Gentrification

Jaja Goes Protesting by Jahan Sharif

The group of supporters, activists, and organizers who came to protest the demolition of Myriam’s wheelchair accessible bathroom.

The group of supporters, activists, and organizers who came to protest the demolition of Myriam’s wheelchair accessible bathroom.

On a quiet street a few blocks east of Sunset Boulevard, a young woman fights to keep her home. It’s Monday morning, and I’ve joined an eclectic group of neighbors, activists, and organizers in a last-ditch effort to help her.

For the last 20 years, Myriam* and her mother have lived in this rent-stabilized apartment in Echo Park-- a historically working class neighborhood about 10 minutes east of Downtown Los Angeles. Last August, the multi-unit complex was sold for $1.3 million, and the new landlord is trying to force them out by demolishing their only accessible bathroom. Myriam, who uses a wheelchair and is undergoing chemotherapy, has no other viable immediate living alternatives.

We’d been mulling around for about half-an-hour waiting for something to happen, when one energetic lady, and a self-described “soldier for Bernie,” wondered aloud if “we would have to lie down in front of bulldozers?” The group murmured as it considered the possibility. I said that, if it came to that, I’d squat. A Latin man to my left who looked to be in his late-30s, doubted that would happen, and encouraged us to be patient-- Tracy was on her way, and would soon be here to direct us.

The exterior of the bathroom. It is falling into disrepair as termites and water damage eat away at the wood.

The exterior of the bathroom. It is falling into disrepair as termites and water damage eat away at the wood.

In fact, not much later, a decades-old gray clunker ripped around the corner; and with remarkable speed and confidence, lined itself up with the curb and came to a hard and fast stop just inches from a parked car. Out popped a young white woman with stringy dirty blonde hair, cut off painted jeans, and work boots. Before the car door had even closed, she had already fired off a series of updates about Myriam's case. She told us that she had spent the early morning on the phone with the city’s chief inspector, Daniel Gomez, and he told her that there was nothing he could do to stop the demolition. But now that she saw us and the news trucks here, she was excited to call him back to let him know that if he picked the wrong side, he’d have a PR situation on his hands. This was Tracy— and much like her car, she was unrelenting, and seemingly forged of solid steel.

Tracy is a volunteer organizer, and a singular force within the LA Tenants Union (LATU). According to its website, the LATU “is a diverse, tenant-led movement fighting for the human right to housing for all.” They “demand safe, affordable housing and universal rent control. [They] organize against landlord harassment, mass evictions, and displacement.”

For the last week, the LATU and Myriam’s landlord have been waging an escalating tit-for-tat war against each other. First, with the support of tenants rights advocates and organizers, the LATU temporarily stopped the demolition. Then the landlord called Department of Building and Safety, which deemed the bathroom an illegal addition that could be removed without a permit. So Tracy informed the Department of Disability of LA, which said that removing the bathroom without making “reasonable accommodations” would violate the American Disabilities Act, allowing Myriam to sue.

Eventually, the case reached the chief inspector of Los Angeles, who sided with the landlord— authorizing the demolition to proceed on Monday. Undeterred, Tracy put out a call for direct action on social media. A friend of mine who is involved with LATU saw the post on Facebook, and sent it to me.

The exterior of Myriam’s house was recently renovated, as the new landlord hopes to force her to leave so that higher paying tenants can move in.

The exterior of Myriam’s house was recently renovated, as the new landlord hopes to force her to leave so that higher paying tenants can move in.

Tracy took some pictures of the group, and fired off a quick text. She then went inside to talk to Myriam and her mother. When they came out a while later, Myriam thanked us all for coming to support her. She told us she had good news-- that while inside, the same chief inspector had sent her a text informing her that he’d spoken with the landlord and that he’d convinced her to postpone the demolition.

Nobody could say for how long this would last, but there was a palpable sense of relief among the group. Myriam, however, did not relax; because for her and her mother, barring a miracle, I suspect she knows that eventually, the landlord will win.

That was also the sense I had about this whole neighborhood. Gentrification is happening. And interrupting an eviction here and there won’t stop the forces of capitalism from taking course. I, of course, contribute to this. I’m attracted to neighborhoods with certain types of amenities, and I can afford to pay a bit more in rent to live here.

Back in 2013, I moved to Crown Heights, in Brooklyn. It was still a somewhat diverse neighborhood, with a healthy mix of longtime residents, transplants, black-owned businesses, and new restaurants, all with the added benefit of a major reduction in crime. It was a great place to live, because of the delightful mix of people and experiences. I moved a year later to Williamsburg, which was uniform in its offerings. All of the coffee shops were similar, the people were similar, the restaurants were similar, the vibes were similar. I went back to Crown Heights every few months, and each time it felt more like Williamsburg— which itself felt so much like the East Village that I unironically called it Far East Manhattan.

A low-cost neighborhood coffeeshop in Thai Town was sold without warning, and is becoming a vegan restaurant.

A low-cost neighborhood coffeeshop in Thai Town was sold without warning, and is becoming a vegan restaurant.

LA has its own Williamsburg, it’s called Silver Lake; and, there’s a nickname that’s starting to gain popularity: The sixth borough of New York.

As a culture, we love “progress”, many times thinking that whatever is new is automatically better. But as I watch my own neighborhoods homogenizing in the service of “development”, and I meet residents whose lives are being overturned as a consequence, I find myself trying to slow down so I can look more intentionally at what’s in front of me—seeking to better understand the unintended consequences of my own decisions. And in doing so, I’m learning about how concretely my life is impacted by the loss of things I never truly knew.

*Name changed to protect privacy.

Los Angeles, CA, USA
February 2019

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