Letter to the Editor: A Gentrification Realization

I come from a suburb of Los Angeles where I was never really exposed to the reality of gentrification aside from what you see in movies like Menace II Society and Boyz N The Hood.  I remember first being introduced to the concept of gentrification when Laurence Fishburne’s character lectures his Compton neighborhood about how businesses are moving into their town at low costs and making the real estate value too expensive for the citizens who actually live there to afford it.  His solution to “keep everything Black,”  (though it may be one wise method of survival) is unpalatable to progressives with dreams of diversity and integration.  On top of that, he identified what he thought would be the biggest challenge to his own solution, which goes along the lines of an imminent ostracization from privilege.


That was how I was first introduced to the concept of gentrification.  As a young kid watching movies left with burning questions: What happens if we don’t know what to do about gentrification? Or don’t care?


Last summer in 2016 I had the opportunity to intern for Senator Kevin de León’s district office in Echo Park, where I got my first real exposure to gentrification.   Everyday that I drove to work, I passed by more homeless people and encampments than my imagination had previously allowed me to believe.  On lunch breaks I would take walks in the park across the street from the office.  There’s a beautiful lake in the middle of the park, but bordering one end of its perimeter is a salvage for the homeless.  Everyday I was seeing that population grow, just like District Deputy Ben Pak told me it would.


Finally, on a day when I just couldn’t believe it anymore, I went to Ben and asked, “How did you know the homeless population would grow so much and so quickly?”  And he said, “Oliver, homelessness is a complex issue with many factors,” and he went on to tell me each and every way he had time to explain to me, including how gentrification makes Echo Park a region that is currently evolving.  


Immediately obvious to anyone who hasn’t spent time in Echo Park is the competing market between old timers and newcomers; any pedestrian can see that the street is one cultural scene superimposed onto another.  To describe the scene to you, I would tell you that standing in Echo Park is as contrasting as standing with Frida Kahlo on the border of industrialization and her beloved patria.  Young, rich folk (maybe he even called them Hipsters to show his cultural fluency) are moving in, and real estate is inflating.  With younger rich people moving in, the region is getting safer, but it contributes to the homeless crisis because the people who have lived here for decades, maybe a century, are being bought out for their property and are struggling in their moving process.   


Then Ben says, “I’ll tell you what, Oliver. You and I are going next door to councilman Mitch O’ Farrell’s office to discuss how to resolve conflicts between the homeless and the property owners.”  My mind involuntarily brought me back to the unanswered questions that lingered in my memory since I was young.  I knew I would be discovering things I didn’t want to know.  At that meeting I learned that the homeless had set up huge encampment sites on public sidewalks that had overflowed INTO the streets.  Parents had to change the route they took to walk or drive their kids to school.  A case was told about a young school girl who was walking to school when she bought candy from a homeless person.  At school when she was eating the candy, she almost overdosed on a drug that the seller had laced it with.  So, the immediate solution when an encampment site becomes a problem like this is to do something nonchalantly called a “routine sweep.”  Take what you want out of the fact that it is called “routine” … During this sweep, we have law enforcement and Homeless Services Authority effectively make the homeless up-and-leave.  Find somewhere else to be where you won’t be causing problems.


Another day, maybe a month later in my internship, at a time of day that I just happened to be the only one in the office, a constituent walked in ready to drop something heavy on me.  He wanted to document what really happens when people who live their whole lives in Echo Park get pushed out by gentrification.  What he told me was profound.  He said that people who can’t afford to live there anymore, who’s families have settled there for nearly a century, are being forced to move to Watts, to Compton, or to be homeless. And he said, “Do you get it yet kid? My people are being forced to move to enemy gang territory.”  When I heard that, I had emotionally conceded.  In that instant, public safety, gun control, and the No Place Like Home Initiative all made so much sense to me … IN THAT INSTANT.  But I was there interning for the government.  I was allowed the capacity to show my sympathy and compassion for this man’s story, but over and above all, he was looking to me to be constructive with the situation, and the way for me to do that in my position was to take notes on his true story of gentrification.


I am grateful to have had the opportunity to do a government internship in Echo Park because it gave me insight into one of the worst situations we put our own people through.  Gentrification.  I had come to realize that the solutions to the problems of gentrification, the answers to my lingering questions, were some things I had been made to become familiar with during my internship.  Legislation like the No Place Like Home Initiative (a $2 billion bond for permanent supportive housing) houses the homeless and protects the health and safety of young school-aged children. Common sense gun control laws that Senator Kevin de León poured his heart into (the same ones that president-elect Donald Trump wants to erase), save lives amidst conflict between rival gangs.  These are the measures we must take to resolve the problems we face when we live with gentrification.  


Laurence Fishburne had something right about the solution to gentrification all along, an eerie subliminal message responsible for my years of reluctance to find any answers, but he was too pessimistic to ever let himself raise hopes in the thought: The oppressed community would not be able solve its problems alone, but must be recognized and respected as a people worthy of the same measures that would be granted to the protection of a community of privilege.  In other words, end our system of oppression, and we can end the effects of gentrification.


Combating gentrification must come primarily from gentrified communities themselves.  Those who must live with the first-hand effects of gentrification need the support and encouragement to help themselves.  They need to strengthen investments in their own communities and play up to the level of the economic market surrounding them.  That being said, I am a strong proponent of affirmative action and programs that motivate and elevate the education of underprivileged communities.  There is a difference between a “hand out” and a “hand up.”  There needs to be a “hand up” for these communities to compete in the economy and gain autonomy rather than leaving them in the dust with temporary “hand outs.”  These are some measures we can take to change the prospects of gentrification and homelessness in the future.


“The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others,” Albert Schweitzer.


[images used in this story are not the Property of the Redlands Bulldog nor the University of Redlands]