Column: Protesting a coffee house over gentrification fears is silly — and misses the point of L.A.

John Schwarz, co-owner of Weird Wave Coffee, assesses damage caused by a vandal who may have thrown a rock at the glass door of the coffee shop Wednesday morning
(Los Angeles Times)

The new coffee shop on Cesar Chavez Avenue in Boyle Heights was busy and steamy Thursday afternoon.

Busy because people seem to like its menu of food and beverages.

Steamy because a vandal had smashed the glass front door, and the air conditioner couldn’t beat back the mid-summer heat pouring in from the street.

So I ordered an iced coffee and settled in.


What drew me there was a story by my colleague Ruben Vives about the Boyle Heights anti-gentrification activists who have targeted Weird Wave Coffee, just as they’ve targeted art galleries that have moved into the area.

Protesters, calling for a boycott of Weird Wave, flashed signs with “[blank] White Coffee” and “AmeriKKKano to go.” On Wednesday, surveillance video showed someone in a black mask smashing the front door window.

What a bunch of hypocrites and cowards.

Leonardo Vilchis, left, hands out fliers to the community urging a boycott of Weird Wave Coffee Brewers in Los Angeles, Calif., on June 23, 2017. "We are concerned with rents being increased, and there is a trend of people being pushed out," said Vilchis.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

L.A. is always changing — not just in 2017

As everyone knows, Los Angeles is always changing, and has been for the last few hundred years. Before Boyle Heights was predominantly Latino, it was home to people of Jewish, Russian, Japanese, Portuguese, Croatian and Serbian descent.

Echo Park, Highland Park and the Arts District have been transformed, too. Displacement is real, with rising rents forcing mass movements of people across the city in a money-driven game of winners and losers, and I’ve written about that many times.

But you can’t easily reverse the phenomenon, or have any real impact with a race-based rant against a small independent coffee shop that moves into a vacant storefront and is embraced — as far as I could tell — by merchants and neighbors.

Two undercover cops, one Mexican-American, came in to show their support.


Marta Reyes, a regular, was greeted by name when she came in for a coffee.

“Everyone has to have opportunities to work,” said Adriana Gonzalez, who runs the travel agency next door to Weird Wave and stops by the shop a couple of times a day for a cafe con crema or a mocha. Trying to drive out white owners is a case of “too much racism,” she said.

Some merchants said they appreciate the business that might come their way with more foot traffic around the coffee shop. And Christina Torres of the Boyle Heights Historical Society dropped by to donate framed photos of the neighborhood’s early days. She said it was a way to welcome the new business, which opened in June, and to link the shop to a proud history.

The skyline of downtown Los Angeles as seen from Mariciachi Plaza in Boyle Heights.
(Los Angeles Times)

Is the Salvadoran coffee guy really the enemy?

The protest has a couple of ridiculous aspects to it.

First, one of the three owners of Weird Waves is Latino. Mario Chavarria was born in El Salvador. He owns and lives in a West Adams building where two tenants — Jackson Defa and John Schwarz — came to him with their coffee shop idea, and he put up the money to back them. They searched the entire city before finding a spot they liked.

“We have a five-year lease, so we’ve got to keep going for at least that long,” said Chavarria. “For whatever hate comes our way, there’s 10 times more support from the community.”

He said he tried to speak to protesters but didn’t get anywhere with them.


“They don’t like to engage,” he said. “They just like to hate.”

The other ridiculous aspect of this dispute is that Boyle Heights has a Starbucks, and the activists don’t seem to have a problem with it. Is there a more obvious symbol of outsider corporate establishment big-footing its way into neighborhoods, driving up rents and changing the local vibe?

When Christine Fimbres saw the story on the broken window at Weird Wave she drove straight to the coffee shop from her home in East L.A., marched up to the counter and ordered a brew.

She was livid, and adamant in her support of Weird Wave.


“I’ve been in this neighborhood for 54 years, since this street was called Brooklyn Avenue,” she announced, asking why, if the protesters care so much about the neighborhood, they don’t do something productive like sweep the streets.

The protesters included members of a nonprofit called Union de Vecinos, whose leaders were unavailable to meet with me before next week.

Seems to me their time could be better spent supporting and facilitating new business investment rather than attacking it, or campaigning for quicker movement on construction of affordable housing, particularly as City Hall weighs its options on that topic.

When protesters first showed up, co-owner Defa said he could identify with them because gentrification drove him out of San Francisco.


“I went out to talk to them,” he said, but he gave up when he was called a racist.

Street tacos and fancy coffee can coexist

Daniel Morales, the real estate man who rented out the storefront, said lots of people were interested, but only Weird Wave moved forward. He told me he’s sensitive to concerns about gentrification, but said L.A.’s history is about change. He pointed out that Canter’s Deli used to be near Weird Wave before moving west.

Morales said he suggested to the Weird Wave proprietors that they consider a more Latin-sounding name for their business. But co-owner Schwarz had a problem with that.

“I thought that would be insincere,” he said. “I didn’t want to be pandering.”


Besides, for all the stresses that come with gentrification, change and variety are among the things that make such neighborhoods the most interesting in L.A.

Weird Wave Coffee across the street from King Taco?

I’ll have a little of both, thank you.

Get more of Steve Lopez’s work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez



A community in flux: Will Boyle Heights be ruined by one coffee shop?

Vandal targets coffee shop at center of anti-gentrification protests in Boyle Heights

Abcarian: They discover, they gentrify, they ruin: How ‘progress’ is wrecking Los Angeles neighborhoods