by Tom Nguyen
I happened to see the following post on my Twitter feed yesterday from Boyle Heights resident, Ofelia Carillo, asking others to respond to a post which upset her:
Reading it alarmed me too. It’s brazen and it’s obvious in its message and its audience: touting Boyle Heights to “hipster” home buyers as some kind of newly discovered oasis amid the increasingly unaffordable Los Angeles real estate market. The twitter account lists a real estate blog Just Off Mulholland run by Jimmy Bayan of John Aaroe Group. The properties listed run up to the multi-million dollar range in areas of Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, Hollywood Hills, Los Feliz, Silverlake, Echo Park…it’s a westward march that has apparently now led him to discover Boyle Heights.
His post strikes me as insensitive as last year’s flyer by another realtor wanting to lead a bicycle tour for prospective buyers. If you recall, that realtor was also touting “charming, historic” Boyle Heights with the headline “Why rent in Downtown when you can own in Boyle Heights.” The community backlash then was quick, vociferous and clear — anything hinting of gentrification would be challenged.
What is maddening to many residents and activists like Carrillo is this Christopher Columbus-mentality of “discovering” places to live for a more affluent set of people, who have the means to come in and buy property in minority and working class neighborhoods, where ownership is beyond the means of most people already living there. As wealthier inhabitants move in, prices and rents go up and working class families who’ve been eking out an existence for generations get displaced.
Boyle Heights especially has great historical significance in regards to housing in Los Angeles, but its the “historic” part of that charm that often is lost on new discoverers like Bayan. I personally tweeted to Bayan to educate him on some of this history and the challenges the community has overcome.
First, I asked him if he takes the time to teach Boyle Heights history to the people he’s inviting here and how much of that history he knows. I gave him the example earlier this summer when I and members of Corazon Del Pueblo encountered a home-buying couple in Boyle Heights and we initiated a long, honest dialogue about what their presence represented. Although it was a difficult discussion about the reality of gentrification, it was a positive one where we acknowledged the necessity of having it and thanked each other.
Secondly, I alluded to the historical injustice in housing availability to people of color in Los Angeles. Racist housing compacts kept Los Angeles segregated and restricted people of color to living only in certain areas. Boyle Heights was one of those areas where all were welcomed and able to live side-by-side….Latinos, Japanese, Jews, Blacks and many others. You can still find that rich history of early, rare racial integration with the Breed Street Shul one block from where I live and the Japanese Buddhist temple a few blocks away.
That kind of privilege of being able to pick and choose where to live, while others can’t, still applies today…though not explicitly with racist housing policies, still very much so along racial and socioeconomic lines. Gentrification and displacement is not new and in my last tweet, I let Bayan know he represents the latest instance of what has been happening for generations here in Boyle Heights. I invited him to learn more at the upcoming premiere of East LA Interchange at the Downtown Los Angeles Film Festival. The documentary discusses the building of the freeway interchanges, which displaced and segregated the Boyle Heights community. It is a history I didn’t know myself until recently when I discovered this Instagram account Boyle.Heights.Hidden.History.
Bayan also made the same post on his Facebook profile, with a picture taken just one block from my apartment. I was looking forward to his replies but he has since blocked me from his Twitter account. I find it perplexing when people choose not to have dialogue, especially when they initiate public statements that are sure to draw scrutiny and discussion. It’s a similar reaction to the story I broke last month about a film crew for Eva Longoria’s Low Rider movie that made a controversial tweet, maligning an El Sereno community center. There can be honest and fruitful dialogue instead of defensiveness and ignoring the community. Maybe Bayan can take a lesson from the realtor from last year and his mea culpa. If Bayan can talk about topics like “Badass Norwegian Shipbuilders” and “Cahuenga Pass Boathouses” on Curbed LA, surely he can discuss gentrification, which is a frequent topic there. I personally reached out to Bayan, via the phone number listed on his site, to ask for clarification on his public Twitter statement but have not received a response. I am waiting.