by Tom Nguyen
Friday, April 15 was the opening night of “Bad for the Community”, a new play at CASA 0101 Theater in Boyle Heights, written by Josefina Lopez and Oscar Arguello and includes “the voices for and against gentrification.” Many in this community, where I live, are in a state of active vigilance against anything resembling gentrification and the topic has even made the international news like The Guardian‘s recent coverage on the activist groups confronting outsiders.
The first act moves us through many familiar settings here in Boyle Heights: from 2 women (Rachel Gonzalez and Ronni Valentine) on the Gold Line discussing how they unintentionally contributed to gentrification as artists wanting to liven up the neighborhood, to a mariachi player (Ray Rios) lamenting that no one pays for songs anymore in Mariachi Plaza. We then meet a couple, Esteban (Gabriel Guillen) and Sol (Rachel Gonzalez), just trying to survive on their meager pay, long hours and sharing one car, in a neighborhood clearly changing faster than they can cope.
Against the optimism of Sol expecting a child and Esteban’s dreams of eventually opening his own restoration car shop are the constant challenges, from the humorous, like Esteban’s friends showing up with artisanal beer, to the serious, like new neighbors complaining about his 1952 Chevy parked for too long and eventually, the couple’s eviction, when the property owner sells the house.
Guillen and Gonzalez’s acting and chemistry are believably passionate and volatile! I was really emotionally invested in the two characters and whether their genuine sacrifices for each other would prove victorious over circumstances beyond their control. They really are the emotional heart of the play and I was disappointed when the first act ends unresolved, and we’re moved 10 years forward to 2026-2030 in the second act with new characters. Arguello told me he’s working on expanding this act to further explore Sol’s character and how people are inspired to take action under dire circumstances.
The second act shows an even bleaker future where the hipsters have seemed to triumph. Lucha Ocha (Ronni Valentine) is a community activist, who was recognized by the city 4 years earlier for kicking the gangs out of her neighborhood. She now finds herself being kicked out of her home, along with her teenage son Freddie (Adam Torres), when the landlord purposely lets the property get condemned so it can be sold to developers. Lopez based this act on a true story she read of a Hollywood resident who in real life did get displaced after getting awarded by the mayor for cleaning up her neighborhood.
Josh Langley (Kenney Selvey) and Justin Kimball (Ronnie Alvarez), who have their hipster clothes and smug mannerisms down to a tee, have their sights set on turning the building into a pet hotel. The irony that animals get housing while people are forced on the streets in the name of profit is not that far from the reality today, as nearby downtown LA gets fancy dog parks, with Skid Row’s homeless sleeping just outside on the sidewalk. While the second act is a morality play that imagines even a very rich and entitled developer can have a change of heart and be swayed to help those beneath him, it seemed a little too wishful of an ending. To bring us back to present day reality, the play ends with residents taking turns at city council chambers telling the politicians exactly what they think. Lopez made sure to represent all voices on the spectrum and both extremes, for and against gentrification.
There was a spirited Q&A afterwards and this play will definitely galvanize people to talk openly about gentrification and where each of us stands in relation to the issue. It reaffirmed how I view myself…as a gentrifier living in Boyle Heights. Lopez doesn’t automatically label any outsider a gentrifier and instead asks, “Are you coming to the community to take? Or to give?” She recommends everyone moving into a marginalized community read “20 ways to not be a gentrifier.” Personally I don’t think that’s enough and agree with the article “There’s no way not to be a gentrifier.” No matter how good my intentions or respect for my new home and neighbors are, it does nothing to change a system and continuing situation where lack of affordable housing and displacement of people continues unabated in Los Angeles and elsewhere…
I told Josefina the one role ever present and crucial to the process of gentrification but not personified in the play is the property owner. Gentrification doesn’t happen without that other party completing the transaction so I wish we got more perspectives of property owners. While they are often automatically vilified as just selling out for the biggest profit, I am lucky I live in a rent-controlled building where the landlord does not raise the rent for newcomers like myself, even if he’s legally able to charge as much as the market is willing to pay.
Beatriz Ochoa, a long-time Boyle Heights landlord, who invited me to the play, says there’s a big difference between owners like her and real estate developers who continually bombard her with cash buyout offers so they can raze existing properties to build bigger, luxury properties: “There are a lot of us that are what the market would call “mom and pop landlords”. We are not big and yet we’re treated like we are. Most of us rent our properties at or below market rate. There are one or two organizations that look out for our interests, but other than that we stand alone. If I would give you a list of all the times tenants have done illegal and unjust dealings, and all the money and grief it has cost me, you would not believe [them]. I know there are unjust and greedy landlords, but there are unjust and greedy tenants as well. It’s a complicated issue.”
So where do you stand on this complicated issue? The play has their closing weekend this Friday, April 22 through Sunday, April 24. Be part of the conversation and support community theater at CASA 0101!