On the Soul of Echo Park: Looking at primary results from June for the neighborhood and beyond

This article is from the June 7th, 2022 edition of our new Making a Neighborhood Newsletter. Please consider becoming a paid subscriber today to get more stories like it, plus work from our colleagues Samanta Helou Hernandez (@Samanta_Helou) and Ali Rachel Pearl (@alirachelpearl).

Nearly a year-and-a-half ago in one of L.A.’s most popular hangouts, at the direction of L.A. City councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, the LAPD and L.A. City Hall allocated at least $1.3 million to “shock and awe” nearly 200 unhoused residents out of Echo Park Lake. The action resulted in several days of protest and at least 180 arrests, including that of protesters, journalists, and legal observers. Despite this, O’Farrell claimed victory for his office’s actions just two days later, noting on Twitter that:

”With thoughtful and compassionate action, we can strike this balance, which is what we did at Echo Park Lake, where we have now placed 209 people experiencing homelessness into transitional shelter with supportive services, medical care, and other humane and necessary resources.”

This past March, however, a report published by the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy noted that of 183 unhoused folks registered (not 209, as originally claimed by O’Farrell’s office) after their removal from the park, only 17 were placed into long-term housing. This makes for a success rate for the city’s “supportive services” of less than 10%, or a failure rate of 90%, depending on how one looks at it.

O’Farrell made no comment on the Luskin report, but after this June’s primary elections, Council District 13 (CD-13) residents certainly commented with their votes. Analysis of the final vote turnout shows that nearly 7 out of 10 voters in the area voted for someone other than O’Farrell to lead over the next four years, or what would be his incumbent office’s third and final term, having become representative for CD-13 since May 2013.

Final results from the June 7th Primary election for the office of Council District 13

Challenger Hugo Soto-Martinez placed nearly 9 percentage points ahead of O’Farrell (40% > 31%); and had Soto-Martinez picked up Kate Pynoos’ voters, or a combination of Steve Johnson and Albert Corado’s voters, Council District 13 would already have a new L.A. city councilmember waiting in the wings; instead, as of July 4th, both O’Farrell and Soto-Martinez have less than 120 days to make their extended case to the people of Hollywood, Silver Lake, Echo Park, and Virgil Village and East Hollywood, to name a few of the neighborhoods represented in the area. 

But what’s so special about these neighborhoods? A few things, including how they contain both the “past” and “future” Los Angeles since they house both immigrant families historically isolated from investment and new residents entering L.A.’s burgeoning tech and entertainment industries. What’s also true is that many of these areas were metropolitan or multifaceted in their identities long before “diversity, equity and inclusion” became hashtag terms and policy initiatives, serving as homes for generations of families denied housing across L.A. County through practices like redlining. Redlining maps invariably led predominantly non-white families ineligible for federal home-loans to make neighbors with fellow under-invested communities (other renters, mostly, laboring as field hands, domestic workers, janitors, servers, and more). 

At the same time, the maps inadvertently “binded” non-white families into marginalized economic positions across geographies in Los Angeles; in other words, to have one’s neighborhood redlined was to be placed in a stratified economic position whether in central, east, south Los Angeles, the San Gabriel or San Fernando Valley, or beyond.

Consider that as early as 1950 in Watts, a neighborhood to the southeast of Echo Park, more than 71% of the area was formed by Black residents, followed by Latinx residents at 19%. Today, the inverse is true in the home of the first major uprising against institutional racism in Los Angeles, with Latinx residents forming up to 76% of the population, while Black residents account for 21%, which mirrors population changes across greater South L.A. as a whole over the past few decades.

To place this shift into perspective, it’s key to take a look at the redlining maps again. In the 1940s, the mixed demographics of places like Watts, Boyle Heights, Echo Park and many more neighborhoods merited a hard red line from federal government appraisers for home loans, or the folks who determined which areas and residents were worthy and which were not for borrowing to attain that quintessential American dream of homeownership.

The Watts area, bound by 92nd street to the north, Alameda Blvd to the east, 112th street to the south, and Central avenue to the west. Published circa 1939.
The Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles areas marked for disinvestment by federal government appraisers for home loans. Published circa 1939.
The areas of Hollywood, East Hollywood, Silver Lake, Filipinotown and Echo Park as noted by the federal government, marking which areas were attractive for investment and which were not from green to blue, to yellow and red. Published circa 1939.

Rather than just serving as symbolic delineations, however, redlining maps would ultimately be determinants of “staying power.” This is due to the fact that, since homeownership has generally meant an ability to keep land from changing hands, whether for the private sector or due to the government, those without it have historically been more vulnerable to disruptions such as recessions, job losses, the death of a “breadwinner” in the family, and more. This helps explain how, even though Black neighborhoods in South L.A. formed 80% of the area’s demographicsby the time the Fair Housing Act was signed into law in 1968, their communities nonetheless faded from the area in the subsequent decades.

According to famed poet and historian Luis J. Rodriguez on these disruptions vis-a-vis market forces: 

“Deindustrialization began in the mid-1970s throughout the United States, hitting Los Angeles hard and picking up steam in the 1980s, mostly due to advanced technology, including robotics. Labor saving devices became labor replacing.”

This loss of manufacturing jobs, growing criminalization of Black youth, mass reduction of funds for social and public services, and weak to no renter protections all led to no staying power for many Black families within the historically redlined southside—including Watts. What followed was an exodus out of the neighborhood.

A graph on enrollment rates for L.A.’s public school system from the 1960s and onward also speaks to this development. Starting in the 1970s, as many white families left neighborhoods closer to L.A. for farther suburbs, they also took their kids out of LAUSD in resistance to calls there for integration. However, enrollment of Black students also began to decline around this time, likely due to deindustrialization, followed by displacement. Latino enrollment was the only group of the three to increase, a trend that would continue well into the new millennium.

Screenshot from ESCAPE FROM LOS ANGELES: White Flight from Los Angeles and Its Schools, 1960-1980, Jack Schneider, Stanford University

This is because at the same time that Black families left South Los Angeles, wars in Central America and economic turmoil in Mexico led generations of Latinx people in. According to L.A. Times archives:

“In 1990, 47% of South L.A. residents were Latino and another 47% were African American. By 2006, the mix had changed to 62% Latino and 31% black, 3% white, 2% Asian/ Pacific Islander and 2% other.” 

As of 2020, Black residents formed roughly 21% of South Los Angeles, and roughly 9% of L.A. county overall, their smallest share of the former since likely 1950 and the latter since 1960. Their relationship with L.A. remains the most complex, but they’ve also endured in the city for centuries by this point and have definitely formed key coalitions with more recently arrived Latinx communities.

Nonetheless, a worthy question for the current generation of L.A.’s Latinx political leaders, historians, and documenters is whether a second mass exodus—similar as it happened for Black residents from the 1970s – 2000s—is possible for their communities today, even while the factors affecting Black neighborhoods in the decades after 1960 were far more extensive than those facing Latinx communities here since 2000. 

From 2010 – 2020, rent in L.A. rose 65% to $2,500 a month on average despite the median income rising only by 36%, impacting communities of color the most. (If the rate continues, by 2030, a new–or newly renovated–500 square foot apartment will require more than $4,000 to call home for the month, which is what folks in places like Bel Air already dole out.)

It will also come as no surprise to consider that since 2010, not every renter in L.A. has been able to keep up with “market demands.” In fact, according to the L.A. City Planning Commission’s own data, East Hollywood is one of several neighborhoods that shrunk by at least 10% from 2010 – 2020, with Asian-American and Latinx residents losing 1% and 6% of their share of the area respectively. 

Echo Park also shrunk during the same period by 6%, with Asian-American and Latinx residents losing 4% and 9% of their share of the area respectively. Some of these priced out families have found more access in those historic neighborhoods south of the 10 freeway, which also speaks to an enduring “openness” in formerly redlined neighborhoods, especially on the southside, but this is unlikely to last.

The ongoing changes thus present an existential dilemma for any of L.A.’s public leaders to speak to, including Mitch O’Farrell, who’s chosen mostly not to do so while still approving smaller actions reminiscent of Echo Park’s mass eviction, that is, futilely sweeping unhoused residents out of the public way with promises but not assurances of decent and long-term housing. Yet when asked about the flight of families from CD-13 over the last ten years, O’Farrell had no suspicion that something like the 65% increase in rent had much to do with it:

“O’Farrell’s council district, which includes Echo Park, Silver Lake and Atwater Village, registered the biggest decrease in population: 5.1%. Nevertheless, he said, he doubts that the decrease was due to gentrification, the process through which low-income residents are priced out of a neighborhood and more affluent people move in…[he] attributed the decrease to Trump’s “reign of terror” against residents in the country illegally.”

Today, the vast majority of the 50 densest neighborhoods in L.A., from Koreatown to Vermont-Slauson, and from Hawthorne to Huntington Park, were redlined or labeled “declining” by federal, state and local officials. Their jampacked homes over those of other neighborhoods in L.A. county suggest that the same “unattractive”ratings they received yesterday are precisely what make them more prime investments today; and even more so as L.A.’s affordable housing shortage worsens. This is what continues to create the current mix of new market rate housing, chic new restaurants, and more unhoused residents only a few feet away from historically Black and immigrant communities, who for generations have had no staying power, no “homeowners associations” or NIMBYs, and limited resources to withstand disruption.

Moreover, if a glance at Black South Los Angeles after the 1960s is any “cautionary tale,” one can argue that today’s tenant unions, whistleblowers, and others working towards equitable development across L.A.’s redlined geographies are doing so for more than bragging rights, but for the soul of their neighborhoods. It’s this cultural understanding which placed many advocates in front of harm’s way at the Echo Park Lake eviction in March 2021, as well as what led to the publication of the UCLA Luskin Report one year later.

The question thus left for both Mitch O’Farrell and Hugo Soto-Martinez is about just how to “negotiate” these histories with the present set of “market forces” and other disruptions threatening to further stall new housing programs based on equity. From Soto-Martinez, who grew up in “South-Central Los Angeles,” one can reasonably expect more cultural understanding of the issues; but if the last few years of electoral politics across L.A. and the state and nation have shown anything, it’s that an understanding is only the beginning. Old power systems “die hard,” if at all, making the work ahead long; longer than ever, even.


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