'We are in a war here': Black and Latino residents fight gentrification in L.A.

The black and Latino neighbourhoods of Boyle Heights and Crenshaw in Los Angeles fight being turned into 'white' communities as necessary developments attract new residents.

Boyle Heights and Crenshaw neighbourhoods resist being turned into 'white' communities

Weird Wave Coffee co-owner Jackson Defa is at the centre of a controversy over gentrification in the Boyle Heights district of Los Angeles. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

As he begins to brew a pour-over coffee, Jackson Defa wonders how his small independent coffee shop became the centre of a racial firestorm.

"I don't know," he says, shaking his head. "I don't know. I really don't know."

On this weekday afternoon, the customers of Weird Wave Coffee are mostly artists and hipsters, which is why it has been dubbed "White Wave" by many of the shop's Latino neighbours in Boyle Heights. The neighbourhood is the centre of Latino culture in Los Angeles, and many in this community fear that for them, the arrival of this coffee shop could herald the beginning of the end.

"We opened, and people protested pretty strongly for a couple of weeks," Defa says. "And then, after that kind of died down, a couple of windows were vandalized."

Boyle Heights is the historic centre of Chicano Los Angeles. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

To understand why vandals would be angry enough to smash Weird Wave's windows, you have to go no farther than the historic gateway to Boyle Heights: Mariachi Plaza. You need a mariachi, you come here. On this day, there's a guitarist sitting next to a fountain, strumming inaudibly, and one man practising a simple tune on an accordion with his eyes closed. But there are fewer musicians hanging around the square these days.

One clue as to the disappearance of the mariachis lies across the street. Posted on top of a building across the square is a sign that reads "Stop Gentrification: One Boyle Heights by Boyle Heights for Boyle Heights residents" in English and Spanish.

Many mariachis have left the area because they can no longer afford the rent. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Many of the mariachis have left the area because they can no longer afford the rent. A new art gallery and the new coffee shop are already here. In less than three years, there'll be new bike lanes, a new public arts space and a pedestrian mall. Even part of the plaza itself is now for sale. Change, say residents like Jose Sanchez, has been slow but expensive, like the $5 pour-over coffee. 

Less than a kilometre away from the plaza, Sanchez points to the door of his one-bedroom apartment. He's lived in this Boyle Heights building for 20 years. The outside wall of his apartment — and that of many others — is covered by hand-drawn posters. They're calls to action: a tenants' rent strike, after several of them received a letter from the property's new owner, who bought the building last year and raised their rent between 60 and 80 per cent.

"My God," Sanchez says. "When I saw the letter … Hell break loose here. You know this is, like, 80 per cent increase. Just like that. Me and my wife you cannot make enough money to pay $1,800 a month here."

Several have now received eviction notices and are fighting it in court.
Jose Sanchez says he was horrified when some of his neighbours got notices from their landlord saying their rent would go up by 80 per cent. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

He says the arrival of Weird Wave Coffee is a sign of the problem, and a harbinger of more trouble for his community. Why, he asks, should these businesses sell art they don't want and coffee they can't afford?

"We don't want only fancy stores," he says. "They're not welcome. No sir."

Sanchez doesn't advocate violence but says he understands what motivated the vandals to attack the shop.

"I don't blame them," he says. "We are in a war here because there's an invasion of these developers here. They see only money and gold. The storm is coming … they're buying everything." 

Redevelopment of downtown L.A.

With property and rent prices going up across Los Angeles, people with money — most of them white — are being drawn to formerly undesirable minority neighbourhoods where residents fear their culture will be erased.
University of Southern California sociology professor Manuel Pastor says the change happening in historic minority communities in Los Angeles has the 'resonance of Columbus discovering America.' (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"It kind of has the resonance of Columbus discovering America," says University of Southern California sociology professor Manuel Pastor. "That is, a newcomer sort of not understanding there was actually a thriving population already existing in the area and thinking that this is a barren wasteland on which to build something new."

Pastor says the biggest factor driving these demographic changes has been the redevelopment of downtown Los Angeles.

"If we had been talking 15 years ago, there were about 5,000 people living in downtown L.A., most of them homeless," Pastor says. "Now it's about 75- to 80,000 who are living in downtown Los Angeles. First come the artists, then the art galleries, then come the young urban professionals with money to price others out. So Weird Wave Coffee has been seen as a sort of signal of a wave to come."
Crenshaw is one of the few remaining historically black communities in Los Angeles. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Fear of being priced out of Crenshaw

About 15 kilometres away, he says, a similar wave is washing over Crenshaw, the heart of African-American Los Angeles.

In a church hall, hundreds of angry residents have gathered to talk about what seems like good news: a new light rail line, a new mall and a new housing development. But just look at the promotional brochure, say local activists like Michael Beatty. There's clear proof of who developers expect to attract. Many of the faces aren't African-American.
(Transforming Baldwin Hills Crenshaw)

"Crenshaw is the last bastion of African-American concentrated density in population in Los Angeles," Beatty says. "We have businesses here. We have families who have been here a long time."

Deirdre Hardimon's family has been in the area for generations. She attended the meeting because she's seen African-Americans priced out of other neighbourhoods, like Compton, until they were just a small minority.
(Transforming Baldwin Hills Crenshaw)

"I see non-black people moving into areas that are historically black," Hardimon says. "They didn't want to be there 10,15, 20 years ago, but now they have no place else to go because the real estate is so high in Los Angeles." 

"The fact is that they'll change the flavour and tenor of the neighborhood," Beatty says. "And the diversity that you would expect in this community, with all the black and brown people, will slowly, just as in all the other development projects that the metro has done, turn into an essentially a white community."

Even though, as Beatty acknowleges, the developer behind the mall is himself African-American.

"But he's also a developer, which means it isn't about culture or density, it's about how much money he's going to make," Beatty says. 
(Transforming Baldwin Hills Crenshaw)

But where some see the battle drawn along racial lines others, like Crenshaw resident Anna Bufkin, acknowledge the uncomfortable irony. If white residents used similar language to keep historically white neighbourhoods from integrating, they'd be decried as racist.

"We do need investors. We do need jobs for the youth in the community," Bufkin says. "How it's going to help or how it will hinder us, I don't know. I'm on the fence."

That's the conundrum at the ugly intersection of race and economics. These historic minority communities want development, but that's the very thing that will attract outsiders. And Pastor says even measures like rent control will do very little to change that.

"All of those are a little bit like the guy putting his thumb in the dike when the sort of flood of capital is coming in the way it is toward these neighbourhoods, which were once considered undesirable," Pastor says.
Weird Wave Coffee's Defa says he now understands the controversy brewing around him, and sympathizes to an extent. But, he says, he's staying put.

"No, we're not going to go," Defa says. "When our store windows were vandalized, the community paid for it. People showed up with $5, $10, you know, a stack of quarters. We got our entire cost covered from it. So, like, there's no way we're going anywhere."


Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.