For more than 50 years, it was the little cantina that could.
Las Palomas in Boyle Heights was a world of Mexican immigrants who drank earnest beers after a hard day of work. It wasn’t especially cool, even in the retro way that hipsters like to ascribe coolness to a place they think gives them the musky scent of danger.
But it had a knack for surviving, even after this western edge of 1st Street, with its sloping vistas of the downtown Los Angeles skyline, started to become cool. When the Eastside Luv wine bar moved in right next door, drawing young professionals — the children of immigrants — the barrio bar trucked on as a refuge for mariachis drinking their goodbye to another day.
Now, Las Palomas has turned off its lights for good. The neon signs flashing “Tecate” and “Corona” have been carted away by loyal customers. In this tiny corner of Boyle Heights at least, it’s Future 1, Past 0.
For years, Boyle Heights seemed a neighborhood cooped up in the still embryonic stage of gentrification, or “gentefication,” a term coined to reflect change driven substantially by Latinos with roots in the Eastside neighborhood.
Boyle Heights hasn’t seen close to as much gentrification as Silver Lake and Highland Park, or even neighboring Lincoln Heights, with a mostly Mexican American community but more ethnic, racial and socioeconomic diversity and a bigger stock of wood-framed 19th and early 20th century Victorian and Craftsman homes. But it’s hard to imagine a neighborhood that has featured a stronger line-in-the-sand pushback to gentrification.
“I think part of it is people getting pushed out of their other neighborhoods and coming here, and they don’t want that to happen here,” said Erick Huerta, who moved into the community when he was 7, left and later returned. “It’s like the last bastion. They’re holding down the flag.”
Conrado Herrera, the owner of the building that houses Las Palomas and also Eastside Luv, said the neighborhood is changing and business has to change with it.
“You always want to have a space for everybody in the community, but we’ve also got to deal with what’s in front of us,” said Herrera, who added that he’s from Boyle Heights.
Eight years ago, just as the Gold Line light rail was about to open along the spine of 1st Street, then L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina was blunt: “Naturally, these neighborhoods will be gentrified. But they will be gentrified overnight if we allow developers to.”
Once the landing spot not only for Mexicans but also for Japanese, Russians, Italians and Jews, Boyle Heights has long been perceived as a neighborhood sitting on the brink of the next metamorphosis.
In December, a group of university students that ventured into Boyle Heights on a walking tour was escorted out by activist group Serve the People LA, which blogged that the community “is under attack in the form of gentrification and therefore must be defended.”
The group described the visitors as “a diverse but mainly white group — including several urban planning students” from UCLA. Facundo Rompe, a member of Serve the People LA, said they met with the walking tour ahead of the incident to express concerns and ask them not to come into Boyle Heights.
“Our point is we have to defend Boyle Heights at all costs. If that means some people are going to get upset or feel threatened, so be it,” Rompe said.
Rompe, who uses an activist name, said he wants to see more people adopt strategies and tactics that are “more militant in confronting gentrification.”
But others in Boyle Heights say such measures are extreme and do not reflect the community sentiment.
Ralph Carmona, who has sat on the Boyle Heights Chamber of Commerce board for around 25 years, said “militancy is usually [pushed by] people who are not representative of the vast majority. Maybe people have some sympathy for it … but it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what’s going to make any impact.”
In the first 11 months of last year, the median sale price for homes in the 90033 Zip Code, which accounts for most of Boyle Heights, was $290,000, up 11.5% compared with the same period a year earlier, according to CoreLogic, a real estate data and analytics company based in Irvine.
Camilo Valentin, a Realtor who lives in Lincoln Heights and whose area includes Highland Park, El Sereno, City Terrace and Boyle Heights, said Boyle Heights still remains too rough around the edges for change to come too fast — despite dramatic declines in violent crime, including by gangs, over the last generation. But Valentin said change is inevitable.
At a recent open house in Boyle Heights, Valentin said about 80% of the people who came were white; the rest were Latinos. He added that some people “are willing to rough it out more or less, knowing that within the next three to four years, this is just going to change drastically.”
“Highland Park didn’t have a lot of resistance. That thing swooped in within a year,” he said of gentrification. “Everybody got caught kind of by surprise. Boyle Heights, that’s not happening because it’s very, very rooted.”
When the white owners of Indie Brewing Co. pitched a tasting room to the chamber’s board members, they brought their consultant, Ulisses Sanchez, who was raised in Boyle Heights.
“This is really a community process, especially here in Boyle Heights,” Sanchez told the board members. “There’s been a strong effort to protect the culture here.”
Indie Brewing Co.'s plans include community art on the walls of the tasting room; the company wants to meet with Boyle Heights organizations to raise the support needed to help get the OK for the tasting room from the city.
“We want to be accepted by the community, we don’t want to just try and steamroll our way in,” said Kevin O’Malley, part of the brewery team. “You can tell the community is very protective and there’s a lot of culture and history here.… We want to fit into the culture that’s here.”
Vanessa Baek said she remembered driving through Boyle Heights and seeing posters and other signs of anti-gentrification feelings. When she opened the Heights Deli & Bottle Shop last year on Broadway in Lincoln Heights, she heard murmured chatter about gentrification based on the selection of craft beer and wine. But Baek said she didn’t feel unwelcome, saying she was “kind of taken aback a little bit” by what she saw in Boyle Heights.
Las Palomas on 1st Street was a humble neighborhood bar, sure to be missed by a relatively small group of people. As far as change goes, it’s a ripple more than a wave. Just over the decade that he owned Las Palomas, Jose E. Morales said, he has seen this corner of Boyle Heights transformed.
“Diez años, aguantamos allí,” Morales said. “We held on for 10 years there.”