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 in Los Angeles still ring fresh in the minds of many Black and Latino residents through South Los Angeles today, then for Latinos along Virgil avenue so are 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, white-owned bagel company from 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 communities 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 now seriously 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 its 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 white-owned 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. AKA ACCEPTING 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.

EPISODE 17 – RICK’S PRODUCE UPLIFTS FAMILIES WITH FREE FRUITS & VEGGIES

(Pandemic in Los Angeles: Day 84)

In our seventeenth episode, we catch up with Ninoska Suarez, of the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council, to chat about a major gift for the neighborhood in partnership with Rick’s Produce of the Virgil Village area in East Hollywood: More than 125 boxes of fresh fruits and veggies for residents the past three Sundays through COVID-19, AND THEN SOME.

J.T.

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Food Justice in East Hollywood is Growing Fruits and Veggies at Madison Ave Community Garden

(Pandemic in Los Angeles: Day 43)

We originally featured the new park in East Hollywood over three years ago. Now, a few months shy of a year since the grand opening of the first-ever community garden at 1115 North Madison Avenue, a local chef and gardener has overseen the growth of the first year’s sets of fruits and vegetables for the community.

Heleo Leyva has lived in East Hollywood for nearly eighteen years. Since June 2019, when the garden was originally introduced to the neighborhood by the LA Garden Council, he has served as the lead gardener for the project, planting and raising seeds through the new soil to produce an array of beets, tomatoes, chili, kale, hierba buena, jamaica, zanahorias, nopales, and more fresh produce.

Heleo first learned to plant from his father in Puebla, Mexico, who began teaching him the craft in his formative years. He is not commissioned by the LA Garden Council, but volunteers his time to grow the greens out of a love for farming.

“It’s hard to explain. But it’s a part of life, not something separate,” he says of planting.

In a community surrounded by fast food, where boxes of pizza, if not plastic or paper bags with grilled meats and buns, serve to dominate the expenses of many families here, the act of growing and consuming fruits and vegetables can seem like a remote, cumbersome, and even unsatisfying process. But there is more to the cuento.

East Hollywood’s median annual family income for a household of three is reported as being just under $40,000, or only 1.8 times over the federal poverty level for such household sizes. In Los Angeles, that $40,000 median income level is also well below the “average” of $69,138, for families of the same size in L.A. County.

Heleo’s time with the garden is also taking place during a chapter for the community when a growing number of healthy, but unaffordable foods are entering the area due to the ongoing gentrification of its storefronts and housing, which can have the effect of leading many of the area’s ethnic communities to view healthy eating as “a white thing.”

This is where Heleo’s roots play an important role in challenging that narrative. Hailing originally from Puebla, Mexico, where many pueblos are still tied to their native customs, including speaking Nahuatl, Heleo views farming as something intrinsic to living. This is a perspective largely out of range for much of Los Angeles, where the ability to consume food and entertainment far outweighs incentives to live more sustainably, thus making the act of growing one’s own food an act of resistance.

But even if Heleo wasn’t rooted as such, the simple fact that he can communicate himself in two languages in an area where the majority of youth speak one language at home while learning another at school, makes him well-equipped to invite an “old” community into a “new” way of interacting with their vicinity.

Over the course of time, then, in the post-coronavirus world that’s certain to arrive in due process, I believe that with the right support network, there should be no reason why he and other growers can’t teach youth and families of color in the community to grow too, as Heleo’s father once showed him. The garden will also surely need more volunteers to grow and fulfill such vision, which will be another key step towards creating food justice in East Hollywood.

To learn more about the fresh new stretch of green in the community, continue down the rabbit hole here.

J.T.

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