Gentrification has increasingly become a significant issue in contemporary Los Angeles, especially in bohemian and so-called “ethnic” neighborhoods like Venice, Echo Park, Chinatown, and Boyle Heights. The Arroyo Seco neighborhoods of Northeast LA (NELA) such as Highland Park and Eagle Rock are significant flashpoints in the urban restructuring process that draws new white middle-class entrepreneurs and residents while displacing established immigrant and working-class people. Highland Park exhibits some features of “gentefication” that involve the participation of middle-class Latino/a residents and business entrepreneurs along with whites in the neighborhood transition process. But Latino/as are more commonly regarded as casualties rather than agents of gentrification as evidenced in the stark experiences of immigrant working class evictions and displacements primed by a hot real estate market driven by speculative flipping and growing corporate investment. Recently the gentrification and displacement frontier has shifted from York Boulevard to the main commercial district of Highland Park along North Figueroa Street and the Metro Gold Line. Here the troubling side of gentrification has intensified as larger developers are converting multi-unit apartment buildings and vacant lots into new market rate housing with the support of city officials and urban planning incentives from the City of Los Angeles.
The neighborhood transition process had been more gradual for decades from the 1970s to the 2000s as pioneering homebuyers, artists, and mom and pop entrepreneurs restored properties and culturally revitalized the NELA neighborhoods that had become disinvested in the wake of suburbanization and white flight. As the revitalization stage gave way to the gentrification stage in urban restructuring, investment accelerated in NELA in the wake of the great recession after 2010, when there was growing entry of speculator-flippers, corporate developers and architects, and governmental housing and urban development programs including transit-oriented development (TOD) and transit villages. The demand-side social agency of pioneers and risk-averse single-family home buyers increasingly shifts to the supply-side forces of capitalist investment and neoliberal public/private partnership.
As the urban growth machine propels gentrification forward in NELA, it exhibits sharpening socioeconomic and racial overtones as immigrant working-class Latino/a families are increasingly threatened with displacement by rent increases, mass evictions, and social uprootedness. Working class households and multi-family networks are even subject to secondary displacement as property transactions and new construction in neighborhood hotspots stimulate broader property value shifts in surrounding blocks and block groups. The creative frontier of urban restructuring in NELA exhibits a growing destructive violence that illustrates what David Harvey describes as capitalism’s tendency to foster “accumulation by dispossession” through privatization of public lands and public housing, slum clearance, property foreclosure and marginalization of the urban poor. He furthermore reflects upon how marginalized and dispossessed people around the world have ignited social resistance and insurgent movements to demand their “rights to the city” as urban inhabitants, despite their lack of property rights.
As the urban growth machine propels gentrification forward in NELA, it exhibits sharpening socioeconomic and racial overtones as immigrant working-class Latino/a families are increasingly threatened with displacement by rent increases, mass evictions, and social uprootedness.
The emergence of the NELA Alliance with their first protest march and demonstration along Highland Park’s York Boulevard in November 2014 seemingly gave public voice to the neighborhood’s opposition to gentrification and displacement, as well as the need for more affordable housing. With their robust calls that “Gentrification is the New Colonialism,” and that “Housing is a Human Right,” the largely Latino/a constituency of the NELA Alliance expressed their frustrations as a disenfranchised minority against the appropriation of its neighborhood homeland and culture by powerful outsiders. They have held organizational meetings, tenant’s rights workshops, panel discussions, testimonials and theatrical events to educate and mobilize the immigrant low-income community. Another organization named Friends of Highland Park emerged to contest the development of a transit village along the Metro Gold Line that neighborhood activists felt did not well serve the immigrant residential and business community. These movements have generated significant journalistic reports in the Los Angeles Times and other major online media.
There is a sense of class struggle amidst the relentless economic violence of capitalism reminiscent of Karl Marx and Frederick Engel’s famous description in “The Community Manifesto” of the global power of the bourgeoisie to revolutionize the mode of production and force the capitulation of the proletariat and their cultural traditions until “all that is solid melts into air.” The production of urban space is crucial to the continued expansion of capitalism, yet this process is full of tension and struggle. The contradictions of urban capitalism as a force of creative destruction has been described by David Harvey and Marshall Berman through epic historical cases. Some of these cases include a few from the public works prefect Baron Haussmann and his destruction of dense working-class neighborhoods to create the boulevards in mid-eighteenth century Paris and power broker Robert Moses and his clearing of dense working class communities in New York City in the mid-twentieth century in favor of bridges, intercity expressways, and the opening up of the suburbs. Fast forward to the twenty-first century, and the malevolence of gentrification is described by Jason Hackworth as the material and symbolic “knife-edge” of neoliberal capitalism amidst the government retrenchment from the Keynesian egalitarian liberalism of the twentieth century. The capitalist city is a main battleground for neoliberal transition as local governments “roll back” Fordist-era housing programs and social services while “rolling forward” post-Fordist incentives for investment and urban entrepreneurialism. Under neoliberal gentrification we see the opposing clash of capitalist struggle between exchange value interests for investors, property owners and state tax revenues versus use value interests for residents, workers and urban inhabitants.
The Troubling Side of Gentrification: Displacement, Root Shock, and Neighborhood Trauma
Less visible than the outward economic signs of gentrification is the social uprooting and traumatic displacement process that takes place behind the scenes after new owners and developers have secured their properties and start vacating residents through dramatic rent increases or direct evictions. Even when eviction is legally implemented with relocation stipends, the monies hardly make up for the abrupt involuntary loss of a home and loss of extended family networks that were built up over the years to help low-income immigrants and minorities share child care responsibilities and confront the economic challenges of urban life. In L.A. neighborhoods like Highland Park, which are on the gentrification frontier, the good and bad aspects of the urban growth machine work simultaneously to display the innovative and cruel nature of urban capitalism as a double-edged force of creative destruction. The housing markets in gentrifying areas like NELA reveal how innovative investors and architects build smart and trendy new housing to attract affluent millennial homebuyers of the creative economy and technology sector while removing working-class immigrant and minority families.
In L.A. neighborhoods like Highland Park, which are on the gentrification frontier, the good and bad aspects of the urban growth machine work simultaneously to display the innovative and cruel nature of urban capitalism as a double-edged force of creative destruction.
The impacts of secondary displacement through increases in property value play out more slowly than primary displacement evictions and high rental increases, but they create financial strains on families that further aggravate the physical and mental health of communities. Financial strain and/or displacement can cause chronic stress-related physical and mental illnesses, including hypertension, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders. Serial displacement among multi-generational families can lead to a condition of “root shock.” Black and Latino families escaping racial discrimination and political violence carry previous traumatic experiences that can be aggravated by housing displacement.
Root shock is the traumatic stress reaction to the loss of a community’s multi-family and inter-generational social networks previously built up as emotional and social eco-systems to help low-income minority and immigrant communities survive when confronted by economic challenges and social marginalization. The concept was adapted from the practice of gardening by Dr. Mindy Fullilove, professor of clinical psychiatry and public health at Columbia University, to describe the experiences of people she interviewed about their displacement in cities like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Roanoke, Virginia. She addresses the concept of “serial displacement” or repeated upheavals caused by disinvestment, gentrification, HOPE VI, mass incarceration, and natural disaster. The concept of root shock helps one understand both the effects of displacement and also formulate ways to mitigate urban trauma and community recovery from natural and man-made disasters.
Friends of Highland Park vs. the Highland Park Transit Village
Transit oriented development (TOD) is a growing tool of urban public policy to stimulate economic development and housing near mass transit stations like the Highland Park stop on the MTA Gold Line. The City of Los Angeles-owned vacant land is operated by the Department of Transportation as surface parking lots and plans gradually progressed over several years for a transit village of three buildings with eighty residential units comprising twenty market rate condos and sixty affordable apartment housing units. The Highland Park Overlay Zone board approved the project in early 2013 and the L.A. Planning Commission granted developer McCormack Barron Salazar conditional usepermits for taller more densely-built housing which then sparked some outcry and debate in the community with regard to the transit village’s size, aesthetics, congestion, and loss of public parking. The L.A. City Council backed the Planning Commission’s decision for higher density and furthermore approved the project to be released from lengthy review of impact on the environment, traffic and city services.
Community opposition to the project organized its campaign as the Friends of Highland Park and was led by a trio self-described as the “three musketeers,” including business leader Jesse Rosas; Lisa Duardo, a fierce speaker with close ties to the arts community; and Lloyd Cattro who is familiar with environmental issues. The movement gained support from respected N. Figueroa Street business leaders like Miguel Hernandez of Antigua Bread, Carlos Lopez of Las Cazuelas Restaurant and William Yu of California Fashion. Duardo attended legal workshops conducted by Advocates for the Environment jointly sponsored by the Sierra Club at Loyola Marymount University. With counsel from land-use attorney Dean Walraff, the Friends of Highland Park retained fiery attorney Vic Otten to file a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) lawsuit against the transit village. An initial trial court judgment dismissed the CEQA filing. It was reversed by the California Court of Appeal in December 2015, in a decision that set aside the City’s Mitigated Negative Declaration and Notice of Determination and thus required the preparation of an environmental impact review (EIR) that complies with CEQA requirements. Described by Friends of Highland Park as a “David vs. Goliath” victory, the ruling sent City agencies and the developer back to the drawing board. To pay for such legal costs, the Friends of Highland Park fundraised some $30,000 through initiatives at local restaurants and bars, business events, and the NELA Alliance.
Jesse Rosas is the leader of the Northeast Business Association, which represents some fifteen to twenty business owners, a newer constituency than the Highland Park Chamber of Commerce currently led by Yolanda Nogueira that has existed for forty to fifty years, separate from the N. Figueroa Association that represents property owners and the Business Improvement District. Rosas has good business networks through his work on N. Figueroa Street events like the annual Christmas Parade and Highland Park Car Show. He doesn’t believe that the higher-income commuters the transit village would attract will patronize local businesses, which will instead be hurt by two years of construction and the loss of the public parking lots for their long-time customers. He’s highly skeptical of statements from Councilman Gil Cedillo’s office that there will be one-to-one replacement of public parking spots in new subterranean parking since many spots will be dedicated to transit village residents, monthly parking, and commuters. Questions also remain about whether the affordable housing units planned will really be financially viable for low-income households.
Eviction Order and Rent Strike at Marmion Royal
Another contentious housing situation emerged right next to the Highland Park Metro Gold Line station at the sixty-unit Marmion Royal apartments. In May 2016, the building sold to Skya Ventures and Gelt Inc., a development company owned by a married couple Gelena Skya and Keith Wasserman, who announced plans to clear the apartments to renovate and rebrand the building as Citizen HLP and increase rents by more than $1,000 a month. Seven families voluntarily relocated, while nineteen were served with evictions. Others felt harassed by water shut-offs. Extended multi-family networks among the tenants are under threat of being broken. The property managers working for the Wassermans, Moss & Company repeatedly told residents they had to leave when their leases expire. The residents were majority working-class Latino/a families and included several Section 8 tenants at risk of homelessness without their housing vouchers. The Marmion Royal was built in 1987 and was not covered by the Los Angeles Rent Stabilization Ordinance, which applies to multi-unit apartments built before 1978, limiting rent increases to three percent and requiring landlords to provide relocation expenses for evicted tenants.
On 19 July 2016, a demonstration of about one hundred people was held next to the Marmion Royal apartment building, led by the NELA Alliance. The Occidental College Students United Against Gentrification (OSUAG) also participated. Adolfo Camacho, a resident for three years at the Marmion Royal and thirty years in Highland Park, said six people would be evicted from his household, including four children. His sister-in-law lived in another apartment. Chris Alvarez, who worked at the KTLA television station in Hollywood, said he would likely have to move to Monrovia or Lancaster and endure a much longer commute to his job. He grew up in Highland Park and had lived fifteen years at the Marmion Royal. He said that he and his wife were seven months pregnant and he fretted about moving when she was in her third trimester. He worried that he would be separated from his mother and sister who lived two blocks away during this crucial time. After more testimonies, the participants proceeded to march in the streets chanting, “Save Our Homes,” and “Housing Now,” to the office of Councilman Gil Cedillo where they demonstrated for a while before returning to the Marmion Royal. Erick Berdejo said, “I grew up here. I’ve been here ten years since the age of nine. We’re decent people, we work to pay rent, and for them to tell us we got to move because we can’t afford the rent ‑ that’s wrong!” David Canecho, a resident for twenty years at the Marmion Royal, said “we’re not the only ones in L.A. going through this. I went to high school in Highland Park then to college at Chico State and came back but now I can’t live here. It’s up to us to stand up and stick together!”
With educational workshops and organizational support from the NELA Alliance, the Los Angeles Tenants Union and legal advocacy from attorney Elena Popp of the Eviction Defense Network, forty-seven of the remaining residents signed a petition to fight their evictions and organize the Marmion Royal Tenants Union. They called for a rent strike to try to pressure the Wassermans into a collective bargaining agreement, putting their rent money into a blind trust while they negotiated with Skya Ventures. Over the next few months demonstrations, testimonials and candlelight vigils helped to publically dramatize the struggle of the Marmion Royal Tenants Union. In August, NELA Alliance sponsored an educational panel at Avenue 50 Studio, an exhibition, a performance and artistic procession through the streets titled, “Dancing Cantos of an Evicted Pueblo.”
Fundraising efforts with support from local businesses like Las Cazuelas restaurant helped to raise nearly $8,000 for legal fees and court costs. Some white professional residents came forward to assert they thought management was more willing to negotiate with them on rent increases, giving Elena Popp an avenue to argue for a case of discrimination against the Latino/a and black residents. But in December 2016, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, Rupert A. Byrdsong, ruled against a claim of discrimination against five tenants being evicted. The Skya Ventures attorney Jeffrey B. Endler argued that “white people were allowed [to] negotiate, maybe because they were more aggressive” and asked the judge to end the hearing. But Byrdsong allowed the defense to bring in more witnesses before ordering the remaining evictions. Elena Popp implied that there was also class discrimination, saying a representative of Skya Ventures told her the company wanted to bring in “higher-caliber tenants.” But Byrdsong ruled her testimony not admissible since it was akin to a negotiation between the parties. When the hearing resumed, Popp offered a settlement that called on the tenants to leave by 30 January. However, Skya Ventures wanted an earlier date. The firm said it would not ask for unpaid rent. “All we want is possession,” said their attorney Jeffrey Endler.
They do not go down without a fight against their impending dispossession, and they reveal the striking contradictions of the process of urban capitalist accumulation.
The Marmion Royal Tenants Union legal team is appealing the judge’s ruling under the claim it didn’t follow normal procedures of a jury decision. With support from attorney Noah Grynberg of the Los Angeles Center for Community Law and Action, the legal team is negotiating to consolidate the other eighteen cases. Remaining members of the tenants union vowed to continue their support. NELA Alliance members appealed through neighborhood social networks to find new housing for tenants facing eviction. Candlelight vigils helped to nourish their solidarity amidst the trauma of actual or impending displacement during the Christmas holidays. They staged a candlelight vigil at the residence of Gelena Skye and Keith Wasserman in Sherman Oaks on the evening of 30 December 2016. The evictions proceeded into the spring of 2017, however, and the last tenants were out by June 2017. The renovated building is now called Moxie + Clover Apartments.
The struggles of the Marmion Royal Tenants Union ended with the eviction of the final family in June 2017, but the NELA Alliance has kept up its neighborhood activism as it monitors incipient displacement and eviction situations at other multi-family apartment buildings in Highland Park along the N. Figueroa Street and the Metro Gold Line corridor. NELA activists give their support to anti-gentrification struggles in nearby communities like Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights and Elysian Park, which exhibits striking investment and gentrification dynamics associated with lively arts scenes, and proximity to the Metro Gold Line and the campaign to revitalize the Los Angeles River. Interaction between activists in different neighborhoods helps generate a broader organizational capacity and political pressure for addressing homelessness and affordable housing policy in an era of continuing federal retreatment from Fordist-era public housing and social services. In the post-Fordist era, local governments increasingly shoulder the burden through neoliberal mechanisms of public/private partnership. The struggles of immigrant and working-class displacement and eviction in Highland Park dramatize the more troubling aspects of City and County of Los Angeles public policies like transit-oriented development and transit villages to generate new housing that is mainly market-rate and unaffordable for the working poor. They do not go down without a fight against their impending dispossession, and they reveal the striking contradictions of the process of urban capitalist accumulation.
The victims of the redevelopment and gentrification process in Highland Park and their supporters protest their right to the city as a touchstone for social inclusion. They assert their sense of ownership over their communities and rights as urban citizens, a cry and demand for political belonging in urban residency rather than national citizenship. They appeal to the sense of collective and human rights. In the words of David Harvey:
But new rights can also be defined: like the right to the city which … is not merely a right of access to what the property speculators and state planners define, but an active right to make the city different, to shape it more in accord with our heart’s desire, and to remake ourselves thereby in a different image.
- All photos are by John Urquiza, a Northeast LA photographer and founder of Sin Turistas photography collective that runs classes, exhibitions and community film screenings in Highland Park. He is also photographer and member of the Northeast LA Alliance that leads protests against gentrification, community organizing for tenants’ rights and artistic documentation of social actions for neighborhood change. His website is http://theironyandtheecstasy.me.
 David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (London: Verso, 2012).
 Tim Logan, “Highland Park Renters Feel the Squeeze of Gentrification,” Los Angeles Times, 21 December 2014, A1; Nathan Solis, “Highland Park Residents Share Stories of Gentrifiation During Saturday Night Demonstration and Vigil,” Eastsider, 15 December 2014, www.theeastsiderla.com.
 Henri LeFebvre, The Production of Space, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1974, reprinted 1991).
 Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982); David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1989).
 Jason Hackworth, The Neoliberal City: Governance, Ideology, and Development in American Urbanism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007).
 Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore, “Cities and the Geographies of ‘Actually Existing Neoliberalism,’” Antipode 34 (2002): 349-79.
 Mindy Fullilove, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It (New York: One World/Ballantine, 2005).
 Doug Smith, “A Flashpoint in L.A.’s Gentrification Drama: Protesting Highland Park Tenants face a Mass Eviction,” Los Angeles Times, 11 October 2016, A1.
 Doug Smith, “Judge Rejects Discrimination Clain in Highland Park Evictions,” Los Angeles Times, 14 December 2016.
 David Harvey, “The Right to the City,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 27 (2003): 939-41.
Jan Lin is Professor of Sociology at Occidental College. This article is an edited excerpt from Chapter 5 of his book, Taking Back the Boulevard: Art, Activism and Gentrification in Los Angeles (New York University Press, 2019). His stories on neighborhood transition and gentrification and students’ Young Voices features have appeared with KCET-Departures online. This excerpt’s research is drawn from interviews with Lisa Duardo, Jesse Rosas, Miguel Ramos, John Urquiza and Marmion Royal tenants, participant observation at demonstrations and public forums, and newspaper and online media articles.
Copyright: © 2019 Jan Lin. 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/.