During the early 1970s in Boyle Heights, decades before the neighborhood came under public limelight for its fight against gentrification, residents pressed city planners to ensure the Mexican barrio was preserved within the Boyle Heights Community Plan. As part of planning director Calvin Hamilton’s citizen-planning efforts, Community Plans were rolled out throughout Los Angeles to reverse the historic top-down planning practices, which in Boyle Heights had led to a significant loss of housing stock. Industrial expansion, followed by intensive freeway construction during the 1940s through the 1960s, rendered countless city blocks repurposed by planners for land uses other than housing. Through his work preparing the Boyle Heights community plan, the city’s first Chicano planner, Raul Escobedo, helped preserve the barrio’s existing stock of inexpensive housing and sought to protect it against expanding downtown redevelopment. This essay examines how discussions over the future of the barrio have persisted over decades among city officials and residents since the 1960s and 1970s.
In urban sites across the postwar U.S., strategies and solutions addressing “blight” gave points of frequent contention between working class residents of color and local civic and business leaders. For the latter group, “blight” entailed a combination of physical, social, and economic conditions that all worked cohesively to inhibit the economic growth or development of an urban area or community. Where some references to blight alluded to substandard housing, dilapidated structures, and depressed property values, others signaled the presence of poverty and “related social problems.” Despite the broad definitions, the remedy of urban renewal aimed to ameliorate social, economic, and physical conditions in these neighborhoods. Over time, as public criticism to urban renewal projects increased, local government strategies to address blight varied. For example, after being labeled as areas reflecting blight, residents of Bishop, Palo Alto, and La Loma (collectively known as Chavez Ravine) and Bunker Hill all experienced removal through the demolition and clearance of “slum” housing. In contrast, despite receiving a similar appraisal by city officials, Boyle Heights was considered eligible for “conservation and rehabilitation” by city planners. While part of the broad power of urban renewal projects, this lesser known component cast Boyle Heights as redeemable without demolition—thus savable from the threat of blight. Yet the question of whom would benefit from the subsequent upgrading of the community remained an ongoing debate.
Community Planning in Los Angeles
Arriving in L.A. during the early 1960s, Planning Director Calvin Hamilton had been recruited by Mayor Sam Yorty to, for the first time in city history, bring the city’s varying land uses under one coherent, city-wide general plan. However, shortly after he began the massive overhaul of city planning, the 1965 Watts Riots took place and captured the urban imagination. For Hamilton, these events underscored the need to include historically excluded communities of color into citywide planning efforts. Reflecting on the impact of the Watts Riots, one city planning official noted the event had, “[shook] to pieces the image of a gay, carefree Los Angeles… and jolted… Angelenos into an awareness of their city’s urbanhood.” However, planners were not the only group re-conceptualizing the role of marginalized groups in planning. Civic groups such as the Community Relations Conference of Southern California (CRCSC) fought to pressure planning practices to include “racial and ethnic minorities, youth, the elderly, renters, the disabled, health and welfare groups, human relations and housing groups.” Together, these efforts compelled planners to assess the enduring impact of postwar racial segregation and counter it with newfound innovative community planning efforts.
Community plans, then, were developed to break away from conventional top-down planning approaches and include otherwise overlooked Angelenos in the process. Although citizen participation in neighborhood planning was readily encouraged in predominantly white, non-blighted neighborhoods, community plans functioned as the first efforts to solicit and collect barrio residents’ input in city planning processes. In this way, these initial community plans and the background reports they generated began to serve as important records of collective community participation in city-led planning efforts. Moreover, these documents function as important artifacts to evaluate relationships between communities of color and city planners over time. Indeed, this relationship has remained a constant site of tension, directly shaping quality of life for communities of color in Los Angeles.
“Boyle Heights is Worth Saving”
Despite variations in discourse and approaches towards urban blight, addressing blighted places remained a priority for local political and business leaders. Shortly after the construction of Dodger Stadium broke ground on the site where Chavez Ravine once stood, the then councilmember for District 9 (which included Boyle Heights), Edward R. Roybal, observed blight remaining as “one of the most insidious problem[s] confronting the cities of our nation.” Business leaders similarly viewed blighted areas as issues of primary concern for their perceived negative effects on the economy, labeling such locales as “festering sores on the body politic.” In the context of an enduring consensus over the need to relieve blighted areas, the declining popularity of urban renewal by demolition encouraged planners to rethink conventional approaches and thereby consider efforts such as rehabilitation and citizen-oriented planning.
With memories of invasive freeway projects and the razing of neighboring barrios remaining fresh in the minds of many, planners’ citizen-centered approach made for a hard sell for residents of Boyle Heights.
Identified by the L.A. Community Analysis Bureau as one of the most blighted areas in the city, city planners sought to reverse blight in Boyle Heights through competing processes of rehabilitation and community planning. With memories of invasive freeway projects and the razing of neighboring barrios remaining fresh in the minds of many, planners’ citizen-centered approach made for a hard sell for residents of Boyle Heights. As a local resident and Chicano, city planner Raul Escobedo became a cultural broker for the largely white city planning department and their planning endeavors in Boyle Heights. Escobedo’s work on the Boyle Heights community plan utilized his planning expertise, as well as his connection to the cultural and political context of the Chicano movement fifty years ago. One of which was a necessary relationship to include residents’ input for the Boyle Heights Community Plan.
Despite initial mistrust for city planning efforts in their community, Escobedo successfully encouraged barrio residents to participate in significant numbers, in part, by validating their fears of displacement and, simultaneously, providing insight to the citywide planning processes. Residents’ concerns were recorded as part of the community plan prepared by Escobedo and included issues related to protecting Boyle Heights from encroaching downtown development and safeguarding the neighborhood’s inexpensive housing stock for existing and future working class residents. Similarly, Escobedo utilized the legacy of exclusion inherited by Boyle Heights to contextualize Boyle Heights residents’ fears, concerns, and demands to his city planning colleagues. As the Chicano city planner bridged these two distinct worlds, residents also attempted to make sense of new citizen-oriented planning in the context of concurrent projects that sought to transform planning on a citywide basis and, simultaneously, redevelop downtown.
In 1973, residents like Rosalio Muñoz noted that “both the City and County of Los Angeles are presently completing new [plans] which call for further development of this new cosmopolitan center [including] plans to redevelop the surrounding neighborhoods to accommodate projected workers and shoppers for the [downtown area].” For Eastside residents like Muñoz the development of downtown and the surrounding areas threatened existing barrio land uses, as he expressed, stating that “all of this [planned] development has been and is projected to be right on top of what is already the most ideal urban setting for the Chicano.” Such responses to city planning were common in the political imagination of residents who held fast to memories of Federal bulldozers of urban renewal that had disappeared neighboring Mexican barrios. A year after Munõz shared his perspective on citywide planning, Francisco Mendoza argued that the community plan offered “a way of preparing [Boyle Heights] for the outright attack and displacement of thousands of people.”
Despite this hesitancy, efforts by Raul Escobedo and Boyle Heights residents succeed in composing and introducing a community plan reflective of community members. The final community plan allowed veteran city planners to recognize the barrio’s significance as “the only viable economic alternative as to where [families of limited income] can afford to live.” Moreover, Escobedo’s efforts convinced his senior planning colleagues to alter plans to demolish old housing stock and, instead, preserve it. To ensure the character of the community into the foreseeable future, Escobedo recommended residential areas be rezoned to the lowest residential density. Affirming these recommendations, the planning director concluded that “the continued involvement by community residents proved, indeed, that Boyle Heights is worth saving.” In a sense, this conclusion not only expressed the value of saving Boyle Heights from blight, but also saving it from downtown redevelopment.
However, by the time the Boyle Heights Community Plan was adopted in the late 1970s, downtown redevelopment took precedence as the Federal government moved away from investing in cities and neoliberalism took hold within the urban political economy. In 1975, Bradley had warned Angelenos that in the absence of intense redevelopment the downtown core would fall victim to the “urban cancer” of blight. In the 1980s, Bradley followed through on his promise of revitalizing the area and the planning department followed suit by prioritizing its redevelopment, and by abandoning staff and resources to develop community plans and similar citizen-driven projects. For barrio working class and residents of color of Eastside who were often renters and immigrants, the Tom Bradley administration’s move away from community plans re-instilled concerns over future displacement.
Defending Boyle Heights
Since downtown development became the priority over community planning, city planning had remained out of sync with local residents’ concerns. Community members continued to fight for safe streets, improved schools, and adequate city services, even as political leaders advanced policies that regarded Eastside barrios as blighted and populated by politically apathetic residents. Examples of this would be the selection of East Los Angeles as an appropriate site for a prison and Vernon as a suitable location for a hazardous waste incinerator. Viewed as having direct negative effects on the quality of life in their respective neighborhoods as well as Boyle Heights, these two projects were subject to community protests. Led by Mothers of East Los Angeles (MELA) and religion-based community allies, the ensuing social movement that took place during the mid to late 1980s challenged city and private developers’ policies and practices, which continued to link communities of color with land uses detrimental to residents’ health and safety. In 1996, this grassroots type of activism continued through the organizing efforts by residents of the Pico Gardens and Aliso Village public housing projects. Here, women demanded the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) promise the provision of low-cost housing units for displaced residents who wished to remain in the housing community. While organizing efforts secured a higher number of affordable housing units that would have otherwise been constructed by HACLA, the demolition of the Pico-Aliso public housing community resulted in a net loss of low-cost housing units. Both MELA and the women of Pico Gardens and Aliso Village housing project transformed conventional narratives of their neighborhoods from “blighted” to dignified residential areas populated by citizens who were on a mission to secure a healthy environment for all families.
Although community plans have been dismissed as powerless planning documents they represented, in the case of Boyle Heights, the opportunity to reverse the historic tide of top-down planning and bring historically excluded communities into the city planning fold presented itself for the first time. Community plans also expanded planning processes to engage community residents by hiring culturally and politically informed planners to help connect to the community residents—in this case, Chicano Planner Raul Escobedo. As a result, residents interpreted community plans as an occasion to achieve political inclusion. In doing so, residents maintained a commitment to a multitude of strategies that would ensure community-wide improvements in the quality of life. In a local weekly, local resident Francisco Mendoza argued, “This [community] plan is only one thing that we have to defeat or change for the benefit of not the rich, but for the working people in our community. Those are only some of the reasons for uniting against the attacks and the exploitation of our community, and of all the working people which produce this country’s wealth.”
Presently, as community plans throughout Los Angeles undergo their scheduled updates, the history between these planning projects and their relationship to marginalized communities provides beneficial insights for politicians, planners, and residents alike.
First, the historical context underscores how local histories remain ever-present in the political and social landscape in which residents live their daily lives— an awareness quickly lost in public debates regarding the future of the neighborhood. Second, foregrounding this history acts as a temporal touchstone for barrio residents across generations to assess how contemporary needs in the barrio have changed or remained the same over time and how they have rearticulated strategies for inclusion. For example, inexpensive housing options, and affordable rents in particular, are increasingly scarce in today’s housing market—an issue identified in city planning documents since the early 1970s and one that has progressively worsened. In evaluating the community plan processes, it also illustrates how activism and community involvement in local politics was part of a protracted struggle for the complete cultural and political inclusion of Latinx communities since fifty years ago—and one that continues to the present. Finally, considering the Boyle Heights Community Plan in relation to the long history of political disenfranchisement in Los Angeles barrios reveals the enduring power relations, which inform contemporary discussions of neighborhood change, even if these power relations go unacknowledged or at times denied.
Presently, the barrio remains a largely renter-oriented neighborhood at seventy-five percent since the community plan was adopted, rendering a majority of the population vulnerable to rising rents and real estate speculation often complementing gentrification.
Current debates regarding gentrification in Boyle Heights, then, bring barrio residents’ longstanding concerns over displacement into the present day. Boyle Heights’ history of providing inexpensive housing for working class (often immigrant) residents continues to be targeted, presently by gentrification and an ever-tightening housing market. In a post-Great Recession context, renters disproportionately share the cost-burden of rising housing costs across the nation. In Los Angeles, the lowest-income renters are severely cost burdened, paying up to seventy percent of their income for rent. Presently, the barrio remains a largely renter-oriented neighborhood at seventy-five percent since the community plan was adopted, rendering a majority of the population vulnerable to rising rents and real estate speculation often complementing gentrification.
City-led efforts to save affordable housing and the working class character of Boyle Heights in the face of downtown redevelopment has continued for so many decades that contemporary activists are picking up the “anti-displacement-baton” with local groups such as Defend Boyle Heights. Planners and activists seeking to curb the influence of downtown development on Boyle Heights and similar working class barrios could benefit from revisiting the history of activism in the barrio and its legacy within and outside traditional avenues of political participation. In 1974, when Mendoza shared his trepidation over community plans and their limits, he nevertheless called on his neighbors to defend Boyle Heights. Doing so, he argued, the following: “every man and woman, working or not, [needs] to come to the aid of [the] community, we need the young, the old, the owner, the renters, we need to unite.”
Taking into consideration the history of planning approaches in communities of color thrown into relief, the protracted fight for economically-accessibly housing in Boyle Heights continues to bespeak its importance to its deeply passionate residents. Early in the post-Civil Rights era, city planning in Los Angeles gestured towards inclusionary policies and practices to meaningfully include marginalized citizens into the planning process, yet overarching policies of exclusionary land uses prevailed even if political inclusion improved. With downtown redevelopment jumping the L.A. River into Boyle Heights, ongoing discussions and framing over anti-displacement movements are better understood within this history of dispossession.
 Rodolfo Acuña, A Community Under Siege: A Chronicle of Chicanos, East of the Los Angeles River, 1945-1972, Chicano Studies Research Center Publications (Los Angeles: UCLA, 1984), 101.
 Gilbert Estrada, “If You Build It, They Will Move: The Los Angeles Freeway System and the Displacement of Mexican East Los Angeles, 1944-1972,” Southern California Quarterly 87 (2005): 287-315.
 David F. Beatty, Redevelopment in California (Point Arena: Solano Press Books, 2004), 97.
 Calvin Hamilton, “Urban Renewal,” speech, Junior Chamber International Community Development Conference, 28 October 1966.
 Los Angeles Regional Planning Commission, “Environmental Development Guide,” October 1970.
 Anne V. Howell, “Oikoumene—Los Angeles Style,” Los Angeles Planning Department, 2 December1968.
 Irv Burleigh, “Fight Brews Over Who Should Take Part in City Planning,” Los Angeles Times, 6 December 1973.
 Thomas S. Hines, “Housing, Baseball, and Creeping Socialism: The Battle of Chavez Ravine, Los Angeles, 1949-1959,” Journal of Urban History 8 (1982): 123-143.
 Edward R. Roybal, “Report on the Urban Renewal Seminar in New Haven Connecticut,” 7 August 1959.
 Southern California Research Council, Migration and the Southern California Economy (Los Angeles, 1964), 70.
 Strategy for City Survival, Los Angeles, 1970. For an overview of the Community Analysis Bureau see Mark Vallianatos, “Uncovering the Early History of ‘Big Data’ and the ‘Smart City’ in Los Angeles,” Boom California, 16 June 2015, https://boomcalifornia.com/2015/06/16/uncovering-the-early-history-of-big-data-and-the-smart-city-in-la/.
 Rosalio Muñoz, “Save the barrio now,” Eastside Sun, March 1973.
 Francisco Mendoza, “Boyle Heights Plan Given Airing at All Nations Tonight,” Eastside Sun, September 1974.
 Los Angeles City Planning Department, “Boyle Heights Community Plan Adopted,” News Release, 14 August 1979.
 Tom Bradley, “Blight is the Only Other Alternative,” Los Angeles Times , 12 October 1975.
 Mary Pardo, Mexican American Women Activists: Identity and Resistance in Two Los Angeles Communities (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998).
 “The Women of Pico Aliso: 20 Years of Housing Activism,” Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (blog), 25 May 2018, http://alianzacontraartwashing.org/en/coalition-statements/the-women-of-pico-aliso-20-years-of-housing-activism; Hector Becerra, “Building Confidence in a New Project,” Los Angeles Times, 23 August 1988.
 Francisco Mendoza, “Boyle Heights Plan Given Airing at All Nations Tonight,” Eastside Sun, September 1974.
 Times Editorial Board, “Boyle Heights anti-gentrification activists hurt their cause by making it about race, rather than economics,” Los Angeles Times,.20 July 2017, http://www.latimes.com/opinion/editorials/la-ed-gentrification-boyle-heights-race-20170721-story.html.
 “The State of the Nation’s Housing 2017,” Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, 16 June 2017, http://www.jchs.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/harvard_jchs_state_of_the_nations_housing_2017_0.pdf.
 “Los Angeles County Renters in Crisis: A Call for Action,” California Housing Partnership, May 2017.
 Francisco Mendoza, “Boyle Heights Plan Given Airing at All Nations Tonight,” Eastside Sun, September 1974.
Alfredo Huante is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of Southern California. He earned his Master’s in Urban Planning at the University of California, Los Angeles. His work engages racial inequality, racial formation, and land use, particularly related to gentrification.
Copyright: © 2018 Alfredo Huante. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/