Rigo and Elias, lifelong Northeast LA residents, are walking down York Blvd in Highland Park. It’s the weekend and people are out. There are families with kids coming out of restaurants and youngsters huddled in groups, talking their private gossip. It’s dusk and Rigo and Elias are heading over to to get some huaraches. On the way, they pass the old Verdugo Pet Shop, which recently closed. Along the way they strike up a conversation with Norman, a self-described newcomer to the neighborhood. Norman talks about the possibilities of Highland Park, he’s excited about the new life he can make here. The following is a fictional conversation between Norman, Rigo and Elias.
Elias: Did you see Rigo?
Rigo: Yeah, Sam the chicken man died last December. His place was crazy, always had roosters crowing inside, everything was covered with thick layers of dust. Sam’s real name was Herv. He was a local fixture. Real old school.
Norman: Whatever it is, it’ll probably be better than that dirty old pet store.
R: Hey man, show some respect. That old pet store really served the community for years. My grandma used to buy her bird feed there. Plus we bought our first chicks from Sam.
N: Wow I didn't know how much people valued it. You've lived here a long time, then? You’ve seen a lot of changes huh?
R: My whole life. Yeah, I’ve seen lots. That place, The York. I remember it was The Dragon, this old dive bar that served Americanized Chinese food. It used to be my Tio Eddie’s favorite place when he lived down on Buchanan Street. Then it closed down sometime in the late '90s. They turned it into a hip bar, it was called The Wild Hare or something, but it never did too well. Now it’s called The York. It’s a gastropub and it’s really good. It’s part of the new “York Valley” scene, which we just used to call York back in the day. Some of the new shops, like The York, , and are cool. They sit up next to some old time shops like Do It Best Hardware, Zeppelin Music and bakery. It’s cool to see them coexist. Sometimes El Chapin will have an art show featuring local artists--there is lots of mixing of cultures on this block.
After their dinner at El Huarache, the three decide to walk the neighborhood. is open late today, Zeppelin Music’s giant model zeppelin is lit from inside...
N: Wow, those huaraches were great--there is such good food in this neighborhood! Actually, all these ethnic neighborhoods in L.A. have the best food. I try to tell my friends to come out here and have some authentic Mexican, but they all think it’s a sketchy neighborhood. It’s all good, though.
E: Mediated perception is usually biased...
N: Well, yeah, you just have to brave it out here, but the authentic experiences are worth it. I feel sorry for all my friends who are too scared to be out here. But it’ll get safer when more people move out here and make it better. I just feel like an urban pioneer, you know? This place used to be a wasteland, and now it’ll get better and safer!
R: C’mon Norman, I resent that. Your language is very disrespectful.
N: What do you mean, Rigo? Don't take it so seriously.
R: There's no other way to take it. It's not respectful to the existing community. I’ve heard the word “wasteland” used to describe pre-2000 Northeast L.A. often lately. That’s insulting to those of us that were born and raised here. My parents were raised in Northeast L.A. and my grandparents spent most of their adult lives here. This has been a great place to grow up in, with lots of culture and diversity. It was never a wasteland.
N: Oh yeah, the local culture is great, that’s why I wanted to move here. I’m just saying that there’s a lot of untapped resources here that new people could do something with.
R: Really? “Untapped resources?” This isn’t some virgin territory to come in and “improve.” This is a neighborhood where families have lived and worked for generations.
N: Ah, man, why does everything have to get so political? Why am I always having my freedom trampled when I’m just trying to live my own life?
E: Because living here without acknowledging who lived here before, without honoring their contributions and respecting their culture is offensive. Having a mentality where you come to a neighborhood only to “improve” it is disrespectful. Working on the assumption that there was nothing here before you came, or that the culture here is just here for you to decorate your life with is almost a colonialist mentality.
R: Yeah, my parents grew up during the Latinoization of Northeast LA. When they were young there were still lots of Italians, Jews, Germans and Scandinavians here. I never heard my parents say a single disparaging thing about any of those cultures or their communities. They acknowledged their presence and respected the fact that they were here before. They used to eat at Fosselman’s Ice cream in Highland Park. It’s run by the same German-American family today, but now they only have one store. It’s in Alhambra. My parents also have wonderful memories of going to church alongside Italian-Americans. They grew up with the San Antonio Winery family. When my sister and I were younger, they would take us to the Saint Joseph’s table every year at St. Peter’s Church on Broadway.
E: The one in Chinatown?
R: Yeah, but it was known as Little Italy before it was Chinatown. And Chinatown used to be by where the Metro building is now. Now Chinatown is northeast of Downtown and there is also Chinese culture in the San Gabriel valley.
E: Neighborhoods change with time, they ebb and flow. Each tide changes the face of the neighborhood but the past remains and should always be appreciated.
N: Yeah, I’m cool with all of that history. Man, I wish that Fosselman’s was still on Fig. I’d love to walk down there to get an ice cream right now. Plus we could use some good Italian food in HLP. It’s just the gang-bangers and thugs that live here that we need to throw out. That’s what we’re trying to improve.
R: Sure our neighborhood has its problems. There are some streets with strong gang presence, but some use that as an excuse to disregard the whole community. I was reading the Patch the other day, and I noticed a lot of respect for the early influx of white artists and musicians who lived in the area as well as the pre-white flight neighborhood, but when it came time to describe NELA between 1970-2000 all they could write were words like: Depressed, Gang-infested, Menacing and Wasteland.
E: Yeah, he forgot to mention the vibrant art scene of the time, including Mechicano Art Center and the great bookstores like Arroyo Books on Figueroa near Avenue 57, De-Center close to Figueroa and York and Flor y Canto by Fig and Pasadena. is a great spot made by the Latino community, where kids can play and take art workshops by great artists like Diane Gamboa. There are so many more, , run by comes to mind, also Rock Rose Gallery. All of these spots of great culture making were home-grown; they made and continue to make impact in the neighborhood and the city. It’s really terrible that they aren’t even acknowledged, like they don’t even exist, like every contribution made by Latinos in Highland Park was gang-related! We’re asking for respect and co-existence, a solidarity with others. Excuse us if we take offense to people calling our neighborhood a wasteland. And if you’re interested in making the neighborhood safer, try to get to know it better first. Support people who are already making changes.
N: I don’t know, sounds like you guys are just suffering from class-resentment. You’re jealous of the new comers because you don’t want change in your neighborhood; you want it to stay under-developed.
R: Don’t get us wrong, we’re not anti-change. But, displacement is always hard to deal with and tensions always flare. It’s that much harder when the newcomers act like the existing culture either needs saving or is somehow inherently violent or devious.
E: Rigo, there’s a story about newcomers to L.A. turning a deaf ear to the original inhabitants ...
Check back tomorrow for the conclusion of "Hipsters and Homeboys: A Dramatized Conversation"