Gentrification is never easy. An oppressed minority neighborhood plagued with systemic issues of poverty, unemployment, and violence is the target of upwardly mobile white’s looking to buy a house, often with generational wealth unobtainable by the existing residents. It is a scene rife with potential conflict.
By Pablo D. Miralles
I lived it in Echo Park in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Some new business owners embraced the entire neighborhood, hiring local youth, sponsoring local public schools, creating a welcoming environment for everyone in the community. Some did not.
When I returned to my hometown of West Altadena in 2019 it was obvious that gentrification was in full swing. Young white families walking streets that just a few decades ago were challenged by gang violence. As someone who has had family there for over 50 years, I took it as a good thing that the neighborhood was getting “integrated” again, as West Altadena was one of the few neighborhoods in L.A. County that tolerated mixed housing.
Outside of the unfortunate closure of neighborhood public schools, as these new residents avoided black and brown playgrounds in favor of whiter charter and private options, there were no obvious points of conflict in my old hood.
And then came the mural.
Unincorporated Coffee on Lincoln Ave unveiled a work by Cleon Peterson that features black male figures knifing each other. To many longtime residents the work was triggering, as relatives and friends had been victims of violence on that very street. Those victims had been black.
The shop owners and the artist are white.
I learned that there was no community input or consultation about these images that the neighbors were now forced to confront.
At first the mural was a point of conversation about the role of public art. A conversation amongst me and my friends and neighbors. Then the upset residents took their concerns to the Altadena Town Council and several white and black residents, some artists themselves, gave impassioned, considerate, rational testimony about the negative effects this violent imagery is having on them and their neighborhood.
Finally one of the shop owners spoke. He decided to defend the art, saying the neighbors had “misinterpreted” the piece and that “Altadena is a mature enough community” to have discussions about a challenging piece of art. Many, myself included, saw this was a backhanded slight at those residents who find the violence and racial imagery unwelcome, implying that they were in fact too immature. No mention of the pain and anguish that had been on display just minutes earlier.
This condescending attitude reminded me of those few hipster shop owners that refused to embrace the existing neighborhood in Echo Park. They would instead create fractures and sometimes conflict with a population that is all too used to being ignored and demeaned.
The Altadena Town Council made it clear that they did not have the ability to force the owner to change the art.
I watched as many of my lifelong friends and neighbors became angry online, and I was compelled to reach out to a few of the most passionate and offer to see if they’d join me in educating the clientele of the cafe as to hurt their mural was causing and hopefully compel the owners to remove it before it creates any additional problems.
At 7:00 am, Saturday April 1, Diana Pullins and I met in front of Unincorporated Coffee. There waiting for us was my Altadena Town Council representative Nic Arnzen. We were soon joined by Shé Shé Yancy, one of the neighbors who gave testimony, and Tom Harding who brought a sign emphasizing themes the cafe could consider for the next mural like Love, Joy, Peace, Beauty and Respect. Over the course of the morning, we were joined by several other neighbors and together we set to work trying to make a difference.
We passed out flyers with the QR code linking to the Altadena Town Council meeting so people could hear the community’s concern over a mural and the owner’s response. A fair number of customers representing the beautiful diversity that has always made me proud to call West Altadena home watched the video clip of the owner dismissing neighbors’ genuine feelings.
We engaged in dozens of civil and sometimes impassioned discussions with the shop’s patrons. Some actually changed their opinion from supporting the mural to supporting the neighbors. A few felt the mural was fine and we parted amicably. And a very few decided not to engage, with one white woman in a very nice car deciding the appropriate response was to say “F**k off”.
A mutual friend, cafe patron and longtime resident came to me and suggested that I talk to the owner. For about 5 minutes I spoke to the “other” owner, the one who had not spoken at the Town Council. He politely listened to my point of view but made no commitments. I told him that those of us on the sidewalk were only asking that the cafe acknowledge the genuine feelings of their neighbors, expedite the removal of the mural and insure it wouldn’t happen again.
If not, I told him, we’ll be back next Saturday.
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