Review of East LA Interchange

Images of people in Boyle Heights, LA, CA

NYU Gallatin student Nia Blessitt reviews the event East LA Interchange: Screening and Discussion held at NYU on March 8th.

I am a born and raised Brooklynite. For the past four years I have witnessed my neighborhood gentrify. Watching this happen has been an overwhelming and disheartening experience. Nonetheless, I have learned a lot about gentrification, urban environments, and capitalism through observing this process. Recently the Urban Democracy Lab co-sponsored a viewing and discussion of the documentary, East L.A. Interchange. East L.A. Interchange offered me new perspectives about how I can process gentrification throughout America and within my own community. The main focus of East L.A. Interchange is the East Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights. Similar to my hometown of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Boyle Heights is a neighborhood that is rapidly gentrifying. Nonetheless, these two neighborhoods, and their battles with gentrification, are each unique in their own special way.  In East L.A. Interchange, filmmaker Betsy Kalin does a fantastic job of highlighting what makes Boyle Heights so distinctive.

Kalin describes Boyle Heights as one of the most diverse communities in Los Angeles. She begins the film with long-term residents of the community reflecting on their childhoods. For about two minutes, various community residents list the diverse ethnicities with which they shared their neighborhood during their childhood. Italian, Japanese, Jewish, and African-American were some of the ethnicities listed. These long-term residents reflect on this diversity with pleasure. They provided several anecdotes about why living in a diverse neighborhood enriched them as a person and made the neighborhoods more enjoyable and entertaining to live in. For example, one resident shares an anecdote of the first time she tried a tortilla. She explains how on a normal walk to school one morning, she was drawn to the aromatic smell of a neighbor making tortillas. She was offered a piece to taste, and found it to be one of the most delicious foods she had ever tasted. She goes on to explain that if she were raised in a homogenous community, she would never have had the opportunity to learn about a new food, and ultimately an amazing culture.

The film director also highlights Boyle Height’s history of student activism in the documentary. In the early 60’s, Boyle Heights became a hub for student activism. In 1968, students throughout the Boyle Heights community walked out of class as a symbol of their opposition to the low-quality of education that Latinos were receiving. Despite the changes occurring in Boyle Heights, student activism is still occurring within the neighborhood. In May of 2015, students from Roosevelt High School walked out of class in protest of the school administration’s inability to properly managing the building’s facilities. These students also walked out in disapproval of the fact that twenty-three teachers were losing their jobs due to budget cuts.

By focusing on the diversity and student activism of the Boyle Heights community, Kalin depicted the dynamism of Boyle Heights. This is important to highlight because often when neighborhoods begin to fall victim to gentrification, outsiders have a limited idea of what the neighborhood truly embodies. Many times, this prompts gentrifiers to alter the neighborhood so it can fit their ideas of what success and beauty looks like. However, in her documentary Kalin flips the notion of the “traditional American neighborhood” on its head by exposing her audience to Boyle Heights. She shows her viewers that a “good” neighborhood is a neighborhood that is different. An “all-American” neighborhood is one that is multi-cultural. A pre-gentrified neighborhood is one that long-term neighborhood residents are comfortable with, and happy to call home. Boyle Heights is a different, multicultural, and welcoming neighborhood, which is why the current residents enjoy living there so much.  This is reinforced in the film, when Kalin begins to share the stories of  Japanese-American families who were forced to leave Boyle Heights when America placed them in internment camps. Many of these family members hid prized possessions in the backyard of their house with the intention of retrieving them after the war. They loved Boyle Heights so much that they foresaw themselves disregarding their mistreatment at the hands of the U.S. government and returning to their American homes.

While Kalin focuses on what makes Boyle Heights unique and why the audience should revisit their notions of what makes a neighborhood “good” or “bad,” towards the end of the documentary she shows different residents’ perspectives about the neighborhood’s changes.While some neighborhood residents welcome big chains, such as 7-11, others believe that these changes are altering the character of the neighborhood. Displacement is also one of the issues affecting Boyle Heights. The Los Angeles Times reported that, “In the first 11 months of last year (2014), the median sale price for homes in the 90033 zip code, which accounts for most of Boyle Heights, was $290,000, up 11.5% compared with the same period a year earlier …” As housing prices in the neighborhood begin to rise, long-term residents will have to leave, and there is a great chance that the neighborhood will become less diverse. The East L.A. Interchange panel discussion also highlighted the fact that the gentrification that is transforming Boyle Heights is happening all over the country. Damaris Reyes, a community organizer, was on the panel representing Good Old Lower East Side. Reyes shared with the audience that the changes that gentrification has brought to the Lower East Side is not for the enjoyment or consumption of long-term neighborhood residents. She was adamant that her dissatisfaction with gentrification was not with the new voices that it brought to the community, but the old voices which it pushes out or silences. She explained that as new residents began to enter the neighborhood, plants and trees in the Lower East Side have started to be restored by the city. She challenged the audience to question why the city wasn’t taking this initiative five or ten years prior. Reyes also spoke about how she wished New York University was more active in preventing, as opposed to promoting, the gentrification of the Lower East Side. Reyes also referenced Harlem in her comments and how Columbia University’s Morningside Heights project is contributing to the rapid, and dramatic, gentrification of Harlem. Reyes stated that Kalin did a great job of highlighting what is happening in Boyle Heights, but it is not an isolated problem.

The screening of East L.A. Interchange and the discussion that followed emphasized that gentrification impacts people in different ways. Since gentrification has diverse impacts, people have developed very different opinions on whether or not it is a beneficial or problematic occurrence. Nonetheless, East L.A. Interchange challenges the viewer to think about the ways that pre-gentrified neighborhoods are labeled. Through highlighting the unique characteristics of Boyle Heights, Kalin’s documentary pushes the viewer to realize that the only way you can label Boyle Heights is with the word ‘home.’ Thus, I have begun to believe that the first step to building an inclusive neighborhood when gentrification occurs is to acknowledge what made the neighborhood so original and resilient before it became attractive to gentrifiers. As a native New Yorker, a born and raised Brooklynite, and student of gentrification, Boyle Heights taught me a lot about my own community of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. It taught me that multiculturalism should be valued, activism is important and effective, and community building means respecting people for their differences. Boyle Heights pushed me to redefine what an ‘all-American,’ neighborhood is, and I’m sure it did that for others as well.