Thursday, July 26, 2018

Immigrant gentrification: Where Even Nopales Grow

          Daniel Cano                                                                
Rocky and Phoebe patiently waiting

It was shortly after I retired. I walked Phoebe and Rocky through various neighborhood parks, and I realized I was, paradoxically, seeing familiar sights for the first time. I mean really seeing, like Castaneda’s old Indian Don Juan Matus. 

I’d observe ants crawl on trees. I’d study the designs of the bark, the shapes of the branches, and the colors of leaves. Now I see why Emerson and Thoreau saw the divine in nature.

I listened as creatures chirped, tweeted, or made strange sounds, communicating, in one way or another, maybe even talking. They'd chase each other through branches. Squirrels teased Rocky and Phoebe, as if the rodents knew my dogs were on leashes.

I didn’t need to buy a $500 ticket to watch the Lakers. Some of the basketball regulars, guys of nearly every ethnicity, running up and down the asphalt courts play with the same intensity and skill as college ball players, as good as some pros. The Oaxaquenos pass the ball as if inside a pinball machine, pushing the ball up court, without a single dribble, right into the hoop. Phoebe, Rocky, and I sat and watched, mesmerized.

One man stopped to ask, “They’re damn good, aren’t they?”

“Yeah,” I responded. “And it’s free.” We both laughed.

Phoebe and Rocky make excellent cruising companions. They are ready to jump in the car the minute they see me pick up the car keys from the wicker basket near the front door. Yesterday, even in the morning heat, they sat waiting patiently, asking, “Where’re we going today?”

“Mar Vista Gardens,” I answered.

Phoebe’s a bit pudgy and doesn’t do well in the heat. I should have named her Chori, short for chorizo, her body type. Still, she’s game. Rocky is up for anything, anytime.

“Mar Vista Gardens?” Rocky looks at me, questioningly.
Mar Vista Garden Housing Projects
If you are raised on L.A.’s west side, you know whoever lives closest to the Santa Monica Mountains, or anywhere north of Wilshire Boulevard, is considered golden. It wasn’t always so. A friend of my dad’s Alfonso Holquin was raised in Brentwood. He told me that in the 1930s even poor people lived in Brentwood, many Mexicans, working the farms, ranches, and estates of the rich.

He said, “We knew a man who lived up the hill from us, a movie director, but he was a nice guy, talked to everybody.” Alfonso's father worked on the Doheny estate, a good job in those days, enough so the Holquin family could buy two properties north of Wilshire, around Darlington, not far from San Vicente, up there where the Villasenors also lived.

The farther south you live from Brentwood, or Sunset Boulevard, the lower you are on the social ladder, which isn’t completely accurate. There are nice places all over the Westside. Yet, as a kid, my scope of the world was tiny.

I lived off Santa Monica Boulevard and Bundy Drive. I rarely travelled outside a ten-block radius. In fact, we joked that anybody living east of Overland might as well have been living on the Eastside. East of Robertson was like Arizona.

The projects are way south of Brentwood, more like the southernmost edge of Mar Vista, out near La Ballona creek, which isn’t a creek but a cement canal. Like all projects, they were government funded, made to house low-income families. We had friends who lived in the projects back in the 50s, like the Sanchez family. Hey, rent was cheap.

In the 60s, the projects, to us, meant trouble, mostly Chicanos, African-Americans, and low-income whites lived there. But that isn't accurate either. Many families lived there, hardworking families who just needed a helping hand. Like other neighborhoods, the projects had its gang, a mix of ethnicity, since they grew up together inside the gated community.

All of L.A. neighborhood parks had sports teams. Our park, Stoner Park, middle-class, mostly white, with a sprinkle of Japanese and Mexican families, maybe one or two black families, was scheduled to play a basketball game against Mar Vista Gardens, inside the gated projects.

Now, the concept of gated-community, as used today, and the projects, as a gated community, are two completely different ideas. The projects are still gated, and entry and exit closely monitored.

I remember as our team walked into the projects, we gawked at the military-like installation, numbered blocks and all. It was something like we’d never seen. Then we looked closer. These kids had an indoor gym, something unheard of in the early 60s, a softball diamond, and workout facilities. The grass was green and mowed, everything landscaped. When we left, we had an entirely different opinion of the projects. On top of all that, they whipped us by more baskets than we wanted to admit.
Slauson Avenue drought tolerant garden
The neighborhood around the projects, like Slauson Avenue and Braddock, was filled with apartments and WWII, tract, stucco homes, and older wood frame homes. A lot of drugs flowed in and out of the area. Unemployment was high, but there were also many middle-class Chicano and white families in the area. Still, if you didn't know anyone from Slauson Avenue, you didn't go there at night. Though it is technically L.A., a lot of guys who lived in the projects and on Slauson saw themselves as Culver City, La Chiva, their moniker.

In those days, the apartment owners, slum lords, collected the rent but never put any money into property upkeep, few plants, trees, or lawns, mostly dirt and concrete, where not even nopales grew. No play area for the kids, who rode their bikes up and down the ally behind the open parking areas, adjacent to the concrete river, roaring and wild during the winter rains.

As Phoebe, Rocky, and I walked up and up and down Slauson Avenue, everyone greeted me, in Spanish, mostly. They knew I was an outsider. Man, so much has changed. There were Latino fruit and vegetable trucks catering to the immigrant residents. I heard a few kids speak English but mostly Spanish rang out through the streets. I did see one African American man walk into a newer, modern apartment.

When my friends lived on Slauson,  there were fewer immigrant families, mostly Chicanos, African Americans, and Whites, down on their luck. Today, even here, signs of gentrification crack the surface. Modern apartments are beginning to replace the old 1950s boxy apartment complexes.
Slauson Avenue makeover
But what got my attention was the greenery everywhere, like an oasis blooming through concrete, as Tupac might say. I don’t think the landlords suddenly started sprucing up the place, or putting more money into the old structures.

Though some like to portray immigrants as lowering community standards, I often see the opposite, Latinos, immigrants, planting flowers, fruit trees, and growing lawns. Where there was once just concrete and dirt, today there is grass and drought tolerant gardens. Nopales grow in front of some of the apartment houses. It's not the old, dusty, dirty neighborhood of the past. Immigrants bring their own gentrification to many areas. The place has a new spirit. There is a Latino supermercado around the corner, Gonzales Market, enormous, with a large deli, and bakery attracting people from miles around.

Down at the end of the block, right up against the canal, is a park, with basketball courts, a softball field, and offices, flyers posted, announcing various programs for the kids who live in the neighborhood.
A source of pride at the end of the road

A man working the grounds tells me the kids respect the park. Rarely is there graffiti on the outdoor walls or in the bathrooms. The kids seem to appreciate what they have. Across the street is a social service office, catering to the neighborhood, as well.

I don’t doubt, trouble still arises now and then; however, one thing is clear. The residents living in the area have turned it into a much more lush and beautiful space than it was back in the 60s and 70s.

In this time, when so much is written about immigrants taking away, my two canine traveling companions and I see a neighborhood, pulsing with life, where immigrants are contributing to something vibrant and fresh, offering an old tired neighborhood a much needed makeover.


Antonio SolisGomez said...

always enjoy your wonderful stories

Daniel Cano said...

Antonio, just when I think there are no more stories, I just look around and see them everywhere.