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Personal Essay

Am I a Gentefier or Gentrifier? A Millenial Latinx Experience of Apartment Hunting in Los Angeles

Los Angeles is defined by low-rise sprawl zoned for single-family homes. Photo via WikiCommons.

Are you a gentrifier or a gentefierHave you ever stopped to confront and reflect on this question as a person living in Los Angeles?

I recently asked myself this while apartment hunting. For context, I am a daughter of a working-class Mexican immigrant and a Salvadoran refugee, born and raised in Los Angeles County, and I still had to ask myself this hard question when looking to rent an apartment in LA. 

Asking if someone is a gentrifier is akin to asking someone if they are privileged. Being called privileged seems to be an affront nowadays in American society. The equity gaps between White Americans and Americans of Color are being brought under a brighter spotlight during this pandemic. When I asked myself if I was a gentrifier this last fall when looking for a one-bedroom apartment in LA under $1,800—a high budget for anyone, especially a millennial—I thought of my upbringing a lot. 

The neighborhoods we could afford within this price range were South Central, Koreatown, Mid-City, and Northeast Los Angeles—all communities of color currently facing gentrification. 

These neighborhoods aren’t new to me, but they’ve also never been my home. Growing up in the 90s and during the turn of the new millennium, I would visit family living in South Central and Boyle Heights while my immediate family and I lived in our modest home in South Whittier. My first memory as a toddler occurred while visiting an aunt in the Ramona Gardens projects. Before my birth, my brother and parents lived in South Central, East Hollywood, and then the Estrada Courts in Boyle Heights. By the time I came around in 93,’ my parents had just become homeowners in South Whittier, and my dad had become a small business owner in Pico Rivera after years of working in the Downtown Los Angeles jewelry district. Even though we were now in the 562, we still had medical visits and ran errands in Boyle Heights for most of my childhood. 

That’s not to say we didn’t struggle at all once in South Whittier. It wasn’t until I started college at Cal State Fullerton and started dating a middle-class Miklo (a White boy who is half Latinx) from Corona that I realized how low-income I grew up, even if it was in a suburb of Los Angeles and not in the inner-city. I suddenly realized my family was always barely making it financially as a young adult. When I turned 22, they were forced to sell their only financial asset (their home) in a perfect storm of economic troubles and divorce. Yet I’m still grateful my immigrant and refugee parents managed to provide as much as they did for as long as they could, and that made all the difference in me getting to where I am now. After all, I am an “upwardly mobile,” college-educated Latina. 

This special and even privileged upbringing placed me in a weird position of never living too far from poverty and affluence. The schizophrenic dichotomy of the disadvantaged yet also privileged experience is being the child of immigrants in the United States, especially in such a wealthy and impoverished place like Los Angeles. 

Again, this question of being a gentefier was brought up when apartment hunting. Every viewing I went to with my boyfriend in Mid-City or Northeast L.A. was filled with at least ten other White hipsters competitively applying for the same rental; most of them looked like influencers. I would be the only Person of Color at these viewings. Once, there was another Black woman among us, but that was the only occasion this happened. Given that I was at these viewings with my White boyfriend and that I am a light-skinned Latinx, I started wondering, am I just as White and affluent as these folks are now? Am I a gentrifier? 

One rental viewing, in particular, solidified that I may be a gentrifier. It was when my boyfriend and I saw a closet of an apartment rental in a triplex style house right by Echo Park Lake going for $1,800. No parking, no laundry, and not much privacy from the house neighbors who were all working-class, Brown, and mostly spoke Spanish, just like my entire family. I saw the Catholic crosses hanging on the door of a neighbor’s unit in the hallway and was reminded of similar living decor across my childhood. I saw a blow-up jumper in the small backyard and thought of the carne asada or pack of Modelos my partner and I would bring to the next child’s birthday party if we were lucky enough to get invited. I then pondered if the other White hipsters at our viewing had the same desire to befriend these neighbors and become part of this community as much as we did.

The simple fact that we had the flexibility and finances to come to this conclusion is another privilege I acknowledge. I also accept that this move doesn’t absolve me from being a gentrifier or gentefier

Then a man who was a similar shade of Brown as my Mexican pops opened the door to his family’s rental in the hallway to see a crowd of White hipsters moving across the foyer, and his face immediately looked worried. Could you blame him? Change is never easy, especially when it’s happening in such an intimate space as your home. Trusting new people is never easy, especially when you’re a BIPOC in a situation that involves trusting an unknown White person (generational trauma never really goes entirely away). He then looked at me, and I looked back at him, and I tried to give him a reassuring look that could somehow express, “It’s okay. I’m one of you, compa”, but he didn’t get the message. He looked at me with as much distress as he did with the other White people in our presence, and my heart sank a little. To him, I was also a White hipster, and maybe he’s not wrong. 

I acknowledged his concern even if the rest of the White hipsters among us didn’t. They likely didn’t notice him or saw him and ignored him.

We didn’t get approved for the apartment. Just like we didn’t get any of the other rentals we applied to in the city. This is a harsh reminder of just how competitive the housing market is. With our lease ending soon, we began to worry we wouldn't find a place to live in time. Then, our friend who grew up in the San Gabriel Valley suggested Alhambra or Monterey Park. 

We would get far more while being close enough to the city but far enough from the grind for the same budget that wouldn’t get as much in Los Angeles proper. We were approved for the first rental we looked at. 

Our neighbors are mostly Vietnamese and Chinese lower to upper-middle-class families. Our immigrant neighbor welcomed us and didn’t look worried we were going to change the neighborhood in a way that would make his life harder, and that’s been the most significant difference in choosing the suburbs of the San Gabriel Valley over a gentrifying neighborhood in L.A proper. 

The simple fact that we had the flexibility and finances to come to this conclusion is another privilege I acknowledge. I also accept that this move doesn’t absolve me from being a gentrifier or gentefier

I know what I can do, and that is to offer my solidarity and support as a neighbor. This looks like using my privilege to be an advocate for the improvement of my neighbors’ lives and sharing my resources (whether that is financial, intellectual, social, or something else) with my new community.

Suppose I decide to move to Los Angeles’s metro area one day. In that case, it may be that the only neighborhood I could afford on a modest millennial income is a working-class one. I’ve come to the harsh conclusion that to be part of this system we find ourselves in of winners and losers means that you will inevitably be entrenched as part of someone else’s loss even if you don’t intend to be. 

If you are reading this from an iPhone, you are also part of a larger issue encompassed by a society that globally exploits a workforce of primarily People of Color, even if that isn’t your intention. Perhaps we can all be unintentionally problematic, like an affluent White person with a “Black Lives Matter '' or an “In This House We Believe…” sign on their coffee shop window that is actively displacing a Black and Brown neighborhood. So what can we do?

I know what I can do, and that is to offer my solidarity and support as a neighbor. This looks like using my privilege to be an advocate for the improvement of my neighbors’ lives and sharing my resources (whether that is financial, intellectual, social, or something else) with my new community. It is the lack of these tangible supports that has been the greatest sin of gentrification, the act of taking land (in this case under the guise of real estate) and not giving back anything to the original occupants of that land (in this case, established BIPOC community) and systemically forcing those original occupants of that land to leave—what does this remind you of? 

BIPOC have been at the receiving end of such generational shit end of the stick for so long that we can call it when we see it, even if it’s coming from a well-intentioned White “hipster” who loves diversity as an aesthetic but doesn’t actually engage in it intimately enough to bring it inside their home.

So I may just be a gentrifier or a gentefier, but I pride myself in being a good neighbor. I may not have all the answers for gentrification, but I think to be a good neighbor is to seek the improvement of your fellow neighbors’ lives just as you would your own—I’m sure Mr. Rogers would agree.

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