Don’t Know Much ‘Bout Community

Letís talk a little bit about gentrification.

Several months ago, my girlfriend and I bought a house. Since the day we moved in, weíve been struggling with our rear neighbors and the 10 or 12 stray cats that they refuse to stop feeding. After the latest encounter, there were two revelations made that continue to gnaw at me. First, they actually implied that maybe we wouldnít have a problem if my girlfriend werenít an American-born Latina. Second, and more disturbingly, they made it clear that the reason we arenít welcome in our community because weíre not poor Mexicans.

Say what? If my girlfriend were born abroad, then all would be well? Evidently, she and our neighbors would share some mystical Latin connection and everything would by sympatico. The neighbors would feel some sense of personal responsibility about how their behavior affected us. Well, surprise! My girlfriend wasnít born here. She didnít move to America until her teen years. Guess that throws a wrench in the works.

As for me, this is apparently news to some people, but you donít have to have brown skin to be disenfranchised. I grew up in poverty. I used food stamps, ate government cheese and got free hot lunch, just like tons of other poor white, brown, yellow, red and black kids. I started school at Del Pueblo Elementary, where our school song was in Spanish and the building was painted with Mayan and Aztec art. My best friends last names were Candelaria and Perez. But more importantly, what does the color of my skin or the size of my paycheck have to do with being an understanding neighbor or a decent member of the community? Because I want to improve my street, I must, by default, be an ignorant, well-off white guy thatís trying to drive people out of their neighborhood? Iím oppressing people by painting over graffiti (on my own house, mind you) and picking up trash and human feces from the street? Sorry, but I call bullshit on that mentality.

I donít see anyone harassing the Historic Filipinotown Improvement Association about being an engine of gentrification. Nor my Mexican neighbor to the north, with whom the rear neighbors have been sharing complaints. Which is interesting, because itís not Neighbor Bís long-term stomping grounds either. They bought their house and moved here the same month we did. They also spent quite a bit more money on that house than we did on ours. They followed up that pricey house purchase with a brand new car three months later and a giant RV parked outside. Obviously, when I ask that they not have an open bonfire and bone-rattlingly loud music in their front yard until 3AM on Christmas Eve, or that they not allow their four dogs to bark non-stop between 5 and 7AM every day, Iím not just asking them to be considerate neighbors. No. Iím doing my best to drive out those hard-working poor natives so us rich people can come in and take it all for ourselves. Fortunately for us, not everyone on the block shares the same narrow point of view. My problematic neighbors might be surprised to hear that weíve made friends with the man across the street, who has confided in us that heís glad he doesnít have to live next to the people that we do.

I feel bad that places like 33 1/3 have to struggle to find new ways to stay afloat and keep serving the community that theyíve championed for years, but affordable housing through ghettoization is not a solution to gentrification. Neither is racism, classism or intolerance, no matter which side it falls on. People have got to realize that when you spend a long time singing the praises of your community, eventually people are going to listen, and come. So where do you draw the line at whoís welcome? Can white people come, but only poor white people? What about Asians? East Indians?

Iím not claiming to have the answers to such involved problems, but I do think that pointing fingers and drawing artificial lines in the sand between those of us in the same community isnít doing us any favors. It is, however, doing big favors for the real villains: the developers, the slum lords, the Wal-Marts of the world. They want us to be too busy glaring at our neighbors through the fence to actually notice that giant conglomerates are running circles around our local politicians and driving small business out. Next time you want to bag on your neighbors, perhaps you should take a minute to stop and fully asses the honesty of what youíre about to say or do. Maybe you can redirect that energy into something that benefits your community instead of dividing it.

18 Replies to “Don’t Know Much ‘Bout Community”

  1. They’re probably just ringing your bell with the first comment that comes to mind…girlfriend not native born or whatever.

    What do they really want? Probably to feel at home in the US (nobody thinks you’re a bad neighbor to feed 12 feral cats in Mexico, Central and South America, at least in my humble experience; if anything it is good community PR to do so).

    Barring major property damage, let it blow over then give them a nice gift since you are their new neighbors. Hey, you want to spread civility to help your property’s capital appreciation in the long run, right?

  2. Thank you for the insight Chris. But for the sake of clarification, we’re not just having an issue with the cats for the sake of having an issue with the cats. Getting too involved in the specifics of that situation just seemed to distract from the larger issue that I’d like to raise.

    Actually, spreading civility is exactly what we’ve been trying to do. The barriers we’ve run into while doing trying to do so is what’s frustrating me.

  3. Oh, Chris. I also wanted to point out that these aren’t new immigrants to the U.S. One of the rear neighbors has lived here for 20+ years.

  4. Obviously there are larger community issues involved, so you are going to have to let me move in with you for several months so that I can get the lay of the land.

    (April fools, of course :)

    Look, my parents had similar problems with neighbors of theirs in D.C. and the conflict went on for 20 years until both of the neighbors finally died. I am highly, highly (!) sympathetic with your plight. But, trust me, it’s money in the bank to find a nice, politic way to resolve this in the near term: bribe the local community leaders, stage an accident in the area in which you come out as the apparent hero, whatever :)

    But, if you want to know the honest truth, you have bought in the area due to economic necessity and you are not a good match for the area. Now you are paying for it. Suck it up and find a way to get on top of the situation, man.

    As I suggested before, I am sincerely sympathetic.

  5. I feel your pain….it definately sounds like they resent you and it will be a delicate balance to tip the scales so you are accepted. Bigotry and racism seem to have no boundries….they exist in almost all cultures and cross most economic classes.
    And unfortunately, it probably is best to suck it up and take them a peace offering. Or maybe just round up all the cats in the dead of night and drop them off at the humane society!!!

  6. Man, I was just talking about this with my boyfriend this morning. It’s a nasty dilemma. Maybe you did buy into HiFi for exclusively economic reasons but knowing even the little I do about you, I doubt it. I mean, all the money in the world couldn’t get me to buy in, say, Beverly Hills or Hancock Park, which I live adjacent to and which, while pretty, I am always faintly nauseated by.

    Hopefully, you’re just dealing with garden-variety fear and suspicion and this, too, shall pass. Maybe they just had one too many bad experiences with white guys and you’re (unjustly) having to pay the price for someone else’s asshat behavior. Sounds like the best way in is what you’re already doing: making friends with the surrounding friendly nations.

    But boy, stories like this (and other unrelated nightmare neighbor stories) really make me think twice about how much I really want to commit to a house, unless it’s somewhere in the country with a loooooot of land around it.

  7. Oh those darn cats! Aren’t there crazy cat ladies in all neighborhoods? You just happend to move in next to one.

  8. I agree with Chris Franklin. If you just wait until they die, then the problem will be gone, right?

    Wait, that was what he was trying to say, wasn’t it? Or did I miss the point again?

  9. Perhaps, just perhaps, your partying & cat-loving neighbors feel persecuted by your consistent attempts to find a solution to “your” problem (we’re assuming they enjoy the partying & the cats) given that the rest of the immediate neighborhood has let them continue their somewhat uncooperative ways for however long. If that’s the case, then their low-level name-calling bullying tactics probably have served them well in the past when confronted on such matters. So true to form, they use the obvious weapon against you – name-calling. If you are white, then they just picked up on the most obvious thing to bait you with. And it looks like they succeeded in getting your goat if I am understanding correctly that it is the idea proffered by the insult – that somehow being white means you automatically are attempting to gentrify an area regardless of how poor you were/are and by extension your Latina wife is not Latina-enough given that she had the audacity to marry a white man – which is irking you most about this conundrum. You know it’s not true; your wife knows it’s not true; I’ll bet even your name-calling neighbors know it’s not true. So start over. Re-introduce yourselves and make nice (bring flowers, whatever). And then deal. Out of all their annoying habits what is the worst? Focus on that and let the rest go (e.g. ask to be invited to the parties, ignore the cats, etc.). I’m in my third house in the LA area and each one has something that is just people being bloody annoying people. You don’t get to move away from annoying neighbors, you just trade them in for newer models – so the make nice, deal the best you can, install soundproofing windows or whatever to deal … this is usually all you can do. (You can play the city code card if you want too btw, but that’s an escalating thing that you should reserve only for those most egregious things, not for having one too many well-loved dogs in the bag yard, given that it’s an escalating gesture.) Best of luck to you.

  10. I understand your plight 5000. When I first moved to HP it was trying. My neighbors on one side loved to periodicly hang their dog in a noose and laugh while they watched it wriggle, the neighbors next to them liked to shoot off automatic paint guns in their yard all day and have cock fights- and these were the folks I had a decent relationship with. Then there were the people who lived on the other side of me that used to make fun of the other mexican kids in the neighborhood that had accents (although they themselves were mexican too) , jump over the fence to hang out in my yard (what the f*$&!?) , and cut down the tree in front of my kitchen window cause it shaded their pool (which it didnt)- mind you the tree was not in any form over their property line. When I went to talk to them about it they said I was “just a renter” and shouldnt worry about it. Nevertheless, I called the cops and they finally understood I wasnt having it. – They ended up moving out before I did.

    Unfortunetly, my rent skyrocketed from 850 to 1500 (no rent control on houses) so I guess I was gentrified out (Im a whitey btw).

    As far as the cats are concerned, I also had a neighbor once that loved to feed ferals- and yes, the fleas will haunt you come summertime (you know they can- in one jump, travel 12 feet!). Its nice that your neighbor does this and its not the cats fault that their starving and feral, however they should at least be checked to see if their neutered, or next year there will be more, and more…..you can do some research online and find places that can help (without euthenization) in the los angeles area, or contact the folks at angel puss in eagle rock and Im sure the can direct you somewhere helpful.

    On the upside, congrats on the house, at least your rent wont go up- and if your neighbors continue to be creeps, just call the cops. Maybe they’ll leave you your peace – though I wouldnt reccomend doing it on christmas eve.

  11. LA is full of weird neighbors, regardless of their heritage.
    Being that we have the largest concentration of Latinos here, comes with that all the cultural differences.
    Having grown up in LA with a Mexican family, (my mother married) – and visited Grandma’s house in Angeleno Heights, even when you feel connected, you can be automatically seperated by your looks.
    You might feel a part of the neighborhood, & feel like justifiying yourself – growing up poor etc. – but it is just so frustrating to get pigeonholed as a gentrifier. Gentirfication has gotten a bad wrap. It is associated with Anglos – what surprises me is that not all people care about the quality of life & living conditions. Or they just have bad habits, or bring their traditions with them, rather than assimilating.
    Yes, the neighbors have probably had bad experiences all their lives & feel very defensive.
    I agree, start over. If you are going to be there for a while, try to get used to the cats. The dog barking is rude…but try to appeal to them on a friendly level.
    If you can’t stand it after other attempts, you can always call the Humane Society & have them trap cats – but that’s kind of mean. As long as the cats don’t pee on your stuff, you could just ignore them.
    The main problem is the home buying frenzy doesn’t really give people time to find out what the neighbors are really like over the course of say, a week, & then before you know it you’re moving in. And neighbors don’t come over with the welcome baskets around here – they pear through their windows as you are moving in & whisper.

  12. Thanks for your insight so far, everyone. In the spirit of keeping the conversation on the larger subject, I just wanted to mention that I’m not really looking for advice on how to deal with the neighbors cats. Believe me when I say we’ve been very diplomatic about the whole thing and it’s much more complicated than just us being annoyed at some strays. The point is that we’ve already been doing all the make nice and start over stuff and this is the barrier that we’ve encountered. So, I’m more interested in the comments about gentrification, stereotyping and the like. Again, interesting points of view so far.

    I have to disagree that we are not a good match for the area just because we want our neighbors to be as considerate of us as we are of them. In fact, that’s kind of the whole point. I tried to illustrate that by pointing out that we have made friends with others in the neighborhood who have more open minds about who their neighbors are. We didn’t buy in HiFi exclusively for economic reasons. Sure, it was a consideration. But we looked at places in the same price range in areas where we might be considered a better “fit.” In the end, we chose to come here.

    One thing I’d like to know is what are the solutions to the effects of gentrification? Does anybody out there have more insight on communities that have weathered the storm well?

  13. I dont know if Id pass judgement on gentrification and say that its bad, its just another excellent example of our capitalist economic system doing what its supposed to do.

    Things that may help the unfortunate, like myself : a law that enforces rent control on all rentals, not just apartments, but then if your a landowner this may not be very fair. Another possible problem with the current rent control laws is that they dont carry from one occupant to the next. For instance I may pay 1300 for my apt, however the person that lived there right before me paid only 550…And the best solution? Figure out a way that renters can actually buy the places they live/work in. Ownership is the only real way to prevent it.

    Berkeley is a fairly good example of a city that enforces rent control and does a decent job at it- but their not exactly known for being pro-capitalisim.

  14. I’m curious why gentrification per se is a bad thing? Forced, faux gentrification when a city practices eminent domain, builds a pedestrian area and sets the rental rate so that only the Gaps, Banana Republics can afford to locate there is one thing. Gentrification in neighborhoods that mean more codes and rules can make life quite onerous (e.g. in my neighborhood you can’t park cars on the street overnight). However, gentrification as home owners who take care of their property is supposed to just be the smart thing to do. Invariably, if you are the first on your block to start fixing your place up, everyone around you will start in on little home projects too. I still think the latter isn’t a storm to weather and is irrespective of racial/social conflicts. It’s just a condition to enjoy. And this makes those neighbors just uncooperative jerks (and probably jealous of something about you) who most likely would be that way regardless of their or your socio-economic strata.

  15. Regardless of the alleged “whats” and “whys” of this matter, you may end up having a ton of background material to do a -Gentrification For Dummies- book. I’d buy it :)

  16. I mentioned that gentrification gets a bad wrap – not that it is a bad thing.

    People use the phrase loosely & that it is a negative thing that happens to neighborhoods only as a way to drive up rent or to ‘push out’ the original longtime tenants of an area.
    Yes, there is a natural progression that occurs in an area when one person starts fixing up their house & others follow.

    What eventually happens is that those unmotivated or intimidated or just too poor to fix up their place, move somewhere else where they do not feel the pressure to improve their living conditions, or where they thought of it first.
    I disagree that you are not right for the neighborhood. Anyone who sees potential to fix something up is perfectly entitled to move to a crummy area & fix it up so that everyone’s living is nicer & to help create neighborhood pride in general.
    With the way the housing market went crazy, most people are not buying in their first choice. They are buying what they can afford & making it their own. That’s not so bad.
    People need to stop being so offended. I had a weird experience when I asked my neighbor to please throw away the toilet they left on the sidewalk. I place no judgement on who left it there, but more of what a gross thing it is – instead I get attitude like I just don’t understand the other person.
    So is the question that we all need to be more tolerant of everyone, regardless of our feelings or living standards & just never ask or expect more from our neighbors?

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