Written By Alex Alpharaoh
Photographed by Federico Mata
There is something happening in Los Angeles. It definitely isn’t the city I grew up in, yet it continues to be home. As a kid, I moved around a lot throughout the metropolitan part of Los Angeles, with Echo Park as my first home base and South Central later in my late teens. The change has been swift and slow. I remember the first signs of gentrification came knocking on my Aunt’s one bedroom home in the form of the new property owner who wanted her out and was willing to pay for her to move. The single-family dwelling had been home to my aunt and cousins, including myself in my wanderings, for more than 20 years. I grew up in that home. My elementary school, Plasencia Elementary, was a five-minute walk, which was a walk I know with my eyes closed. As a matter of fact, when I was a kid, I used to play a game with myself where I would close my eyes for as long as I possibly could, while walking home to see how far I could make it without opening my eyes. I once almost got hit by an Oldsmobile being driven by a local gang banger who was the self appointed “hood ambassador”. My high school, Belmont High, could be seen from the top of the hill on Edgeware Road, which once was a steep hill that connected to first street at the edge of the bridge that towered over Bob Baker’s Marionette Theatre, and the “Belmont Piece yard” was visible.
My aunt eventually left her home for a pitiful amount of money, Edgeware Road became a Cul de Sac, in order to make way for part of Vista Hermosa Park (which does have the most beautiful view of the downtown skyline), The high rents pushed the immigrant and first-generation families out, along with the neighborhood gangs that once roamed the streets with much more frequency that is seen now. The Belmont Yard is now the home of a series of high-end apartments, aptly named Belmont Station Apartments, that many of the long-term residents of the area can’t afford to live in. Many of the current residents in the neighborhood I grew up just a mile south of the 101 freeway are not from the area, shit, they’re not even from L.A. let alone California.
Change is inevitable, I get that. And there has been a lot of positive change in the neighborhood where I spent my childhood, only, it doesn’t look or feel like the neighborhood I grew up in. My daughter’s grandparents still live in the house across from where my aunt used to live. They have rent control, which means that their neighbors pay up to $2500 a month to live in the one bedroom home my aunt occupied for less than $800 a month. My daughter’s grandparents have paid less than $1000 a month for a 2 bedroom apartment which is part of 4 units that once was a huge, Victorian style home overseeing the Downtown Skyline. I doubt they’ll be going anywhere anytime soon.
The new people that moved in are nice enough. The yuppy type that don’t really make an effort to speak to others and who tend to view me and the other people from the neighborhood as if we are somehow trespassing on their ideal image of what they want Los Angeles to be. For Los Angeles is many things to many people, and no one group of people can claim ownership of a neighborhood, yet how does one protect the legacy that is slowly being eroded away by the tides of change, and new money being infused into neighborhoods once deemed too dangerous to have any kind of development? How do people that have lived through the worst times in the neighborhood get a say as to how the neighborhood changes or stays the same? Some would say to get involved politically, but not everyone was born to be a politician. Still, others would say that preserving the neighborhood means respecting the culture that has been infused into it and by the multi-language, multi-cultural groups of people that up to the last 10 years, lived in neighborhoods like Echo Park and South Central.
How do these new residents to these old neighborhoods respect the tradition of culture while integrating their own mark on the city? The check cashing center that I used to cash my checks when I got my first job is now being turned into an art gallery on Sunset and Echo Park. The shoe store went out of business. Several upscale dive bars have replaced the taquerias and cheap eateries that my friends and I used to go to after the Dodger games when we were kids. The Echo Park lake was drained, beautified, and reopened, but only after most of the old tenants were forced or paid to move out. Why didn’t they make an effort to beautify the park when I was growing up and I used to spend my summers fishing there amidst the trash and leeches that once covered various parts of my body when a friend of mine jokingly pushed me into the lake, not knowing that it was infested. Why do I feel like a stranger in my old neighborhood? Why do I feel as if I’m not welcomed there? Is it the politics? My race? Gender? Socio-economic status? I don’t know. I can’t quite put my finger on it while being objective about it.
I’m having a hard time not being mad without blaming someone. The same is beginning to occur in South Central Los Angeles, which is the neighborhood where I last lived at home with my parents and siblings. My daughter was born in South Central, at a hospital that closed down. She was born at The Metropolitan Hospital off the 10 freeway on the Western exit. It’s as if the people that sit on the various committees and boards are deliberately waiting for enough people to move out, go to jail, or pass on before they approve money for improvements, development, and commerce to the city. South Central is about to go through major changes, with a metro rail station coming to Crenshaw and King Blvd. Maybe I’m on the wrong side of the debate because I don’t know many people in the neighborhood that are happy about that. The rail development has caused various staples and mom and pop operations to close their doors in order to make way for the track lines. New businesses are beginning to pop up everywhere, but how many of them are by people that live in the community? How many are owned by people or persons of color? I don’t want to walk down Crenshaw Blvd in 10 years and not recognize the area.
It’s hard not to be nostalgic when a person’s life and identity is associated with direct memories of locations and events that occurred in the city of Angels. It’s even harder to accept when those memories are bulldozed to make way for a trendy coffee shop or gastro pub. The L.A. Sports Arena and Coliseum are no more. They are making way for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, which I’m sure will be great. But I saw my first professional sports game at the Coliseum, and now all I have is the memory of it, until I too, become a memory.
Alex Alpharaoh is an Actor, Writer, Director, Producer, and Poet from Los Angeles, CA. He currently lives in Koreatown, a quarter mile from his Middle School with his teenage daughter.
Twitter: Alpharaoh, LAPoetTweets