A group of kids ride their bikes and scooters as papa watches along near the former Super Pan Bakery

Make Virgil Avenue Feel Safe for Families Again: A Note for Sqirl, Melody, and every White-owned Business Along Virgil Avenue

I know I’m not alone in feeling like I’ve been able to breathe a sigh of relief over the last few months when walking past Virgil avenue and Marathon street, where the so-called Sqirl restaurant is located. Given the protocol to socially distance, Sqirl’s reduced services have meant a slight reprieve for more than a few local pedestrians from hordes of strangers, overwhelmingly white, whose clustering at the intersection often literally embodies another white wall encroaching upon another once-predominantly immigrant neighborhood in Los Angeles.

Before L.A.’s stay at home orders, the restaurant’s lines were a frequent reminder for local immigrant communities of just how many people in Los Angeles could still afford more than $15 on a salad, even while on the same block families struggle to make $15 an hour to keep up with the rising cost of living each year in increasingly land-starved Los Angeles.

At the same time, despite the absence of Sqirl’s lines, so much as passing through the area still imposes a mental tax on long-time residents due to the mental prospect of further displacement by only more white boutique shops, more white wine bars and shops, and more white patrons, which collectively create more anxiety for a growing number of non-white bodies in our community. Even a visit to Rick’s Produce, which is across the street from Sqirl and owned by Latinos, can still feel odd for Brown folks in the area nowadays, most of all because of the white bodies that frequent Sqirl, Rick’s, Melody, and the other strange, white spaces nearby where white people can easily spend twenty dollars on a smoothie, a handful of avocados, or an “horchofee,” which is horchata mixed with coffee, according to Sqirl’s menu. 

“White people are exhausting. That’s what they do, exhaust others, exhaust resources, exhaust themselves in their obsession with dominance. Whiteness is exhaustion.”

Dana White, Twitter

This makes it so that even if Brown folks nearby can appreciate Rick’s Produce’s Latinx ownership, not to mention the shop’s support for small business farmers, the encroaching white wall still seems to close in on the shop, making it so that the only time you’ll see Brown folks lining up for Rick’s en masse is when the store gives the produce away, as in, without discrimination, the way it’s done with the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council the last few Sundays. Bravo, Rick’s!

The rest of the time, walking into the shop tends to feel like it’s a place where white patrons are the true customers that the shop’s succulent, yet pricey fruits and veggies serve. At the very least, the space feels contested, as the overly bright specs of Sqirl across the street remind Brown bodies. Standing in line at Rick’s for a smoothie the other day, I asked myself:

“Is my money really good enough here? Or is supporting any new business on Virgil supporting my own displacement, or the displacement of my people?”

If memories of 1992 still ring fresh in the minds of many Black and Latino residents through South Los Angeles today, then for Latinos along Virgil avenue so do memories of a humbler, more sustainable way of living in the area before the onset of white wealth. In other words, for many long-time residents, whiteness just got here, and it was only the other day that the area wasn’t as heavy with chic stores, or galleries, and the awkward placement of those stores and galleries, and this great white silence as more such spaces proliferate on top of the area’s historic immigrant culture.

Consider that the former Super Pan Bakery on Virgil avenue, owned by Doña Elvia and her family, was the last panaderia standing along the avenue for residents in Virgil Village, offering bread, tamales and more for residents at less than $5.00. When in late 2018 the bakery was displaced in a deal with some new developers in town, it was made clear to the community that Doña Elvia’s only fault was having migrated to Los Angeles without the privilege of whiteness and white wealth to her name. 

In 2019, a small bagel company based out of Silver Lake took the reins to Super Pan’s former space, adding to the further whitewashing of Virgil avenue, and demonstrating how violence against non-white communities is not just inflicted during the literal disembodiment of Black and Brown bodies at the hands of police, but also in the repeated trampling of Black and Brown cultural hallmarks, including their homes, their bakeries, and more for the erection of white-owned, white-catering thoroughfare. If the new Bagel shop’s owners set up tables for the shop along Virgil avenue, do they even know how much further they’ll be hemming in little Brown kids and their families nearby?

If, as city budgets across the nation reveal, whiteness wasn’t so invested in hostility towards Black and Brown bodies, perhaps white spaces entering their way into Black and Brown communities wouldn’t have to be a big deal. But Super Pan’s displacement for the sake of another more posh, more white bakery is only the latest example of whiteness equaling the displacement of Brown bodies. So let it be clear: whiteness along Virgil avenue isn’t just a privilege. It is a continual pressure on Black & Brown folks spatially, socially, and psychologically. This Side of Hoover has documented this process for years.

On the other hand, the movement for Black Lives is calling for an end not only to police violence, but for an end to white supremacy in all forms. This makes it so that Black & Brown communities everywhere can only further consider and call for what we want from our tax-dollars, from our schools, from our neighborhoods going forward, and more.

WHAT TO DO (THE RIGHT THING)

Here’s one picture I know I’m not alone in no longer wanting to see through my neighborhood and that of my people’s: the racism permeating along Virgil avenue like a rotten stench, wreaking most heavily from Sqirl’s overbearingly white, classist lines, which are not just offensive, but which create anxiety for our communities, especially in the heightened police state through Los Angeles. If Sqirl, and Melody, and each of these newcomers insist on staying, however, as indicated by the former’s recent expansion, then it’s time to diversify patronage and increase access for the surrounding communities, whose backs the “Virgil Village” has been built on for decades.

Consider just a few ways that Sqirl and other new business nearby can show up for their neighbors:

  1. Offer healthy, pre-made, carryout meals at different prices for patrons with different budgets. This is literally already being done at Everytable in South L.A. After all, if the owner at Sqirl can afford to expand the restaurant and open more chains, what is it to break even in supporting a major segment of the neighborhood where it’s based?

  2. Donate meals to the local community or nearby farmers, not just to “restaurant-workers,” which overlooks labor from farm-workers and their families. At Zambrero restaurant, their Plate 4 Plate program sees to it that select items purchased from their menu donate a meal to underprivileged communities nearby; what better way to show some gratitude to the families of folks who pick the juicy greens and avocados that make their way to Sqirl’s kitchens and grocery stores all across Los Angeles?

  3. Partner with the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council to get meals to children, moms, and the elderly close by. Because if Plate 4 Plate seems a little too far out there, I’ve got evidence that one local organization is more than ready to serve the community in a fruitful partnership. Find that evidence HERE.

  4. Offer student discounts, or even prepaid student or “family passes” for students and families nearby, year-round. In other words, ACCEPT EBT CARDS. Because what can be more inclusive than literally ensuring that your neighbors know they’ve got a special seat at your tables when they’re up for it? Isn’t that what inviting Wah’s Golden Hen owner Lena Louie to lunch was all about? Not including LACC’s student body, I can think of many students and families nearby who would appreciate such passes, and who deserve them.

SERIOUSLY, THINK ABOUT THIS (OUR LIVED EXPERIENCES MATTER)

In the days following national mobilization against the police state led by Black Lives Matter, the movement’s insignia became an overnight sensation. In the Virgil Village, signs of “BLM” support could be seen on white gentrifences, on white storefronts, and in those stores’ hashtags, purportedly in solidarity with the fight for Black dignity in this country. Let this note thus serve as an article of solidarity with Black, Indigenous, and people of color everywhere fighting all forms of violence, including displacement from our neighborhoods because we know–as in, we’ve seen for lifetimes–how displacement is intrinsic to this country’s cycle of violence against our bodies.

And since white folks throughout Virgil Village and Silver Lake have stated their support for Black Lives, it’s clear that because so many of them are occupying space in predominantly immigrant communities, their support for racial justice needs to extend to neighboring immigrant families, who build, serve, clean up, and allow these neighborhoods to live and prosper, even as their livelihoods are at greater risk each day in the current political environment.

Along Virgil avenue, such support means making and holding space for the mamas, papas, abuelitas and the rest of the familia with a few simple, practical ideas to apply now. Don’t lament over its call out. Play your part to Make Virgil Avenue Feel Safe for Families Again.

J.T.

We Will Not be Erased: How Open Mics in Our Community Uplift Our Cultural History

Our second annual Open Mic was a second-annual success, featuring 10 different poets, speakers and other members of the community who spoke in front of up to 25 guests throughout the evening. Our guest list was diverse, with attendants as young as 11 years old and as mature as 60.

In my own experience, after more than 25 years of living in this parcel of Los Angeles, I never knew of an open “forum” in the community like those created by the three different Open Mics held in the area over the last calendar year; first at Cahuenga Public Library last April, then at El Gran Burrito in August 2018, and now, for the second year in a row, once again at Cahuenga Public Library.

I view each of these events, both individually and collectively, as achievements for a demographic in East Hollywood increasingly facing displacement from L.A.’s collective memory vis-a-vis gentrification, or the process known for “cleaning up” [ethnic] spaces for whiter, wealthier living.

In her photographic exhibit at the Armory for the Arts, Los Angeles based artist Sandra de La Loza describes her experience living in a city that constantly denies people such as herself, her family–and their neighborhoods–of space for their history.

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


With this in mind, by “holding space” for others such as the youth, families, elders and others who’ve attended our Open Mic events this past year to share their memories with the local community, and by attempting to normalize such spaces and activities on a consistent basis, my peers and I are taking a stand for a collective cultural history; for a present and future in the same vein of resistance against the erasure described by de La Loza.

In a commentary on de la Loza’s artwork as a “Field Guide” for others, UCLA Digital Media Professor Chon A. Noriega recognizes de la Loza’s installation and photographing of thought-provoking, albeit temporary ‘invisible monuments’ in Los Angeles as the work of a “guerilla historian”:

…its method is concrete and practical: do the research, engage a site, document the action, and communicate to others.


In other words, holding space for the memories of ethnic communities is not just an act of preservation, but also ‘a model’ to show others how they can excavate local histories for and about themselves too. Here, I think of the Filipino woman from last year’s first-ever Open Mic at Cahuenga who had “lived here for over 35 years” before taking up the microphone to share her story. And I think of Alfredo, the 10 year old boy who arrived to the Back to School Party at El Gran Burrito in August initially rolling his eyes at the workshops being offered, only to find through the course of the event that he was exactly the kind of youth our team had been looking for. Alfredo needed a space that recognized and uplifted his giftedness, and once he could see that our Party was just that, he transformed into one of our foremost little helpers, announcing the raffle and handing out prizes to the community as one of our team.

Lastly, I think of William Taylor III, who made his way to last Thursday’s Open Mic with stories about his time along Downtown Los Angeles’s Skid Row area. Taylor III graced the microphone with an ode to the recently passed Nipsey Hussle, statements of resistance to Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, and more letters of love for the community. These are just a few of the people who’ve been moved by our work, and there will be more.

In this respect, I’m excited to see what else my team and I will accomplish with more Open Mics, Back to School Parties, and other monuments for uplifting our communities. Because yes, of course there will be more soon. We’ve just gotten started!


J.T.

Still Resilient in Los Angeles

JT_Red
Metro Red Line Station; Vermont Ave and Santa Monica Blvd.

When you’ve known a place your whole life, a place that you take pride in, where you’ve found love in, and where you’ve found yourself in, what do you do as that place is taken from you? When the people who comprise this place are people who look like you, or who speak the same language as you, who hail from that same “otherness” like you, what do you do as they’re taken from you, too?

I think of the local Metro’s Vermont and Santa Monica Red Line Subway station. A place where thousands of people pass one another by each day, past the flocks of pigeons nestled above in the station’s arches, and past the heaps of other people laying by the entrances to the terminal.

The birds cradled in the station’s altitudes are conditioned to the factors of the environment, which are often rather unfriendly to their livelihood: Food is scarce, competition for food is abundant, and the winds push people and traffic through their huddled masses daily.

The humans below, whether moving with the traffic or anchored to the sidewalk, are conditioned to the factors of the environment, too: Food and housing are expensive, finding decent work to afford decent food and housing is likewise competitive. As people push through flocks of pigeons in the race to get to it all, we push past one another too; over time, this has the effect of insulating us from the environment and from one another as a whole.

I think of my own experience in this sequence, in terms of just how many people I’ve walked past over the dozen or so years I’ve stepped foot through Metro’s Vermont and Santa Monica corridor. Past people conflicted by mental health disorders, addiction, or no place for shelter at night. Past people trapped in abusive relationships, police violence, or no access to a steady meal each day. Past children who had no choice. I’ve got a feeling that this is an experience which binds me with millions of other people in the U.S. today.

In the 21st century, America isn’t just pushing people away from its borders, but it’s also pushing them from their homes, their livelihoods, and even from its street corners. In the pending displacement of Super Pan, my pueblo is dealing with wealth in this country, and the power of wealth to shove human beings out of the way instead of using it to uplift them and our community together as a whole; a legacy as old as the country itself.

But all around us are more mom and pop shops at risk of displacement, just as there are more Metro stations serving as shelters for more people with less than us. Not far off are also those individuals with wealth who simply want to take each of these spaces for their own benefit without pausing to consider how others can be harmed by such obnoxious claims to space.

If I’m somewhere in between, that is, not enamored by the power of wealth, but also not forced to sleep by the Metro stations at night, then just where do I stand? I pass by the less fortunate like the rest, to try to be better in some other way, which is for the most part what I have to do. But I don’t believe I’ve always got to do things this way.

I believe there’s still a world to build right through the one we see now, both with and alongside others: a world that’s been here before, actually, and which still glimmers through the shadows in moments each day out there; a world of people helping each other, uplifting each other, and building great things as a result.

A world we have to fight for, and which we continue fighting for each day: Nuestro Pueblo, Los Angeles.

More on Super Pan in the Virgil Village SOON,

J.T.