Part 1: Echo Park

Monday, October 26, 2009

To accomplish this project, I plan on visiting several neighborhoods that are currently in differing stages of gentrification. And while several neighborhoods are currently in the throes of gentrification (or were, pre-recession), I’ve decided to begin with what is perhaps the current hot-spot of such neighborhoods: Echo Park

Echo Park, or EP as I like to call it, is without doubt LA’s quintessential (ongoing) gentrification case. The old-time bastion of Latino culture located NW of Downtown and home to the famous Dodger Stadium is prized for its authentic grittiness and street culture, gorgeous hillside vistas, charming cottages, central location as well as being home to one of the finer parks in the city. For these reasons, combined with the rising cost of real estate, it comes to little surprise that gentrification would continue its eastward march along Sunset.

As a neighborhood actively in the midst of redevelopment and major changes, it is one that is hotly-contested, with both sides staking out large claims of the barrio; north of Sunset, yuppie homeowners have snapped up and renovated cute Spanish adobes, while south of Sunset, hipsters pile in multifamily units with the existing Mexican population. And while the neighborhood is still overwhelmingly Hispanic, locals have already begun to view newcomers with mistrust and suspicion; cautious of their long-term plans for the neighborhood – for good reason, too.

Despite gentrification efforts having been hindered by the onset of the recession, Echo Park significantly gentrified – at least according to people in the area, who say more than 20% of the population now is white. Honestly, I have no clue as to what the current census counts are, and I’m hesitant to refer to old ones for the fact the census bureau is known for vastly under-counting urban areas. (That and the fact that neighborhoods heavy in immigrants (illegal or otherwise) by and large don’t take part in census counts). It is those immigrants, who, according to locals, are being chased out or wrongfully evicted from apartments by landlords in order make way for renovations and rent increases to appeal the new demographic. This change, while having been somewhat of a gradual process – albeit one that gains far more traction with the passing of each year – is quite surprising for a neighborhood, which until 8 years ago, was almost exclusively Hispanic.

Unlike some “up and coming” neighborhoods that, because of the frantic pace of gentrification, the neighborhood is neither it’s old – or new self, and instead plays an rather odd middle position. Chelsea, NY is an example of this; a neighborhood that is neither fully upscale and trendy, nor gritty and bohemian. Interestingly enough, despite its sense of transition, EP is true to its dual personalities, being both a ‘hip’ destination and proud Latino cultural center. It is these unique syntheses of old time Mexican culture and flavor, with that of the newer hipster arrivals’ that has propelled EP into the ranks of my favorite neighborhoods.

Its unique, sometimes uneasy existence between the new and old is manifested in various ways, with my favorite being the jarring contrasts and juxtaposition between their respective stores and hangouts. Overpriced clothing boutiques, swank coffee shops, eclectic niche stores, chic cafes, and of course, the ubiquitous trendy art galleries mesh with greasy taquerías, aromatic panaderías, tired laundromats and other, general stores. The result is the creation of a unique, one of a kind hybrid culture that has appealed to and drawn people from all walks of life.

Will the currently hamstrung gentrification efforts resume when the market picks up? Or will EP sour, reverting back to its original state? Whatever the outcome may be, I hope it remains a place where the sense of pride in the establishments, people and civic attitude keeping its great small town feel – and position as an oasis in this burgeoning city of 4,000,000.

Gentrification project

In the world’s 2nd largest Mexican city, amongst a dog’s dinner of other social challenges, is a rather surprising one: gentrification. Unlike the “traditional” concerns, such as safety, schools and employment, this is an entirely different one. Gentrification, the shifting of the gentry (class) in a neighborhood, and usually, the ensuing socioeconomic change, has become reality in many neighborhoods in Los Angeles and cities across the world. In a city that is fifty percent Hispanic, such neighborhoods, -- places where Hispanic or Hispanic-descended people comprise a plurality or majority -- have been particularly affected; be it for better or worse, depending on whom you ask. The impact of gentrification on these neighborhoods, and their inhabitants, especially those that are Hispanics, will be the subject of this project.

Gentrification can, and does, happen for a myriad of reasons. Most commonly, gentrification follows significant economic (re-)development. These often include the opening major institutions, as these attract an educated workforce; museums, universities and hospitals are all examples of these. Although, mass transit, social, culinary or art scenes can attract outside investment as well. Perhaps most importantly, though, is the location of a neighborhood; particularly its proximity to the above.

Unsurprisingly, the location of a neighborhood can be another driving factor. Neighborhoods are often coveted for their accessibility, but also other things such as amenities, desirability and infrastructure (charming architecture, for instance). The result of such is a neighborhood gentrifying for the sole reason that it is affordable and offers convenience to the aforementioned employment centers in paragraph 1.Gentrification, too, can happen for sheer fact a neighborhood is affordable; it is no secret that artists are traditionally known to seek out larger spaces, at cheaper rents. These are often in tandem with people being priced out of other neighborhoods, usually those that are further along in the gentrification process, and moving to the next closest neighborhood. (An example of this is Bushwick is to Williamsburg as Echo Park is to Silverlake.). Still, regardless of the method or degree of gentrification, or why it takes place, the mere change itself is almost guaranteed to alter the fabric/character of the neighborhoods and leave some impression on the locals.

It is those very people, whose plight, struggle, stories, experiences and opinions on the popular gentrification issue I am seeking. I mean, after all, they the ones on the receiving end of it, right? That right there should lend a lot of validity and credence to their thoughts on the issue – certainly much more so than some biased transplant would, anyways. Upon some deep brainstorming on the issue, several questions come to mind: How are they affected; positively, negatively? Does gentrification really change – for better or worse – the neighborhood? Will they benefit from the improvements likely to come, or will such improvements only cater to newcomers? Do gentrification and the ensuing disbursement really represent a loss of identity, culture and cohesion? The aim of this project is to thoroughly such questions, and chronicalize, or at the very least, document their stories, opinions and emotions on this topic.

Hopefully, hearing their stories, I will realize the bigger picture of gentrification; family, education, politics, economy and religion all included.

Chicago, Chicago

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

(Mart Plaza/ flickr)

Ahh, Chicago. The Windy City, The City of Broad Shoulders, or my favorite, Paris on the Prairie; America’s 3rd city: the red-haired, freckled stepchild of our big metropolises.

A city known and celebrated– for better or worse – for many things: hearty, no-nonsense American cuisine, soaring skyscrapers, ubiquitous El trains, a zealous sports culture, rich cultural diversity and a lakeside location, amongst other things. And at the same time, like any other city, Chicago also represents many “other” things: a unique, home-grown brand of corrupt political machines, exorbitant violent crime, astounding segregation and other racial divisions, and of course, the unforgiving winters. The city, if nothing else, is a patchwork, almost a quilt, of locals’ neighborhoods, with corresponding hangouts and institutions. Tight-knit enough where one rarely leaves his or her neighborhoods, often the same one they grew up in. Traditionally made out to be fiercely blue-collar and raffish, I find these befitting, given it being the capital of a rather bland, unromanticized Midwest culture. It is this city, Chicago, that, in my efforts to fill a glaring Midwest hole in my travel map, I will be visiting at the end of the month.

Paradoxically enough, despite the nation’s worst segregation, Chicago is about as diverse as they come (well, outside of Toronto, London, NYC, and LA, that is). As the Great economic engine of the American Midwest, Chicago has been a principal destination for people the world over -- something that remains true today, with 1/5 of the population being foreign-born. Large numbers of Mexicans, Polish, Indians and various Central and Eastern Europeans have converged on and made Chicago home. And as a result, Chicagoans come in any and all walks of life, and while the plurality is black, near-equal numbers of Hispanics (with a Mexican population numbering 800,000) exist. Also existing is a similarly-sized white population, largely descended from immigrants fleeing (then) poverty-stricken Germany, Ireland and Poland. Renowned for sensibility and humility, this is a city whose citizens are stripped of pretension and arrogance; approachable in down to earth manner…and, one where people know how to eat!

Spawned from heavy immigration, is the establishment of Chicago as a food city. Let’s be real. Chicago’s the city to go if it is no-frills, quintessential Americana cuisine one seeks. Home to a unique trinity comprised of (unique local takes on) hot dogs, pizza and Italian beef, a man would be hard pressed to find a city that takes food more seriously. And while ethnic foods, from a smorgasbord of countries exists, as well as upscale dining options, Chicago is, and always will be a relentlessly authentic greasy-spoon American foodie destination – save the haute stuff for NYC or London.

Like its designation as a food capital, also born out of the strong immigrant work ethics, perseverance and know-how that cultivated a small swamp town into a bustling metropolis of several million is, amongst other things, an accomplished architecture tradition. How many cities have a titular style of architecture? Not many, that’s for sure. Since the first wave of Chicago School construction, succeeding generations of architects have poured a range of architectural styles into the mix, with numerous fine buildings in styles that include both the Chicago and Prairie schools, neo-classical, art deco, modern and post-modern. With such a distinguished tradition, well steeped in the crafting of fine architecture, Chicago certainly ranks as one of the architecture capitals of the country. Afterall, Chicago did, uh.. kind of invent, if not, certainly popularize the skyscraper. And on the residential side of things: the ubiquitous turrets? Who does corner turrets like Chicago?

It is for the many above reasons and others, that I consider Chicago (along with perhaps Detroit) the “quintessential” American city, even if only for the sheer fact that of the things we’ve come to let define & associate with Americana culture many have their roots in Chicago. (Countless musicians, athletes and other personalities hail from here. It being a place where people immigrated and strode for success as part of the American dream; the ascension of various, un-related ethnic groups into the American boiling pot, for example.)

As one can see, this is definitely a city I visit with pre-conceived notions. This being my first trip to the heartland, a place viewed with condescension and scorn from coastal liberals..well, we’ll see how it goes. Finally, despite Chicago’s proud march into the 21st century, due to the works of Upton Sinclair and others, I will always lovingly associate sprawling rail yards, messy slaughterhouses, gory meat-packing plants, and the cattle shipping business, along with other, gritty realities of industrialization, with the city. Chicago, Chicago at last.

mercado buenos aires

Saturday, October 3, 2009


Thursday, October 1, 2009