David Contreras sits alone in his rockabilly clothing shop in Boyle Heights. At first, he explains, he wanted an “atomic age” theme for his store, with Cadillac fins mounted on walls, stars on the ceiling -- sort of like a glamorous 1950s department store.
But he figured that would scare people away in the working-class neighborhood he grew up in before moving away to New York and then Silver Lake. So he went with a tiki-bar look instead, thinking it would be warmer and humbler. Some people still freak out when they walk in, he said, raising his clenched hands and contorting his face as if to impersonate a doomed woman on a vintage horror movie poster. People still stumble into his store, wondering where Frank’s TV repair shop went.
“Everyone thinks we’re gentrifying, but we don’t want to gentrify. We just want to be a cool place for people to hang out,” said Contreras, 49. “We’re like the Neiman Marcus of Boyle Heights! Everyone likes glamour. What’s wrong with that?”
Contreras’ store sits in an old, wedge-shaped brick building at Boyle Avenue and Whittier Boulevard, a crossroads of impending change on the Eastside. By next year, a new light rail line will be running a few blocks from his store -- the first foray of L.A.'s rail system into the eastern neighborhoods beyond downtown’s skyscrapers.
The Gold Line extension has long been hailed as a turning point for the predominantly Latino areas, “transit equity” for residents who heavily use mass transit but until now have had only one option: the bus.
But as the opening of the line draws closer, there is growing angst about how it will change development patterns in Boyle Heights and East L.A.
The construction of rail across Los Angeles over the last three decades has helped transform some neighborhoods. The area around the Red Line subway terminus in North Hollywood has become a hip arts and theater district with a growing skyline of loft and condo projects. The Red Line has also helped fuel the revival of Hollywood, with dense mixed-use developments popping up next to subway stations. The Blue Line helped foster downtown Long Beach’s resurgence.
But the Eastside is different. Residents there have much more ambivalent feelings about gentrification than the neighborhoods to the west and north. Some have high hopes for the Gold Line, expecting it to bring some of the better chain shops -- Borders, Trader Joe’s -- that have avoided the Eastside. Others are more suspicious, fearing that an influx of money and outsiders will change the area’s character and push out the poor.
“I would love to have a yoga studio that’s affordable,” resident Sandra Martinez, 40, said with a half-guilty laugh. “The problem with a yoga studio is when that moves in, that’s the end -- that’s the definition of gentrification.”
Even before the Gold Line started nearing completion, there were growing signs of change.
There’s a controversial proposal to knock down the working-class 1930s Wyvernwood Garden Apartments to make room for mostly market-rate condominiums and retail space. Developers have also been talking about transforming the 14-story Art Deco Sears, Roebuck & Co. building into a complex of condos, retail space and restaurants.
Experts said the addition of the light rail line, which will run from Union Station to East L.A., will accelerate development.
Rail lines mean access, which is valuable, said Lisa Schweitzer, a professor in the USC School of Policy, Planning and Development. Rail also means a bump in property values, she said, with land around the line becoming “perpetually valuable.”
Some developments are already planned with the Gold Line. That, experts say, will in turn become a catalyst for more development -- though the toughening economy could temporarily slow that down. Then there’s the fact that traffic is worsening in L.A. and people might want to move closer to the core of the city.
“Naturally, these neighborhoods will be gentrified,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who represents much of the Eastside. “But they will be gentrified overnight if we allow developers to.”
Diversity long gone
At various points, going back to the early 20th century, Jews, Russians, Italians, Japanese and Mexicans all called Boyle Heights and East L.A. home. The neighborhoods’ more than half a dozen old cemeteries -- including the Serbian Cemetery on 3rd Street, along the Gold Line route -- speak to the long-gone diversity.
By the 1960s, Boyle Heights and East L.A. had begun to cement themselves as the motherland for L.A.'s growing Mexican American community. The neighborhoods, always working-class, remained vibrant but became poorer with the infusion of immigrants.
Although Boyle Heights and much of the Eastside have been pocked with gangs, crime has declined sharply for several years. The housing boom that hit many parts of Southern California -- before the bust -- arrived in these neighborhoods a bit later, but they remained largely affordable.
Change didn’t stop, though; it only happened at a slower pace than in places including Silver Lake and Echo Park, cultural cousins to the neighborhoods east of the L.A. River. In recent years, large housing projects along 1st Street in Boyle Heights have been converted into town houses, with a mix of market rate and affordable housing. And a popular wine bar opened at Mariachi Plaza, which is being renovated as part of the Gold Line project.
East L.A.'s first Starbucks opened a few years ago.
Diana Tarango, 73, remembers when neighbors on her East L.A. street included Germans and Japanese. A third-generation Mexican American, Tarango said she misses the diversity and thinks the Eastside has too many discount stores, flower shops and taco trucks.
The Gold Line, Tarango said, will put the neighborhood on a fast track to change. “To me this is one of the best things that could happen to East L.A,” she said.
“Why do we have to go to Pasadena for a Borders? Don’t give me second-class retail,” she said. “Does everything have to be low-income? Why not build for people who can own homes now -- condos, town houses? Because when you own something, it becomes yours and you take pride in it.”
Tarango said that when she told her husband that maybe Trader Joe’s could come to East L.A., he replied, “You would be the only one shopping there.”
“I don’t think so,” she said. “I think if you offer it to people, I think they would buy into it. But if you don’t offer it, you’re being complacent. I’m 73, but I’m not complacent.”
But Lydia Avila-Hernandez, 25, of Boyle Heights worries that for all the good the rail line will bring, it will also highlight differences between many Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans over issues that include affordable housing, street vending and even taco trucks.
“Even my own friends I grew up with, I told one of them about the Gold Line and she said, ‘That’s good, then white people can come and make the neighborhood better,’ ” Avila-Hernandez said. “I told her, ‘How could you say that? Just because they’re Mexicanos doesn’t mean they’re bad.’ ”
Avila-Hernandez said the Gold Line, beyond its mass transit benefits, could be a very good thing as long as the community is involved and has a voice. Otherwise, she said, it could get divisive -- even without the wholesale movement of people from other parts of L.A.
Molina said it will be important that no matter what changes take place, there be “opportunities for people living there today.”
Whatever one calls it, change is necessary, she added. Molina said there’s no reason that over time people in neighborhoods like Boyle Heights and East L.A. should not be able to partake of some of the things that people in places like Arcadia and Temple City do.
“People don’t like always going to the corner liquor store for food products,” she said. “Everyone likes a Trader Joe’s. But change and opportunities have to be incorporated within the framework of the community there today, families that have been there forever.”
Sandra Martinez can see both sides of the gentrification debate. A Salvadoran American who works for a health foundation, she was priced out of Echo Park. A real estate agent was able to find a duplex for her and her sister in Boyle Heights, next to the new County-USC Medical Center.
Martinez quickly grew to like her new neighborhood, with its good eateries, which included not just Mexican restaurants but also a Salvadoran one and a Middle Eastern restaurant just a few blocks away.
She discovered the new wine bar, Eastside Luv, at 1st and Boyle. The trendy, popular homegrown bar represents a kind of meeting of the past and possible future of Boyle Heights -- a place where young professionals socialize next to Mariachi Plaza with its for-hire musicians.
Next to the wine bar, itself a reminder that what people call gentrification isn’t always an outside thing, is an old-school cantina, where lonesome-looking immigrant men with 10-gallon hats can be found hunkered over beers.
But though she liked some of the changes that happened in Echo Park, she found others unsavory and wouldn’t want them to befall her newly adopted neighborhood. She cites the time a record store opened in her Echo Park neighborhood and she went in to look for some Latin music.
“I was struck by the fact they didn’t have any, and I thought to myself, ‘That’s just rude!’ ” Martinez recalled. “I thought, ‘Where do you think you are?’ ”