Gentrification and its Discontents: Boyle Heights and Beyond


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Click here to read a blog post about the event from the UCLA Luskin website. 

On 1 November, the same night that Los Angeles hosted Game 7 of the World Series between the Astros and the Dodgers, the UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy hosted its inaugural public event “Gentrification and its Discontents: Boyle Heights and Beyond.” The symposium brought together a panel of distinguished guests to discuss the past, present, and future of gentrification in Los Angeles.

KPCC’s Rina Palta moderated the panel and posed a series of questions that touched on both history and the present. The two UCLA academics were Eric Avila, historian and Chicana/o Studies chair, and Abel Valenzuela, urban planner and former Chicana/o Studies chair. The two visitors were Cecilia Estolano, consultant, lawyer, and former CEO of the LA Community Redevelopment Agency, and Steve Lopez, the well-known L.A. Times columnist. Together, these four experts generated a conversation about gentrification in and out of Boyle Heights, highlighting the relevance of historical knowledge to addressing this pressing social and political problem.

History helped give the title’s term “beyond” both geographic and topical meaning. Professor Avila noted that gentrification dates back long before contemporary contests over Boyle Heights began, perhaps to Baron Haussmann’s transformation of 19th-century Paris into a bourgeois cityscape. What also emerged in the conversation was a critique of the latest fad in discussing gentrification in Boyle Heights as a matter of consumerism. All four panelists challenged what have rapidly become clichés about the relationship between displacement and white hipster style, the cost of artisanal coffee, and art-activist tactics.

Estolano offered an insightful definition of gentrification as the rising cost of living intersecting with stagnant wages, reminding the audience that, by recent metrics, 25% of L.A. residents live below the poverty line. The solution to both problems is for the state to take a robust role in regulating housing development and stabilizing L.A.’s rent increases. To gain legitimacy, Estolano stressed that local communities must have a place at the policymaking table. Conversely, political leaders and policy-makers must cede some authority to genuine partners from the communities affected so that all three groups can cooperate to counter the market interests of developers.

Valenzuela suggested to the audience that it is LA’s unionized rank and file who have the power to change the course of gentrification in Boyle Heights and Beyond. The strength of the local LA labor movement has proven the exception to the national trend of deunionization. Perhaps the L.A. Tenants Union could take the lead in pushing back against gentrification and the increasingly corporatized local rentier class.

Rather than social movement tactics, Lopez pushed for plain old politics, with an assist from audience member and former County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. Lopez stressed the significance of the 1995 Costa Hawkins Act, a developer-friendly, bipartisan bill which weakened local municipalities’ ability to enforce rent control measures in California, and the recent efforts to have the act repealed. Yaroslavsky followed up with criticism of the City Council members who have not shown an interest in stabilizing the cost of living in the area. Laws like those that recently protected all Angelenos from price gouging could easily be recast to address rising rents.