Dispatch from Highland Park: Gentrification, Displacement and the Disappearance of Latino Businesses

By Aura Bogado Jan 20, 2015

I left Los Angeles to go back to school at the end of 2009–and I couldn’t afford to return for a visit until 2013, after I’d graduated and saved money from working. Before I arrived, several friends warned me that I wouldn’t recognize Highland Park, a historic Latino neighborhood that I once frequented. Since I’d already seen gentrification transform the Silverlake and Echo Park neighborhoods, I figured I didn’t need a warning.

Or so I thought.

During my trip to Highland Park I happened to turn down York, a major boulevard. I felt so confused by my surroundings that I literally pulled over in my rental to catch my breath. The bakery, or panadería, was gone. So was the mini market, the cheap party-supply store and the store that sold those giant five-gallon water bottle things. And those were just the places I could quickly recall. It seemed as if everything on the block had changed. Even the street poles were different–they were covered in bright knitted yarn, masking the familiar gang graffiti. As I drove down York, I saw only white folks eating, drinking, talking and walking in a neighborhood that had been populated mostly by immigrant and homegrown Latinos since the 1970s.

Back in Los Angeles for another visit this winter, I’ve been thinking about these changes and how they’re understood not only by residents, but also by small business owners. Is the risk of displacement for longtime retailers always the cost of doing business? And, if these kinds of changes are good for community–as most new business owners claim–do they benefit everyone equally?

Back in the Day

According to Census data, California’s white population decreased by five percent from 2000 to 2010, while the state’s Latino population increased by 28 percent. In Highland Park, the opposite has occurred. Census data for the neighborhood, which is surveyed by tracts, shows the white population increasing during this period by as much as 42 percent in some parts, while the Latino population has decreased by as much as 13 percent in some areas. Before the shift, Highland Park stores had largely been owned by and served working class and low-income Latinos. Many were immigrants.

But wealthier, and often whiter, residents have been moving in to Highland Park’s once affordable houses and apartments. In February of last year, a three-bedroom home listed for $879,000 but sold for $1 million ($121,000 over the listing price) just two months later. Property records indicate that the same home sold for a quarter of that, just $250,000, in 2000. New businesses have also popped up that cater to these wealthier residents–retail stores like Platform, which offers home styling and staging; exclusive workout studios like Pop Physique; and pricier bars and restaurants whose owners are sometimes willing to pay double per square foot on the existing rent.

The new businesses are also decked out enough to raise property values, leaving many immigrant-owned stores, as well as those who depend on them, on shaky ground.

Back in the Day

Latino immigrants, mostly from Mexico, have been calling Highland Park home since the 1950s, but desegregation, white flight and a powerful Chicano movement made it a predominantly Latino neighborhood by the 1970s.

In the ’80s, bloody civil wars in Central America resulted in an influx of Guatemalan, Salvadoran, Honduran and Nicaraguan immigrants and their kids in Highland Park. Generation after generation, Latino immigrants moved into the neighborhood’s often roomy apartments and homes with big lawns, and they started small businesses. Latin American-style bakeries served up fresh coffee and baked goods while second-hand merchandise stores served this niche but fixed market.

Starting in the 1970s, Highland Park also served as cultural hub for Chicano artists, often in the shape of revolutionary-minded collectives founded by Chicano art icons such as painter Carlos Almaraz and printmaker Richard Duardo. According to longtime residents, that working-class, cutting-edge art scene, the inexpensive properties and a couple of new stops on Los Angeles’ burgeoning light rail system have attracted droves of wealthier residents and business owners over the past five years.

"It felt like it happened overnight," recalls John Urquiza. About 15 years ago, the Latino artist decided to open an office for his design and consulting business on York Boulevard and Avenue 50. His rent for a private suite–which included a common space for large meetings and the use of unrented suites for photo shoots–was $200 per month. Urquiza says that over time there had been some small rent increases, but in late 2011 the mom-and-pop building owners, who are also Latino, raised Urquiza’s rent to $600, tripling what he’d originally paid. Rather than pay a rent increase he couldn’t afford, Urquiza moved out in November 2011. 

"Ground Zero" for Gentrification

Urquiza and others with long ties to Highland Park often call the corner of York Boulevard and Avenue 50 "ground zero for gentrification." Although newcomers were already buying up homes on Highland Park’s side streets, Urquiza says that York and Avenue 50, "was the first visible incantation of change." A posh, kid-friendly coffee shop named Cafe de Leche opened up on the corner in 2009. Business owners Matt and Anya Schodorf, a white and Nicaraguan couple, are often blamed for raising the profile–and rents–for commercial property in Highland Park.

Commercially speaking, the neighborhood’s other main drag, Figueroa Street, or simply, Fig, is still mixed. Spanish-speaking vendors hawk everything from belts and wallets to Mexican street corn and hot dogs to pirated DVDs. Most of their customers are the remaining Latino tenants and homeowners.

Aside from losing its character, Highland Park is also losing stores, like Nature’s Perfection Flowers & Gifts, that provide crucial services that might be hard for non-immigrants to recognize right away.

Take paying a utility bill: Undocumented–and even documented–immigrants don’t always have bank accounts. When it comes to paying a gas bill, for example, many don’t mail a check because they don’t have one to send. Similarly, they won’t pay online because they don’t have a bank account to shift money from.

For these residents, paying a utility bill is an in-person transaction. At the counter of Nature’s Perfection Flowers & Gifts, they get to make small talk in Spanish with owner Crystal Lazarro, pay their bills in cash and walk away with a hard copy of a receipt.

And because cell-phone providers often require a Social Security number to extend a line of credit, many undocumented residents use prepaid services instead. Lazarro provides top-up services that instantly recharge minutes on prepaid phones. Her store also handles domestic and international wire transfers–part of an enormous remittance network that fuels whole economies in some parts of Latin America.

But Fig also houses luxury businesses. Sunbeam Vintage, a retro furniture store opened in 2010, trades in burlap-like mustard yellow armchairs for upwards of $700 apiece. A French bistro, Chez Antoine, currently replete with "Je suis Charlie" signs, serves entrees starting at $18. And the rather gargantuan Kinship Yoga studio promotes one-and-a-half-hour sound baths–where gongs and singing bowls inspire "perceived vibrations"–at $20 a pop.

Fig is also home to The Greyhound Bar and Grill, which opened its doors a year ago. Matt Glassman is one of three owners who approached and bought what he describes as a failing business–a Salvadoran restaurant known for its pupusas–and dropped about $300,000 to refurbish the corner building.

Glassman, who describes himself as a "white Jew from Cleveland," is quick to point out that he’s thought a lot about a race when it comes to Highland Park. A former American Studies student who rolls up his right T-shirt sleeve to reveal a Black Power tattoo, Glassman says he is proud that The Greyhound employs a lot of Latinos–both in the back and in the front of house. On a recent Tuesday night, as we leaned back and talked in one of the bar’s cushiony booths, Latino diners seemed to be ordering drinks and dinner in nearly equal proportion to white patrons.

Amid protests against Highland Park’s residential and retail gentrification, Glassman denounces some critics for what he calls "aggressive nostalgia." Recalling an incident with a longtime Latina resident who approached him soon after The Greyhound opened and complained about the way the neighborhood was changing, Glassman says, "I will never be the white Jewish business owner screaming ‘racism!’ But this is what racism is: You only don’t like me because I’m white."

Although many Latino immigrant storeowners were reluctant to discuss race in Highland Park with me, every single white person that I talked to on Fig–business owners as well as residents–brought up how they feel like some of their Latino neighbors are racist. This included a woman at an art studio who asked me if I understood what institutional racism was; after I nodded yes, she then called Latinos "institutionally racist because some of them own stores," and make her "feel like an invader."

The Greyhound’s Glassman points out that he’s "subjected to the same changes and fluxes in business and clientele as [everyone else]"–but he acknowledges that he has the security of a 15-year lease with a "very low" rent that he was able to negotiate. The 32-year-old says he feels a sense of personal responsibility if The Greyhound has in any way contributed to rising rents on Fig, but he does wonder why neighboring businesses don’t invest in refurbishing their storefronts.

Based on limited profits coming into their shops and a lack of access to wealth, it’s doubtful that most Latino-owned shops on Fig could afford to sink $300,000 into their businesses–or that it would even be a sound investment to do so. Their merchandise and services on Fig supply locals who don’t necessarily need another incentive to buy their goods. But even that’s changing.

"So many residents have already been displaced, and they’re the ones who most utilized those small businesses," says Miguel Ramos, an at-large director on the Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council who was born and raised in the community.

Local Protest

While the guys from The Greyhound were setting up shop a year ago, the North East Los Angeles Alliance (NELAA), was being founded. NELAA, which has about 30 mostly Latino members, focuses on disrupting evictions of longtime Highland Park residents from their homes and retail businesses. In November, activists taped colossalsymbolic eviction notices up on new businesses along York Boulevard. In December, NELAA held a candlelight vigil–a silent procession down Fig that culminated in a speak-out for displaced people.

Aside from protests, NELAA also helps renters protected by Los Angeles’ housing department to fight against illegal rent increases or evictions. But no such protections exist for month-to-month retail tenants.

Rafael Navarro manages a bike shop on Fig. At Raffi’s Bicycles, he sells new and used bikes and accessories and he does repairs while his wife, María Marroquín, sells Mary Kay goods and costume jewelry at the front counter. Navarro says his friend opened the shop about three years ago specifically to serve Latino riders who are often discriminated against in places like Santa Monica and Pasadena. He’s conflicted about the changes he’s seen in the neighborhood.

On one hand, Navarro, who’s called Highland Park home since he left El Salvador as a teenager in 1989, says he is happy about newcomers. "We [Latinos] don’t have wealth to do much–but now the economy is changing in Highland Park and different people want to help the community to be better." (He notes that longtime residents haggle for discounts while newcomers don’t mind paying standard rates for good service and parts.)

But Navarro knows that the same economic drive that’s helping the bike business he manages has also created conditions that have pushed fellow immigrant retailers out. Asked about what a rent hike would mean, Navarro pauses, looks around and settles his eyes on his two children eating pizza in the back of the shop. "That would be devastating," he says slowly. "They’d be destroying years of sacrifice and taking people’s jobs." 

Shaking his head, he adds, "I hope they don’t do that here. I just hope they don’t do that."

Big Incentives

One group of people are seeing big profits because of the changes: real estate agents.

Nicole Deflorian, a commercial sales and leasing director at Clint Lukens Realty, has been successful in coaxing commercial landlords to evict longtime month-to-month tenants in favor of wealthier newcomers who can pay much more per square foot. Working on commission, Deflorian has mostly covered Silverlake and Echo Park–two neighborhoods that have undergone similar changes in the last 10 years. And she’s now set her eyes on Highland Park.

"When we see a building that has tenants who have been there for a long time and are probably paying very low rent, we offer our services to property owners," says Deflorian–who insists that gentrification starts with residential property rather than retail businesses.

Bike shop manager Navarro calls the practice of persuading landlords to evict lower-rent tenants unethical. "You’d have to be disgusting rich to open a business and pay $4,000 a month for a little place for rent," he scoffs.

But Deflorian–whose practice of encouraging landlords to evict longtime tenants isn’t unique–insists it’s just the risk for anyone doing business.

"Change is a part of life, and the people who are in there now kicked out whoever was there before," says Deflorian. "I’m just doing my job."  

On Figueroa, where several immigrant business owners refused to talk about rising rents, I felt a sense of dread. Over a lunch of homemade vegetable stew and tortillas, one longtime owner of a women’s clothing store who spoke on condition of anonymity summed it up. "It’s too sad and too stressful to think about what comes next."