Author: Manna Selassie
York Boulevard is the kind of cool that puts a bad taste in any conscientious person’s mouth. Occidental students may be excited to find that a few Los Angeles bloggers and writers have named Highland Park’s very own York Boulevard a
hub of hip or even the coolest street in L.A. But students may have also noticed that this “revitalization” is just another phrase for gentrification.
In recent years, many cute, expensive hipster shops and restaurants like the Highland Park Café have moved in and replaced small businesses like the Guatemalan Bakery. Despite these changes that some credit with improving Highland Park, it would be remiss to mention the “revitalization” of Highland Park without discussing how race, class and Occidental’s local engagement fit in.
Many of the new tenants of Highland Park are European-American, while the old dwellers are Latin-American. Taking one look at York will allow anyone to see the race-class divide between places like The York – a new gastropub – and Highland Park Billiards across the street. Much of York will depict the same relationship: the places white people go and the places brown people go.
At times, walking down York can be like stepping into the ‘50s. If anyone wants to be made uncomfortable by racial segregation, York Boulevard is the place to do it. It is not that the Highland Park newcomers are bad people; it is that their reluctance to participate in the existing community makes the boulevard seem so divided.
When economic interests and factors behind the changes on York are considered, it becomes clear that there is nothing cool about this gentrification. The people behind the revitalization of Highland Park are primarily corporate partners and wealthy individuals who have not demonstrated an interest in really building up the community.
Sociology students at Occidental did research specifically on corporate influence in the revitalization of York and other streets during the fall 2012 semester. They conducted interviews with business improvement district developers and non-profit corporations such as the North Figueroa Association. In an interview with an Occidental student, an anonymous representative of this organization specifically mentioned the need to push out all the food trucks and street vendors because they are bad for business and unclean, and then managed to do just that in under a year’s time.
Simultaneously, developers and businesspeople introduced expensive antique and thrift shops catered to tourists and hipsters who have enough money to buy scrappy old couches for $300. Clearly, these plans were made without considering Occidental students and Highland Park community members who love street food and non-expensive thrift stores.
The new economic class introduced to the community is simply replacing the less wealthy class. Over less than one year, prices in the neighborhood skyrocketed by more then 40 percent. The primarily Latino/a residents who originally populated the area are being priced out.
The race-class divide is nothing new for Occidental students. We have departments, courses, organizations and clubs that emphasize racial and class-based issues, but even outside the classroom, Occidental and its students have been engaged with the forefront of these problems for decades. Sometimes, Occidental has been depicted by community members as an ivory tower trying to avoid the troublesome Highland Park neighborhood. In reaction, the college began initiatives like the Office of Community Engagement and the Neighborhood Partnership Program in 1997.
Occidental students and all new members of the gentrified Highland Park neighborhood need to strive to be members of the original community, rather than disrupters. Otherwise, even conscious Occidental students will become the gentrifiers or apathetic bystanders we read and write about in class.
Manna Selassie is a senior DWA major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @WklyMSelassie.
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