“… we know less about how people feel when the fortunes of their neighborhoods brighten. How do people feel when gentrification comes to the ‘hood?”
—From “There Goes the ‘Hood: Views of Gentrification from the Ground Up” by Lance Freeman, Temple University Press, 2005.
The colonies of Baldwin Hills, Ladera Heights, and View Park-Windsor Hills comprise one of the most affluent Black residential areas in the United States.
Baldwin Hills specifically has been dubbed “the Black Beverly Hills” (a title it shares with View Park) given by the African American Digest, Atlanta Black Star and other news organs serving Black audiences, as well as spawning an eponymous reality show on Black Entertainment Television.
Restrictive real estate covenants (contracts that restrict what a purchaser may or may not do with land and the buildings on it) prohibited minorities from buying in these desirable areas well into the mid 20th century. Those who sold homes to Blacks might find themselves sued for damages by their neighbors, who used the rationale that such a transaction would erode their property values. The efforts of Black civic leaders set in motion the wheels of change to right this inequity. During the 1940s and 1950s landmark legislation passed which paved the way for African Americans to gain entry into previously restricted housing areas.
One of the beneficiaries of these changing fortunes was a Portland, Ore., native who we’ll call “Em,” (she chooses to remain anonymous. Upward mobility in the Golden State allowed her family to establish a comfortable life living in an area that was outside the traditional Black areas. They lived through the 1950s east of Central Avenue, then in the West Adams District (“Sugar Hill”), and finally in Leimert Park.
By 1959, the need for a larger home prompted Em’s family to purchase a house in the previously all-White View Park neighborhood, for the princely sum of $19,000.
The house they purchased had previously been located in a palatial enclave of winding streets with expansive lawns and showcase homes in a variety of architectural styles. Kenway Avenue in particular boasted a plethora of White doctors, lawyers, and car dealership owners (including mega pitchman and pop culture icon Cal Worthington). Aside from a welcoming ritual of vandals toilet papering their dwelling, and one neighbor, she surmised who moved south to the more homogenous milieu of La Mirada to avoid the effect this integrated environment might have on their teenaged daughters, Em experienced few problems.
When Blacks began to move in, she and other strivers of color were able to rear their children into adulthood in their own sepia-tinted version of the American Dream. The areas these fortunate folks settled into are of historic importance, because 1) the homes within the neighborhoods were architecturally significant; 2) at any given time, they were the domain of celebrities like Ray Charles, Tina Turner; and Nancy Wilson; and 3) they are a testament to the post World War II rise of the Black middle and upper class, and a symbol of African American success.
Because of these three reasons, View Park was recently designated a historic district by the National Register of Historic Places in 2016.
For “Sharon,” who grew up in Leimert Park, the homes above her in Baldwin Hills were a beacon of the possibilities available to those willing to exert the energy through education and career progression, regardless of race.
In the 1970s, Los Angeles was categorized by a strong Black middle class residing in communities such as Country Club, Jefferson, and Lafayette park. Leimert Park itself was distinguished by a commitment to political engagement, manifested by the election of Tom Bradley to the mayoral position of the city in 1973.
In Sharon’s words, “we were on fire,” in terms of civic participation.
In due course, she too climbed the ladder of mobility and moved into her own lavish abode, with expansive views of her former stomping grounds in 2002. Comfortably enjoying the fruits of her labor, she wants to preserve this cherished legacy of Black wealth and pass it on to the next generation of strivers of color.
But this is becoming a difficult enterprise given the changiong demographics of the area.
Worked by the system
Not only is the housing recovery bypassing Blacks in part because of the recession of the 2007-2009, but new forms of predatory lending once again disproportionately affected Black borrowers.
To address the plight of minorities seeking home ownership, social justice organizations were set up. This includes The Greenlining Institute, initiated in California’s Bay Area, circa 1993. Other programs were initiated by private banking concerns, like First Republic Bank’s Eagle Community Home Loans supposedly conceived for underserved communities (in zip codes with predominately minority populations).
Vedika Ahuja, the Greenlining Institute’s Economic Equity Program Manager, says that Black people were especially impacted by the housing bursting of the “bubble burst” of the 1990s.
“The predatory lending practices that led to the recession resulted in the loss of more than half of Black household networth. Blacks are not recovering from the loss,” she notes.
“Black homeownership stands at 41.2 percent in 2014, compared to 68.5 percent among Whites. The percent off conventional and nonconventional loans (meaning loans backed by the federal government, like FHA loans and VA loans) extended to Blacks in 2014 is far less than in 2004.”
In an ironic twist of fate, these programs, initiated to help people of color (always underrepresented among the group of property owners) buy houses, have been appropriated by Whites seeking to buy in traditionally Black neighborhoods. Loans specifically focused on certain areas by zip codes (for instance 90008), are an attractive alternative for young professionals who would normally gravitate to South Bay, Venice, Santa Monica and locales on the Westside. These groups likely have the upper hand in competing with Black house seekers by virtue of higher credit ratings and liquid assets.
This realty is reinforced by Ahuja’s professional experience.
“Banks only recieve CRA (Community Reinvestment Act) credit for extending loans based on income and/or geography, not based on race/ethnicity,” she says.
“Banks recieve credit for extending loans to low-to-moderate income individuals or in census tracts that are considered low-to-moderate income.”
“Jake,” a decade’s long resident of Baldwin Hills, and a property owner of note agrees.
“There’s an area south of Slauson that White folks are buyin’ like crazy,” he claims, giving the rationale that it will pay dividends within the coming decades.
The shifting tides of the economy have taken their toil on the affluent African American home owner as well. People of means, especially the elderly, have fallen prey to the unscrupulous who dangle loans to remold their homes (and theoretically add to the value of the improved property), and then assuming the title after the owners are unable make inflated monthly payments. Sharon points to five close acquaintances who’ve lost their houses in this way, with scores of others barely clinging to their titles.
Other scams include the precarious realm of reverse mortgages, and using the collusion of city employees to enable a malefactor to put his or her name on the title of an unfortunate’s property (Sharon recommends checking the status of deeds at the City Registry at least once a year for this very reason).
Two sides of a coin: Gentrification or Colonialism?
“How can we get a Trader Joe’s? Does anyone know or have any leads?”
—Random query on nextdoor.com
Recently these areas have experienced a sort of “reverse integration” in that Whites are returning to these centrally located environs, either for geographical convenience or financial gain. This trend has been addressed earlier, in July of 2015 in the pages of Our Weekly (see “Upscale Black enclaves face changing neighborhoods,” by William Covington). A year and a half later, the debate for and against this latest development is still going strong.
View Park resident Tammy Williams, who was interviewed by the LA Times in July of 2015, once lamented the loss of character as her neighborhood transitioned. Since then she has altered her views, reasoning the benefits of “getting a sprinkle of White people” to keep up their property values but still worries about maintaining the ethnic favor the community. The concern is that these interlopers will rob the area of its uniqueness, resulting in a community virtually identical to dozens of others in L.A. County alone.
A dedicated preservationist (see her website at http://vpacfoundation.com/), she takes issue with the implementation of Historic Preservation Overlay Zones (HPOZs) mandating standards for fines, fees, and penalties for anything deviating from the accepted norm. She specifically cites noise ordinances that threatened the African drumming performances held on weekends at 43rd Place and Crenshaw.
This trend is not limited to southern California, or even the west coast. Film director and cultural gadfly Spike Lee expounded recently on the changes to his beloved New York Borough of Brooklyn. The influx of affluent Whites, while securing improved schools and police protection, have robbed the community of ethnic “flava” with the homogenization of Starbucks and other upscale amenities. Lee pointed to complaints about a planned celebration of Michael Jackson’s birthday and (echoing the west coast complaints of the Leimert Park drumming circle) the tradition of African drumming in Mount Morris Park as evidence of the newcomer’s cultural insensitivity. This phenomenon has even manifested itself in the original “Black Mecca” of Harlem.
Here on the west coast, Sharon climes in on this as she relates conversations on nextdoor.com and other social media outlets, in which newcomers bemoan the lack of Sprouts, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods Markets and other staples of millennial yuppie sustenance.
The advent of Whites has brought with it an increase in home burglaries, perhaps, Em theorizes, because they are not as security conscious as African Americans accustomed to the perils of inner city life. This speculation is boosted by her attendance at meetings held by the local sheriff’s substation, and by a (White) neighbor’s refusal to install drapes in her front windows so that passers by could glimpse her grand piano in the living room.
Native Angelino and budding filmmaker Angelique Molina (USC, ‘16) weighted in on this issue in her recent documentary “There goes the Neighborhood” (http://www.tgtnmovie.com/), featured at February’s Pan African Film Festival and making the rounds on the film festival circuit.
Unlike many in his area, Jake doesn’t fear these new comers, four of which moved on the block this year.
“They walk their dogs, we walk our dogs. They’re always friendly-and they maintain their property. This gives us a good feeling, ‘cause we know our property values are going up!”
The foreclosures in his area largely come about due to the demise of the original owners, he states.
“The parents die, the kids sell the house, or refinance it-and can’t pay it (the month payments) off,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.
Money in hand, he continues, they usually buy a car, either a BMW or a Mercedes, and the deal has been struck.
“We either wear our wealth or drive it,” he concludes.
Off the record he leans in to make his pitch.
“If you know anyone who wants refinance their house for $200,000, tell ‘em to come and see me,” he offers.
“I’ll fix ‘em right up-‘cause I know I’ll get my money back, and probably their house to boot!”
His reasoning is that he might as well reap the benefits from the folly of others.