None of your business!
Anti-gentrification activists forcefully oppose new shops that others in poor neighborhoods welcome
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LOS ANGELES—When Weird Wave Coffee opened doors between a pawnshop and a check-cashing agency in the mostly Latino neighborhood of Boyle Heights, its owners envisioned someplace different from Starbucks or hausfrau coffee bars. They wanted to create a cozy communal space for the community—but they didn’t anticipate that the community might not have space for them.
Since the coffee shop’s launch this June, anti-gentrification protesters have rallied to kick all “hipster colonizers” out of Boyle Heights. Heedless of the smoldering summer sun, about 20 protesters marched for hours around the coffee shop’s entrance, shouting, “Fuera, fuera!”—or “Out, out!” in Spanish. They masked their faces with bandanas, donned blond wigs, and waved signs that left no room for misinterpretation: “Wave Goodbye!” “[Expletive] White Coffee!” “NEW-WAVE Colonialism.”
Several hissed and booed at customers: “Sellout, sellout!” “You’re [expletive] racist!” “Gentrifier! Gentrifier!” When a curious matron wandered into the shop, protesters called out, “Nooo! Don’t support a gentrifying business!” The woman, glancing back and forth in confusion, twirled back out onto the streets. One young neighbor was bolder: He walked in, bought a cup of coffee, chatted with the owners, then walked out and pronounced: “I think they’re really nice guys. They’re just small-business owners.”
But to the protesters, there is no “just small-business” with newcomers such as Weird Wave Coffee, which they dub “White Wave Coffee.” They perceive them as a white, mostly upper-middle-class tsunami of gentrification that will crush the most vulnerable poor. And so they march on. Angel Luna, an activist with the anti-gentrification coalition Defend Boyle Heights, said the “warfare” will go on until their message is heard: “We are the voice of Boyle Heights, we don’t want you in our community, and we’ll do whatever it takes to get you out.”
CRAFT BREWERIES, mustached baristas in suspenders, cold-pressed juiceries: Those are the most visible elements of gentrification, though the whole process also involves invisible economic and political forces. Anti-gentrification groups such as Defend Boyle Heights vow to kick out any “obvious symbols of gentrification” before more flood in, driving up rent prices and evicting working-class families. Their targets: artists and entrepreneurs lured by the cheap lease and “authentic urbanism” of previously ignored neighborhoods.
Despite the lingering stereotype of the starving artist, artists today wield more cultural and financial power than ever before. Other now-gentrified neighborhoods across the nation such as Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Wicker Park in Chicago, and Venice in Los Angeles all first experienced an influx of artists and creatives, themselves driven out of other neighborhoods by high rents. Next sprouted amenities appealing to this educated, middle-class population—galleries, theaters, boutiques, cafés—which revitalized areas but also attracted investors and developers who converted rental apartments into snazzier lofts and condos. Property values soared, and many long-term residents buckled under skyrocketing rents and property taxes.
All these cases had a common theme: “They all similarly had a bohemian art scene,” said Occidental College sociology professor Jan Lin. “Art is a major factor in gentrification.” There’s even a term for it: artwashing—that artistic revival in a neighborhood actually cloaks an inegalitarian process of gentrification.
And that’s what some locals fear will happen in Boyle Heights. “We already see what’s happening at Highland Park and Echo Park,” said Luna, referring to two mostly Latino and low-income neighborhoods in LA, where artists brought revitalization with public art, art programs, and bike lanes. Now new shops serving vegan brunches, single-origin coffees, and yoga classes are jostling for room with old-school taco shops and 99-cent stores. “When the limos start moving into Boyle Heights and the tutus and the hipsters come out, we think something is happening, and we’re concerned.”
In Boyle Heights, protest tactics are aggressive and uncompromising, ranging from picketing and horn-blowing to name-calling and anonymous vandalism. In 2014, a real estate firm canceled its bike tour around Boyle Heights for potential homebuyers after people sent death threats. This February, activists successfully drove out a year-old nonprofit art gallery called PSSST, which cited loss of funding due to anti-gentrification activism. In their goodbye statement, the gallery owners said protesters continuously harassed their staff and artists online and in person.
In many ways, the 22-year-old Angel Luna is the perfect face for the current anti-gentrification movement, from his painter’s-brush whiskers down to the Aztec god tattooed on his right arm. Luna was born and raised in Boyle Heights to immigrant parents from Mexico. Twice landlords evicted his family, and twice he saw his parents’ devastation. When he was 11, his family bounced between aunts’ and uncles’ homes for two months. Later he graduated from UCLA with a double-major in English literature and Chicano studies with a minor in geography—a whip-smart, well-read zealot, now back home with a cause.
Today, the self-professed Marxist-leaning nerd lives with five roommates in a two-bedroom house in Boyle Heights—still angry about the hardships of many working-class tenants like his family. “This is the reality of my life,” he said, voice hardening with passion. “These experiences teach you a certain reality about the world, not just personally and emotionally, but theoretically: We are allowed to live in a world where families can go without housing, where kids have to bounce around houses.” He blames amenities such as art galleries and coffee shops that welcome gentrification.
Weird Wave Coffee co-owner John Schwartz says that categorization is unfair. “I don’t want to do any harm or displace anybody,” Schwartz said. “I want to do good to the community while hopefully running a successful business.”
The owners said they chose their location in Boyle Heights out of simple business sense: The five-year lease, at $2,000 per month, was manageable compared with the $4,000-plus for comparably sized storefronts in other neighborhoods. The nearest coffee shop is a Starbucks 1.2 miles away, so Schwartz, together with co-owners Jackson Defa and Mario Chavarria, decided Weird Wave Coffee could fill that caffeine gap.
The owners said they try to invest back into Boyle Heights: They buy avocados and fruits from a neighborhood cart vendor, purchase baked goods from a nearby social enterprise, and recently hired a local teenager part time. Luis Soto, 17, said that’s his first paid job, where he learned how to pull espresso shots and smell good beans. Soto said watching the protests “ticked” him off: “This is America—you should be able to open your own business.”
Many other residents say groups like Defend Boyle Heights don’t speak for the masses. “They’ve gotten way out of line,” said Viviane Hernandez, a 25-year-old retail clerk who grew up in Boyle Heights. Hernandez, who lives two blocks away from Weird Wave Coffee, said it’s a nicer hangout option than the McDonald’s across the street: “I appreciate new businesses. Who wouldn’t want better streets?” She now visits Weird Wave Coffee almost daily for its iced tea and zucchini bread, despite listening to protesters call her “vendida” or “sellout” in Spanish. She wonders why the activists remained silent when Starbucks and Walgreens opened: Why go after small businesses but ignore the big corporations? (Luna said such establishments don’t raise rents or property value, and another activist said they’re “post-gentrification.”)
BOYLE HEIGHTS has historically been a sanctuary for the working class, the immigrants, and the marginalized. The once-rural neighborhood didn’t have the racial housing covenants once common in LA, and in the 1800s it welcomed Mexican-Americans, then African-Americans, Jews, Italians, Japanese, Russians, Poles, Croatians, and Serbs in the early 1900s.
Remnants of this cultural hodgepodge include a tiny 61-year-old Japanese eatery serving no-frills comfort foods, the Byzantine-inspired Breed Street Shul with its murals of Jewish festivals, and a Serbian cemetery pecked by chickens. In between these historical gems are signs of new developments: A bakery that caters to an English-speaking clientele is tucked on the ground floor of a Victorian-era building that had been renovated into affordable housing. And there’s construction of high-rise condominiums—still rare in a neighborhood where the majority of houses are detached family homes with backyard gardens.
Today the 6.5-square-mile Boyle Heights is home to about 109,000 residents: 94 percent Latino, 95 percent without a college degree, 33 percent in poverty, 17 percent here illegally. The median home value in Boyle Heights is now about $420,000—a 9.9 percent increase from last year, compared with the 8.1 percent rise citywide in LA.
This real estate boom in Boyle Heights, thanks to its proximity to downtown and major freeways, is good for homeowners but not so good for renters, who make up 75 percent of Boyle Heights residents.
Currently dozens of mariachis and their neighbors are protesting eviction notices because they were unable to pay rent hikes as high as 80 percent. Their apartment building is a block from the historic Mariachi Plaza, where the LA Metro Gold Line opened in 2009. The new metro stop drew more visitors to the Mariachi Plaza—a quaint cultural center where mariachis have thronged to sing, find work, and mingle for 80 years—but also raised property values for neighbors.
Puebla del Sol is another example of a new development with winners and losers. Decades ago, Puebla del Sol was Aliso Village, a block of ramshackle public housing projects. Priscilla Bonilla, a 32-year-old nurse who lived in the Village since she was 6, remembers happy days as a child—playing cops and robbers, splashing in inflatable mini-pools—but she also remembers the street gangs and the shootings and the building’s dangerous lead paint, outdated plumbing, and leaky sewage system.
In 1999, the city and private developers tore down the projects and rebuilt them as Puebla del Sol, now a charming mixed-income housing complex that includes two community centers, a Computer Learning classroom, an outdoor pool, and a playground. Security guards in golf carts circle the block 24/7, which reduced gang violence and graffiti and allowed families to feel safe letting their kids walk to school. Most of the tenants have their rents subsidized to varying levels. Bonilla and her family pay $1,300 a month for a three-bedroom unit (the average rent price for a one-bedroom in LA is now $1,949).
But the improvements came at a cost: The demolishment reduced the number of rental units from 685 to 377, which affected the lowest-income residents, eliciting loud criticisms led by a group of activists that later founded a nonprofit called Union de Vecinos—the same group that joined Defend Boyle Heights in protests against Weird Wave Coffee and art galleries.
Even then in 1999, Union de Vecinos was controversial: It gathered about 300 signatures from Village residents on a petition against the demolition, but other residents were tired of peeling paint and gang terrorization and wanted a complete do-over. Union de Vecinos still foments controversy today with the lines it draws between neighbors by targeting Weird Wave Coffee and the dozen or so art galleries that opened up in vacant industrial spaces in Boyle Heights.
Weird Wave Coffee and several art gallery owners told me none of the activists showed any interest in civil dialogue. One gallery owner, a single mother who opened her gallery in 2015 with a $1,500 fund, showed me her last Facebook message to Defend Boyle Heights requesting a meeting. She hasn’t heard back since more than a month ago. Several days after I visited Weird Wave Coffee, someone in a black mask smashed the front door window, apparently with a rock. The message was clear: Get out, or else.
Luna told me Defend Boyle Heights doesn’t endorse such violence, but neither does it denounce the actions of people who are “fighting for their homes and lives right now.” And if the newcomers don’t like it, they can “get the [expletive] out of our neighborhood.”
MIHAI NICODIM, owner of Nicodim Gallery in Boyle Heights, said he refuses to budge. Last fall, protesters spray-painted an obscene word on his gate against “white art” and fired potato-guns at him. But he’s been through much worse, he said.
As a free-spirited artist in his 20s, Nicodim defected from then-communist Romania by swimming across the Danube River. He then moved to the United States in 1983 with $26 in his pocket, no knowledge of English, and a dream to open his own art gallery. He spent many months homeless, many nights curled on friends’ couches, and earned $4.50 an hour designing jewelry for a store in downtown LA. Nicodim said he fell in love with America: “I found hope here, that it’s actually possible to make it.”
Now 60 with fluent English and his own gallery, Nicodim has “made it.” Nicodim and other art gallery owners told me the protesters’ online trolling and loud picketing have backfired: Before the protests, galleries were happy to get the rare media mention. Now, they get an “amazing amount of attention” that small art galleries can only dream of attracting.
What worries him now however, he said, is that activists are seeking to curtail the very freedoms that first attracted him to America—the “undeniable right” to pursue his dreams wherever he desires. Nicodim said he always knew America as a nation that welcomed hardworking immigrants. But “something changed,” he said. “No matter how hard it was when I first came into this country, I never felt discriminated against. Now I do.”