I’m at my favorite local café, Stories, in Echo Park. The front operates as a quaint bookshop, and in the rear are long communal tables where students and freelancers can sit side-by-side, sip their coffees, and give their best shot at a productive Wednesday morning.
We are in a hilly pocket of East Los Angeles, in a neighborhood I’ve described since moving here six months ago as cozy, unassuming, and convenient (so many on-ramps to so many freeways).
Image by Lucy Copp.
When I decided to write a post about Echo Park, I thought of the obvious appeals to my demographic: the best local coffee, the cutest boutiques of re-purposed vintage clothing, the boathouse brunch menu and bars with ’90s trivia. I admit, this type of post would have appealed to me before moving to any neighborhood, and, now that I am in Echo Park, I depend on these places to fuel my mornings, inspire my thesis, and unwind after a long week.
But something already feels remiss in this depiction of Echo Park, a neighborhood we might talk about as “flipping” from run-down to renewed or crumbling to creative. To an extent, this depiction is true.
Gentrification, a word every 20-something looking for cheaper rent is familiar with, can be understood as a positive reality for neighborhood newcomers like myself. On the other hand, as a graduate student steeped in the discipline that observes and analyzes cultures, I am inclined to think about gentrification as a process that often diminishes one culture in the bolstering up of another. How should I feel about thegentrification process? One thing is for sure: It is much more complicated than cheap rent.
Image by Lucy Copp.
What is gentrification?
The breakdown of Echo Park in the 2000 U.S. Census was the following: Latinos made up 64%; Asians, 18.8%; whites; 12.9%; blacks, 2%, and others 2.3%. Between 2000 and 2011 the white population grew 13%, while the Latino population dropped. I assume that today the Latino population dwindles as the white population grows.
But gentrification is not simply a changing demographic.
Gentrification can be talked about in several ways: demographic shifts (as the numbers above show), the aforementioned urban renewal, and the lesser talked about component of displacement and loss. When discussing their neighborhoods, I often hear people say, “Yeah it’s definitely being gentrified, which is good. I guess…” Even though many understand the word to mean an improvement, we might also feel that there is something troubling about the process, something we’re only guessing at instead of probing further.
Certainly, the term is multi-dimensional and brings up complex issues of race, power, and politics. Gentrification is also historical, something that cities have been going through for centuries. But I am still confused: Is gentrification a celebration of a city’s rebirth or a white-man takeover à la colonization? The answer is probably located somewhere in the gray area between these extreme polarities.
Here are just a few simple ways to think about the ups and downs of gentrification:
Increased economic activity
Increased rent and cost of living
Change in community’s character and culture
Displacement of families, typically minority
The cost of gentrification
From a few small conversations with locals it seems the evidence is in the stories. (Isn’t it always?!)
On the corner of Sunset and Echo Park Ave. is a taco stand that I frequent on evenings when I don’t want to cook (which is every evening). My Mexican food consumption is either impressive or alarming, but when I started talking to the lady ringing me up one evening, I got a new perspective.
She lived in the neighborhood with her husband until five years ago when rent hikes forced them out. Now they take the bus a long distance from their new home back to their business in Echo Park. Their church is no longer in walking distance either, so they come in on Sundays to reconvene with a community that has been in Echo Park long before the baristas and bartenders.
This story, and many others, got me asking these questions:
What is my role in gentrification?
How are people of my social background playing a significant role in re-branding a neighborhood towards something we consider more livable?
We know that some great things come out of gentrification, but who gets to enjoy them? Are we just helping ourselves?
These aren’t easy questions with easy answers, but they are part of an important discussion we should all be having.