Boyle Heights is More than Gangs, Gentrification
From the soft strumming of mariachi guitars, to the chatter of hipsters having drinks at a local dive, a certain rhythm flows through the Boyle Heights neighborhood. This rhythm makes Boyle Heights unique, and, according to resident Raul Diaz, also drives gentrification.
According to Diaz, 45, site manager for Homeboy Industries Youth Reentry Services and lifelong resident, the beat of Boyle Heights has been one of community and evolution. In the last 20 years however the decrease in gang activity has changed the way people view the neighborhood Diaz said.
“Ten years ago, gang violence was coming down from its peak,” said Diaz. “So, 10 years ago, you had the downfall of the very active street gangs of the late 90s and early 2000s.”
This allowed the young members of the community who found upward mobility to make changes that would better serve the community’s needs as well as their own.
According to a study by Ellen Shiau from the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University Los Angeles, some areas of Boyle Heights have seen a decrease in gang violence between 2005 and 2012.
Shiau wrote, “From 2005 to 2012, the total gang-related crime rate in Boyle Heights de- clined 54.4 percent to 1.89 crimes per 1,000 people. Although declining, the gang-related crime rate in Boyle Heights each year from 2005 to 2012 was higher than the gang-related crime rate in the City of Los Angeles as a whole.”
Deysi Serrano, 30, owner of Milpa Grille, said that her part in the community started when she took over the restaurant roughly two years ago.
“I was working for the owner and involved in the restaurant and his partner left, so that’s when I was asked come in and I did,” Serrano said.
Since March 2018, Milpa Grille has grown to be more than just a restaurant. The site hosts pop-up shops and allows independent vendors to “take over” and sell products. This, Serrano said, is a way to help the Latinx community and to provide for locals. One such vendor is Café Café, owned by brothers Joel and Juan Carlos Espinoza.
The business was born out of the idea that coffee can do more for the growers and the buyers. Café Café uses Cafe Estelar coffee, which the Espinoza brothers said goes above and beyond organic and fair-trade so that farmers can make above a livable wage.
“No one in Boyle Heights wants to spend $7 on a cup of coffee, especially if it’s from a controversial origin,” said Juan Carlos. “We provide coffee for those in the community and in turn allow the farmers and producers in Mexico to earn more than a livable wage.”
Serrano added that the fact that you have, “Chicano hipsters, kids like myself,” that want to improve the community shows the battle against gentrification is not so cut and dry.
“I think that’s empowering and shows that you are doing it and because of the struggles of your parents, honestly I think it’s great,” said Serrano. “They have the history, they know the history, they know where they’re coming from, they are staying true to that with a twist, which is it’s modern it’s what they need, and they see people who want it.”
It is not just homegrown locals driving gentrification. White, middle-class people have moved into the neighborhood to find affordable housing. According to the City of Los Angeles Department of City Planning, in 2017 35.8% of residents in Boyle Heights identified as non-Hispanic white.
“A lot of white people that now live here, but it’s interesting. They live here but yet it’s rare that you see them hanging out at the restaurants,” Diaz said. It is these people who have brought the most change to some of Boyle Heights most notable features.
Mariachi Plaza for example, is historically known as the place where mariachi performers would wait for jobs. The performers would strum or play as people came through to hire them for whatever event they needed. Now that is changing.
“You have a strong presence now of those that want to take a picture of a culture of Boyle Heights. You have the people come in to take pictures of the Mariachis like there’s something, like, I don’t want to be disrespectful and use the wrong word, but like they are animals, or they’re an exhibit at an art gallery,” said Diaz.
“Before it was our culture, it was natural. It was normal to just be, now everyone wants to go film there. Everyone wants to do a video there. Everyone wants to do a Quinceniera. Everyone wants to hang out around the mariachis but are they hiring them?”
Although white money and businesses have been coming to the neighborhood, people of color and Latinx peoples have also brought change to the community.
“I see a lot of Latinos opening business,” said Serrano. “Latinx for Plants, for example, all she does is sell plants. The gentleman next to me is expanding to other locations. I see more Hispanics opening business.”
Serrano has also made an effort to ensure longtime residents have the ability to live and thrive by providing a community fridge.
“We set up the fridge for people to come and take what they need, and that is the key,” Serrano said. “People will come and donate food and then the people in the community and take what they need.”