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A Renter's Tale: Watching Gentrifiers Come And Go In Westlake

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In the past we've sent comedian Megan Koester to a million-dollar condo in the Arts District and a $19-a-night space-themed hostel in Boyle Heights. This Renters Week we let her stay home to write about renting in her own beloved neighborhood: Westlake.

I live–-suspend your disbelief-–two blocks away from MacArthur Park. Whenever I divulge this information to another human being, I always get the same reaction: In hushed tones and with furrowed, concerned brows, they ask, "Isn't it sketchy around there? Aren't you scared to walk around at night?" No. I'm much more frightened by the prospect of having to politely nod for the millionth time while someone tells me how scared I should be to live in the neighborhood I've called home for four years. I know where the fuck I live. Because I've lived there, sans incident, for four years. What should I be afraid of? Storefront churches? Hearing loss from the music coming from the Zumba class across the street? Preteens zooming down the street on Razor Scooters? Hell, a hooligan on a Razor Scooter once stole my friend's iPhone from the palm of her hand as she walked in front of the Beverly Center–-does that make La Cienega Boulevard a hotbed of crime? Should I avoid Bloomingdale's, lest I become a victim?

Another question I'm always asked is, why do I live in Westlake? Because, I reply, I'm a stickler for aesthetics. Pseudo-"classy" architecture makes me as viscerally upset as poor graphic design. The mere sight of stucco, Berber carpet, or fauxtalian fountains makes me rethink my position on gun control. As such, I'm very particular when it comes to my living quarters. I'd rather reside in a grave than anything Geoff Palmer's built (the slogans for his buildings should be "Like a Cheesecake Factory ... You Can Live Inside!"). The fact that my building dates from 1905 excites me. I have a bed that rolls into a goddamned hutch, on casters patented in 1907. My building used to be a hotel; the ornate fireplace and now-shuttered check-in window in the vestibule harkens back to a pre-particleboard era. This is what led me to Westlake. And this, coupled with the convenience of its centralized location, reasonable rent, and my lack of needless fear, is what keeps me here.

My neighborhood's also perfect for someone like me who abhors driving--four blocks away from the Red Line, and within walking distance of Koreatown, Downtown, and Echo Park; my car is usually an afterthought. For all I'm concerned, the Westside may as well fall into the ocean. Santa Monica and Venice are essentially just incorporated Whole Foods locations. Westwood's a parking lot overstuffed with sweatpants-sporting coeds. They are not what I think of when I think of Los Angeles.

Echo Park is right down Alvarado Street; comparatively, however, it's world away. The ongoing gentrification of that once-working-class neighborhood can only be described as reverse white flight: Hundreds (thousands?) of hipsters have swooped in like Thirsty Crows, opened their bistros and boutiques, increased rents, and forced out families who have lived there for generations. They've used white privilege as eminent domain, their mission being to fill a miniature Chavez Ravine with artisanal cocktails and 180-gram Vinyl. This is not the case in my neighborhood. How ungentrified is Westlake? Let me put it this way: there's no Starbucks. There isn't even a Peet's, for Christ's sake. The most bourgeois eatery we have is Subway–-a veritable oasis in a food desert otherwise populated by McDonald's and corner markets–-and even that's a recent addition.

At the turn of the Twentieth Century, Westlake was an artsy, bohemian neighborhood, the Silver Lake, Los Feliz, or Echo Park of the area. The building next to me used to be a college of the arts. Now it houses a check cashing place and one of those "pregnancy services" establishments that purports to give desperate, knocked-up women options (SPOILER ALERT: the only "option" they offer is to keep it). In decades past, former residents could pilot boats around MacArthur Park Lake; the roof of the building that housed said boats has since collapsed. I can walk around my neighborhood and visualize how it used to be-–I'll never know exactly how it was, though, because the past is gone. Even if it could be replicated, the result would be both disingenuous and thoroughly outside of my price range. The paddle boats at the newly-remodeled Echo Park Lake, for example, cost $10 per person to ride. The wine at El Prado on Sunset is $8 a glass.

When I first moved into my building, the majority of my neighbors had been living here for decades. As time has passed, things have gradually changed; Whole Foods bags spotted in the communal garbage cans imply the demographics are changing. Sure, it may appear as though young, "hip," upwardly-mobile people are moving in, but, from what I've seen, all they do is enter and exit a revolving door.

Given its proximity to the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, my building tends to attract "risk-seeking" fashion victims. At least once a month, a brand new waif, suckling at a cigarette on the shared balcony, asks if I'm scared to walk alone at night, how I feel about the noise, how I feel about "the people." They are, without exception, from somewhere that isn't here. They've just moved to Los Angeles to model, act, or design their own line of leggings. They are wide-eyed, dream-filled donuts, showing no signs of life experience or the ability for complex thought. Once they realize: a) there's nowhere to get a decent $5 cup of coffee in this neighborhood and b) their parents will continue to pay their rent no matter where they live, they always, without fail, break their lease. Unable to hack it, they jump ship, ostensibly to a Downtown loft or a Silver Lake duplex. And a new Whole Foods patron takes their place.

What, I'm sure you're wondering at this point, makes me so different, other than the fact that I've stuck it out so long? I'm still just some white, college-educated, Millennial dipshit, the kind you'll find cluttering up the bike lanes of every other Eastside neighborhood. The difference is I live in Westlake because I don't want a $5 cup of coffee. Because I don't want it to change. Because I like it the way it is. But I guess, by virtue of the fact that I'm here, that I am changing it. I just hope the change is infinitesimal. Otherwise my rent's gonna go through the goddamned roof.
· What a Broke Comedian Learned Spending a Weekend in a $1 Million Arts District Penthouse [Curbed LA]
· I Stayed in LA's Horrible Space Hostel and It's Actually Not Bad [Curbed LA]
· All Renters Week 2013 posts [Curbed LA]