The ever-changing faces of York Boulevard

62

On a sun-drenched road in northeast Los Angeles, a discount store, a bike shop and an art gallery mingle side by side. A stroller-touting hipster wearing ripped jeans strides past an olive-skinned man with oil-stained overalls. Neither party acknowledges the other.

The road is York Boulevard in the neighborhood of Highland Park, and the stores are Junior’s Discount, The Bicycle Doctor and Matters of Space, standing juxtaposed against a picturesque palm tree backdrop. Anomalous businesses old and new, functional and hip, epitomize the ever-changing nature of York Boulevard.

York Boulevard: A Popular Local Attraction from The Occidental Weekly on Vimeo.

These days on York, the air is ripe with discussion of one loaded, infinitely complex topic: gentrification. Gentrification is the process by which a wealthier class migrates to a typically low-income area and displaces the original residents, who cannot keep up financially. It is essentially non-equitable development; the more affluent newcomers, property owners and developers profit, while the renting residents are displaced.

Longtime residents, eager newcomers and everyone in between perceive the recent changes on York in a different light. But no matter what stance one takes on gentrification, it is unquestionable that York has drastically changed in the past five or so years—a change that many people attribute to the influx of new businesses. Whether these new businesses are pioneers or colonizers is in the eye of the beholder.

***

Matt Schodorf, owner of Cafe de Leche and Schodorf’s Luncheonette, has lived in Highland Park since 2000. When he first moved there, he was working as a retoucher in a photo lab, and was attracted to the area by a $35,000 price tag on a home he still owns to this day, as well as the “chill” vibe of the area.

Many residents consider Cafe de Leche to be one of the first examples of what York has become, or possibly, for what it is becoming. Schodorf is well aware of the changes occurring in his neighborhood over the last few years, but thinks it is something else that draws people to the area.

“It’s more exciting to talk about the change, but people come here for what remains constant,” Schodorf said. “It’s beautiful, old-school Los Angeles. There aren’t many places left in the city like Highland Park.”

Schodorf opened Cafe de Leche, named by his Nicaraguan wife and her mother, in 2008. He decided that York Boulevard needed a coffee shop similar to Swork on Colorado Boulevard, which Schodorf and his wife used to frequent. The shop opened just as the effects of the recession were beginning to spread. Schodorf took out a loan against his house and, coupled with his life savings, pulled together enough to open the coffee shop. The store barely survived initially.

“We opened [Cafe de Leche] and there were crickets for two, two and a half years,” Schodorf said. “I kept my job as photo assistant to scrape by. You’d hear radio hosts say, ‘Cut out those cups of coffee to beat the recession,’ and that is really what happened.”

As the economy gradually improved, the store’s reputation for quality developed, and the rest is Highland Park history. Despite being from Ohio, Schodorf considers Highland Park his home and says he feels just as much a part of the community as those who originated here.

“I may not be a native, but I have lived here longer than I have lived anywhere else.”

***

Before the likes of Cafe De Leche and similar new establishments packed the sidewalks, Highland Park had a reputation for gang activity. Occidental students were rarely seen on York and outsiders were cautious of visiting the neighborhood.

“As a gay, Latino man I used to be scared to come here,” Tommy Chiffon, an employee at Urchin vintage clothing store on York, said. “Personally I enjoy the change. I wouldn’t be here [without the recent changes]. For that reason, I’m diggin’ it.”

Today, Chiffon happily greets customers from behind Urchin’s register while thinking of his youthful years as a glam rock artist and leader singer for the Tommy Chiffon Band. The band is getting back together, Tommy says, but for now, he sells retail at the vintage clothing store to pay his bills.

Originally from Boyle Heights, Tommy has lived in multiple neighborhoods across northern Los Angeles and has seen the same transformation take place in neighborhoods such as Silver Lake, Los Feliz and Echo Park. According to Chiffon, the phenomenon starts with trendy shops finding their way into an area previously infested by gangs. Gang members are eventually pushed out by rent prices, and as gang members leave, so do the gangs.

Highland Park native and former Coffee Cart supervisor Manny Carranza, a face recognizable to many Occidental students, left his job at Occidental this year to become a supervisor at Mount St. Mary’s College in Brentwood and obtain a degree in business economics. Carranza grew up in Highland Park and still resides in the area, and believes the noticeable changes to the neighborhood are not necessarily due to a reduction in crime.

“The higher class is taking over, making it harder for the minority,” Carranza said. “The rich get richer, the poor get poorer … In the U.S., the economy makes money off of minorities; small businesses make the community.”

Carranza thinks fear oftentimes overshadows perceptions of what Highland Park used to be.

“People just get scared and judge a book by its cover,” Carranza said.

Ana’s Party Supplies is the epitome of the small businesses Carranza praised. Ana, the store’s owner, opened her party supply store on York seven years ago, after splitting from a store she co-owned with her brother. With the help of her teenage son, who sits behind the counter and helps translate, Ana elaborated on the changes to York and the fears they have left behind.

“Things are better now,” Ana said. “Over time we got more business, more bars; they’re making this place like Hollywood!”

The mother and son started to giggle at the thought of seeing the Hollywood elite perusing their shop. Ana’s stance on gentrification is worlds away from Carranza’s.

“More people came in with more money. It’s good for business. Home value increases and crime decreases,” Ana said. “It’s beneficial.”

Meanwhile, Robert—founder and owner of Zeppelin Music, which has stood on York for 15 years—is more inclined to agree with Carranza’s view.

“York has changed a little bit,” Robert said. “It wasn’t bad when I got here. Rent has gone way up. Gentrification is making the price of goods skyrocket.”

While most residents commented on the decrease of gang activity, crime and violence, Robert views the supposed safety improvements indifferently.

“It’s no safer than it was,” Robert said. “About the same, no more. No less violence, but there is more burglary because the price of inventory [in the area] has increased.”

However, statistics show that both Highland Park and Los Angeles as a whole have seen a decrease in gang-related crime. According to a Southern California Public Radio report, an increased and improved police presence, a continued shift away from Los Angeles’ crack epidemic of the 1990s and even a spike in the incarceration rate are all plausible causes for the decline.

***

Although community members disagree on the status of crime in the neighborhood, several concur that the perception of increased safety comes with a price.

“At first the changes are great,” Tommy said. “Then rents go up and I have to move on. But I’ve been pushed out before; the rent situation in L.A. makes it hard to stay in one place.”

Tommy described the artist culture that has emerged around York. Generally he notices that an area starts as a low-income neighborhood, then the artists come in and then it becomes a middle class residential area. York is currently in its “artists phase,” and Tommy is enjoying the networking opportunity, connecting with old friends from the Hollywood music scene as well as new friends in the music community.

“It can’t be good for everyone,” Tommy said, “but it’s great for business and real estate owners. Some benefit while others worry about where to move.”

Tommy is fortunate enough to rent from his boss, so an unexpected rent spike shouldn’t push him out this time. But one of his co-workers isn’t so lucky. She lives in Highland Park with her 70-year-old father, but since their landlord increased rent prices, the two of them have been homeless.

Rent inflation in Highland Park is not merely a matter of anecdotes—it is a fact. According to the Redfin Real Estate Research Center, Highland Park is the “hottest” neighborhood in the country. In 2013, real estate sales increased 73 percent, prices rose 31 percent and the volume of listings dropped 48 percent. For property in Highland Park, demand and prices are skyrocketing while supply dwindles.

Connie Simmons, co-owner of Circus of Smoke, has seen this real estate boom occur right in front of her eyes. Simmons said she had the best-looking house in the neighborhood when she purchased it 40 years ago, in conjunction with her storefront on York. Today, she said, her house is near the bottom of the list.

Simmons has witnessed the evolution of York on a grand scale—she has been in the same store front for 40 years, but her stock of inventory has gone through many changes since she first opened her doors. From a beauty parlor, to a second-hand store, to an antique shop, to Circus of Smoke, the changes have ultimately catered to the tastes of York’s population.

“Now we have all these yuppies,” Simmons said. “They sit [at Cafe de Leche] on their electronics and sip down coffee. Five years ago, it was all gangs.”

***

Seemingly everything you could ever want is stacked floor to ceiling in Junior’s Discount. An employee, who travels daily to work from South L.A., says the store has been there for eight years and that she has been there for four. Her young daughter behind the counter helps translate as they negotiate in Spanish with a family who wants to have a helium canister at their birthday party.

“It’s different now,” she said in Spanish. “More Americans. It’s cleaner. It’s safer because more people want to bring their businesses here since they know people will come. They’re not afraid.”

If by more Americans she means more white people, then the U.S. Census report supports her claim. Across the census tracts of neighborhoods surrounding York, increases of whites in the area range anywhere from two to 39 percent. Conversely, Latinos have steadily flowed out of the neighborhood at a rate of around six percent, but can range anywhere from a four to 16 percent decline. There were no instances of an increased Latino presence in a census tract near Highland Park.

Martha Matsuoka, an Urban and Environmental Policy (UEP) professor and a member of the UEP Institute, is a part of a community group created to discuss the problems in Highland Park and explore avenues for combating displacement. The group quickly encountered issues of racial profiling and discrimination in local businesses. Students from Franklin High School said they felt more and more unwelcome around York and that police harassment was on the rise.

“It’s tense,” Emma, an employee at Pop-Hop Books and Print, said. “Any neighborhood starting to go through gentrification is going to be tense. I’ve heard some scuffles at Johnny’s. Sometimes when longtime residents get drunk, their anger comes out. We’ve had ‘gentrifier’ written on our window, even though we’re just a small donation-based bookstore.”

***

These anecdotes of current residents, employees and business owners around York paint a realistic picture of today’s York Boulevard, but the story is incomplete, revolving around the narratives of those who have survived the upward trend. The stories of those who have been displaced are much more elusive, and likely not as optimistic. Census data and research studies can help quantify the phenomenon, but facts don’t tell the human story of profit and loss. Some benefit while others suffer; such is the trade-off between the gentrifier and the gentrified.

Blessed will be the day when the hipster looks up into the eyes of the auto-mechanic and the two exchange a nod of mutual respect.