When I first saw the flyer at left pop up in my social media feeds yesterday morning, I actually thought it was a joke.
Touting Boyle Heights as a “charming, historic, walkable, and bikeable neighborhood” where you could put down “as little as $40K with decent credit,” it invited Arts District neighbors to join in on a (free!) hour bike tour followed by a discussion and artisanal snacks.
No one who knew anything about Boyle Heights — a predominantly Mexican-American working-class community with a long history of political and social activism — could possibly think this was a good idea, right?
In one fell swoop, the flyer embodies every single one of residents’ worst fears: a passel of hipster outsiders coming in to stake their claims while munching on “artisanal” snacks because Boyle Heights’ own offerings did not appeal to their more refined sensibilities.
Few things have ever screamed, “I have no interest in getting to know this community!” quite so effectively.
And, it didn’t help that the flyers had only been distributed in the Arts District (just across the river from Boyle Heights), meaning that residents were finding out about it secondhand and thus left to construct their own narratives about who was behind it and what their intentions were.
Hoping to figure out what the story was, I immediately reached out to Adaptive Realty and spoke with Bana Haffar, a realtor and the organizer of the event.
It was before noon when we spoke, but she was already getting pushback about the event.
The negativity seemed to have taken her by surprise. She had looked at a tour in a community she liked as a positive thing. And, as an immigrant from an embattled community herself, she felt she understood the value of community, being a good neighbor, and not pushing others out.
And, she noted, she was only tapping into a reality that is already well underway — property values are on the rise and turnover has been happening in the area for some time. Boyle Heights is no longer just an Ellis Island for new immigrants. Beyond acting as a refuge for those looking to escape high rents elsewhere around the city, it is also serving as that first gateway for transplants to L.A. I just met four of them on the train this weekend, incidentally. They knew so little about the community that they had convinced themselves that their pad near Mariachi Plaza was in the heart of East L.A.
As part of a small real estate group dealing in smaller holdings, Haffar seemed to believe they might be able to help make positive contributions to the area (i.e. being better landlords to local renters) and bring in people who also were interested in building community.
I spoke to her at length about some of the changes that the area had undergone in recent years and where people’s concerns, at least as I understood them, lay. We talked about the challenge of ensuring a community benefited from changes it was undergoing. Then I connected her with a few people I felt she might benefit from hearing from about those issues, if she were serious about the notion of being a more conscious neighbor.
Watching the debate evolve on social media, I saw that many of Boyle Heights’ residents were grappling with some of the same questions we had discussed: Who is a gentrifier? Do outsiders sometimes bring positive change? What is the cost of them doing so? Must it always be a loss for the community? How can we make it a positive thing? What can we do better than outsiders? Are we doing enough of it? How can we do more?
And, as the very notion of gentrification never fails to stir up intense passions, I also watched with some amusement as the troops rallied and people discussed plans to crash the tour or call upon their homeboys to stand around and look menacing.
Sometime in the afternoon (I didn’t spot it til late), however, things took a turn.
Memes of Moses Kagan, one of the principals of Adaptive Realty, went up with an out-of-context (but, let’s face it, damning) quote about L.A.’s “horribly ugly” poorer streets and the pitchforks came out. All of his contact information was posted on it and people encouraged each other to pass it on, let him know how they felt about this impending invasion, or create their own memes. A select few volunteered to kick his ass.
Meanwhile, Haffar was getting disturbing phone calls and emails. Some were threatening, she said, with one woman claiming they would “burn your shit down like the Watts Riots in ’92” and others telling her, a non-white person, that white people needed to “stay the fuck out of our neighborhood.” Guns even started appearing in a few Facebook posts, she said.
Things were officially out of hand.
Haffar cancelled the event.
The threats of violence were shocking and reprehensible, particularly given the recent terrible events in Isla Vista. And, while they were not at all representative of the people I know in Boyle Heights, for better or for worse, they were indicative of just how much some fear the gradual encroachment they are experiencing threatens the very survival of their community and culture.
But, Haffar seemed largely undaunted by the onslaught, instead considering it an opportunity to learn more about the community and get people talking.
Where she found the original flyer posted on Facebook, she wrote of the need to create a “new model for gentrification” that had “positive connotations for change” and benefited long-time residents and newcomers alike. She then implored people to get involved with their neighborhood council and participate in conversations about how to make Boyle Heights a better place.
That sentiment was echoed, to a degree, in the apology issued by Kagan. It’s a lengthy mea-culpa of sorts, acknowledging the privilege with which he speaks in his blog, the lack of tact in the language used to describe lower-income communities on the blog, and his limited experience with or understanding of the potential harmful effects of gentrification.
At the end, he invites people to engage him in a civil manner on questions of their intentions in the community and to write him emails describing the ills of gentrification so he can post them on his blog (you can find that post here).
I found both of their posts instructive regarding their lack of familiarity with just how vibrant and engaged a community Boyle Heights has always been as well as how they, as realtors, often fail to think about the consequences of the processes they set in motion when facilitating gentrification. Not necessarily because they are terrible people bent on committing cultural genocide (as some alleged online yesterday), but because they are playing a role in a process that is much bigger than they are. And, they know that if it is not them taking advantage of the market, it will surely be someone else.
What feels like an inevitable process for one set of actors, however, can feel like a siege to another.
For many of those in the area who are experiencing those changes on a daily basis, gentrification (and even gentefication) and its impacts are an ever-present topic of concern.
The understanding that it broadly describes a complicated and multi-layered process that tends to result in the gradual marginalization of the very people that made the community so special is behind the years-long conversations initiated by Boyle Heights residents, artists, and activists. Dedicated to promoting change from within, but wary of the possibility of inadvertently pushing out their own people, many continue to dialogue amongst themselves about how to make the process of change inclusive.
The totality of those ongoing conversations cannot be captured in a single email to a realtor.
Nor should they be.
While the community may have spoken loudly against gentrification as a whole yesterday, the diversity of its inhabitants, their aspirations, their pasts, and their presents precludes the possibility of there being a simple answer to the question.
And, although I certainly cannot speak for anyone, I can guess that many of those same residents, artists, and activists might argue it is not their responsibility to go to Adaptive Realty with their concerns, anyways. If the realtors are truly interested in learning about the community and being a good neighbor, then it would seem to fall to them to make the effort to spend some time in Boyle Heights, listen to a diversity of stakeholders, and participate in that long-running dialogue.
Oh, and maybe leave the artisanal snacks at home.
See coverage of the follow-up conversation residents had about next steps, here. For more on the history of redlining in Los Angeles and how it shaped the development of Boyle Heights, please click here. Follow Sahra @sahrasulaiman on Twitter, like our Facebook page here, or contact her at sahra(at)streetsblog.org
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Gentrification is a complicated issue. The term is often used to mean anything having to do with outsiders, and the emotions it stirs up can make dialogue a challenge. What changes are you seeing in Boyle Heights? Is it all due to gentrification? What kinds of dialogue, activities, programs, or other solutions do you see now (or would you like to see) that might promote positive change in the area? Let us know in the comments.