EPISODE 74 – A LATINX HISTORY OF LOS ANGELES IN THREE PARTS, PART I

In our 74th episode, we chat with Oscar Monroy, a father of four from Echo Park and owner of the recently closed Cuscatleca Bakery along Sunset boulevard. Oscar and I discuss his family’s roots in Los Angeles since the 1970s, and how his parents (hailing from Mexico and El Salvador) first came to establish Panaderia Cuscatleca in the Pico-Union area in the early 2000s. We also discuss being Latinx in L.A. (including as “Mexidorans”), the future of the Latinx demographic in the U.S. (whose population currently numbers at 60.6 million), the current struggle for families like Oscar’s in the midst of gentrifying Echo Park, and much more. A can’t-miss session for any and all ‘coming up’ in the city of Los Angeles, and the first installment of a three-part discussion for Los Cuentos.

J.T.

The Misrepresentation of Our Neighborhood: To the Feds Who Redlined Us

In 2015, a seventeen year old Latino youth named Leo Ramirez was shot and killed at an intersection I’ve walked to and from home for nearly three decades. I wondered why in our neighborhood specifically, young men like Leo seemed to lose their lives each year, with only candlelights and graffiti-sprayed “R.I.P”s to show for it. Had our neighborhood been forgotten, or set up to fail? At that time, I hadn’t known about the history of redlining in Los Angeles, but since then, I’ve uncovered more than a handful of cuentos about such policies to consider why so many of the places we call home are shaped as they are.

Almost a hundred years ago, in the 1930s, the U.S. population was 89% white, and its cities were filled with over 13 million people without work. Of these jobless masses, at least 2 million were recorded without housing, or living in “Hoovervilles,” rivaling today’s myriad of encampments across Los Angeles, colloquially known as Garcetivilles. Fortunately for many, however, a “New Deal” was on the horizon.

From the late 1930s to the late 1960s, the federal government teamed up with states and cities to build housing, recognizing that a stable place for residents to call home was a basic necessity for their ability to work and raise families. But there was just one caveat to Uncle Sam’s massive building experiment: If housing developers wanted subsidies or tax breaks, they had to build residential areas where only members of the “Caucasian Race” were allowed. This effectively barred nearly all Black and immigrant people from a shot at improved housing, and by extension, improved work opportunities and the ability to raise healthy, stable families in their communities. 

By the time the federal housing program came to an end in the late 1960s, housing was segregated across U.S. cities everywhere. And one of the most lasting consequences of the program was the creation of the “NIMBY,” or “Not In My Backyard” activists. After benefiting heftily from thirty years of redlining, these groups would and continue to successfully oppose attempts to integrate their wealthier, largely white vicinities with non-white, lower-income residents on the basis of protecting “property values.” This is what left neighborhoods like the one Leo and I grew up in largely stranded.

We jump forward from the 1960s to the present momentarily. Today, many Black and immigrant families in Los Angeles whose neighborhoods were redlined see higher levels of homelessness due to segregation, wage inequality, neglected housing, and other forms of disinvestment concentrated in our vicinities. As recently as 2019, for example, just three of fifteen districts on the east and south sides of Los Angeles contained 41% of the city’s homeless population, all of which were heavily redlined for their Black and immigrant residents during the Feds’ building boom. Neighborhoods in these areas include Skid Row and Boyle Heights, South Central, Leimert Park, the Crenshaw corridor, and more. Additionally, according to a point-in-place count from 2019, of an estimated 70,000 unhoused people, nearly 80 percent are Black and Latino residents. And with unabated gentrification, or increasingly less housing options for families due to a growing number of luxury lofts and other exclusionary, unaffordable living options, these numbers stand to rise further.

Gentrification in Los Angeles is also a segregated phenomenon of sudden, unseemly investment in land once considered “undesirable”–according to the U.S. government–on the basis of race, i.e. redlining. The Pacific Palisades, Malibu, and Brentwood, for example, or historically greenlined, largely white communities, have not seen such rapid, unorderly development. Rather, NIMBYs in these areas have mastered “slow growth,” or litigation to prevent new, more affordable housing units that would benefit Black, Brown, and white and asian communities all over the city. Yet this could have been avoided if Black and immigrant communities’ calls for fair housing policies had been taken seriously by federal and state offices over the decades, especially in the 1960s.

From Harlem to Watts, the 1960s counted the highest numbers of racial rioting in the history of the United States. While popular narratives about social movements during this decade focus on voting rights and desegregating the U.S. South, the fact is that social unrest in the 1960s was largely due to derelict housing conditions and minimal work opportunities, especially for Blacks, in the U.S. North. By 1968, then, when the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. set off hundreds of riots in cities everywhere, Lyndon B. Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission to name the root cause of the unrest. The Kerner report’s conclusions were cut and clear:

Fifty-six percent of the country’s non-white families live in central cities today, and of these, nearly two-thirds live in neighborhoods marked by substandard housing and general urban blight. For these citizens, condemned by segregation and poverty to live in the decaying slums of our central cities, the goal of a decent home and suitable environment is as far distant as ever.

Young Evacuees at 41st and Central, where the LAPD bombed the Black Panther Party Headquarters on December 8, 1969.

In hindsight, the commission’s report was simply describing “the hood” before it became common nomenclature to identify redlined communities as such. Despite the report, however, federal action to desegregate housing after 1968 would be minimal to non-existent. While the Fair Housing Act, signed in 1968, technically banned any form of racial discrimination in private or federal housing such as redlining, it largely lacked enforcement provisions and thus did little to integrate suburbs originally divided from the inner city along racial lines. This left Black and immigrant neighborhoods to depreciate, especially as manufacturing jobs and other employment available to “low-skill” workers would disappear in the following decades. In other words, even after civil rights gains were made on paper, policies of racial disinvestment were largely left intact.

By the early 1970s, moreover, housing by the Feds was in for makeover, as the Nixon administration suddenly froze all funds for new housing initiatives by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in a four-year moratorium or “shut-off” for the agency. This was followed by a devolution of authority in 1974, or passing the responsibility to build new housing to state and city governments, where the state of housing remains today.

Just like that, after 30 years of sponsoring all-white suburbs, the Feds abruptly left the business of housing when Black and Brown communities needed it most–including as veterans from these groups returned from war in Vietnam–and despite how they never saw even a tenth of the housing investment working-class whites did.

The final nail in the coffin for federal housing was that devolution failed to account for how most city and state budgets did not rake in enough revenue to invest significantly in desegregating neighborhoods–and thus, environments–via housing. The 1970s then saw the rise of Section 8 housing vouchers, which proved to be far more lucrative for landlords than for renters, and which now make up the Fed’s largest housing assistance program, providing an estimated 2.2. million people in the U.S.–and their landlords–with rental support annually.

Following Nixon’s moratorium, the 1980s saw less housing construction in the U.S. than in the previous decade. But in the “Golden State,” the rate for new housing construction fell abysmally; two decades after Nixon’s moratorium, the average rate of new housing fell from 215,000 new housing units a year in 1970 to just over 110,000 new units a year by 1999. This benefited older, white populations, while simultaneously burrowing Black and Brown communities further into strained housing environments–including Central American refugees displaced in the 1980s through “anti-communist” U.S. policy in the region, as well as Mexican migrants escaping an economically “lost decade” in their country due largely to U.S. debt obligations.

It’s conditions like these that youth like Leo and I inherited without our knowledge. But what I still had to learn at the time of his passing was how to outline the housing and living conditions ill-suited for the healthy development of most families in our community. Now, I can state for a fact that the census tract for the area Leo and I called home 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 area within the federal poverty level. Public records also state that at least 20% of people living on this tract rely on food stamps to pay for meals and groceries, a rate second only to that of the tract below, where 23% of residents rely on food stamps.

East Hollywood, or the larger area encompassing the blocks we grew up in is also 60% Latinx, where almost 90% of residents rent their housing. The area also saw at least $5 million in expenditures between 2012-2017 to arrest and incarcerate its Black and Brown residents, more than twice the rate spent in the adjacent Silver Lake and Los Feliz neighborhoods, which were bluelined and greenlined for their “desirable” white residents in the days of the Feds’ aforementioned building boom. Our neighborhood was in fact marked from the beginning, then, but now we mark its cuento to uplift a different future for Leo, yours truly, and more.

J.T.

EPISODE 48 – REDLINING, INTERNMENT, AND RESILIENCE

In our 48th episode, we give listeners the LIVE recording of our first panel for Making Our Neighborhood: Past: Redlining, Internment, and Resilience. Our fundraiser for translation services over the next two panels is nearly complete. Please visit our FUNDLY to support!

J.T.

BONUS: THE CALIFORNIA READER – EP 1

On this first episode of the new California Reader podcast, we quote Carey McWilliams’ Factories in the Field (1940), as well as an LA TIMES editorial from the good ole days of 1890. We also discuss the relation of these items to struggles for Black and migratory workers at companies like Uber and Lyft in CA today. Find episode two of the California Reader at patreon.com/jimbotimes!

J.T.

American

American Removal begins with a language.

It starts with Indians as “uncivilized” “savages.”

It expands with Black bodies deemed as “niggers” and “3/5ths.”

It proliferates with “providence” but only for Aryan destiny, “by the millions.”

American Removal embraces its robes with an “Indian Removal Act,”

Followed by a war on “Dirty Mexicans,”

Followed by a “Chinese Exclusion Act,”

Followed by Filipinos as “niggers.”

Then by “Japs Keep Moving.”

American Removal tests its first PSAs with “public enemies,” “hobos, tramps, and vagrants,” but ultimately settles for Black & Brown youth as “gangs.”

It then sows its modern seeds with a “red line.”

Red line maps delineate our colors, separating “undesirables” and “subversive racial elements” from “homogeneous,” “single-family [white] homes.”

Until a war to end all wars. Two atom bombs dropped on “Japs,” but none on German nazis or Italian fascists.

After the war, American Removal includes “Un-American,” “Black radicals,” and “communist hippies” into its lexicon.

Once these ring hollow, it reinvigorates itself: “[Black] drugs and gangs,” “[Black] welfare queens,” [Latinx and Asian] immigrant “invasion,”

Followed by national publication on a generation of new [Black] “super-predators.”

American Removal then sanctifies itself, calling on “[white] property owners” to “revolt.”

Followed by calls to “Save Our State,”

Followed by “English (Only) For Our Children.”

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, American Removal finds yet more life-blood: a global war on Muslims as “terrorists,” “extremists,” and once again “radicals.”

A generation later, American Removal relishes in “good people on both sides,” “shit-hole countries,” and “stand back and stand by.”

But when you ask about a million bodies burned by drones in the Global South since 2001,

Or when you ask about civil uniforms shooting down Black men, women and children,

When you ask about the forced sterilization of incarcerated Latina women in private prisons,

Or when you ask about the gentrification of our neighborhoods, a city’s homeless “clean-ups” as new police patrol new hotels around the corners,

When you ask American Removal if it may dignify these acts with so much as an acknowledgement,

That’s when all you get is silence.

American Removal concludes with a silence.

J.T.

Defund Jeff Bezos for your Health and nothing less

If there’s still any question as to how serious this year’s health crisis has become, particularly in the richest nation on earth, consider that according to a report from the Washington Post, after the deadliest war in U.S. history, the four-year U.S. Civil War from 1861 – 1865, an estimated 750,000 lives were lost.

This year alone, as cases from the virus continue to surge, the U.S. has already lost at least 276,000 people to the crisis and counting. THAT’S ABOVE 1/3RD of the total lives lost during the Civil War in a fourth of the time that conflict lasted.

Consider also just a few differences between now and the U.S. 155 years ago:

In the 1860s, when the U.S. was made up just 33 states and less than 31 million people, “germ theory of disease was still a controversial idea and not yet widely accepted” among the predominantly white (27 million), working-class nation.

At the federal level in the 1860s, the 13th amendment, which outlawed chattel slavery–except where people convicted of a crime were concerned–was proposed only during the last year of the civil war in 1865 and not ratified until December of that year, seven months after the war was concluded; also in the 1860s, the 14th amendment, which granted citizenship to any persons born on U.S. land, was only passed by the U.S. Senate a year after the civil war in 1866 and not ratified until two years later in 1868.

More locally in Los Angeles, by 1860, when the county was made up of no more than an estimated 12,000 people (more than 11,000 of which were white, according to records), the L.A. County Sheriff’s department was only ten years old.

Likewise, the L.A. City Council, then known as the Common Council, was made up of just seven members and was also just ten years established; the LAPD, by contrast, originally made up of only six armed patrolmen, would not be founded until 1869.

In effect, as Jeff Bezos alone stands to add nearly $100 billion to his portfolio from the pandemic this year, the U.S. healthcare system is on track to count more casualties than the deadliest conflict in U.S. history in the 1860s, at the time of which the nation’s population count was only about 1/10th its size today, and before the advent of the telephone, mass production of Colgate toothpaste, or Ford automobiles, as well as 100 years before Lyndon B. Johnson would sign Medicare and Medicaid into law.

That’s the world we’re living in in 2020, and the one that, if communities and the “silent majority” don’t continue to demand change for, future generations across this country will have the unenviable burden of coming to grips with. If U.S. history shows anything, it’s that 100 years–or even 200 years–of discrimination can go by very quickly.

J.T.

The book cover for Mike the Poet's Letters to My City, published in 2019

Letters To My City (2019)

Through a tremendous last couple of weeks between the Los Angeles Review of Books workshop, the new Los Cuentos Book Club, and more for your truly, I just finished Mike the Poet’s L.A.’s Letters to My City. By the turn of the final page, I both see it and hear it. Sonsken’s ‘letters’ are not just prose, but also songs from the heart to all comers. Most of all, they’re a tribute to those who’ve been here, as Sonsken shows no fear celebrating L.A.’s Black, Indigenous, Asian, Native & Latinx roots. His book can thus be though of as an invitation for all poets, writers, and anyone interested in uplifting this city and keeping its history sacred to tag along for the ride.

Sonsken’s writing also consistently understands that he’s not the guiding hand, but that his is one led by the voices of others, those around him to uncover or pay heed to the roots. Sonsken’s work therefore comes off as a round-table discussion, a gathering of minds from across L.A., but abundant especially with folks from the South and East sides, as well as with folks from less discussed “L.A.” like Long Beach, Oxnard and even Cerritos and the OC. It is a call for Los Angeles’s artists and all creators to come together with major respect to the city, to the communities, for the stories, which form the heartbeat of this sometimes totally cruel, sometimes surreal town. Los Cuentos sees this, and I look forward to passing Mike’s book along to the next generation of historians with major visions for our city.

Towards the end the book also leads to more questions. For one, I found myself reflecting on reparations awarded to Japanese-Americans in Los Angeles who faced internment. In a closing vignette on Little Tokyo’s history and a Buddhist temple in the area Mike writes:

A key component of Japanese religion and culture is the idea of ancestor veneration, essentially the idea of gratitude to your family and specifically appreciating one’s ancestors.

I thought then of the enslaved, and those whose lives were uprooted and taken by genocide and U.S. imperialism. I seriously wondered: where is the discussion in L.A. on reparations for African-American, Native, and also Mexican bodies? These are our ancestors, and there are more, in and even beyond America. I believe Sonsken would agree for a need to come together and discuss it, and that, at least in L.A., his book is certainly one way to start.

J.T.