Perhaps what we call “diverse” communities are those that haven’t reached equilibrium, but are in the process of changing… Is there a stable equilibrium of genuine integration in this country?
Chris Hayes (Up With Chris Hayes June 17, 2012)
Before the housing bubble finally burst in 2008, taking the economy with it, the conversion of often aging rental housing stock to condominiums had been proceeding full bore. City Heights, ripe territory for sub-prime mortgages, attracted its share of condominium investments. To first time home buyers of limited income, these City Heights condo conversions offered a last chance for “affordable” home ownership, with units advertised in the mid to high $200,000 range.
One such condo conversion occurred across the street from me. The original 16 unit apartments, consisting of two long buildings of eight units each, were set back from the street with curb cut parking in the front and minimal landscaping in the Huffman architectural style. The owner spent little if anything on the external upkeep of the building. Like many parts of City Heights, the apartments looked like not much thought was given to them beyond their utility in providing the most basic level of habitability.
These same apartments had a secret life, easy to overlook. The apartments were home to Mexican families with young children. They were part of the large group that comprises City Heights working poor, yet they provided an astounding economic boost to the neighborhood and a lively social and distinct cultural presence. Those families provided significant demand for the community’s overlooked and often maligned small business people- our street vendors.
” La fruta, la tortilla, las verduras, se van.” The green grocer would pull up behind the complex in his truck and sing out in his rich baritone voice “The fruit, the tortillas and vegetables are going away.” Then a young boy’s voice was added one year, I assume his son, equally musical in his delivery. Over the course of the day, other pregoneros would call out their specialties- the egg man, the woman advertising tamales, elotes, champurrado. The apartments were the hub of this economic activity, which would then extend to other residences in the area.
Large multi-generational parties were frequently held to celebrate birthdays, quinceañeras, and baptisms. The sure sign of a party was the early morning sound of a brincolín (bouncing house for kids) being inflated in a long steady hiss in the empty parking spaces. Then there would be the sound of tables and chairs being set up in the courtyard. By early evening the youngest kids were having the time of their lives in the brincolín and the musical entertainment– generally one singer who provided the vocals to recorded popular songs, would be testing the sound system.
The parties occasionally went too long into the night, and party goers would sometime feel compelled to grab the microphone and belt out an old favorite in an off-key voice, to great hoots of laughter. Sometimes I would stand on the porch, in the dark, and dance and sing along, wishing I had been invited. They were having a wonderful time and I also discovered that ear plugs were the next best thing to being invited to the parties.
I had no idea the buildings had been sold. The dispersion of the tenants was quiet and invisible to me. I realized one day that I hadn’t heard the green grocer’s song illuminating the early morning. “Se van” indeed. The condos clearly were not “affordable home ownership opportunities” for my neighbors who struggled to stay afloat on less than the $33,000 median household income here.
The gutting and remodeling of the buildings began. The condos weren’t ready until the economy was already in the tank. The price of the condos kept dropping until they were in the high $100,000 range. And still there were no buyers. Then the for rent signs went up. One set of perfectly good neighbors who rented those apartments was replaced by a new set of neighbors paying substantially higher rents. The apartments and landscaping were improved considerably but the gentrification came at a high cost to the community.
Where did my neighbors go? I’ve run into some of them in the intervening years. A number of them moved into other apartments in City Heights. I was told that others moved to El Cajon where they had found more affordable rents.
Where did the small entrepreneurs–the street vendors go? Only the paleteros who sell frozen fruit bars and candy ply the sidewalks now. When a woman selling tamales came by recently, one of the tenants in the condos opened his door and screamed at her that she was interrupting his television viewing and reminded her that THIS IS AMERICA!
Part of the modernization of our cities has been the emphasis upon centralized, deeper urbanization. Amenities, public services and access to transit are viewed as essential to densification of the urban core. The redevelopment projects that occurred fifteen years ago in City Heights provided a great deal of the necessary anchor infrastructure- the Urban Village with a large chain grocery store, the City Heights Weingart Library, a police substation, adult education center, two new schools and a recreation center.
While these amenities and public investments were designed to serve our low income and long ignored community, those same investments have also resulted in a broader social and economic mix of residents. People choose to live here because of those amenities. While that makes City Heights even more diverse in terms of household income at this point, it has also resulted in higher rental costs. Those higher rental costs cannot be sustained by the significant number of poor, and minority poor, who live among us.
Is it OK for the poor to be pushed out to the extreme margins of the urbanized areas, where the distance between them and their low paying jobs has been increased and public transit becomes less frequent and more time consuming? If this push continues to occur, will City Heights remain a truly diverse community? The wealth and income gap between Latinos and African-Americans in comparison to whites is indisputable and since the recession has been growing. This is a serious issue and it is a City Heights issue.
In a country which is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, City Heights is the quintessential American community that reflects that future. The question is–for how long?