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Boyle Heights: 'As American as we want and as Mexican as we want'

Isela Gracian remembers the there-goes-the-neighborhood gossip nearly a decade ago, when rumblings began that Boyle Heights was about to gentrify.

The real estate bubble had yet to burst, and developers had begun buying properties in the area. The Metro Gold Line would soon be coming through the neighborhood.

"There was this rockabilly clothing shop," Gracian remembers with a laugh. “When they opened everyone on our staff was like: Did you see? Down the street?!”

Then came the wine bar, the coffee house and so on.

Community activists like Gracian had their misgivings back then: were the businesses too cool? Would they change the flavor of what's traditionally been a working-class immigrant neighborhood?

Turns out the business owners were themselves the children and grandchildren of immigrants. Some grew up in the area. They see the changes, not as gentrification, but rather the evolution of a neighborhood.

"I came and I started going, man, what do I want to do here?" said Guillermo "Willie" Uribe, owner of Eastside Luv, the wine shop. "This could just be an expression of who I am as a Mexican American, you know?”
He grew up nearby in East Los Angeles and came close to opening a bar downtown, but he was outbid. Then he found a spot just off Mariachi Plaza, on East First Street.
He redid the space with velvet-embossed wallpaper, prints of vintage Mexican movie posters and plastic-covered booths -  in the tradition of abuela's plastic-covered living room furniture. The entertainment ranged from performances by local mariachis to something called "MorrisseyOke," which is exactly what it sounds like.

Eventually, much of the block followed suit. A coffeehouse opened down the street, blending Mexican-style drinks with spoken word performances; a bookstore opened selling a mix of Latino authors and American counterculture lit.
Uribe thinks the recession, while it hurt some businesses, also kept bigger business away.
“It gave us this breathing room, where we were able to establish our little businesses, and plant our feet," he said, "and make sure that it doesn’t turn into something that is unrecognizable to the community."
Still, the First Street strip on which Eastside Luv sits has undergone a transformation. Where an old-school Mexican restaurant once stood, a new taqueria sells green-tinged kale limonada, lemonade. A second bar catering to so-called “chipsters” - that's for Chicano hipsters – now sits down the street.

But Uribe and others still describe a grass–roots vibe.

"I think that is what Eastside Luv is," Uribe said. “It’s really just an expression of our Mexican-American-ism, and it is a wide spectrum.  We can be as American as we want and as Mexican as we want. And there's a lot to play with in between."
As the economy has heated up, the conversation has shifted to sustaining what's become a delicate cultural and socioeconomic balance. Just to the west, downtown development is booming. The Metro Gold line now connects Boyle Heights to the rest of the city. Metro plans several construction projects in the area.

An especially controversial retail- and medical-office development by Metro at Mariachi Plaza was put on hold after residents protested, but plans will eventually be redrawn.

"How do we have a neighborhood that continues to support working class immigrant families – and be a space for the children of those families in the long term?" said Isela Gracian, who now heads the East Los Angeles Community Corporation, a non-profit that builds low-income housing.
Gracian says some younger Latinos raised in the neighborhood have had trouble buying homes there, outbid by buyers from outside the area. 

Residential rents are rising. So are commercial rents. And last year on the southern edge of Boyle Heights, at Olympic and Soto, a new Starbucks opened. That a major chain selling relatively pricey coffee is willing to open shop in Boyle Heights is telling, Gracian said.
"There’s been some sort of shift," she said, "where their analysis is 'Oh, we can make it here.' "

Growing up in Compton and Pico Rivera, David Contreras would come to Boyle Heights with his family to shop and have lunch.

"It was bustling," he said. "There was Whittier Boulevard, there was Cesar Chavez, which was Brooklyn, and all these little ma and pa shops.”

He kept coming back as a teenager to school dances and parties - more fun, as he remembers it, than those farther from the city. In 2000, after being priced out of Silver Lake - a once-Latino neighborhood he'd also loved - he and his partner put down roots in Boyle Heights.

David Contreras to sells his vintage-inspired clothes wholesale online. Contreras runs his business from his Boyle Heights garage. (Maya Sugarman/KPCC)

Contreras designed vintage-inspired clothes in his garage on Boyle Avenue, eventually launching Tarantula Clothing in 2006. He opened up a small storefront the following year in a former TV repair shop a few doors away - the rockabilly store Gracian mentioned.

“Some people were afraid to come in," said Contreras, a third-generation Mexican-American who still lives on Boyle Avenue. "They would walk by, back and forth, back and forth – we’re like, come in! They didn’t know what to do with it.”

Independent coffee house owner Chuy Tovar wonders how long he’ll last on First Street. He and business partner Antonio Segoviano bought their shop, Primera Taza, last year from its original owner. The owner had asked Tovar, who works as a restaurant consultant, to find a buyer.

Tovar and Segoviano decided to buy it themselves. They host spoken word and musical performances and sell coffee grown in Mexico. 

A Boyle Heights-themed print is on display inside Primera Taza Coffee House on Wednesday, June 24, 2015.​ (Maya Sugarman/KPCC)

"There have been a couple of instances where the big coffee houses have wanted to come into the area," Tovar said. "Eventually, it’s a high possibility that something like that is going to happen, because small businesses won’t be able to afford those high rents.”

It already has. Contreras closed his clothing store during the recession, and has gone back to working out of his garage. He sells Tarantula Clothing online.

His advice for newcomers starting a business in Boyle Heights: Don't try to change everything.
"There are street vendors here. And there are people that play banda music at seven in the morning on Saturday morning. There are going to be cholos breaking into your car every so often, and there will be gang fights here and there," he said. "That's just the way it is.”