In the weeks leading up to Thursday evening's gentrification discussion hosted by KPCC at Aldama Elementary School, there was a general sense among my neighborhood acquantainces that it was going to be a meaningful evening.
I can't quite put a finger on what that means other than to say that most of the smart and engaged people that I encountered in Highland Park, either in the community or online, felt that the forum was going to be a real opportunity to address the underlying tensions that have accompanied Highland Park's gentrification.
Without speaking for anyone else, I still can't escape the feeling that Thursday's conversation fell short of those expectations. The conversation wasn't without its enlightening and potentially productive moments, but it also felt stunted and overwrought with platitudes.
Here are my six thoughts on the conversation:
The lack of Latino representation on the panel was a huge oversight, and the forum suffered a lot because of it.
The panel included Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, WORKS(Women Organizing Resources Knowledge Services) President Channa Grace and Occidental College Professor of Sociology President Jan Lin. Each were fine inclusions. Hawthorne, who spoke eloquently and specifically about tensions between historic preservation and affordable housing, as did Grace. The problem with the panel was not who it included, but who it lacked--a single Latino.
The event's moderator, CSU Long Beach Associate Professor of Sociology Oliver Wang, took the blame for the oversight after it was called out by a meeting attendee. However, it's still a big deal. Much of the tension in Highland Park right now can be attributed to Latino residents feeling overlooked and left behind as the neighborhood changes. To not include a member of the Latino community in the conversation is to hit that community where it is most vulnerable.
The panel members lacked the hyper-specific knowledge of Highland Park that the conversation required.
At one point in Thursday's forum, Lin told a Latino audience member that one of the best ways to become more engaged in the community was to get involved in the neighborhood council and attend electoral debates. He was speaking to Monica Alcaraz, president of the Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council and organizer of two recent CD1 debates.
Perhaps a panel member with more knowledge about the Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council could have spoken to the specific challenges of reaching out to this neighborhood's Latino community--who for a host of reasons that are worth discussing--feel disillusioned by the local political process.
Not all gentrifications are created equally.
Lin noted that gentrification in Highland Park is not like gentrification in San Francisco or Portland. The biggest difference here being: the catalyst for Highland Park's change is the desire of artists and craftsmen to come to the neighborhood, fill in empty store fronts and try to make a living off their talents. That's a far different story than that of gentrification cycles spurred by a jobs-boom that brings an influx of new money into an area. As Lin noted, many of the business owners on York Boulevard share concerns with longtime residents; they could both be forced out by increased rents. I think that's something worth keeping in mind.
One longtime resident, Manny Rodriguez, told newcomers that they could do their part by patronizing the neighborhood's longtime businesses and moving beyond York Boulevard and Avenue 50.
What do you think about this? Do new residents of a community have a moral obligation to shop at longtime businesses? Or should they just decide where they'd like to shop though trial and error based on personal preferences?
There was a lack of specificity in the discussion, and that needs to change.
That's to be expected, as Thursday's forum was just a starting point. But without hard numbers, the conversation degrades into an exchange of unenlightening anecdotes. That's not the say that any given speaker's opinion is invalid, but there needs to be a statistical framework on which to base the conversation. We know gentrification is happening in Highland Park, but the fact is that we're each burdened with our own biases that skew how we describe it. It's time that conversations about displacement were put into a statistical context that could bring it to life.
The battle between historic preservation and affordable housing will determine the future of Highland Park.
Highland Park loves its historic homes, and the Highland Park Heritage Trust has done great work to preserve the neighborhood's architectural legacy. However, as Hawthrone notes, regulations that prioritize historic houses make for an inflexible housing stock. The answer, of course, is finding ways to strike a balance. If Highland Park wants to remain a racially and economically diverse community, it may need to be open to affordable urban infill projects. However, that doesn't mean total surrender to the whims of careless developers. An engaged community, especially one with Highland Park's growing cache, can pressure developers into building the sort of affordable housing projects that don't totally clash with their aesthetic ideals.