“When Did Echo Park Become So Hip and Happening?”

Are the first lines of the trailer for the movie Echo Park, “a story of two people coming together across cultural, economic and racial boundaries,” according to IMDB.

A short glimpse of the trailer makes clear that, quite expectedly, this film completely masks over the (more often than not) devastating ways gentrification negatively affects longtime residents of neighborhoods like Highland Park, Boyle Heights and Echo Park. In fact, we can say with confidence that this film erases these residents almost entirely, with its swift ownership of the deeply rooted Echo Park community, all while simultaneously illustrating an otherwise “empty,” “new,” “hip, and happening” version of Echo Park.

This dichotomy, these two versions of reality, accurately depicts what’s happening in low-income communities across the country. These are the two sides of the proverbial gentrification coin.

On one side there is the protagonist, Sophie, a young white woman hailing from Beverly Hills. Bored with her privilege and comforts, she moves to the “eastside” with hopes of finding herself after a “bad break-up.” Such a premise is reinforcing the gentrifier’s stereotype--that innocent and well-to-do millennials, looking for somewhere “edgy” to live, are finding places like Echo Park to be their new destination community.

The other side of the coin depicts the longtime residents, families and small business owners of these neighborhoods who are facing mass-evictions, and are being priced out of their homes, apartments and even commercial leases. Despite the reality of her neighbors, Sophie finds much joy in her hip, affordable, and culturally-rich haven of Echo Park: a place “that’s just [hers].”

“Can you come back to reality? This is not reality,” screams an angry ex-boyfriend who feels very left out of his girlfriend’s new eastside lifestyle. “Echo Park is not reality.”

Unfortunately, this story is not just for the movies, the reality of this double-sided gentrification coin is pervasive in many communities of color, where local families and small business owners are being dispossessed of the very communities they have helped build.

The entire trailer, let alone the movie, begs the question: do the writers, actors, and even viewers understand the complex and painful “reality” of gentrification and subsequent displacement?

In an interview with the lead male actor Tony Okungbowa, he attempts to offer a solution to ameliorate the negative effects of gentrification:

I (,) don’t think that all gentrification is bad. I feel like where gentrification becomes sort of problematic is when you do not respect the good that has been done there and you come in and just bogart and take over everything. So that’s where the problem is. You get better grocery stores, better coffee, different types of people in the neighborhood, but the main thing is that one comes and respects the good that’s been done there.

Uh huh. So, how does one do that exactly? Aren’t the “better grocery stores, better coffee, [and] different types of people” essentially taking over? And how exactly are you “respecting” the existing community by putting them out of business or displacing them from their homes? How do you explain to local residents that their neighborhood is now safer because “different types of people” decided to move in, and that the new $4 coffee spot is there out of respect for them?

How do you actually “respect the good” without capitalizing, colonizing, and erasing it? Is it really enough to be self-aware and use the word gentrification correctly, to prove that you’re against it?

For some potential solutions, it’s already too late; gentrification is happening, and it’s happening fast. Private developers and landlords are armed with anti-renter tactics that are severely impacting low-income families of color, “because while real estate goes up, their incomes don't, and they sink deeper into the ranks of the working poor.”

In the face of these challenges, how do we identify tangible strategies low-income communities and their advocates can use to ensure that such drastic changes taking place in neighborhoods benefit existing residents too?

At LURN, gentrification and displacement, and especially its effect on artists of color are frequent topics of discussion. Specifically the artist community of Boyle Heights, that is on the banks of the rapid changes occurring in the nearby Downtown Arts District. At the end of the day, we keep returning to the same solution that seems to have the most promise:

In order to help keep local residents and families in their neighborhoods, avoid evictions, and resist getting priced out of their rental agreements and commercial leases, residents and small business owners need to own their homes and own property.

With the income inequality gap widening across the country, low-income communities need capital more than ever. After years of historic disinvestment, thanks to redlining and other racially discriminatory policies, the absence of capital in the hands of community members is what’s making it so easy for developers, and others to come in, dictate, and control what a community looks like.

We need both innovative policies and sustainable programming that can work hand-in-hand to help achieve this.

Still feeling pretty hopeless?

Well, in the meantime this is what  you can do to help right now:

  1. For starters, don’t watch this film. You probably won’t expect to learn anything about Echo Park’s reality, its residents, or how people deal with gentrification;

  2. If you live in a community that’s currently being gentrified (especially if you’re worried you might be a gentrifier) actively support your local businesses. Ask them how they’re doing, see if they could they use a hand with anything. Act like a community member and show you care;

  3. Begin to track what’s going on in your neighborhood--have any local businesses shut down recently? Spot any new neighbors that might fit the description? Try to educate newcomers on the role they play in this devastating process that’s affecting the livelihood of so many Angelenos; and

  4. Talk to your local community-based organizations and try to come up with local solutions that you can begin implementing sooner rather than later. Luckily, others are experimenting with ways to mitigate the impacts of gentrification and make sure existing residents have a place to live in their own community.