On the Soul of Echo Park: Looking at primary results from June for the neighborhood and beyond

This article is from the June 7th, 2022 edition of our new Making a Neighborhood Newsletter. Please consider becoming a paid subscriber today to get more stories like it, plus work from our colleagues Samanta Helou Hernandez (@Samanta_Helou) and Ali Rachel Pearl (@alirachelpearl).

Nearly a year-and-a-half ago in one of L.A.’s most popular hangouts, at the direction of L.A. City councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, the LAPD and L.A. City Hall allocated at least $1.3 million to “shock and awe” nearly 200 unhoused residents out of Echo Park Lake. The action resulted in several days of protest and at least 180 arrests, including that of protesters, journalists, and legal observers. Despite this, O’Farrell claimed victory for his office’s actions just two days later, noting on Twitter that:

”With thoughtful and compassionate action, we can strike this balance, which is what we did at Echo Park Lake, where we have now placed 209 people experiencing homelessness into transitional shelter with supportive services, medical care, and other humane and necessary resources.”

This past March, however, a report published by the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy noted that of 183 unhoused folks registered (not 209, as originally claimed by O’Farrell’s office) after their removal from the park, only 17 were placed into long-term housing. This makes for a success rate for the city’s “supportive services” of less than 10%, or a failure rate of 90%, depending on how one looks at it.

O’Farrell made no comment on the Luskin report, but after this June’s primary elections, Council District 13 (CD-13) residents certainly commented with their votes: Analysis of the final vote turnoutshows that nearly 7 out of 10 voters in the area voted for someone other than O’Farrell to lead over the next four years, or what would be his incumbent office’s third and final term, having become representative for CD-13 since May 2013.

Final results from the June 7th Primary election for the office of Council District 13

Challenger Hugo Soto-Martinez placed nearly 9 percentage points ahead of O’Farrell (40% > 31%); and had Soto-Martinez picked up Kate Pynoos’ voters, or a combination of Steve Johnson and Albert Corado’s voters, Council District 13 would already have a new L.A. city councilmember waiting in the wings; instead, as of July 4th, both O’Farrell and Soto-Martinez have less than 120 days to make their extended case to the people of Hollywood, Silver Lake, Echo Park, and Virgil Village and East Hollywood, to name a few of the neighborhoods represented in the area. 

But what’s so special about these neighborhoods? A few things, including how they contain both the “past” and “future” Los Angeles since they house both immigrant families historically isolated from investment and new residents entering L.A.’s burgeoning tech and entertainment industries. What’s also true is that many of these areas were metropolitan or multifaceted in their identities long before “diversity, equity and inclusion” became hashtag terms and policy initiatives, serving as homes for generations of families denied housing across L.A. County through practices like redlining. Redlining maps invariably led predominantly non-white families ineligible for federal home-loans to make neighbors with fellow under-invested communities (other renters, mostly, laboring as field hands, domestic workers, janitors, servers, and more). 

At the same time, the maps inadvertently “binded” non-white families into marginalized economic positions across geographies in Los Angeles; in other words, to have one’s neighborhood redlined was to be placed in a stratified economic position whether in central, east, south Los Angeles, the San Gabriel or San Fernando Valley, or beyond.

Consider that as early as 1950 in Watts, a neighborhood to the southeast of Echo Park, more than 71% of the area was formed by Black residents, followed by Latinx residents at 19%. Today, the inverse is true in the home of the first major uprising against institutional racism in Los Angeles, with Latinx residents forming up to 76% of the population, while Black residents account for 21%, which mirrors population changes across greater South L.A. as a whole over the past few decades.

To place this shift into perspective, it’s key to take a look at the redlining maps again. In the 1940s, the mixed demographics of places like Watts, Boyle Heights, Echo Park and many more neighborhoods merited a hard red line from federal government appraisers for home loans, or the folks who determined which areas and residents were worthy and which were not for borrowing to attain that quintessential American dream of homeownership.

The Watts area, bound by 92nd street to the north, Alameda Blvd to the east, 112th street to the south, and Central avenue to the west. Published circa 1939.
The Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles areas marked for disinvestment by federal government appraisers for home loans. Published circa 1939.
The areas of Hollywood, East Hollywood, Silver Lake, Filipinotown and Echo Park as noted by the federal government, marking which areas were attractive for investment and which were not from green to blue, to yellow and red. Published circa 1939.

Rather than just serving as symbolic delineations, however, redlining maps would ultimately be determinants of “staying power.” This is due to the fact that, since homeownership has generally meant an ability to keep land from changing hands, whether for the private sector or due to the government, those without it have historically been more vulnerable to disruptions such as recessions, job losses, the death of a “breadwinner” in the family, and more. This helps explain how, even though Black neighborhoods in South L.A. formed 80% of the area’s demographicsby the time the Fair Housing Act was signed into law in 1968, their communities nonetheless faded from the area in the subsequent decades.

According to famed poet and historian Luis J. Rodriguez on these disruptions vis-a-vis market forces: 

“Deindustrialization began in the mid-1970s throughout the United States, hitting Los Angeles hard and picking up steam in the 1980s, mostly due to advanced technology, including robotics. Labor saving devices became labor replacing.”

This loss of manufacturing jobs, growing criminalization of Black youth, mass reduction of funds for social and public services, and weak to no renter protections all led to no staying power for many Black families within the historically redlined southside—including Watts—and by extension, out of the neighborhood.

A graph on enrollment rates for L.A.’s public school system from the 1960s and onward also speaks to this development. Starting in the 1970s, as many white families left neighborhoods closer to L.A. for farther suburbs, they also took their kids out of LAUSD in resistance to calls there for integration. However, enrollment of Black students also began to decline around this time, likely due to deindustrialization, followed by displacement. Latino enrollment was the only group of the three to increase, a trend that would continue well into the new millennium.

Screenshot from ESCAPE FROM LOS ANGELES: White Flight from Los Angeles and Its Schools, 1960-1980, Jack Schneider, Stanford University

This is because at the same time that Black families left South Los Angeles, wars in Central America and economic turmoil in Mexico led generations of Latinx people in. According to L.A. Times archives:

“In 1990, 47% of South L.A. residents were Latino and another 47% were African American. By 2006, the mix had changed to 62% Latino and 31% black, 3% white, 2% Asian/ Pacific Islander and 2% other.” 

As of 2020, Black residents formed roughly 21% of South Los Angeles, and roughly 9% of L.A. county overall, their smallest share of the former since likely 1950 and the latter since 1960. Their relationship with L.A. remains the most complex, but they’ve also endured in the city for centuries by this point and have definitely formed key coalitions with more recently arrived Latinx communities.

Nonetheless, a worthy question for the current generation of L.A.’s Latinx political leaders, historians, and documenters is whether a second mass exodus—similar as it happened for Black residents from the 1970s – 2000s—is possible for their communities, even granted that the factors affecting Black neighborhoods in the decades after 1960 were far more extensive than those facing Latinx communities since 2000. 

From 2010 – 2020, rent in L.A. rose 65% to $2,500 a month on average despite the median income rising only by 36%, impacting communities of color the most. (If the rate continues, by 2030, a new–or newly renovated–500 square foot apartment will require more than $4,000 to call home for the month, which is what folks in places like Bel Air already dole out.)

It will also come as no surprise to consider that since 2010, not every renter in L.A. has been able to keep up with “market demands.” In fact, according to the L.A. City Planning Commission’s own data, East Hollywood is one of several neighborhoods that shrunk by at least 10% from 2010 – 2020, with Asian-American and Latinx residents losing 1% and 6% of their share of the area respectively. 

Echo Park also shrunk during the same period by 6%, with Asian-American and Latinx residents losing 4% and 9% of their share of the area respectively. Some of these priced out families have found more access in those historic neighborhoods south of the 10 freeway, which also speaks to an enduring “openness” in formerly redlined neighborhoods, especially on the southside, but this is unlikely to last.

The ongoing changes thus present an existential dilemma for any of L.A.’s public leaders to speak to, including Mitch O’Farrell, who’s chosen mostly not to do so while still approving smaller actions reminiscent of Echo Park’s mass eviction, that is, futilely sweeping unhoused residents out of the public way with promises but not assurances of decent and long-term housing. Yet when asked about the flight of families from CD-13 over the last ten years, O’Farrell had no suspicion that something like the 65% increase in rent had much to do with it:

“O’Farrell’s council district, which includes Echo Park, Silver Lake and Atwater Village, registered the biggest decrease in population: 5.1%. Nevertheless, he said, he doubts that the decrease was due to gentrification, the process through which low-income residents are priced out of a neighborhood and more affluent people move in…[he] attributed the decrease to Trump’s “reign of terror” against residents in the country illegally.”

Today, the vast majority of the 50 densest neighborhoods in L.A., from Koreatown to Vermont-Slauson, and from Hawthorne to Huntington Park, were redlined or labeled “declining” by federal, state and local officials. Their jampacked homes over those of other neighborhoods in L.A. county suggest that the same “unattractive”ratings they received yesterday are precisely what make them more prime investments today; and even more so as L.A.’s affordable housing shortage worsens. This is what continues to create the current mix of new market rate housing, chic new restaurants, and more unhoused residents only a few feet away from historically Black and immigrant communities, who for generations have had no staying power, no “homeowners associations” or NIMBYs, and limited resources to withstand disruption.

Moreover, if a glance at Black South Los Angeles after the 1960s is any “cautionary tale,” one can argue that today’s tenant unions, whistleblowers, and others working towards equitable development across L.A.’s redlined geographies are doing so for more than bragging rights, but for the soul of their neighborhoods. It’s this cultural understanding which placed many advocates in front of harm’s way at the Echo Park Lake eviction in March 2021, as well as what led to the publication of the UCLA Luskin Report one year later.

The question thus left for both Mitch O’Farrell and Hugo Soto-Martinez is about just how to “negotiate” these histories with the present set of “market forces” and other disruptions threatening to further stall new housing programs based on equity. From Soto-Martinez, who grew up in “South-Central Los Angeles,” one can reasonably expect more cultural understanding of the issues; but if the last few years of electoral politics across L.A. and the state and nation have shown anything, it’s that an understanding is only the beginning. Old power systems “die hard,” if at all, making the work ahead long; longer than ever, even.

J.T.

East Hollywood Remembers 1992: How Santa Monica boulevard especially holds memories of the unrest

The original version of this article was published on April 28th, 2022 for our new Making a Neighborhood Newsletter. Please consider becoming a paid subscriber today to get more stories like it, plus work from our colleagues Samanta Helou Hernandez (@Samanta_Helou) and Ali Rachel Pearl (@alirachelpearl).

Sunset boulevard looking west from Normandie, 2021; Google Maps

In 1922, historian Carey McWilliams arrived to Los Angeles from Colorado via the Southern Pacific railroad. His first home in the city was in the area that, in the year 2000, was designated as the Little Armenia section of East Hollywood. As McWilliams tells it in his Southern California: An Island on the Land (1946), “My dear uncle–the kindest man I have ever known–met me at the old Southern Pacific station…and drove me out Sunset Boulevard to the white-stucco six-unit flat he owned near the corner of Normandie and Sunset.”

“Sunset boulevard looking west from Normandie,” 1930; Courtesy of the L.A. Public Library’s Tessa Collection

Today, Southern California remains relevant for its candid look at the racial relations underlying L.A.’s history since the city’s founding. Note the book’s following excerpt on L.A. County and the state’s record-breaking deadliness just three years after their induction into the U.S. (1850) for example, “In 1853, California had more murders than the rest of the United States, and Los Angeles had more than the rest of California. In a five-year period, 1849-1854, Californians invested $6,000,000 in bowie knives and pistols, and during this period the state reported 2,400 murders, 1,400 suicides, [and] ‘10,000 other miserable deaths.’”

When one considers that the same year California entered “the union,” its first legislators passed the 1850 California Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, which outlawed Native Californians from testifying in court against whites while also legalizing their indentured servitude and forced removal from ancestral homelands, it’s clear just how such an “arms race” led only to more fatalities; it’s also telling of how L.A. and the Golden State’s racial hierarchies were literally embedded into law at the outset of their tenure for U.S. markets and government, only for still too many residents here to have little to no familiarity with.

Williams’ arrival to Los Angeles in the early 1920s was also in line with one of several migrations over the years in which Mid-Westerners and Black people from the South came to California. By 1930, both groups and more would help to double L.A. County’s population to some 2.2 million residents, making it the fifth largest city in the nation.

From 1930 – 1940, of the Great Depression, Hoovervilles, and World War II abroad, L.A. County would grow further, although this time—due in no small part to racial covenants, deed restrictions, and other racist tools—towards unsustainable proportions for Black residents in particular. According to the L.A. Times:

“Between 1940 and 1965, the black [sic] population in Los Angeles County jumped from 75,000 to 650,000, with two-thirds in the South Los Angeles area.”

Untold numbers of these Black residents came to the aid of the United States, then, at a time of war manufacturing for the state, only to find themselves in de facto rather than de jure segregation in South L.A. afterwards. Following Mayor Yorty and LAPD Chief Parker’s militant and deadly response to protest against these conditions in 1965, McWilliams also wrote about Watts and its ties to the rest of the city that, “The new middle class living in jerry-built ‘lily white’ subdivisions, each with its own shopping-center, can honestly claim to be no more aware of Watts than the nice Germans were of Belsen. For the highly paid technicians at the Jet Propulsion Lab, Watts might well be an unnamed crater on the moon.”

McWilliams died in 1980, but were he alive to see the glass shards and flames emerging across the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenue on April 29th, 1992, which marked the outrage of yet another generation—this time Black as well as Brown—he’d quickly recognize how so much unrest could spread through Los Angeles again.

Thirty years since L.A. residents rebelled against the racial rule and order of another government on this westernmost part of the United States, there is still not yet a unified, comprehensive, and citywide commemoration of the unrest of 1965 and 1992. Just this past 2021, both the city and county began proceedings to officially apologize to Native Southern California tribes here for official county and state crimes against them, but no such proceedings have been motioned for with respect to the city and state’s bombardment of Black and Brown communities in the 20th century.

Yet if the renewed momentum for civil rights in the U.S. over the past few years indicates anything, it’s that opportunities to connect these histories for public commemoration are rare, and should thus be pursued with haste, especially for generations of Black, Brown, Asian-American and other communities in the city; honoring memories of these legacies should also be for more than planners, journalists, and even educators’ programs, but for the general public’s engagement.

In this vein, the August 1965 rain of fire from the Los Angeles Police Department and California’s National Guard in Watts led to the immediate deaths of 34 people–overwhelmingly African-American–the injury of 864 others, and material damage of $200 million, according to sources, including Gerald Horne’s Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s (1995).

In 1992, the Los Angeles Police Department and National Guard’s response to a second mass rebellion across L.A. led to the deaths of 64 people, the injury of nearly 2,400 others, and damage to storefronts and thoroughfares of $800 million to $1 billion, setting a national record.

A 2012 spreadsheet by the L.A. Times also shows that at least seven of the people killed during the horrific five days of unrest following LAPD’s acquittal in the Rodney King verdict were located in East Hollywood, Silver Lake, and Hollywood. A brief commemoration for them follows, along with some notes on where the sites of their deaths “stand” for residents today. Also note that the first four deaths listed are those of civilians at the hands of other civilians, while the final three listed are those of civilians in encounters with LAPD.

Sunset boulevard and Kingsley drive, 2021; Google Maps

James L. Taylor, a 26 year old Black man, was shot and killed near a looted video store and laundromat close to Sunset boulevard and Kingsley drive, or the Little Armenia area. Today, evictions and the demolition of housing in the neighborhood increasingly push residents out. Council District 13, of which the area is a part, ranks 3rd on the list of 15 districts for the highest number of unhoused residents in L.A. from 2010 – 2020.

Vermont avenue and Santa Monica boulevard, 2021; Google Maps

Jose Solorzano, a 25 year old Latino, was shot and killed by a security guard within range of Vermont avenue and Santa Monica boulevard; today, the intersection serves as a prime location for several unhoused people’s tents along its sidewalks. Within a couple of years, it will also be home to the area’s first mixed-use development of seven stories on top of where a local swap meet once resided; however, it will also soon oversee affordable and transitional housing atop Metro’s Vermont/Santa Monica station, East Hollywood’s first such gain in its short, though versatile history.

Sunset boulevard and Gateway ave, 2021; Google Maps

Jose Pineda, a 20 year old Latino, was shot and killed in a gun-fight at the junction between Santa Monica and Sunset boulevard by a shop owner defending his business there. Today, across the street, luxury apartments of no more than 428 square feet rent for $2,300 a month, while Erewhon’s customers and littered memorabilia dominate the vicinity.

Plaza on Sunset boulevard and Western ave, 2008; Google Maps

Wallace Tope, a white man of 54 years, died seven months after sustaining injuries at the same lot which now situates the three-story Target store at Western avenue and Sunset boulevard. In Hollywood, near the intersection of Santa Monica boulevard and Seward street, three Black residents—Darnell R. Mallory, 18 years old; Jerel L. Channell, 26 years old; and Juanita Pettaway, 37 years old—were also killed in a car crash while attempting to escape pursuant LAPD squad cars.

Today, as one walks from Santa Monica boulevard along the edge of Silver Lake and onto Sunset boulevard and Western avenue, one can see another steadily developing unsustainability along racial lines, in which more luxury lofts, $17 bagels and other new capital proliferate at the same time that more people have nowhere to live, exposing them to no less than premature death. Were the ghost of McWilliams to return to where his uncle first introduced him to the town today, he might point it out as another neglected “squalor” the city would be wise to stop ignoring.

Our neighborhood’s losses and the connections they continue to bear with marginalized and silenced vicinities across L.A. County thus also need to take more space in public dialogue and memory. As another historian, Sandra de la Loza, put it in her Field Guide to L.A.: Monuments and Murals of Erased and Invisible Histories (2011):

“For the dispossessed whose stories are not memorialized or recorded, memory becomes a vital space in resisting erasure, silence and invisibility.”

J.T.

a person holding a political poster

EPISODE 99 – KAREN BASS, COMMUNITY COALITION, AND SOUTH LOS ANGELES AND THE FUTURE

For our 99th episode, L.A. Times reporter Benjamin Oreskes (@boreskes) sits down to chat with us about Karen Bass’ upbringing through South Los Angeles as described by his profile of the congresswoman recently. We touch on Bass’ early years in Los Angeles, including when she wrote letters in support of Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign as a teenager, her various trips to Cuba to learn about healthcare and education systems there, her fight against the drug epidemic of the 1990s, and what else we can expect to learn from the paper about her and opponent Rick Caruso in the four months before November’s runoff election. Find Bass’ letter to the Times following their coverage of the crack cocaine epidemic’s impact on the Black community HERE.

J.T.