Jan Lin, a sociology professor at Occidental College, has written a book about Northeast Los Angeles. Released in December and entitled Taking Back the Boulevard: Art, Activism, and Gentrification in Los Angeles, it is the story of Highland Park and Eagle Rock, a biography of a place – and like all good biographies, it tells how its subject, NELA, has become what it is today.
One of NELA’s pivotal transitions began in the post World War II period, when boulevards, the centers of neighborhood and public life, were superseded by freeways. What followed was disinvestment in NELA neighborhoods and, later, “white flight” to the suburbs in the wake of urban social unrest in and after the 1960s.
Disinvestment, however, set the stage for revitalization, led by immigrants and artists and shaped by community activists, whose causes and motivations spanned the drive for Chicano cultural recognition and social justice, the push for historic preservation and the desire for “slow growth.”
The next and current stage, is gentrification, in which the people who helped to revitalize and preserve neighborhoods during decades of disinvestment are threatened with displacement; in NELA, the process generally involves white newcomers and investors displacing low-income Latino residents and businesses.
At each stage of NELA’s story, Mr. Lin describes and interviews the artists, activists and leaders who lived through and came to define the eras he describes. These people – his book’s main characters – are NELA originals, your friends, neighbors and colleagues, the people you have seen, heard about, done business with. The effect is that his book – a careful, respectful, insightful work – also has elements of memoir and oral history, of good memories recalled, but also expressions of regret and puzzlement.
In Eagle Rock, Mr. Lin traces the beginning of gentrification to the early 2000s and notes that the displacement there has generally involved businesses, not residents. In Highland Park, where evictions and mass displacement have occurred, gentrification accelerated after the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009, when foreclosures, unemployment and other economic damage made the area both vulnerable and attractive to more affluent gentrifiers who are drawn by the very qualities that the immigrants, artists and activists had cultivated – a certain edginess, an authentic appeal and a preserved built environment, including the boulevards.
“Gentrification doesn’t just happen,” said Mr. Lin, in a recent interview with the Boulevard Sentinel. It requires certain social and economic forces that, once in play, result in gentrification. That does not mean, however, that the trauma and injustice of displacement are inevitable or acceptable. Policy matters. The failure of public policy to adequately respond to and soften the dynamics at work in NELA has allowed economic forces to dominate, leading to outcomes in NELA, especially in Highland Park, that tear at the community.
The forces of gentrification have also led to a new round of activism and artistic expression in NELA. Lin notes that groups like the Northeast Los Angeles Alliance, which helps individuals fight eviction, have succeeded in putting eviction and displacement in the center of public discussion. The pain of eviction has been mitigated by processions and vigils that depict and recall family and cultural cohesion at a traumatic time. The fight against displacement has expanded to other NELA communities, especially those along the L.A. River, where low-income communities are threatened by river redevelopment.
For Mr. Lin, Taking Back the Boulevard is somewhat bittersweet. His concern about displacement is mixed with his excitement at finishing the book, which, in a sense, he has been working on for 20 years. In 1999, the year after he joined the faculty at Occidental, he first began establishing connections throughout NELA as part of a federal grant he received to help establish the Northeast Los Angeles Community Partner Center at the college. When the grant ended in 2003, he began documenting NELA’s transitions in research and articles, completed with the help of his students, for KCET-Departures and the NPR-Marketplace “Wealth and Poverty” program.
His concern about social issues, what he calls “urban sociology,” predates even his academic career. In 1966, when he was five, his father brought his family from Taiwan to the United States, where they settled in Bethesda, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C. He did well in the area’s good schools and in college, graduating from Williams College in Massachusetts in 1983, earning a master’s degree in sociology from the London School of Economics and enrolling in the doctoral program in sociology at the New School for Social Research in New York City in 1987. That year, his father died, an event, he says, “that causes a young man to start thinking about his heritage.” He began to work with nonprofit groups in New York’s Chinatown. “I began to see my role as working in communities to improve them,” he says.
Becoming a professor at Occidental was his dream job – a small college in a big city. He made a corner of that city, NELA, his own – and now, with Taking Back the Boulevard, he has given it back to anyone who wants to know and understand NELA better.
T.A. Hendrickson, a native of Eagle Rock, is the editor of the Boulevard Sentinel and a former member of the Editorial Board of the New York Times.