Auto culture in Northeast L.A. hit with a change

Growing up next door to Chuy Carburetors in Cypress Park meant Christian Martin got his bicycle tires filled up by brotherly mechanics and, when he got older, his car battery jumped for free.

Over the years, additional mom-and-pop auto shops cropped up in his neighborhood, just north of where the 110 and 5 freeways intersect, and Martin, 30, says he’d welcome more.

“It’s convenient, and they’re local so they won’t try to rob you,” he said. “They’re just part of the neighborhood.”

But now an L.A. City Council decision to ban new auto-related business from opening in the area and force existing shops to come up to code has stoked debate about what exactly belongs in Cypress Park and adjacent Glassell Park.

Although many in the working-class district dominated by Latino, Filipino and white families would like to shake the image of being a beltway for commuter traffic and a haven for gang violence, the specter of gentrification has created an identity dilemma.

No one argues that the dilapidated mechanic shops, smog test stations, salvage yards and auto body garages that line the main thoroughfares of the two neighborhoods are attractive. But the ban has some residents feeling that an industry that has long supported the community is being unfairly targeted.

“I think we’re being run off,” Guillermo Villanueva Jr. said as he stood inside his tiny auto repair shop, the leather on his boots worn down to the steel toes.

Twenty years ago, Villanueva, 35, persuaded his father to turn his side job of working on cars in the alleyways into a legal family business that catered to a low-income clientele. Business never boomed at the shop on the San Fernando corridor, and switching from operating under the table meant worrying about costly permits and potential city fines. The Villanuevas are in favor of sprucing up the place, but their budget is tight. During one recent upgrade effort, they ran out of money shortly after prepping the walls for a new coat of paint.

It doesn’t help that it feels as if the city has put them under a microscope.

“I kinda got the feeling they don’t want us here,” Villanueva said. “But this has always been an industrial area.”

Since the Northeast Los Angeles Community Plan was adopted in 1999, there’s been a slow push to make the neighborhoods more pedestrian-friendly. Among the efforts have been the 40-acre Rio de Los Angeles State Park built on Taylor Yard, a former freight-switching facility, and plans for a Glassell Park high school, both of which require more walkable surroundings, Councilman Ed Reyes said.

“By phasing out these auto-related uses that are outdated, we bring forward new opportunities to change the landscape, build up trees, shrubs, landscaping,” he said. “And it helps neutralize the thousands of cars that travel through that neighborhood every day.”

Reyes, who grew up in Cypress Park, said he’s had numerous residents complain about the odor of oil and chemicals that float into their homes, as well as noise pollution. And he believes the rows of rusted metal gates, barbed wire and littered car parts beget only more trash from outsiders who make the area their private dumping ground.

“There is literally no respect for our streets,” he said.

Gustavo Lizarde, 50, who owns an auto repair shop on Figueroa, worked with Reyes’ office on the zone changes and feels they are reasonable.

“We are over-saturated,” Lizarde said. “There has to be some order. We had to get to a point where the zone changes would help the neighborhood now and into the future, and it had to be lenient enough to let us continue to work in the automotive field.”

When Lizarde tried to organize neighborhood meetings to tell shop owners about possible code violations, only a handful showed up. Although he empathizes with struggling storefronts, he said he’s suffered from having to compete with the bargain prices of non-compliant shops.

But it’s a delicate discussion when it comes to improving the area’s design standards.

“We’ve tried to get a cafe or a bank and they say, ‘There’s no eye candy here, what’s the draw?’ ” said Rourk Reagan of the Greater Cypress Park Neighborhood Council. “How are we going to get a restaurant or store if they’re going to be next to a tire shop? Still, we don’t want to punish the people that are already here.”

The zone modifications single out auto-related businesses, but residents say they should apply to all businesses. And the general consensus among community members is that, in the end, little will change.

“It’s true there are pretty garish visuals on the side of a lot of these buildings, so the question was, ‘OK, who’s going to go enforce this stuff?’ ” Tony Butka of the Glassell Park Neighborhood Council said. “What resources are going to be made available for the people who own these businesses to come up to code? What’s the plan? We have no idea what the answers are.”

Butka thinks the zone changes are a bureaucratic initiative meant to appease a community that is divided by three different City Council districts.

“What that means is nobody has to pay any attention to it,” he said.

While many may not want the unglamorous auto industry to define the area, Ed Ramirez, manager of a used car lot on San Fernando, said it represents residents’ livelihoods.

“Those tire businesses and smog checks -- they lend a lot of jobs to people in the community,” he said. “What are you going to do? Take all the auto businesses and put them out in the country? Everybody wants to be Beverly Hills. This has been a working-class area for years, and I don’t see it changing.”