, the gallery owners and boutique proprietors who gentrified the small stretch of Echo Park Avenue, are quivering at the thought of losing their spiritual anchor. Echo Park blogger Jenny Burman, who lives nearby, says the support for Evelia isn’t just about sentimentality -- it’s about embracing history and preserving a sense of place.

But of course newer arrivals are the very ones helping to drive up the rent, and when gentrification comes, it’s always hard to find a balance between old and new. Unfortunately for the People’s Republic of Echo Park, there is no fence high enough to keep out the capitalist insurgents.

The property manager, on the other hand, doesn’t understand what all the squawking is about.

“We don’t want for her to leave,” said Sergio Garcia, who manages the storefronts and apartments in Evelia’s building. “All we want is to . . .”

He pauses, then comes upon the perfect phrase.

“This is a business.”

Of course it is. And as Evelia and other merchants on the block readily concede, they probably had been paying artificially low rents for years when Arcadia-based Positive Investments bought the property a few years ago.

Business is business, and Evelia gets that. But she’s heard that her 1,500-square-foot space could go from just under $1,000 a month to double or triple that amount.

Is that fair?

“I don’t think it will be that much,” Garcia said.

The former pro wrestler’s tiny office is an odd shrine to the masked warriors of the Mexican spectacle called Lucha Libre, which was depicted in the comedy “Nacho Libre.” I realized there might be a risk in haggling with a former grappler who still has several of his masks on the wall, so I asked Garcia for his boss’ number.

I’m still waiting for Kumar Koneru to call me back.

Next I called L.A. City Council President Eric Garcetti with what seemed at the time like a good idea. Couldn’t he get to work on some kind of a commercial rent control ordinance so that longtime tenants don’t face gargantuan increases? Increases, I might add, that can only be paid by national chains that come in and crush the soul of neighborhoods.

“I don’t think government knows how to regulate commercial rents very well,” said Garcetti, who was reluctant to mess with market forces. Besides, he said, in ever-evolving Los Angeles, the death of one independent business often leads to the birth of another that better suits the neighborhood.

The city’s role is to make shopping districts more attractive to customers with street improvements, he said, and help merchants beat back crippling bureaucratic hassles. He also volunteered his staff to offer Evelia advice on how she might retool her business to bring in a few more bucks.

“Maybe I should sell soy milk or some organic things,” Evelia offered, conceding that the neighborhood long ago went crunchy on her.

Change will be tricky because, quite frankly, Evelia would prefer to keep things the way they are. But unless the building’s owner goes easy on the rent increase, neither her sense of tradition nor her supporters’ sense of nostalgia may be enough to keep El Batey open.

So what about this: Maybe there’s a way to carve up Evelia’s space and persuade her to share it with other merchants who would also share the rent.

Evelia told me she was reluctantly open to the idea, especially if she shares the space with just one other merchant. But with so much artistic creativity in Echo Park, and oodles of love for Evelia, there’s got to be a way to re-imagine the space as an arcade that’s part farmer’s market, part crafts and art gallery, part bookstore and part grocery store, with Evelia in place as queen of the parade.

By night, when Evelia is home resting up for the next day, there could be poetry readings, live music and movies, or something along the lines of Luis Rodriguez’s Tia Chucha’s Cafe Cultural in Pacoima.

Come on, Evelia. Starting something new doesn’t mean letting go of the past.

And good luck with today’s meeting.

“It’s in God’s hands,” Evelia told me the other day. “I was praying when you walked in.”