September 19, 2014 • Los Angeles
Walking around Leimert Park with my dog, I’m met with two kinds of greetings: the friendly “How ya doing?” and the more suspicious “Do you live around here?” This is a reflection of the way our society is increasingly being stratified into haves and have-nots. The neighborhood is a mix of working-class and middle-class people, but more significantly it’s a mix of property owners and renters. People who own houses are the friendlier ones, and they think of the neighborhood’s diversification and the appearance of new faces as potentially improving their property values and thus their net worth. Renters are suspicious of any change in the neighborhood, because that might impact their rent and potentially price them out of the neighborhood. Most of my encounters have been positive, even if people are suspicious about why I’m walking around, but the undercurrent is the fear or embrace of gentrification.
With the opening of new public transit rail stations along Crenshaw Boulevard, some kind of change seems inevitable. It’s possible that things will get worse; the Blue Line runs through some neighborhoods that never improved. But Leimert Park’s proximity to moneyed neighborhoods implies that the change will be for the better. In a perfect world there would be room for everybody, and the worst displacements of gentrification are indeed ugly, as we’re seeing in San Francisco, but things getting better still seems preferable to things getting worse. More centralized or top-down attempts at improving the economy of South LA are no solution. There have been some success stories, but there is a much longer list of broken promises, from retailers like Tesco who talk a big game and then skulk away, never even breaking ground, all the way to Sacramento, when the state clawed back community redevelopment funds during the recession.
I worked at an art gallery Downtown in the late nineties, when the zoning rules were about to change to allow conversions of historic buildings into lofts. Artists and other people in the neighborhood were frantic about gentrification; where would the homeless go? Where would poor people go shopping? A decade later I moved into one of those newly converted lofts, and the Downtown neighborhood has a vibrancy and vitality that it never had before the conversions. The early gentrifiers are now complaining that things have gone too far, that the neighborhood has been diluted by the mainstream, but there are more places to eat and more retail businesses there than ever. I was caught up in the fear of change in 1999, but the end result of all the development is that the neighborhood is a much better place. Skid Row is still there, just shifted a little east, and even the feared upscaling of the Grand Central Market hasn’t driven out the traditional vendors.
Our embrace of capitalism means we can’t really put limits on development. Landowners in wealthier areas can sometimes modify zoning rules or slap a historic designation on a building to limit development and dampen real estate appreciation, but that’s not an option for a broad and diverse neighborhood like Leimert Park. Clybourne Park, a play that was put on at Mark Taper a few years ago, opened my mind on the subject more than anything else has; it’s worth a read.
In summary, suck it up, people; gentrification is a bulldozer, and it’s going to plow through no matter what any of us want to happen as individuals; the best we can do is be prepared for it.