Re: the New White Wine Bar, Alma’s, on the Corner Where Our Young Brown Neighborhood Has Been Shot to Death

Dear Mr. President,

I hope this note finds you well. On the subject of “returning to normal” once the majority of our cities and communities are vaccinated, I’d like to bring up an old, but recurringly fresh, topic on my mind as well as that of many in my community in Los Angeles.

As you may know, white people in the United States have had exclusive access to land in America by way of colonies, plantations, titles, laws, segregation, FHA loans, redlining, zoning, credit access, the suburbs, and more for over 500 years.

Can you explain to us, then, how white people now fraternizing with other white people over drinks in our ‘hood, which until recently was avoided by both private and federal banks for its non-white demographics, IS NOT reinforcing this exclusive access?

And sometimes I wonder, Mr. President, if it’s an earthquake, blood boiling, or both, as gentrification uproots a sacred land, which I can explain.

The reason it’s so outrageous that white people have suddenly opened this bar in our vicinity is because little Brown kids from our community were killed across the street from the corner, and indeed on the same block where it now does business. In turn, as our neighborhood still reels from racist disinvestment in health, housing, and educational opportunities for our families, the new bar acts like a vortex, vacuuming in white money away for white investors’ keep, all while neatly barricading itself from the Brown reality surrounding it.

The census tract for the area, 191410, shows a Median Household Income of $34,000 a year, or roughly half of L.A. County’s, placing the majority of families in the community well within the federal poverty level. On top of this, public records state that at least 20% of people living on the same tract where the bar now operates, rely on food stamps to pay for meals and groceries. This is a rate second only to that of the tract right below, 191420, where 23% of residents rely on food stamps.

That’s approximately 600 people within a six block radius, not counting undocumented and/or unhoused residents, of whom there are many along Virgil avenue, barely getting by, as white people throw money away on lavish drinks for themselves at this establishment, permitted to operate after a spot-zoning ordinance by local City Council Member Mitch O’Farrell in 2018. The bar is also less than 500 feet from our community’s local Lockwood Elementary school, and I’ve got a feeling that wouldn’t happen in neighborhoods throughout the Pacific Palisades, Bel Air, or Malibu. So why should it happen in ours?

And in case it slipped your radar, as of January 2021, the median price for a single-family home in L.A.County is now at $650,000, meaning that the tiny blocks families along this neighborhood make for much, if not all, of what we have.

Racial inequalities like these are why Brown kids in our neighborhood have never truly been given a chance by L.A. City Planning, various District Council Members, or the mayor’s or governors’ offices, who’ve planned more for our kids’ prison beds than their college dorm rooms, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore has shown.

But suddenly, in this same neighborhood, white liquor licenses, paid for by white patrons, are welcome? That is Planning Violence, meaning that is how inequality for some designated, built in and manufactured, while access and rights are only reserved for a privileged few.

Walking past this establishment recently, Mr. President, I could spot shame on some of the faces behind the bar’s screen, a shame betraying cowardice. As they looked back in our direction, they still failed to see our humanity, before returning to the white fantasy that plays more like a nightmare for those of us only in the fantasy’ peripherals.

And correct me if I’m wrong, but white people, more than anyone:

Claimed they didn’t want to see South Central burning in 1992, on April 29th.

And were so mesmerized by a Black uprising in Watts, on August 11th, 1965.

Yet in our gentrifying neighborhoods today, which indeed meet the definition of planned violence against us at the behest of investors, we still have to remind white people–and their political enablers–that if the only time they mourn en masse is when their windows are broken, their children are harmed, and their homes are shaken, but not when the rest of us gasp for air amid concrete from bullets, choke-holds, beatings and other racist crimes against our humanity, and against our privacy, and against our rights to LAND, then that’s when the hegemony of white supremacy blinds and scars all of us. A few such scars on our neighborhood include:

Yellow tape cordoning off white chalk lines, where Brown bodies fell to their deaths on our streets. Right in front of this latest bar.

Helicopters hovering and shining lights above our homes, not to airlift our unhoused towards shelter, but to hunt Brown bodies on our streets. All around this simple bar.

Police handcuffing and incapacitating Brown youth before hauling them off our streets, even during quarantine. Right next door to this…bar.

And so we hope you can appreciate that, like it or not, Mr. President, we are the LAND that forms the neighborhood; not by choice nor by pomp, but because our blood’s fallen and raised land here longer than we have time to list.

But if there’s one thing our blood knows now: It’s that we didn’t lose lives on our streets for more white wine bars to take home–outside of our neighborhoods–the pay.

The establishment’s disruptive presence in our community is not equity. It’s not justice. It’s just another ghost of Jim Crow in Los Angeles enabled by false leadership rolling over to investors.

Mr. President, please send help. Specifically: Federally subsidized housing and low-interest loans for Black and immigrant communities so we may open our own shops in our neighborhoods; just like FDR did for today’s gentrifiers on our streets.

J.T.

EPISODE 52 – RE:WORK RADIO, UCLA LABOR CENTER

For our 52nd episode, we chat with Saba Waheed (@sabawaa) and Veena Hamparur (@ammalmani) of the UCLA Labor Center (@uclalabor) in MacArthur Park about Re:Work Radio (@rework_radio), a one-of-a-kind podcast and storytelling program by Saba and Veena centered on workers and worker’s rights in Los Angeles. Our talk is especially relevant for students and other independent storytellers out there looking for L.A. stories from people of color and their communities. Also, find out more about Re:Work Radio programing and its latest goings-on via Instagram and Twitter at @rework_radio.

J.T.

Sunset over East Hollywood, Los Angeles

REAL ESTATE SUBDIVISIONS (1949): A CASE STUDY

The following are a few passages from an article for the University of Miami Law Review in 1950, when Gary I. Salzman, a former Assistant Professor of Management at the University of Miami, provided a brief summary for a real estate book published just one year earlier, entitled REAL ESTATE SUBDIVISIONS (1949) by Stanley L. McMichael.

The excerpts are of particular interest considering that McMichael’s book came on the heels of the consequential U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelley vs Kraemer (1948), in which the court outlawed racial deed restrictions as unconstitutional (emphasis J.T.’s):

ADAM was the first to be given possession of land, subject, however, to certain restrictions…Through the reported connivance of his co-tenant, Eve, these restrictions were broken and the first eviction occurred…Adam had been given no deed to the land and not even a one dollar consideration was on record as having been paid. Indeed, the first real estate transaction was actually a conditional lease in perpetuity, contingent upon observance of certain covenants. Violation of one of these covenants led, subsequently, to a long series of litigations, which have been responsible for more clogged legal dockets than any other phase of human behavior.” – McMichael, 1949

What immediately stands out about this passage are conflated themes of property, tenancy, gender, law, and violation of law. According to the author’s logic, these themes ground a claim that “land” and “ownership of land” based on respect for “certain covenants” or agreements, are characteristics that go back to the earliest days of humanity, as fundamental things that make humans, well, human.

McMichael’s passage conveniently forgets, however, that if such characteristics are supposed to be fundamental, and even sacred to what makes us human, then the United States as an entity was in deep and perpetual violation of their sanctity since its founding, having been grounded on Indian genocide, Afro slavery, and various other forms of oppression inspired by these acts, not to mention the U.S. government’s repeated failure to honor many of the agreements or “covenants” made with descendants of these and other groups in its constitution, bills of right, and more.

Additionally, this first passage is striking for how utterly inventive it reads, like something borrowed from the mischievous L. Ron Hubbard (whose Dianetics was published a year after Subdivisions in 1950, by the way); but the fact of the matter is that zoning, or land rules, themselves were–and remain–inventive tools by which to maintain class and racial dominance. This was true according even to real estate experts themselves at the time, as the next passage indicates.

“‘The legal aspects of restrictions are given from material by Melvin B. Ogden, member of the Los Angeles Bar, stating that private control over the development of subdivisions of land by means of ‘restrictions imposed in deeds, declarations of restrictions, agreements, and similar contracts between the subdivider and lot owners, is of comparatively recent origin.‘” – Salzman, 1950

From this second quotation, it’s certainly no surprise to learn that lawyers in Los Angeles contributed significantly to instructions for realtors nationwide on the maintenance of land as [white] property, but to see one’s actual name cited on the matter is quite the homecoming.

Yet if there’s still any doubt regarding the very, very racial elements of real estate and zoning in Los Angeles as practices by which to assert white racial dominance, let the next quote clarify for readers.

“Can a subdivider of land so restrict sales of his lots that he can prevent, legally, the occupancy of such by non-Caucasions?”

Gary I. Salzman on Stanley L. McMichael’s Subdivisions (1949)

According to Salzman, this is a question McMichael covers at length in his book, with up to eight suggestions (italics J.T.’s) “made to soften the impact of the blow that racial restrictions have received.”

That is, the utterly tragic blow to those racial restrictions delivered by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948, when the court sought to honor the 14th amendment in the land of the free and home of the brave, which, don’t forget, had just returned from Europe and the Pacific after defeating fascists there, according to the prevailing narratives of the time.

However, it’s the final passage for this reading that is of most interest to yours truly.

“…the higher the quality of a subdivision, the more satisfactory it is to its creator and the more money can eventually be made out of it by both seller and buyer.” – McMichael, Subdivisions (1949)

After a trying month in March 2021 for hopes of a more equitable, politically informed public dialogue between realtors, city leadership, planning and communities today given L.A.’s racist showings in housing historically, this last passage from McMichael’s Subdivisions seems to be the one which continues to reverberate the most today for two reasons.

First, on March 18th, the L.A. City Planning Commission voted to adopt an utterly inadequate Hollywood Community Update Plan, declining to accept the Just Hollywood Coalition’s calls for language in the plan towards higher affordable housing requirements (as opposed to 10% “encouragements”) from developers, a Right to Return clause for tenants displaced by new building developments, and strong limitations on destroying current rent stabilized housing units in Hollywood, which are increasingly dwindling due to Ellis Act and “cash-for-keys” evictions in the area.

Many working-class and especially immigrant voices lent their time for these calls with the Planning Commission via Zoom during the public comment segment, but while commissioners nodded along and thanked callers for these inputs, their voices, time, and stories were largely ignored during the commission’s final deliberations.

Because the Hollywood Community Update Plan approved by the L.A. City Planning Commission also still designates or “zones” more than 4,500 acres of land in the Hollywood area for single-family homes, thereby allowing for only single family homes to be built on this land, it’s apparent that much of zoning’s racist legacy remains critically out of the sight of our public and private leadership, especially during their “leadering”!

Other than being a major impediment to creating new, multi-family affordable housing in the Hollywood area, single-family zoning is a legacy product of white supremacy in Los Angeles over the 20th century, which the above quotations show clearly, and remains as exclusionary in the 21st century for Black and immigrant workers, most of whom are still anchored in poverty due to wage inequality and other forms of discrimination across L.A. and the “Golden” state.

Secondly, on March 25th, Mitch O’Farrell’s lawless eviction of unhoused residents in Echo Park was another score for the owning classes in Los Angeles, a 21st century version of eminent domain, or seizure and destruction of the dispossessed and their time and resources, for the right of property values and their holders.

Remember simply that “the higher the quality of the subdivision,” as McMichael put it to his readers in 1949, the higher the sale and profit. By the same logic, the “safer” or “more secure” from adverse elements a property is, the greater its value. Of course, as in 1949, safety and security is dependent on whose safety and security we’re talking about.

In the case of Echo Park, violent removal of unhoused residents from the Lake area, predominantly Black and immigrant people, necessarily threatening their safety and security, is permissible under the current zoning or rules for the land. This is because their forced removal, however temporary, is still a boon for investors looking to cash in on Echo Park’s renewed “safety,” however temporary even that boon may be (it’s always temporary, isn’t it?).

As historic actions of the owning class in Los Angeles suggest, then, there are no rights quite like the rights of owners. And as both actions and inaction by so many of L.A.’s public officials in service of this class have shown–and continue to do so–the power of property over human rights in Los Angeles today is at least as strong as it was during McMichael’s day, following that tragic blow to racial property restrictions, for which the author devised his Subdivisions to navigate through, that only just so happened to entail a perverse and even “conniving” reading of “creation” stories to serve the narrow interests of the salesman.

Pray for us now, Los Angeles.

J.T.