California left in Ashes by Suburban Expansion built on Decades of Exclusion and Criminalization of the Poor

What if I told you that in California working Black and Latina single mothers will be slapped with the bill for the untold millions in damages from the latest fire season in communities where they’re largely relegated to occupy space only as nannies or security detail? And what if you then learned that all of the discretionary or “unrestricted” social money for public goods supposed to be set aside for community development–not to mention emergencies such as COVID-19–in South Central Los Angeles and other impoverished, formerly red-lined geographies, are those which stand to lose the most from preventable fire emergencies? This is exactly what is happening in the “Golden state.”

As days of lungs ensnared in smoke in Los Angeles turn into weeks of suffocation, it might almost feel like all of California has been taken hostage by a force of wicked nature. But it would be more accurate to say that the city, and indeed the state’s fates have been sealed by real estate corporations and obsequious governments, whose ill regard for natural and cultural limitations, and whose collusion in land theft, “separate but equal,” police states, redlining, white flight, and now gentrification intermingle like a Fiesta salad of colonial residue, which tastes just as it looks: like heaps of ashes from a darkened sky over the “final frontier” that is–or that was–the Golden State.

Governor Newsom is correct to cite a “climate damn emergency” in his assessment of ‘this moment,’ but still fails to situate climate change within the observed history and present state of corporate control over millions of acres of formerly public lands, largely still unceded by Native peoples in California but retained by companies like Pacific Gas & Electric and other private corporations, whose executives have profited immensely from fire hazards, pollution, publicly funded subsidies and insurance coverage, and more than anything: the mass removal of poor people and even their natural, sacred geographies for the sake of racialized expansion projects such as suburbia.

While the most expensive damage from the latest preventable fires have mostly impacted suburban enclaves developed by real estate moguls away from inner cities, the present state of high alert and toxic air quality for communities across the Western hemisphere emphasizes how fire hazards are not–and never have been–relevant only to isolated suburbs.

Moreover, as urban space continues to rise in density at the direction of real estate firms and not that of working-class communities, there are likely more fires on the way to big cities like L.A. After all, it was only six years ago that smoke from the so-called Da Vinci apartments choked the skies above downtown Los Angeles and the nearby Pico-Union and Westlake neighborhoods, the latter of which has historically been prone to fire disasters as a result of outdated building and fire codes, not to mention lax enforcement from L.A. city inspectors on landlords over safety. While a taxi driver was arrested for allegedly starting the fire at the Da Vinci complex and sentenced to fifteen years behind bars, the blaze was also attributable to corporate exceptionalism to the rules when developer Geoffrey Palmer failed to install key fire prevention measures to keep the complex from incinerating so rapidly and threatening other nearby structures.

In 2016, in a blazing example of belated, half-hearted watch-dogging from local government, Mike Feuer, the District Attorney for the city of Los Angeles sued Palmer for $20 million dollars for violating the city’s fire codes. Yet just one year later, Feuer settled for only $400,000 of that demand, or the equivalent of a small fine for the billionaire’s coffers, which another attorney for Feuer’s office called “an excellent result.”

Moreover, Palmer’s Da Vinci complexes were back in business as soon as 2015, offering non-rent controlled 746 square feet apartments for a minimum of $2,000 dollars a month to overlook the city’s sprawling tent encampments below the complexes. From 2013 – 2015, the city of Los Angeles alone saw an additional 1,300 people added to the streets. Today, there are more than 41,000 people without shelter atop the sidewalks and freeway underpasses of L.A., that is, according to LAHSA’s official estimates, which are always an under-count.

It turns out, however, that L.A.’s lame attempt at reining in Palmer was just one in a long list of Los Angeles officials’ rapid forfeiture of land to real estate firms without so much as a whimper, the result of which quickly forced into being cities like Malibu, Santa Clarita, and many more predominantly white enclaves, despite often being literally against mountainous terrain, and by extension, against the recommendations of sustainable planning experts.

Mike Davis’s Ecology of Fear (1998) documents key points of this history of L.A. officials yielding to the mighty developers’ expansionist dreams. Among several examples of how L.A. officials approved the city’s infamous “de facto” segregation over decades, Davis analyzes how twenty years prior to the mass gentrification of the Santa Monica mountains for the sake of Malibu–which was once home to tens of thousands of Chumash people–the urbanism firm EDAW reported that a then-projected 405,000 additional homes to the area would be ill-advised:

“They pointed out that Malibu, apart from major problems with earthquakes, flooding, and landslides, also had a fire history ‘unique in intensity, devastating in effect, and heightened during Santa Ana wind conditions.”

Twenty years later, the Malibu fire in 1993 proved this point, costing over $500,000,000 adjusted for inflation in today’s dollars, which, along with the Northridge quake in 1994 in the “de facto” segregated white valley, sucked up more state and federal dollars than the battle worn streets of South Central Los Angeles from less than two years prior. Davis noted even then:

“The fate of inner-city areas of Los Angeles in the aftermath of the Northridge earthquake vividly illustrates how people of color are doubly punished by natural and political disasters. The first casualty of the temblor was any residual official interest in economic recovery efforts and job creation in the neighborhoods traumatized by the 1992 riots. Rebuilding the Valley supplanted ‘Rebuild L.A..'”

Nearly thirty years after Malibu’s predictable smoldering, smoke now consumes streets from Los Angeles to Portland as bruised sunlight stares ominously from above, and you can bet Geoffrey Palmer to the tune of a billion dollars that the predominantly Black, Latino and also impoverished white communities laying unhoused, behind prison bars, and under police surveillance across the “Golden State” will be the same ones whose affordable housing and decarceration are again postponed due to elected representative spinelessness before Palmer and his contemporaries.

The state’s latest ineptitude during this fire season, like its hackneyed safety nets amid the pandemic this last half year, is thereby proof that the present struggle against police violence is not separate from the state’s conscription to unnatural catastrophes developed by corporate bottom lines one year after the next. In other words, the same annual budget that strains firefighting from “saving” precariously built structures in fire-prone areas is also the one which provides LAPD in South Central L.A. and across its immigrant communities with zealous field-days; but while the former present billions in damages that will cost the state’s public schools, public transportation, and hundreds of thousands of Californians without access to secure housing, the latter’s only threat is a skin color and some variant inflection of Inglés that continues threatening California’s intransigent white supremacist order.

As present-day neighborhoods like those in Malibu and Santa Clarita were built on top of the ruins of decimated Chumash people, whose residents now live in heightened anxiety every September through November, the past has not yet passed. Today, while Hollywood celebrities have access to same-day testing for COVID-19 as the poor are ordered to wait until they have a fever to show for it, inheritors of the Golden state’s tragic love affair with real estate moguls will watch as another generation of public “leaders” call for rebuilding California’s white suburbs with more expenses on the working poor, including through increased policing, displacement, incarceration, and thus shutting out or banishment.

The only conceivable way out at this late stage in the game is for more citizens to stand against such manufactured inequality by supporting movements across the soot-worn Golden state for tenants’ rights, for affordable homes instead of sweeping zones, for prison abolition and police defunding, and for community investment led by communities rather than parasitic billionaires. There is no alternative to this latter option; we are already living in the alternative, blanketed in ashes.

J.T.

Jose Huizar Proves How L.A. City Hall Serves Foreign Millionaires While Jailing and Displacing its Poorest Residents

(Pandemic in Los Angeles: Day 59)

After nearly two months of the city’s great slow-down, the past week might almost seem like a forgettable one, another shot down the drain of the lurid whirlpool of days and nights the pandemic will become in our memories.

For a handful of the city’s voters and observers, however, this week will mark one of the most explosive in history for Los Angeles’s political leadership. Mike Davis is affirmed.

On Wednesday, L.A. City Council had one of its former consultants, George Chiang, plead guilty to charges of racketeering for buying his way into the city’s favor to advance his clients’ investments in the Luxe Hotel downtown. Two days later, L.A. City Council’s board president, Nury Martinez, stopped short of demanding a resignation from Jose Huizar, the council-member for the 14th district, for being the main figure in the FBI bribery case related to George Chiang’s plea.

This Friday also saw the entire city council team & L.A. county board mandated by federal judge David Carter to move hastily toward sheltering its nearly 60,000 unhoused, the order arriving only after a lawsuit from downtown residents and advocates charged the city with failing to sufficiently respond to the needs of its residents in Skid Row, even despite the pandemic. Now, one can’t help but wonder:

If Adam Schiff and Nancy Pelosi had “Russiagate” for the president’s pro-Russian heart, and if Tom Brady could have “Deflategate” for lighter-than-usual footballs, can Los Angeles have “Huizargate,” or maybe “Luxegate,” for how the latter expose city hall’s loyalty to millions of dollars, instead of its 4 million residents, workers and families?

SkidRowgate” might also work because it’s a part of Huizar’s 14th district. Now, somewhere out there this weekend, the councilman is at a true crossroads, having to choose between showing himself out of City Hall’s doors, or waiting until he’s escorted by police officers and federal agents. It almost reminds me of Robert De Niro’s Heat (1995).

But more importantly, the scandal is about more than just Huizar’s avarice, even if we forget for a moment that the FBI’s probe against him also involves looking at other current council-members. The truth is that if Huizar’s fealty to foreign real estate developers hurt only himself, it would be one thing. But his crimes during almost 15 years on the council after Antonio Villaraigosa left the seat to become mayor have not hurt just Huizar. Drawing once again from the United Nations report from Professor Philip Alston:

“In Skid Row, L.A., (again, a part of Huizar’s district) 6,696 arrests of homeless persons were reported to have been made between 2011 and 2016.”

The scandal proves that those nearly 7,000 residents didn’t have to be punked in such a way. It’s just that they were collateral, to say nothing of the far greater number of bodies also forcibly taken to L.A.’s jail cells beyond the interval cited, which, to be sure, were dragged in as such during Mayor Villaraigosa’s and police chief William Braton’s tenure as well. Even back in the early 2000’s, advocates were calling for those residents to be helped off the street and placed into transitional housing, which, if done, could have made for a very different downtown Los Angeles today.

As professor Alston points out:

“Rather than responding to homeless persons as affronts to the senses and to their neighborhoods, citizens and local authorities should see in their presence a tragic indictment of community and government policies.”

We just may be edging towards the other side of that coin, finally; for one, there are now certainly indictments on the table. At the same time, so is Mayor Garcetti’s 2020-2021 budget, which proposes rewarding billions to the LAPD while slashing millions from Housing and Community Investment. The truth is crueler than fiction.

Here’s a proposal from yours truly, however: we can only use the “gate” suffix for Huizar’s story if we start to see some good eventually coming from the darkness it’s now exposed.

Yearning for more light all across Los Angeles,

J.T.

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La Gentrificación del Pueblo Continuará

Hasta que el pueblo se levanta y dice ya basta.

A walk through any neighborhood is the most effective way to survey its culture. This afternoon through my own, at the intersection of Madison and Willow Brook avenue, I took a moment to photograph the complex above, which is now in the process of redevelopment. Around the abandoned buildings, power lines idle next to nestles of leaves from high trees branching out through the air. East of the complex, less than a minute of walking distance, is Lockwood Elementary school, where my old friends and I went to school, and where now even some of the children of those old friends go to school.

Today Lockwood Elementary is no longer just one school, but ‘two in one,’ as the site is now split between the traditional Los Angeles Unified School District program (LAUSD), and a charter school overseen by Citizens of the World – Silver Lake Charter (CWC), which serves ‘qualified’ students whose enrollment is based on a ‘lottery.’ The irony here is that Lockwood Elementary is actually not located in the famed Silver Lake area, but instead in what’s known officially, according to the LA City Clerk, as ‘East Hollywood.’

In any case, when my peers and I finished fifth grade at Lockwood, our next stop was Thomas Starr King Middle School (King MS). King was located East of Virgil boulevard on Fountain avenue, and at just under a mile away from Lockwood, if one made the trek to King MS on foot from say, Madison and Willow Brook Avenues, they might reason that the school was actually better situated to serve students located in the wealthier Los Feliz area.

An urban policy planner might say that this distance would be an easy fix, however; all the parents at Madison and Willow Brook Avenues had to do was drive their kids to King MS. Of course, that just meant such parents had to be able to afford a car, which wasn’t always the case for many of the single mothers who oversaw many of my peers and I. In 2008, according to the L.A. Times, the median household income for families in East Hollywood was $29,927, while only 13.4% of adults in the neighborhood had a college degree.

Even so, at just under a mile of walking distance to the school, the daily trek couldn’t be that bad of a slog, right? Some mamas did it. Indeed, some had to. There wasn’t a whole lot of support for them otherwise.

When my peers and I finished at King MS, what followed was John Marshall High School (JMHS) for ninth through twelfth grade. At just about two miles walking distance from the old apartment complex at Madison and Willow Brook avenues, Marshall High School was unquestionably farther east of Virgil avenue, and unlike King, which the aforementioned urban planner could argue was located between ‘East Hollywood’ and Los Feliz to serve both areas, Marshall High School was definitely located in the Los Feliz and Silver Lake areas.

As such, it was definitely designed to serve the students of parents within that area. According to the L.A. Times, in Silver Lake, the median household income in 2008 was almost twice that of East Hollywood’s, at $54,339, with nearly three times the rate of adults in Silver Lake with a college degree at 36.2%. In neighboring Los Feliz, the median household income was $50,793, and Los Feliz had more than three times the rate of adults in East Hollywood with a college degree, at 42.7%.

Despite lacking much in terms of income versus these neighboring areas, and hailing straight out of our homes as “first generation” students, many of my peers and I made it in through the gates at Marshall, either by carpooling with one parent or another, or by taking the Metro 175 bus for those of us who could catch it early enough in the mornings.

Only 48% of the class that my peers and I entered into Marshall with in 2004 would walk out of the school with their diploma in 2008.

Was that paltry graduation rate planned? With ten years of hindsight from the day of graduation, it’s clear it certainly wasn’t planned against. From the time my peers and I were at Lockwood, all the way through our time at Marshall, there wasn’t exactly a cultural plan from the urban policy planners around us and the elected leadership corresponding–Mayor Garcetti was the local Council Member for East Hollywood from 2006 – 2012–to get young people from East Hollywood successfully onto college and back.

Should that have been the work of urban policy planners in the first place? One may argue that it was not; yet it’s precisely that same lack of accountability which leads me to believe that in a significant way, the neighborhood surrounding the old complex at Madison and Willow Brook avenues, like many neighborhoods all across Los Angeles, was either supposed to get with the program, or just get lost. Parents in our vecindad were supposed to run with the market, or get Left Behind.

Similarly, today’s redevelopment of the old complex at Madison and Willow Brook avenues is a matter of getting with the program. Except that the program of the new complex at the intersection will be one of sleek buildings, the flaunt of which will be accentuated by bold fonts, and the grounds of which will be guarded by steep fences shrouding the complex in seclusion and high visibility all at once, thereby earning its ask for the unenviable rent prices it’s destined for. Rent prices that virtually none of the trabajadores now reconstructing the complex day by day, nor any of their vecinos in the pueblo surrounding the complex, will be able afford for them and their children, or that even their children’s children might afford.

Asi es. Y asi sera, me dirian tantos compadres en los trabajos por ahi. Pero asi es hasta que nosotros decimos no mas, Los Angeles.

There is reason to nevertheless be optimistic about challenging this lack of accountability, or this lack of protection for so many working families in neighborhoods like this one. Everywhere in Los Angeles is growing a resistance to this old order of power, which has stifled pueblos like those of my peers and I, and our movements, throughout The City for decades.

I’ve got a feeling, then, that even at the intersection of Madison and Willow Brook avenues, even if asi es, y asi sera, a resistance to pricing out the pueblo and its children can grow here too. It may not do so overnight, nor even over the course of tomorrow. But it will rise and make its voice heard, one day at a time.

Indeed, it has to, Los Angeles.

Asi es. Y asi sera.

J.T.