A Genuine Barrio

 

Photo by Nina Strehl on Unsplash

As I walked into Romy Rosas’ dorm room, all seemed as expected. There were photos and cards on the wall, a blanket on the bed, and a homey feel in the air. As I looked around, I asked Romy if she had anything sentimental. Anything she had to take with her to college. She turned back to me with a smile.“Funny enough, that is the thing about being homeless. It’s really hard to be sentimental.” The pain in her eyes betrayed the playful smile in which she said it, as did the moments of silence that followed.

Rosas grew up in an apartment complex in Highland Park, a tightknit community in Northeast Los Angeles. Highland Park “was very comfortable to live in” she explained. “Everybody kind of knew everybody… it was just cozy. It was a cozy small town.” Rosas credited these feelings of comfort to the effort everyone puts into the community and the pride of being a resident. “People actually care what is going on... [they] care about where they live...You know all these little shops. You know these places. Where the best food places are. The park. The library. People really care about trying to keep Highland park as genuine a city as possible filled with people who actually care about the neighborhood.” She also noted that the demographics of the area are a majority latino. “Most of the Latinos are from a lower socioeconomic status… so they don't make as much money as the growing population of white people who are slowly coming into Highland Park.” There was a tone of hostility in which she said this, a tone that followed when I asked how this influx of white, wealthier people has affected her town. “[They are] young, white people who are able to purchase these cheap houses, cheap apartments because they have money. To them, they are cheap. And because there is a growing population of white people, there is a growing number of these shops, these places that cater to those people who can afford it. So while [old] businesses are closing, other businesses are coming in that really only cater to people who have money and that’s usually not catering to latinos in that community.”  

What Rosas describes is gentrification, the process of renovating houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods, often at the expense of displacing low-income families and small businesses. When people with more money come into a poorer neighborhood, everything is affected. Beloved, local businesses are driven out and replaced by higher end stores and boutiques that cater to those who can afford it. As Rosas said, that typically does not include the lower class people already established in the community. Similarly, rents are raised because there is a growing demand of people who can afford it, and families who can not are kicked to the curb. These people are often low-income families that have lived in the area for years. This is what happened to Rosas and her family.

Photo by Anna Holowetzki on Unsplash

 

“Rent has always been a very difficult thing for my family to deal with. My mother is the only one who brings in a paycheck; my mother’s paycheck is not that big. So really we lived paycheck to paycheck and that’s how it was for the nearly 10 years I lived in this apartment.” Throughout her time living there, the property changed hands through multiple owners and managers. “My parents would have different relationships with different owners and different managers. And some were better than others.” The one constant throughout the revolving door of owners and managers was rent. “The rent was, that was always the thing that kept increasing. That never went down.” This increase in rent prices is a major con of gentrification, a con that has serious consequences for those of lower class.  “The reason we left is because the owner was going to start raising the rent… we couldn’t do it”.  

In many counties in California, there are rent control laws in place to protect low-income families from unregulated rent increases. These protections, however, do not protect residents of East LA, where Highland Park is located. Rent in East LA has been increasing at a rate of nearly nine percent a month in the past year alone. The landlords are free to raise the rent as much as they want, as many times as they want, and evict whenever they want. The lack of protection is what allows gentrification to push low-income families out of their homes. While the lack of rent control is currently being contested with a recently filed motion, it was not in time to spare Rosas and all of the families just like her’s.

Her family was kicked out of their apartment in the beginning of August 2016. “When it finally happened, it hit us all at once. The owner said ‘you have to get out. You have to’... My mother cried.” With her parents in shock and her sister gone to stay with a friend, Rosas was the one who had to convince her family to “start packing”. “We have to start throwing things in trash bags.”

“My mom was the one who put things in boxes” she recalled. “She put things away carefully. But when it got time to do anything, we had to start throwing everything in bags. We couldn’t take everything.” Rosas’ gaze shifted from me to the wall behind me, and she spoke slowly. “I had to put, essentially, my entire life into bags. Into laundry bags. Into trash bags. Into boxes.” After she had finished cleaning out her room, she looked around at her room of 10 years. “When you look at an empty, bare room it's usually supposed to be exciting because you know where you are going to go after. But I didn’t.”

For the months that followed, Rosas and her family moved around, staying in motels, homes of friends, and homes of family members. The conditions varied in each. She slept in a bed some places and on a blanket on the ground in others, always grateful for the roof.

Then, Rosas began her freshman year at University of California, Irvine and moved into Cielo at Mesa Court. Her parents were relieved. “They didn’t worry anymore. My mom said ‘I don’t have to worry about anything anymore because you are okay.”’

Rosas hasn’t taken a second of her time in the dorms for granted. “It was nice to have a place where I could say ‘okay this is my place for the next year’. I know when I have to leave. I am given plenty of time to start packing my things. I know where I am going to stay next year. It’s nice to know that you’re going to have a place to stay. It is nice not to wonder ‘is this all just going to end the next day?’...It’s nice to have a bed. It’s nice to have a hot shower. It’s nice to have clothes. It’s very nice to not worry about food or any of that. It’s just nice to have a place to come back to. Cause really, right now, this is my home. This is my home. People have their home. People always say ‘Oh I’m going home for the weekend’. This is my home.”

While Rosas is grateful for her place in Cielo, that does not change the anger she still feels at losing her real home in Highland Park. In March of 2017, Rosas tweeted “I’m so pissed off that white people took Highland Park to turn it into a hipster town with yoga and cafes.” This anger is not unwarranted. Not only has Rosas lost her physical home in Highland Park, she is beginning to lose the community that made it so great. The genuity she praised is being replaced by the people moving in to experience it. People, predominantly white, move to Highland Park for the experience of living in the community; a community with genuine little shops, the best food places, the park, the library. Everything Rosas believes makes it authentic. The presence of these people, ironically,  is what is driving these businesses out, replacing them with yoga studios and cafes. While gentrification has increased the cost of living in Highland Park, it is also driving out the reason original residents live there and adore it in the first place, a problem affecting far more than just Highland Park. In a study of the effects of gentrification throughout all LA neighborhoods, median home values could be seen rising as much as 98% since 2000 to 2013. While “this didn’t happen overnight” as Rosas states, it is still an increasing problem that will displace hundreds, maybe even thousands of families until someone cares enough about these people to make a change.

I circled back to the apartment one last time to ask if anything had changed since in the past 9 months. “Last time I’ve heard, the owner wants to rent that apartment out for 1200 dollars a month to whomever can afford it. And someone is going to be able to afford it. Someone is going to do it.” Her words got sharper and more precise, every syllable dripping with rage. “Someone is going to want to do it because they want to live in Highland Park. Maybe they just like the experience of it. Maybe they just want to be surrounded by a genuine neighborhood. A genuine barrio.”

 

Works Consulted

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