At a 70-year-old department store on Broadway, a man in a Dodgers cap strode in to pay $150 off his line of credit.
“Hey Eduardo, que hay de nuevo?” Anthony Rocha, the proprietor, greeted him. “How are the kids?”
Eduardo Gomez, 63, had been buying his clothes here since 1972. He cashed his checks from his job at the Coca-Cola bottling plant for the 32 years he worked there and has kept a line of credit going into his retirement.
“He was my T-ball coach,” Rocha told us when we visited him one day.
Rocha, 35, just took over Don Jose’s department store last year, but his ties to it run much deeper.
His father, Jose, started working at what was then Frieden’s Department Store in his sophomore year of high school in 1959. An immigrant from Guadalajara, he quickly became manager and the face of the store, as Spanish speakers began to replace the Italian residents of Lincoln Heights. Jose Rocha greeted every customer by name and knew whether they needed school uniforms, work boots, nonslip restaurant shoes, Dickies pants, fedoras or Stetsons, or Florsheim wingtips for a wedding or quinceañera. He even visited the small town in coastal Mexico — San Juan de Abajo — where many of his customers came from. When Leon Frieden retired at age 91 in 2008, Rocha bought the store and renamed it Don Jose’s, and he ran it until he died.
The store has survived the era of big-box and online retail due to its roots in Lincoln Heights — the familiarity and loyalty customers feel, the quality stock catered to them, the short walking distance to many of their homes, the check cashing and the store credit for immigrants and working poor who can’t get a Visa or Mastercard.
When Donald Trump was elected president after a campaign of rhetoric against Latin American immigrants and threats to deport many of them, we decided to look at one predominantly Latino neighborhood to get a feeling of how residents were navigating in this new reality. We picked Lincoln Heights because it was one of the city’s oldest entry points for immigrants and is often overlooked in comparison to bigger Latino communities such as neighboring Boyle Heights.
We spent much of last year in the neighborhoods; two of us even moved in for a few weeks. We talked to seniors and students, immigrants and their children and grandchildren, newcomers and third-generation residents, police officers, teachers, activists, real estate investors, small-business owners.
It struck us how deep many people’s roots were in the community — how circumscribed their lives were to Lincoln Heights, as if it were a small town. They walked to work and class or took short bus trips. Many renters had lived in apartments for decades. Their children and even grandchildren went to the same schools they did: Sacred Heart, Cathedral, Lincoln High.
People living in the country illegally clearly feared Trump’s threats of deportation and were changing their behavior to avoid any contact with law enforcement. But it was not just they who feared being uprooted. A deep angst hung over nearly every longtime renter we met, including many of the ethnic Chinese residents who came from Vietnam after the war. With housing prices and rents soaring, landlords wanted them out. They wanted new tenants from elsewhere with the money to pay $2,500 a month for a renovated apartment so close to downtown.
Plenty of homeowners welcomed the change that money was bringing to the neighborhood, fixing up run-down homes and apartments, raising their property values. But others didn’t like to see people they had known for decades pushed away — parishioners in their church, sidewalk taco vendors, coaches at Lincoln Park.
We met elderly Chinese residents in a single-room-occupancy building who paid just over $350 each in rent and were facing eviction. Mostly widows and widowers, they had lived in the neighborhood for over 30 years and now, in their 80s and 90s on fixed incomes, could not afford even the smallest apartment. They didn’t even know how to look for one. The farthest they traveled was on the bus to shop, see their doctors and meet friends for tea in Chinatown. They feared they would be living on the streets.
We met Fidela Villasano in September at the McDonald’s on North Broadway that she’s walked to every morning for years. She told us she had to move out of the house where she’d lived since 1962.
She showed us the grapevine she tended, told us about her Sunday walks to Sacred Heart Church on Sichel Street and showed us the marker etched into a door frame every year in September marking the height of her great-grandson. The final mark was last year.
Through tears, she would ask us if there was any way she might be able to stay. She would pay a rent higher than the $640 she was paying, she said. It was hard to see her struggling to understand why she had to go, looking for an explanation from anyone.
Villasano left in January, to a two-bedroom house in Boyle Heights where she lives with six others. At night, she doesn’t sleep, unhappy in a place she doesn’t know. For weeks, she kept going back to Lincoln Heights with her granddaughter-in-law, stopping by the McDonald’s and sitting outside her old house.
The world is changing around them, and they can’t do anything about it. Landlords obviously have their own financial pressures and goals. It’s doubtful that any renter will be paying $350 a month for much longer — owners could not afford it. And newcomers are often young people priced out of much of the city, just looking for an affordable place to live. Some of them expressed feelings of ambivalence about being part of a vanguard critics see as colonizers.
Whether the mass deportations will hit Lincoln Heights is unknown at this point. The economic situation for many immigrants is so bad here, many wonder if they should have come in the first place, as they hear of siblings and cousins buying cars and nice homes back in Mexico.
In many ways, Lincoln Heights still harks back to an older Los Angeles, where people didn’t roam as far for work, school and entertainment, where little towns like it made up a city.
Anthony Rocha attended Sacred Heart Elementary and Cathedral High School, just like his father did and just like his own children will. He joined the Marines and fought in Iraq and Afghanistan before coming back here to settle with his family. He likes that Broadway is cleaning up, that shuttered storefronts are opening. But he fears that catering to newcomers with more money will drive up rents and push older stores out. He’d rather see those businesses stay and adapt to the changing times.
As it is, the old and new operate in the same geography but often in different worlds. Rocha, like many others, would rather see those worlds converge than the new one just drive the old one away.
Credits: Produced by Andrea Roberson