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Why doesn’t MacArthur Park gentrify?

LA’s second-densest neighborhood has a prime location and other amenities, but a long history of overcrowding, underinvestment, and lack of basic resources

Below is the last photo I took of my old apartment in MacArthur Park, a neighborhood whose name has been synonymous with danger for decades. From Chelsea Handler’s questionable inquiry about bodies in the park’s lake, made whilst buying pupusas from a street vendor on her Netflix special, to the “Gangs” header on its Wikipedia page, MacArthur Park has an infamous reputation both in pop culture and in Los Angeles. The name MacArthur Park refers both to its central park and the 2.72 mile radius surrounding it—a neighborhood also called Westlake that has a long and complicated history of overcrowding, gentrification, and displacement.

To understand how the tiny neighborhood became the second most densely populated area in LA—for every square mile, there are approximately 38,214 people—you’ve got to go back to its inception in the 1880s. Originally called Westlake Park, MacArthur Park was intended to be suburban LA’s premiere leisure attraction, much like New York’s Central Park, with a functioning boat house and long swaths of green grass. Both the park itself and the zoning surrounding it were designed with an East Coast model in mind; multi-family homes and mixed-use buildings filled up the bulk of the parcels, making the area comparatively dense from the beginning. At the time, residents of Westlake were the well-to-do, including such pioneers as Los Angeles Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis.

Marissa Clifford

But as Wilshire Boulevard expanded, bisecting the park to create a central artery through LA, development shifted west, and so did the upper class. As the affluent moved towards the Pacific, the population of MacArthur Park began to change. What began as a largely white, upper class neighborhood became a multiracial and multiethnic one.

By 1939, real estate agents were partnering with the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation to draw maps that bankers used to advise homebuyers on where to invest. The maps divided LA into “savory” and “unsavory” zones, coded by overlays of blue (the most desirable), down to green, yellow, and red (indicating a “hazardous” zone), largely using racist methods. These maps were the origins of redlining, one of the primary tools of housing segregation. Largely because of fears of racial integration, Westlake was mostly marked red.

Effects of this zoning were compounded in the 1960s, when the belief that Downtown LA would spread west prompted property owners in MacArthur Park to defer maintenance on their buildings. Municipal investment also ground to a halt. Then, the Immigration Act of 1965 passed, formally ending racist immigration policy put in place by the National Origins Act of 1924. The country's and LA County's doors were effectively open to people of color. That engendered a massive wave of immigration at the same time as enormous urban renewal projects—which caused rampant displacement—began Downtown.

The confluence of these events left immense numbers of immigrants with nowhere to go but Westlake. “It was the perfect storm,” says Jose Gardea, former chief-of-staff for LA City Councilmember Ed Reyes and author of an in-progress history of the area. One that “triggered issues that started to surface in a very negative way back in the ’80s.” Though it ushered in more inclusive immigration policy overall, the Immigration Act also placed restrictions on immigration from Latin American countries—a part of the bill that we are seeing the ramifications of this week, with Donald Trump signing executive orders to strip federal funding from sanctuary cities that welcome undocumented immigrants and enlarge deportation forces in preparation for mass deportations.

MacArthur Park is still a largely immigrant neighborhood. Most residents identify as Latino and are between the ages of 19 and 34. The sheer density of the area, and the lack of infrastructure to support it, complicates modern-day life in MacArthur Park. As a built environment, it does not function as a space attuned to or designed for those inhabiting it. Instead, people are often forced to create “workarounds” for even daily tasks. Women sweep the streets in the early light on Monday morning, clearing away waste from overturned shopping carts that serve as trashcans, and set out crates to hold parking spaces for their family members at the end of the day. Street vendors, or vendedores ambulantes (vendedores for short), sell their wares outside of brick-and-mortar storefronts.

Because of its predominantly immigrant population, while “the bones [of Westlake] are East Coast, the blood running through it is West Coast,” says Gardea.

The most recent attempt at gentrification in MacArthur Park was in the 1960s, in response to the aging infrastructure and residential influx. It didn’t take.

Because of its Metro station, park, and proximity to a rapidly gentrifying Downtown LA, MacArthur Park remains, in many ways, perfectly poised for gentrification. But despite increased interest in the area from people like my old landlord, the realities of everyday life in Westlake—overcrowded or poorly maintained housing and little to no functional access to the internet—stand in stark opposition to those advantages.

The two-bedroom I shared with my roommate was at my price point when I leased it in 2015 (i.e., it was affordable for someone making $18 an hour), but life in MacArthur Park was complicated in a way that my experience as a privileged, middle class millennial didn’t prepare me for. For example, parking spaces were a resource made scarce by overcrowding, and in an area that sees an average of 19.6 violent crimes and 44.3 property crimes per week, walking alone at night is ill-advised. So every day for a year, I would park my car at the Food 4 Less just off Sixth Street. It was either walk from a street spot 20 minutes away, or park there and risk getting towed. I took that risk.

In the two blocks to my apartment from Food 4 Less, I would greet the familiar faces that I saw: my old downstairs neighbor, or Arthur, who jumped my car one Sunday evening. Even from my (rightful) position as an outsider, the community in MacArthur Park was undeniable. Families from entire apartment complexes gather for services under pop-up tents at Christmas, and mariachi music emanates from central courtyards in the summer nights. In the mornings when I lived there, I’d wake to a throaty call of “tamales, tamales,” the intoxicating smell of masa traveling just as far as the man’s booming voice.

But no matter how strong the communities, neighborhoods like Westlake that have historically been racially segregated and abandoned by municipal and developer investment are at major risk of gentrification today. These neighborhoods experience the “double insult—a ‘one-two’ knock” of disinvestment, neglect and white flight in the 1950s through 1970s and then the forces of gentrification and displacement in the 1980s through today,” according to the Urban Displacement Project, a UCLA/UC Berkeley collaboration. MacArthur Park—where surrounding development trends led to disinvestment, displacement, and ultimately to neglect and overcrowding—exemplifies this pattern.

It is easy to draw parallels between the purportedly impending gentrification of MacArthur Park/Westlake and other models of gentrification just a few zip codes away, in trendy Echo Park or corporate Bunker Hill. While the timeframes and details of these areas’ gentrifications are unique, they both involve a declaration of “blight.” By declaring a community blighted, the city effectively makes it kosher to force out residents for the sake of “improvement and recovery.”

“In the case of Bunker Hill,” says USC urban studies professor Philip Ethington, “it was declared blighted [in the 1950s] because it was mixed race, despite the fact that the city's own study had shown it was in good shape. So,” he says, “I always take [declarations of] ‘blight’ with a grain of salt, even if people are in poverty. It’s always a community for somebody, and I want to respect that—it has to be calibrated against how people are treated, and how they feel treated. I’ve seen that done so many times against a working class neighborhood.”

Fernando, a street vendor who prefers to go by his first name only, has seen the effects of such a declaration firsthand in MacArthur Park. Originally from South America, he has lived in the Westlake area for almost 30 years. With the help of a translator, I spoke with him under the shade of an umbrella on Sixth Street.

“I used to live in Downtown in the 1990s,” he says, “but when they built the Staples Center, they pushed almost everyone west, to here.” At the time, he and his neighbors organized, protesting the displacement, “but,” he says as he folds his arms, “clearly they won.”

We continued talking as people passed, buying or selling wares on blankets or food out of shopping carts. He pointed to a shiny green plaque on a lamppost. “Street and sidewalk sales of goods are prohibited,” it read.

“Now the store owners are suing the street vendors, and we need this money in order to live,” says Fernando. He is no stranger to the battles between brick-and-mortar store owners like Norm Langer, of Langer’s Delicatessen, and vendedores like himself. Nor is Gardea, whose first job out of college was organizing street vendors in MacArthur Park.

“There are circular moments in [the relationship between street vendors and store owners],” he says. “Tensions are sky high right now because the amount of street vendors has grown exponentially.” In order to ameliorate these tensions, “both the policymakers and the vendors have to see themselves as business people. There is no difference there between the formal and informal economies. This is how people make a living.”

Via email, the area’s local representative, LA City Councilmember Gil Cedillo, acknowledges the strength of the street vending community. He points toward a newly designated “neutral area” near the Metro station, for street vendors who have received a city permit, as a signal of LA’s belief in vendors’ “micro economic development efforts.” He adds that the city “want[s] to see that they can vend in a structured manner” and notes the involvement of both Metro and law enforcement.

In part because of these ongoing legal battles, investment in MacArthur Park seems less than ideal to business owners.

“Gentrification keeps me up at night when I think about Echo Park and Boyle Heights,” Gardea admits, “but less so in Westlake because the level of investment needed is so deep, and the deeper the deferred maintenance is, the more it will take to get it back to a place of recovery.”

Ultimately, gentrification is about displacement, and it stems from those HOLC maps in the 1930s. What MacArthur Park really needs is reinvestment, Ethington says, which is about attending to the needs of the existing community, about “getting the people who are ill-housed and ill-fed, well-fed and well-housed.”

Across the street from where Fernando and I stood was a massive apartment complex, a creamy white block of 1920s, Spanish Revival-inspired construction. A sign on its roof, in the style of other period architectural adornments in the area, read “Hotel Californian.” No one came or went the entire time Fernando and I spoke, but he assured me it was occupied.

Later, the property manager of the building, the Paseo at Californian, an affordable housing complex, confirmed this. Unlike the building I lived in, which my landlord bought in the early 2000s because he knew Downtown LA was developing and sensed the movement would spread west (and for which he overcharged us, left the unit without heat, and had no property manager), the Paseo at Californian is one of the few developments in Westlake that is both new and affordable.

I ask Fernando how he feels about the development. “I like it,” he says without pause. “The building is nice, and it’s clean.”

Management at the Paseo at Californian lives on-site, and the building has a computer room, a community room, and laundry facilities. It houses 52 units, divided among one-bedroom, two-bedroom, and three-bedroom floorplans. It addresses a need in the community for multi-family affordable housing; at the moment such buildings are few and far between in MacArthur Park.

In total, only one square mile of Westlake’s 2.72 is occupied by dwelling units. That means it has 52 homes per acre. Because the area has been neglected for decades and infrastructure has not been updated to suit its needs, overcrowding in MacArthur Park has led to problems for members of the community: slumlords, trash-flooded streets, and overcrowded apartments. However, effectively managing high density—which refers not just to population, but also to multi-family buildings, and is different from overcrowding—could help to improve MacArthur Park.

There has been an influx of high-end investment in Westlake in the past decade, although the community of MacArthur Park is not the target audience for many of these additions—like the Park Plaza Hotel building, a venue that has hosted events like KCRW’s Masquerade Ball, and the American Cement Building, which has been converted into pricey live/work lofts. Most projects are mixed-use developments, and have either been in development for several years or are just being proposed. Members of the community have mobilized against the construction at some of these sites, as in the campaign to halt progress on a block of eateries and an affiliated bar/lounge on Seventh Street proposed by the Sokol family, owners of the Hotel Erwin in Venice.

Instead of redeveloping the neighborhood’s historic buildings into luxury apartments, though, experts say MacArthur Park needs investment in the existing high-density residential buildings that are being neglected. “High density development can enhance a community's character, increase affordable housing, spur economic development, reduce costs, reduce vehicle travel and pollution and preserve farmland and open space,” according to the Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing. This means that the very East Coast bones of MacArthur Park (mixed-use, multi-family, high-density) could be used to ameliorate overcrowding and cap occupancy rates if more affordable units are built or redeveloped.

Unfortunately, in 2012, the California Supreme Court upheld legislation to dissolve all 400 local redevelopment agencies in California, on the basis that the state could not afford to fund them during a recession and their effectiveness in improving communities was questionable. The agencies returned tax revenue back to their communities, shepherding short-term and long-term redevelopment projects that were meant to serve the needs of residents and neighborhoods.

While many of the development agencies did need reform, entirely eliminating them also eliminated the ability to reinvest tax increments from Westlake directly into the community.

“Without that,” says Gardea, “there are no other [relevant] mechanisms to reinvest in the local area. It was a tragedy when the state dissolved the CRAs.”

Today, the CRA/LA website is still functional, but with little to no notice that the agency itself is not. Calls are routed to disconnected numbers, and properties owned by the CRA are being transferred to the city or sold to any number of unnamed buyers—sometimes the city, sometimes the very owners who sold them in the past. The future of projects overseen by CRA/LA and local organizations like the Westlake Community Council, which was formed by members of the community and worked with the local CRA on redevelopment plans for defunct buildings, is uncertain. There are binding legalities as to what money is given to these projects and when, but no transparent plan for their fruition.

“When the CRA was disbanded,” Cedillo states in an email, “we began to see the effects more profoundly in areas like MacArthur Park. It is difficult to find funding sources for projects that spur economic interest, making it harder to attract new economic activity. Programs like facade improvements, which make a significant difference for business corridors, are no longer in existence.”

Of the dissolution, one of the remaining employees of the agency, who prefers not to be named, says, “I think it’s a shame. The better all communities do, the better off we all are.”

As I said goodbye to Fernando and continued down Sixth Street, I noticed a man at a still-operational payphone. He leaned against the outside of the phonebox nonchalantly, placing his Pabst on its top to stretch his back.

I had spoken earlier with an employee of one of the internet cafes in Westlake. His shop was a long rectangle amidst a labyrinthine concrete mall. On the right side of the interior wall was a small bank of computers—Windows operating systems with bulky monitors. A collection of hardware detritus rested on top of the dividers. A man sat at one computer, checking email.

Business was good, he said, but he hopes the new housing developments like the Paseo at Californian will make it better. He uses the service with the highest speed that AT&T offers in the area: 18 mbps. While AT&T has something on Verizon and Frontier, neither of which offer service in Westlake, 18 mbps is still below the national average, and the FCC benchmark of 25 mbps.

For Dr. Safiya Noble, a professor of information science at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Science, this comes as no surprise. “Information and technological infrastructure is subject to the same interest-biases as traditional infrastructures are,” she laments.

If the streets are covered in trash, you can be guaranteed that internet access is equally buried. Like new housing developments and freshly paved roads, who gets them always goes back to the question of who’s willing to pay—really, who can. Commercial interests drive the development and maintenance of these services, or lack of them, in all communities—and those communities that are perceived to have, or do have, less buying power are those easily neglected or forgotten.

This is why you don’t see working payphones with Yellow Pages swaying from the end of a metal chain at the corner of Second and Wilshire in wealthy Santa Monica, on the other side of the Los Angeles basin. You don’t see internet cafes, which provide the hardware for internet access, in affluent neighborhoods, because Starbucks has free WiFi and most residents have iPads.

Cedillo knows firsthand that the digital divide is very real in the MacArthur Park area. “For much of our communication,” he writes, “we rely heavily on door-to-door canvassing, letter correspondences and phone calls. We understand that for many communities, having internet access is a luxury.”

All too often, though, technology is conceived of as the “magic bullet” for improving education, political efficacy, even overall quality of life. However, not only are there significant barriers to effective use of technologies (such as lack of information literacy, the knowledge and skill needed to use the resources available online), but bringing fiber optic cables and 4G into a working class community has the potential to be almost as damaging as building a high-rise with no ground-floor retail, priced for yuppies—evidence shows that it drives up property values.

But when you consider that “almost everything having to do with jobs, the government, and so on [is] all online, [that] you have to have good internet connection to function, to get yourself up somewhere,” as Gardea describes it, the risk of gentrification seems worth it. “If you believe the economists, that the middle class jobs of the future are part of [the digital economy],” he proposes, “then what does that mean for those in poorer communities? Do they get left behind in the service economy?”

Or, as Ethington asks, “Is [it] disadvantageous to working class people to not have the internet? I think it is.”

Los Angeles has a plan to bring WiFi to the whole city. “It is not an easy task,” Cedillo admits, “but it is a necessary one. Our constituents should have the same technological opportunities regardless of where they live in the city, or if they can afford it.”

Cedillo has also approved plans to renovate the MacArthur Park grounds at a cost of $20 million, creating spaces for Westlake residents and potential visitors to gather in leisurely, cultural, and professional pastimes. While it is promising that he consulted members of the community when devising plans for the renovation, the park has been renovated before—six times. Will redesigning it once more really have a lasting, meaningful impact on the surrounding neighborhood?

Perhaps that $20 million would be better spent generating a new model of development, one that incorporates better rent control, more affordable housing with parking garages and computer rooms, and mixed-use developments, which increase a building’s functionality, make neighborhoods more walkable, and maximize space. Hire a full-time team to oversee and maintain MacArthur Park’s rehabilitation, instead of appointing committee members or establishing a task force that disbands upon its completion. Invest in public infrastructure for digital services. Install a wireless mesh network, and launch free WiFi centers throughout the neighborhood. Consult more often with women like Bertha Wooldridge, who opened her hardware store in 1983 in the heart of Westlake, and who seems to have become the heart of Westlake itself. Enact measures to relieve the negative effects of poorly managed density.

As Gardea sees it, “Westlake can become a petri dish with how the public, private, and nonprofit sectors can work together to complement and supplement each other.”

I left MacArthur Park because I had the privilege to. Perhaps ironically, I moved to one of LA’s most recently gentrified areas, Echo Park—where I could walk at night without extra caution and have my own parking space, and where neighbors shush me if I’m too loud past 10 on weekdays. That last part isn’t something I’m particularly fond of, but it is a register of what people from certain communities expect of their neighbors. We weren’t told to be quiet in Westlake once. As I drove towards Sunset and out of the neighborhood with the last load in the trunk of my station wagon, I noticed the aesthetics of the landscape change, graffiti reading “Nothing but Danger” and “18th Street Gang” giving way to the now iconic murals of Echo Park.

The digital divide is geographically evident in MacArthur Park: the internet cafes just a few blocks away from affluent Starbuckses in Downtown, the tagged payphones with old beer cans and paper ads for “teenage workers” at their feet. Dilapidated buildings with fences shrouded in debris mingle with the architectural remnants of short-lived, privileged grandeur.

For many people in the MacArthur Park community, the area is the first place they’ve lived in the United States. Or they’ve already been displaced from a similar area of Los Angeles. When these scenes constitute the first or prevailing experience of American life for people, the disconnect created by vast disparities in class and cultural experience ossifies quickly. The world of a child growing up among the landscaped streets of Santa Monica is vastly different from that of a child who has to step over dead rats on their way to school. Social expectations differ based on what surrounds people, what they’ve come to expect, and what has been normalized.

Residents of wealthier neighborhoods are not socialized to speak, or to understand, the aesthetic language of poverty—one dominated by “workarounds” like the cornucopian stack of beauty products on a vendedor’s table, or the stock photography in a small business’s sign. The disparities in the American experience between classes and neighborhoods hinders communication—and therefore solidarity—between people from communities that were once zoned blue (“favorable”) and those that were zoned red (“hazardous”).

This disconnect shapes the politics of our country, to the detriment of individual lives and, in the case of MacArthur Park, LA’s collective future. When ownership and care of a community is constantly at stake, with tensions between landlords and residents, between gangs, between the city and community task forces, the people of Westlake—from the families strolling to ice cream trucks for an after-dinner snack on Sunday, to my neighbor who left every morning at 4 a.m. for work, his truck backfiring as he pulled away, to Fernando rotating his umbrella with the movement of the afternoon sun—are left hanging in the balance.

Editor: Adrian Glick Kudler

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