Weird Wave Coffee co-owner John Schwartz says that categorization is unfair. “I don’t want to do any harm or displace anybody,” Schwartz said. “I want to do good to the community while hopefully running a successful business.”
The owners said they chose their location in Boyle Heights out of simple business sense: The five-year lease, at $2,000 per month, was manageable compared with the $4,000-plus for comparably sized storefronts in other neighborhoods. The nearest coffee shop is a Starbucks 1.2 miles away, so Schwartz, together with co-owners Jackson Defa and Mario Chavarria, decided Weird Wave Coffee could fill that caffeine gap.
The owners said they try to invest back into Boyle Heights: They buy avocados and fruits from a neighborhood cart vendor, purchase baked goods from a nearby social enterprise, and recently hired a local teenager part time. Luis Soto, 17, said that’s his first paid job, where he learned how to pull espresso shots and smell good beans. Soto said watching the protests “ticked” him off: “This is America—you should be able to open your own business.”
Many other residents say groups like Defend Boyle Heights don’t speak for the masses. “They’ve gotten way out of line,” said Viviane Hernandez, a 25-year-old retail clerk who grew up in Boyle Heights. Hernandez, who lives two blocks away from Weird Wave Coffee, said it’s a nicer hangout option than the McDonald’s across the street: “I appreciate new businesses. Who wouldn’t want better streets?” She now visits Weird Wave Coffee almost daily for its iced tea and zucchini bread, despite listening to protesters call her “vendida” or “sellout” in Spanish. She wonders why the activists remained silent when Starbucks and Walgreens opened: Why go after small businesses but ignore the big corporations? (Luna said such establishments don’t raise rents or property value, and another activist said they’re “post-gentrification.”)
BOYLE HEIGHTS has historically been a sanctuary for the working class, the immigrants, and the marginalized. The once-rural neighborhood didn’t have the racial housing covenants once common in LA, and in the 1800s it welcomed Mexican-Americans, then African-Americans, Jews, Italians, Japanese, Russians, Poles, Croatians, and Serbs in the early 1900s.
Remnants of this cultural hodgepodge include a tiny 61-year-old Japanese eatery serving no-frills comfort foods, the Byzantine-inspired Breed Street Shul with its murals of Jewish festivals, and a Serbian cemetery pecked by chickens. In between these historical gems are signs of new developments: A bakery that caters to an English-speaking clientele is tucked on the ground floor of a Victorian-era building that had been renovated into affordable housing. And there’s construction of high-rise condominiums—still rare in a neighborhood where the majority of houses are detached family homes with backyard gardens.
Today the 6.5-square-mile Boyle Heights is home to about 109,000 residents: 94 percent Latino, 95 percent without a college degree, 33 percent in poverty, 17 percent here illegally. The median home value in Boyle Heights is now about $420,000—a 9.9 percent increase from last year, compared with the 8.1 percent rise citywide in LA.
This real estate boom in Boyle Heights, thanks to its proximity to downtown and major freeways, is good for homeowners but not so good for renters, who make up 75 percent of Boyle Heights residents.
Currently dozens of mariachis and their neighbors are protesting eviction notices because they were unable to pay rent hikes as high as 80 percent. Their apartment building is a block from the historic Mariachi Plaza, where the LA Metro Gold Line opened in 2009. The new metro stop drew more visitors to the Mariachi Plaza—a quaint cultural center where mariachis have thronged to sing, find work, and mingle for 80 years—but also raised property values for neighbors.
Puebla del Sol is another example of a new development with winners and losers. Decades ago, Puebla del Sol was Aliso Village, a block of ramshackle public housing projects. Priscilla Bonilla, a 32-year-old nurse who lived in the Village since she was 6, remembers happy days as a child—playing cops and robbers, splashing in inflatable mini-pools—but she also remembers the street gangs and the shootings and the building’s dangerous lead paint, outdated plumbing, and leaky sewage system.