A Project to Revive Southeast L.A. By the River Draws a Line Between Development and Gentrification

It’s a scorching hot, dry summer day in South Gate and the Los Angeles River is roaring with the kind of exuberant music-making perhaps not seen since the Tongva built life along the L.A. basin. More than 5,000 people are in attendance at the “first annual” SELA Art Festival to witness the likes of Buyepongo, Quetzal, The Altons, Culture Clash, and Weapons of Mass Creation.

People from all over Los Angeles endured traffic on the 710 to witness the collection of Chicano performers, browse the vendors displaying skincare products sourced from mercados in Mexico, Instagram clothing brands with embroidered phrases like “sin miedo” and “chingona,” shop for bilingual children’s books about Selena and Cantinflas, and of course, eat tamales, tacos, and tortas.

On this July day, the river, once a source of fertile sustenance, is the setting of a mini revival of cultural and literal nourishment for Southeast Los Angeles. But can life along the paved arroyo endure?

The state’s most powerful legislator is really hoping so.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, who sponsored the festival, is pushing lawmakers in Sacramento to fund a complete revitalization of the L.A. River from the edge of downtown to Long Beach. While state and local leaders have long touted the area of the river that has been already re-greened — especially along Atwater Village, Elysian Valley, and the Griffith Park area — much of the rest of the concrete waterway is neglected as it courses south toward the L.A. ports.

Los Angeles County adopted a master revitalization plan for the entire Los Angeles River in 1996. According to Rendon, after two decades of building and projects in the north, the south deserves some revitalization.

“All the kayaking opportunities, the recreational opportunities, are in the northern part of the river. And from that vantage point, it’s a stark distinction between what’s happening in the upper river, and what hasn’t happened in the lower river.”

Rendon recently spoke with L.A. Taco about his plans to revitalize 19 miles along the lower region of the Los Angeles River and build a giant outdoor destination for festivals, concerts, and recreation. Rendon’s bill, AB 530, addresses the corridor within one mile of either side of the river from the city of Vernon to Long Beach. And this art fest on the river, Rendon believes, revealed not only the vibrancy of the community there, but that “people from outside of Southeast L.A. are willing to come into the district to see what we have to offer.”

But “restoration” and “enhancement” is often a preface to gentrification. This newness on the horizon for SELA could mean higher rents and ultimately displacement for residents, as seen along the one stretch of the river that has been revitalized. Lynwood could easily become Echo Park: six-dollar coffee shops, overpriced sandwich eateries, and thrift shops that are anything but thrifty.

Anti-displacement was the number one policy issue for the entire community,

Rendon’s office claims to be prepared to combat gentrification before it happens. According to Raul Alvarez, senior advisor for the speaker, the surrounding cities are known to be “dense” and “hardcore.” There are approximately 2,500 homeless people living along the river’s corridor. And 64% of households within a mile of the corridor are considered low income. Eighty percent of the businesses near the corridor are considered “small,” and 72% of these businesses are minority-owned.

Though Alvarez pointed out that a sense of community is still very much prevalent, as seen at the festival, opportunities and proper settings for such events have been scarce until very recently. “Anti-displacement was the number one policy issue for the entire community,” Alvarez told L.A. Taco.

So the speaker’s office created an Anti-Displacement Toolkit that informs residents about displacement issues, developing policies, and inclusionary housing. His office is also in ongoing meetings with each city’s council and senior staff to address how each city can combat displacement.

Rendon sees a distinction between developing what the community has to offer and replacing it with outside corporate interests. His project, he said, was born out of trips back home from Sacramento every Thursday when he would catch a view of the city from the plane as it flew south past downtown.

“I realized there was no development,” he explained. 

Learn More at L.A. Taco