It was a cool night east of the Los Angeles River as the poet mounted the stage and grabbed the microphone. He cleared his throat and with these words, he drew the line:
You are not the Eastside
If you look at the downtown skyline and city hall is on your left
You are not the Eastside
It’s a simple geographical fact
A battle of the Eastsides has been taking place in this city of blurry boundaries, a grudge match to reclaim a title some say a hipper crowd has stolen from the Chicano heart of Los Angeles. And with this month’s poetry slam, Rafael Cardenas and eight other poets told those also using the Eastside name -- Echo Park, Silver Lake, Los Feliz and downtown --that they’re fed up. Time for a throw-down.
Before a packed crowd in a Boyle Heights wine bar, appropriately called Eastside Luv, they came to claim their turf. Their hands sliced the air with each stanza. Their tones rose and fell with emotion. They called the other Eastsiders trendsetters, invaders and liars. The audience, awash in the bar’s red glow, hollered back in approval.
“It’s about time they heard the truth from the real Eastside,” said Xavi Moreno, 25, as he applauded the performers.
The protest is no mere issue of semantics. It’s a threat to their community’s identity, the Eastsiders said.
They argue that the term “Eastside” is synonymous, in California and beyond, with the Chicano movement; home to working-class immigrants and the city’s first Latino mayor in more than a century.
It’s the Eastside of social justice battles in the 1960s, Spanglish and taco trucks. In pop culture, it’s the Eastside of Los Lobos and Cheech Marin’s parody song “Born in East L.A.” It’s Mariachi Plaza, Garfield High School and El Tepeyac Cafe.
And the longtime, indisputable dividing line between east and west, the original Eastsiders said, remains the Los Angeles River.
About a decade or so ago, outsiders began arriving west of the river.
They settled beyond the skyscrapers and up the road, where Cesar E. Chavez Avenue yields to Sunset Boulevard. Boutiques and art galleries soon pushed out many discount stores and mini-marts.
The newly gentrified area started to collectively call itself the Eastside -- as in east of the riches of the Westside. Their east-west dividing line is Western Avenue or La Brea Avenue, even La Cienega Boulevard.
“For us, Eastside means we’re not our parents. We’re not the white picket fence, the Mercedes, we’re not the Westside,” said John Gary, a 33-year-old screenwriter who has lived in Silver Lake for 12 years.
As he sat in the patio of Intelligentsia, a hip Silver Lake cafe, he agreed that the two Eastsides are different. But they can still claim the same name.
Residents east of the river “were fighting for cultural identity, discrimination and history,” Gary said.
“We’re not fighting for those things, but are we still Eastsiders? Yes.”
Indeed, the new Eastside brand has gained popularity over the years in restaurant reviews, magazine features and real estate listings.
More recently, it has picked up momentum on community blogs, tour maps and concert posters.
And to the musicians, writers, actors and other professionals who have flocked there, they are all Eastsiders. There are Eastside Petsitters, Eastside Surfers, Eastside Real Estate and Eastside Studios, and for years, locals came together for an Eastside Art Crawl.
“This is the Eastside,” says Silver Lake resident Brandon Schwartzel, looking puzzled. “What else would it be?”
All the name-branding has reached such a pitch that some are calling the new Eastside a sham.
“If they’re the Eastside, then what are we?” asks Cardenas. “The far east? They take us off the map. They eliminate us.”
The 37-year-old lifelong East L.A. resident was shocked into action a few weeks ago after he saw an advertisement in an alternative weekly promoting a new Eastside boutique clothing store.
“At first I thought, ah cool, we have a new store,” he said. “Then, I look to see they were talking about Silver Lake.
“That’s when I realized I had to do something.”
Many, like Cardenas, are determined to put an end to the nomenclature rivalry.
They police the Internet -- blogs, news articles and networking sites -- correcting or clashing with anyone who claims the wrong Eastside.
A year ago stickers declaring “This Is Not the Eastside!” were mysteriously plastered on telephone poles and sidewalks along Sunset Boulevard. A group of bloggers from www.laeastside.com also nabbed a stack of tour guides that said “Eastside” and, in symbolic protest, burned them during a potluck party.
Attempting to settle the score, one blogger e-mailed Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa last fall and asked him, “As an Eastsider, how you would define the boundaries of the Eastside neighborhoods?”
No comment from the mayor.
Further complicating names, the new Eastsiders tend to say “East L.A.” when referring to neighborhoods east of the river. But East L.A. is actually a community with legal boundaries, an unincorporated section of Los Angeles County that is one part of the overall Eastside.
City officials have historically shied away from setting neighborhood boundaries. Even those who call themselves true Eastsiders disagree over the Eastside’s footprint.
Unincorporated East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights are definitely in, but El Sereno? Lincoln Heights? And what about the more affluent parts of Mount Washington and Highland Park?
Depends who you ask -- just don’t go west of the river.
The protesters can claim at least one victory: Late last year organizers of the Eastside Art Crawl changed the name to Silver Lake Art Crawl.
“For three months, we dealt with it,” said Brady Brim-DeForest, a former Silver Lake gallery owner who runs the Art Crawl.
“Any time we’d make an announcement, the anonymous e-mails and complaints would start coming in.”
But wins such as those are rare. Protesters usually find that new Eastsiders are oblivious or blase about the issue. Few of them, it seems, travel east of the river and wouldn’t know Self-Help Graphics from Casa 0101.
Many newcomers are transplants from other parts of California or far-off states whose worlds revolve around Hollywood and West L.A., the 10 and 405 freeways. Other settlers have been priced out of the Westside.
“What matters is their mental map: where they live, where they drive, what their social connections are,” said Jason McDaniel, who teaches political science at Scripps College. “We just have to be careful to not ignore entire communities because of our limited geography.”
McDaniel, a longtime resident of Silver Lake, stopped calling himself an Eastsider several years ago after delving deep into the original Eastside’s past for his dissertation.
“I wanted to respect and acknowledge that history,” he said.
But some new Eastsiders don’t see what all the fuss is about.
“I don’t think people here are trying to pretend to be East L.A. to be edgy,” said Jill Gully, who moved to the Echo Park-Silver Lake area four years ago from Utah. “They’re two completely different neighborhoods.”
It is understandable why original Eastsiders might feel threatened by their new namesake, said Jaime Regalado, executive director of Cal State L.A.'s Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs.
But there’s little to fear.
“It would be hard to overshadow what East L.A. is,” he said. “With all its warts and roses, that identification known to the majority of L.A. is not going to fade.”
The poets aren’t so sure.
“We have to promote the Eastside,” said Ruben Funkahuatl Guevara, a longtime steward of Chicano culture in Boyle Heights.
“We have to develop our own neighborhoods.”
Wearing a “Boyle Heights: Free!” T-shirt and thick-rimmed glasses, the 66-year-old steps up to the microphone with three poems in hand. He begins his haiku:
East of the river
A community fights back
East of the river
A community fights back