Complex Narratives of Gentrification & Displacement

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Author: Sarah Corsa

Around 2:30 a.m. Lidia Delgado, 40, left her home in Highland Park to make the 115-mile drive north to Bakersfield, where her estranged husband, three children and preschool business are located. By 4:30 a.m., she was driving back south, confused and in disbelief. Emergency services had just called to inform her that her house was on fire.

On Dec. 30, 2015, Jesus Delgado, Lidia’s father, woke up around 4 a.m. coughing, which also woke up Esther Delgado, her mother. When he opened his eyes, the room was hazy with smoke. They went to the adjacent bedroom and saw light shining from the closet and, upon closer inspection, realized that it was fire. Jesus Delgado ran to get water from the kitchen — when he opened the closet door and poured the water, flames leapt forward. By now, the fire alarms had awoken the other family members.

When firefighters arrived — 55 of them — the flames had ripped through the old home, built in 1905, from that first-floor bedroom through the second floor and out onto the roof. With the second floor at risk of collapsing, the firefighters transitioned to “defensive mode” to contain the fire and prevent it from spreading, rather than aggressively extinguishing the flames. As a result, the roof eventually caved in. Four hours after the fire began, firefighters still worked to extinguish the last flares, although the LA Fire Department had determined the house and its contents were a total loss.

The entire family (Esther, Jesus, Lidia and Lidia’s four brothers, Max Delgado, 41, Marcos Delgado, 39, David Delgado, 27, and Arthur Delgado, 22), the two tenants living upstairs and two dogs escaped. Jesus was transported to the hospital for minor injuries. Two dogs, a cat, birds and turtles perished in the house.

“To be honest, that first day, the whole day, I just couldn’t cope,” Max said.

With news crews filming their home and insurance claim adjusters lined up down the block, he was in a state of shock. For Lidia, the reality of the situation did not set in until she woke up in a hotel room the next morning.

Over a month later, the acrid smell of smoke hangs around the home as strongly as if it were still smoldering. Blue tarps cover partially burned furniture in the side yard. The roof is gone, and from the left side of the house, the charred, skeletal interior where the fire originated is visible. Multiple signs posted on the front door and porch post warn that the structure is unsound and unsafe to enter. Lidia, Marcos and Max sit in an assortment of chairs, reunited temporarily to navigate the reconstruction of their home.

The fire rendered the Delgados homeless in its immediate aftermath. Because they could not afford a home or apartment large enough to fit everyone due to Highland Park’s climbing rental prices, the Delgado family was forced to split up. Lidia stays with friends when she is not at work in Bakersfield. David does the same. Esther and Jesus found an apartment near their former home, and Arthur, who is severely mentally and physically disabled, stays with them. Marcos and Max still live on the property — in the garage and in a powder blue van parked at the end of the driveway — in part because there is no other place to go and in part to watch over the lot.

Lidia tried to rent an apartment a few blocks from their former home, in the same building the family moved into when they first arrived in LA. But the rent, which she recalled being $350 for a single bedroom apartment in the ’80s, has risen to $1400 for the exact same apartment. While the rental prices quadrupled, the minimum wage is only about 2.35 times higher: in LA, the minimum wage in 1988 was $4.25; today it is $10. The rising costs are commonly considered a symptom of gentrification, the revitalization process of a neighborhood that accompanies an influx of residents of a higher socioeconomic class and displaces poorer residents.

Although Esther owned the home, the house was significantly underinsured, leaving the family with little money to rebuild it as it stood before.

“You never think that something like this is going to happen to you and then eventually, yeah, you have to worry, and it does affect you, what’s going on in the area,” Lidia said.

The family has lived together in Highland Park since immigrating from Mexico in the 1980s. Now, the lack of affordable housing threatens their conception of home in the wake of a tragedy few could have anticipated. The family faces a difficult decision about whether to rebuild their home or take the insurance money and find housing outside the neighborhood. They are optimistic that their family will find a solution for their current situation, but realistic that their new normal might look different from the past 30 years.

“Is this the end of us in Highland Park?” Lidia said. “It might be, it might be, you never know. That’s something else to take into consideration that, unfortunately, with the things that we’re seeing, it might be.”

The Delgados’ situation might seem to embody the downside of gentrification as long-time residents potentially become priced out of their neighborhood, but they don’t see it that way — or even see gentrification as a negative phenomenon. While they recognize that the rising costs associated with gentrification can displace residents, prior to the fire, they considered themselves immune to that impact as property owners. And if their house had had proper coverage, they likely would have been somewhat shielded from the neighborhood’s rising costs. For the Delgados, gentrification has improved the neighborhood they have called home for 30 years.

The structure of Highland Park has pretty much remained the same, we just see the streets are cleaner, there’s more businesses coming in,” Lidia said. “There used to be a lot of — especially on York —a lot of empty businesses. You turn around and look at now, things are getting better.”

As the sun clears the neighboring house’s roof, out of which hip-hop blares, Max wistfully describes the time he climbed through the sewers connected to the nearby LA River, which he said was the biggest adventure of his life. He’s nostalgic about teachers at the local public school that taught him his first words of English. Their street feels quiet, despite running perpendicular to Figueroa Boulevard.

Amid their recollections, the siblings allude to a Highland Park that is somewhat rough around the edges, then and now. From their perspective, gentrification is smoothing out that roughness and bringing businesses to formerly empty store fronts, reducing gang violence and cleaning up the streets. Though the small-town feel remains, more people walk the streets.

One of those people is Khanh Ho. A Highland Park resident who did not know the Delgado family before the fire, Ho helped rally the relief effort by collecting clothing and household items and establishing a GoFundMe page to collect monetary donations, which has earned $1,715 so far. Those donations helped the family make the first month’s mortgage payment after the fire, Lidia said.

Although Ho recently moved to Highland Park from Grinnell College in Iowa, he is an LA native and former professor interested in gentrification — and he also recognizes that, as someone of a higher socioeconomic status who was attracted by the reinvented Highland Park’s atmosphere, he could be considered a gentrifier. He does not necessarily tout the outcomes that gentrification produces, but he also does not decry them. Recalling the words of an art history professor at USC, Ho said he sees cities as being constantly in flux. The Delgados echoed this sentiment; in their 30 years in Highland Park, they have seen the neighborhood ebb and flow.

“I don’t see [gentrification as] very black and white,” Ho said. “But I do think that the economic conditions in the way that the city is being changed both on an administrative level, in City Hall, and also in terms of settlement patterns mean that [the Delgado family] is going to find it very, very difficult to find housing.”

For Sociology Professor Jan Lin, who has conducted research on the gentrification in Northeast LA, even the positive changes of gentrification can cause come with “urban growing pains.” Most notable of these pains is the way gentrification displaces poorer residents, an outcome so characteristic of the phenomenon that it appears in the dictionary definition of the word. And, Lin said, displacement occurs along intersecting class and race lines. Although affluent Latino residents can participate in and benefit from the gentrification process, incoming white residents primarily displace lower income Latino residents and open new, high-end small businesses in Highland Park. In other urban neighborhoods around the country, Black residents are often displaced.

“That succession process is primarily a social economic class process, but what makes gentrification kind of a bad word is not just that it’s a class process, but that it often includes this interethnic or interracial transition,” Lin said. “That’s very hard on the people that were there before and it makes some of the new newcomers, in a sense, sometimes uncomfortable because they actually have to adapt to the process. They have to almost account for their own arrival.”

Occidental students’ recognition of how gentrification can displace certain residents has led them to engage with the issue both academically and extracurricularly. Events over the past couple years, such as a datathon in October 2014 analyzing the effects of gentrification, a panel of community leaders organized by Occidental’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter in February 2015 and “New Colonialism/Gentrification is Urban Colonialism” hosted by Sigma Lambda Gamma in October 2015, stoked conversations about the issue on campus. At the beginning of the fall semester, students created a new club, Oxy Students United Against Gentrification.

In their coursework, students have worked with residents to share the various realities of life in the gentrifying neighborhoods of Northeast LA. In the spring of 2013, Lin’s Urban Sociology course interviewed community members in Eagle Rock and Highland Park about the ongoing changes for KCET’s “Boulevard Voices” series. Evita Chavez ‘15 examined gentrification in Highland Park for her Urban and Environmental Policy senior comprehensive project, interviewing residents about their experiences.

Chavez’s respondents describe a sense of helplessness about the changes swirling around them. They feel unwelcome on the streets they’ve walked for decades, like the new businesses are meant for a different type of clientele. Long-time residents even ask some storeowners, “Can I come in?”

For Lin, frequenting new businesses that are owned by the often-white newcomers — Berry Bowl, Block Party or Recess, on York Boulevard, for example — does not necessarily make a student complicit in the detrimental outcomes of gentrification. But, Lin said, students should be aware of how they distribute their spending. Rather than eliminating stores from their usual haunts, he challenges them to expand out of their comfort zones to businesses and areas of the neighborhood occupied by the established Latino community.

“Highland Park is such an intriguing meeting place of people that might not normally encounter each other,” Lin said. “You have your more recent, low-income and sometimes undocumented immigrant that is frequenting the small Latino-owned businesses and the street vendors. And then you have the more highly educated students and faculty that come from elsewhere. It really is cultural and class and interethnic crossroads.”

Despite the generally negative perception of gentrification held by these academics, the actualized experience of residents, like the Delgados, indicates that the situation may be more complex.

Regardless of whether they support revitalization or not, almost all — Lin, those interviewed for KCET’s “Young Voices” series and those interviewed for Chavez’s senior comprehensive project — see collaboration and coexistence between the old and new as a way forward: New business owners taking cues from the establishments around them; incoming residents making connections with the Latino neighbors down the street; even new neighbors facilitating relief campaigns when long-established residents’ homes burn down.

“It’s all been people from here, from our community, that have reached out and helped,” Lidia said. “Khanh, I didn’t know him; he heard about our story, he saw it on the news and immediately he opened up a GoFund Me account.”

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