Kate Martin Rowe’s essay, “Trespass and Gentrification,”
appears in Michigan Quarterly Review‘s Winter 2020 issue.
Everyone says he is trapped. P-22 left the Santa Monica Mountains, somehow crossing over the 101 and the 405 Freeways, to trespass into Griffith Park, which is bounded by the LA River, Los Feliz Boulevard, and Mulholland Drive. Everyone says that he is beautiful and strong and hip, but when everyone makes him talk, he says things like, “I’ll be walking the red carpet this Friday at the Santa Barbara Film Festival with the La La Land cast.” And “So DC is freaking out over a bobcat. All I can say is thanks for being you, LA.” Everyone wants this cat to be famous, to be more than everyone combined, and everyone is imagining, someday, a catwalk constructed high above the freeway, somewhere between earth and heaven, that Caltrans will build (1). Everyone is hoping that other wild things will cross into our city. Everyone says that anyone who doesn’t like cats or nature or wildlife should just go back to the city. Everyone wants to help the cats. Everyone wants to be a friend to the animals. Everyone who is anyone is looking out for P-22.
He might have just been exploring one day when he dodged all those cars. No one knows. He was lucky, and the first to do it. Maybe he was looking for a snack, but now he’s stuck. He has a way of sneaking up. He has a Twitter handle, an ear tag, his own biologist, paws, a tawny coat. He can jump a span of forty-five feet and fifteen feet in the air from a standstill. His bite force is 350 PSI, and with it, he can snap spines or skulls. He sneaks, hides, pounces, shifts, stands, sits, lounges, grasps, fangs. Zoologists say that key behaviors of the Puma concolor are “terricolous; nocturnal; motile; migratory; sedentary; solitary; territorial” (2). He is a master of disguise. He is handsome. With a diet of mule deer, raccoon, and coyote, he keeps himself well fed in Griffith Park. He doesn’t have to share his territory with anyone. But everyone is worried about his future. If he feels compelled to mate, he will have to re-cross all those dangerous freeways, or he will have to wait for a female to find her way to him. Everyone says this. Everyone.
And everyone came to see him the afternoon he found himself stuck in a crawl space underneath a home in Los Feliz. Everyone came out in news trucks and helicopters and stuck him there. Everyone was pelting him with tennis balls and beanbags and poking him with sticks. Everyone wanted him to leave. Everyone wanted him to be safe. Everyone was worried. He stayed until darkness settled, and when everyone had finally left, he snuck out, unnoticed.
Everyone missed it.
Everyone was haunted by their past haunting them from beyond the sagebrush and manzanita. Because everyone has a past. Everyone knows that this land used to belong to other people. But everyone likes to think it had belonged to everyone, so it was free for the taking. But everyone knows it belonged to the mountain lions and the original humans, though those humans didn’t seem to believe in belonging to in the same way everyone does today. It belonged to the cats and birds and skunks. To babies and old women, to young mothers and preteen hunters and gatherers, to their fathers and older brothers. Then it belonged to everyone with a gun. And to everyone with a Bible. To everyone willing to kill and steal.
The coyote and P-22 have always been the enemies of everyone, so it is strange now that they are seen as everyone’s friend. And everyone wants to be P-22’s friend. Everyone loves his gentle and intelligent face, the way he looks at us as if saying, “Guys, it’s going to be okay. Everything. All of it. For everyone.”
At the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008, my husband and I bought a house. Even then as the market bottomed out, the homes we could afford needed tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs: boards rotten with termite damage, foundations that caused floors to tilt in opposite directions away from house center, cracks that ran underneath windows.
“Earthquake damage,” our realtor said as we stood in the living room of a charming but tiny house with a big backyard on a tree-lined street. “This is going to be someone’s problem,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be yours.”
We only had enough in our savings for a down payment, not repairs, so we had to find something livable. With my husband’s salary as a public high school teacher and mine as a part-time community college instructor, we were priced out of the neighborhood we’d lived in as renters for eight years. On weekends and in the late afternoons, we traveled like P-22, crossing freeways to get to a neighborhood on the northeast edge of the city where the competition was less fierce.
Eagle Rock sits at the edge of the foothills of the Angeles National Forest and is hemmed in by the 134 Freeway to the north, Figueroa Boulevard to the east, and a jagged border to the south, which includes York Boulevard, one epicenter of gentrification in the neighboring community of Highland Park. On a map, Eagle Rock’s shape evokes a small United States, but one that is slumping to the right, its borders dripping down, as if melting on a hot day.
One day in late December, a house on a real estate website caught my husband’s eye. It had already been on the market for months, but having recently gone into foreclosure, the price had dropped. It had been flipped a few years earlier when prices were high. When our realtor took us through, we saw that any original charm it may have possessed as a Spanish Mediterranean Sears catalog kit home in 1925—that is, built-in bookcases, hardwood floors, or picture windows—had been removed (and not replaced) in its renovation. The man who had orchestrated its flipping worked as a police officer in another city, our neighbors later informed us, and had never lived in it himself. His lack of construction expertise may explain the many shortcuts, improper hookups, and missing parts we found later. The day we toured it, we saw scratches in the bamboo flooring that were already thick with black grime, sprayed-on stucco that was chipping, uneven drywall, and kitchen cabinets that were not quite the color of wood. But the plumbing and electrical work were new, and an add-on consisting of a third bedroom, a large kitchen, and a small second bathroom made it the perfect size for us and the children we imagined having.
“I have a good feeling about this one,” I said to my husband as we investigated each room.
“I don’t know,” he said.
Burgundy drapes darkened the rooms, and the house’s dirty walls were painted a faded yellow. In the front yard, which was the only yard, weeds and tough grasses grew in clumps. An overhang covering the tiny front porch was rotten with termite damage. Later, in the weeks we spent cleaning it up before move-in, we found six months’ worth of dead roaches and their droppings in the cupboards, as well as leftover, half eaten boxes of food. The double-peaked roof on the addition collected water, causing a leak that we discovered one rainy day when we came over to paint after buying the house. When we walked inside and saw rain dripping from the kitchen ceiling, my husband and a friend pulled up the floor tile and found mold.
But the location was spectacular. With nearby freeways that were some of the least congested in LA, we could easily get downtown, to our jobs, and out to the beach. Light rail and city buses both made stops nearby. Grocery stores, a library, a post office, restaurants, bars, and shops were all within walking distance. The schools had a good reputation, and the neighborhood was diverse. It seemed like everything we had hoped for.
In the years that followed, we fixed things. A friend helped my husband knock down a temporary wall that had made a rental unit out of the new addition, and together they cut a new Spanish-style arch between the kitchen and dining area. We rebuilt and expanded the front porch, hiring a contractor to build the frame and pour the concrete, and then installed Saltillo tiles ourselves while our toddler slept. We painted the house the color of pomegranates, tiled the steps, and hung a hammock on the porch. For a few summers in a row, my husband hired former students and called in favors from friends to help him dig out the weedy lawn, which, when we failed to replace with anything else, grew back each time weedier than before. When we finally hired a landscaper, he removed the lawn for good and replaced it with pathways of decomposed granite and drought-tolerant plants: California lilac, lavender, aloe, honey sage, Leucadendron, and apricot mallow. In the garden beds, we planted tomatoes and herbs, and along the sides of the house, we planted fruit trees: lemon, plum, white nectarine, lime, tangerine, fig.
Slowly the house and neighborhood became ours. We brought babies home in it. We threw parties. We drank beer in the yard and rented bounce houses and fought and cried and got house sitters. We took long walks. We made friends on nearby streets. We found the best places for French fries and tacos and pizza and Vietnamese noodles. Eventually, some of our friends bought houses nearby. Our children played in the parks and swung on the swings and went down the slides and threw sand and dipped fries into milkshakes and learned the names of our neighbors’ pets and children. We walked to the music festival that shut down the main street each fall. Sometimes, we hired a babysitter and walked to our favorite restaurant where we shared bottles of wine and ordered dessert.
If this story seems simple, it’s because I’ve skimmed over the part where we benefited from misfortune, foreclosure, bad loans, and greed. It was a crude kind of luck, our happiness the result of someone else’s heartache. As new teachers, we had both barely escaped pink slips, and both of us held the lowest rank on our seniority lists at work—but at least our names were on those lists when the recession hit. And those jobs allowed us to buy the house. Lucky too that our skin color had prevented us from being the targets of a sub-prime mortgage and that we did not already own a home when the recession hit. In the space of a couple of years, we became solidly middle class—partly due to our willingness to become trespassers, interlopers, migrants. My husband and I had both moved to LA for college and stayed because of the job opportunities, the landscape, the weather, the strong currents of creativity and activism that define it. And to Eagle Rock we came as outsiders, like P-22, crossing over freeways and through city streets into new territory, our path smoothed by privilege.
The spacious and leafy trees reach out to the birds. Wild parrots flock to their branches, squawking and roosting in the evening air. The streets of our neighborhood are hilly and provide excellent views of sunsets made dramatic by pollution. At sunset, the sky turns salmon, marigold, copper, fuchsia, and peach, streaked with lavender clouds. The sidewalks are broken and streets go unswept. Ropes of crabgrass crisscross lawns, and shoulder-high weeds bloom. Some houses are newly tended—painted, roofed, fenced, and windowed. Some are not. Buses blur past. Elderly people hunch by using canes, people without homes sit at bus stops, and dogs on leashes trot down sidewalks. Past our house go kids on bikes with dads walking behind them, joggers, grandmothers, nannies pushing strollers. After school in the park, the playground is littered with empty sports drink bottles and bags of chips from the junior high kids who lounge on swings and pile their backpacks in a heap. In the mornings, adults tend children in the park. Some of the children wear organic, secondhand clothing and stylish accessories, their hair uncombed. Others are in superhero T-shirts and light up shoes, hair shorn close to the scalp. The main drag has a music school, karate and yoga studios, an indoor playground, and between these newer businesses, autobody shops, massage parlors, and hamburger joints.
After achieving cityhood in 1911, Eagle Rock was annexed to Los Angeles in 1923. Its first residents were largely white. The demographics remained that way until the 1980s and 90s when more Guatemalan, Salvadoran, and Filipino immigrants and refugees started moving in (3). But before gaining cityhood and before its annexation, in the late 1800s, Chinese laborers had picked strawberries near present-day Eagle Rock at the Gates Strawberry Ranch. At that time, Pacific Electric’s line of red cars (built by Mexican laborers) stopped all along Eagle Rock’s main boulevard (4). To write about built things, one uses the passive voice. Built in. Constructed in nine months. Opened in. At a cost of. But people were here building these things: the Chicano traqueros, for instance, who built California railways alongside Chinese and Italian immigrants, and Africans who had arrived by way of the Middle Passage.
The historical record also tells us that in 1871 Los Angeles was a small and violent place. Many white Angelenos blamed Chinese workers for taking white jobs, and one night Chinese workers became the victims of their hysteria when a mob of five hundred white Americans and Mexicans gathered in Chinatown in response to a shooting (5). By the end of the night, up to twenty-two Chinese workers were dead, many of them lynched. The mob attack occurred in what was old Chinatown, and a street ran through old Chinatown called Calle de los Negros. The lynchings have largely been forgotten by Angelenos, and Calle de los Negros is now buried under Union Station.
And decades before all that, in the early 1800s, what is now Eagle Rock was still a part of Mexico and home to the Rancho San Rafael. Spanish soldier José María Verdugo, according to the Eagle Rock Valley Historical Society, settled here in 1790 and after his death in 1831, left the Rancho San Rafael to his children. Imagine the surprise of los Verdugos in 1847 when the Californios surrendered to American forces and when, in 1850, California became a state in the Union. Mexican citizens who had been living in what is now my neighborhood were suddenly immigrants in their own country. In 1869, the Verdugos lost their rancho to one Alfred Beck Chapman, probably because of a bad loan obtained when their land was taken over by the United States (6). The loss of the Verdugos’ land may have been Eagle Rock’s first foreclosure, occurring 139 years before our purchase of a foreclosed home in Eagle Rock.
Before that, of course, before the lynchings, before the traqueros, before the Mexican ranchers, Spain had owned the land and filled it with priests and missions. The San Gabriel Mission’s architect, Padre Antonio Cruzado, got native peoples to build it, (7) the same people who were either forced onto or invited into the mission, depending on who tells the story.
California’s topography had encouraged the growth of multiple cultures, tribes, and languages. Before the Spaniards arrived, over sixty languages were spoken by first peoples here. Mexico had just two (8). The names of these languages are familiar sounding, near yet very far away: Chumashan, Costanoan, Mariposan, Salinan, Esselenian, Quoratean, Yukian, Washoan, Moquelumnan Mariposan. The boundaries of these linguistic territories on a map form shapes like broken communion wafers, river rocks, tree branches, lakes. There is a kidney, a wig, an axe. Mountains and rivers and the movements of the humans who lived here formed these linguistic boundaries, not government decree or military victory.
The Gabrielinos, or Tongva, resided in the boundaries of what we now call Eagle Rock and Highland Park. They made flour from the acorns of wild oak trees. Robert M. Fogelson says in The Fragmented Metropolis (published in 1967 reissued in 1993 by a different press) that the native peoples of Alta California were peaceful and curious, which made them open to the Spanish priests and new ideas that traveled north from Mexico (9). But readers might question whether that is Fogelson’s view or that of the natives. After all, during the mission era, roughly 1770 to 1832, he also tells us that the population of indigenous peoples declined from 130,000 to 90,000. On the missions, there were slavery and beatings, strict schedules of work and study, and punishments. In annotations of his historical atlas, Derek Hayes writes that in 1833 alone, 100,000 indigenous lives were lost in California to malaria, cholera, small pox, and typhoid.
For how long, I wonder, did the native peoples remain curious? And is that an accurate description when they were nearly extinguished by the people they were “curious” about?
Elsewhere, in a massacre at Owens Lake in the spring of 1863, at least thirty-five Paiute were killed in a dispute with settlers (10). Located two hundred miles north of Los Angeles, Owens Lake had been home to the Paiute for a long time. There they hunted and cultivated wild hyacinth and yellow nut grass. When the settlers arrived, they brought cattle and sheep that soon destroyed the Paiute hunter-gatherer way of life. The settlers accused the Paiute of killing livestock. Things came to a head, as they say, on March 19 when soldiers and settlers attacked the Paiute, who eventually fled to Owens Lake, hoping to swim across it. But the winds were strong, and the Paiute made easy targets. A newspaper account uses the term picked off to describe what happened next (the massacre serving as context to the paper’s news story about today’s problem of lake bed dust). The settlers stood at the edges of the lake watching as the Paiute became exhausted. Here, I suppose, picked off means executed, shot, blown to bits, carved by bullets, rammed through. Afterward, there was no more struggle, and the settlers waited until dawn for the bodies to float to shore. The article doesn’t say what they did with the floating bodies.
Such stories are told sideways. Tensions elevate, impressions are made, curiosities satisfied. Fogelson calls the Mexican rancheros paternalistic. He calls the indigenous peoples servants, though they were not paid for their work—like African slaves, they were given only food and shelter. When Fogelson says that the indigenous peoples willingly submitted to the “patriarchic guidance” of their rancheros, he evokes a certain innocence, a taming of white power, suggesting, perhaps, better modes of slavery.
Another SoCal lion, P-45, is bigger than P-22 and weighs 150 pounds. P-45 looks like someone you’d want to hug. He resides up the coast from P-22, near Malibu. His fur is well groomed and blond. A tuft of soft white on his neck begs to be touched. He gnaws on sticks. He is playful and terrible. If he goes for neck or kidney, your life ends. Some observers assert that he takes joy in the kill. With blood on his paws and teeth, they perceive a grin on his face as it is captured on the nature cam. Owners of pets and livestock want to stop him. Sometimes he doesn’t even eat his kill, they complain—just nibbles or bats at it, as if for sport. His pelt is golden brown, shimmering as it shifts over the muscles underneath.
It’s easy to make him human. To see him as murderer or king, suave or sinister. To see hands inside paw gloves. Intelligent eyes in a bony head. Intention, seduction. Sometimes we humans want to be seduced. Or to feel ourselves good for loving him. Some of us want to embrace it all. We want to be loved for the way we press up against the animals, our habitat nudging theirs.
P-45 came to the Santa Monica mountain range from elsewhere. This is important. He crossed over the 101 Freeway from the north and then ventured into the burbs, settling into an urban-wild interface around Malibu, in what Dana Goodyear calls a “cushy prison, a Hotel California for apex predators” (11). Like P-22, he crossed boundaries. Because the Santa Monica Mountains are hemmed in by the Pacific Ocean to the south and the Hollywood Freeway/101 to the north, LA’s lions have been genetically isolated. P-45’s arrival is critical because he is breeding with these isolated lions and injecting new DNA into their pool. Without which, Goodyear writes, the lions would most likely die out within fifty years.
Interesting that in the discourse, the lion is always interloper, even though records show that genus Puma concolor survived the late Pleistocene Extinction, and ancestral pumas have inhabited the Western Hemisphere for between one to three million years. This animal goes by many names: cougar, mountain lion, puma, panther, cat, and has always been the most common predator in the Americas. R. Bruce Gill says that many indigenous peoples in the southwestern United States revered the cougar for its “power, protection, and friendship.” They called it “ghost cat” (12). Some tribes, in what is now Southern California, refused to hunt them.
The cat is supreme in the kingdom Animalia. In a fight between a pit bull and P-45, who do you think would win? My money’s on the cat.
Since I have started about writing about lions, my twelve-year-old cat who moved with us from the old apartment to the new house seems to look at me differently. She has become more insistent. She wants to be in my lap, asleep in my arms, or near my computer. She meows plaintively in the early morning. She stretches out in the sunlight that filters through the window where I work. When she licks my hand with her coarse tongue, she meows and makes eye contact. It’s like she knows that I am newly appreciative of her short gray coat, her haunches, her tiny sharp fangs.
In Eagle Rock, there is a fair amount of socioeconomic diversity, especially for LA, a city known for segregation. Eagle Rock seems to be popular with Hollywood laborers—set designers, sound engineers, and film editors—and other professionals like teachers, lawyers, therapists, nurses, accountants, writers, and architects. But lots of tradespeople call it home too, such as car mechanics and plumbers, electricians, contractors, and landscapers. And there are families in which parents work multiple jobs and extended family lives together to pitch in with rent, meals, and childcare. In our neighborhood, single family homes are situated alongside apartment buildings, transitional housing for the mentally ill and drug addicted, group homes for teen moms and runaways, and homeless encampments. As for ethnicity, the neighborhood is primarily white, Latinx, and Filipino.
But in the last five years or so, I have noticed changes. On a number of occasions, I’ve met Brooklyn transplants, often white, at the park. At one neighborhood school, a friend has noticed that the kindergarten parents are whiter and wealthier as a group than parents of upper grade students. A local moms club I joined when my son was born has tripled in size in five years, and the sentiments of the upper- middle-class mom seem to dominate its discussion board: where to find the best preschools, housecleaners, children’s dentists, babysitters, waxing and facials, kids’ shoes, music lessons, summer camps, yoga, chiropractic care, massages, spas, and takeout.
Since we bought our home, its value has doubled. Suddenly, we have a safety net. In this, we too are gentrifiers. Sitting on this wealth, I sometimes get confused. A few years ago, when I was trying to balance family visitations for our second foster baby with teaching and parenting, I decided to follow the example of some of my neighborhood friends and hire a house cleaner and a gardener. But a few months into this fabulous arrangement, when we were living paycheck to paycheck, relying on the credit card for things like groceries and still struggling to find cash for the babysitter, I realized the gardener and house cleaner had to go.
Highland Park, Eagle Rock’s southern neighbor, is a historically Latinx neighborhood of working-class families that has gentrified even more dramatically and rapidly than Eagle Rock. Sociologist Jan Lin, a professor at Occidental College, the liberal arts college situated at the border of Highland Park and Eagle Rock, says both neighborhoods have been shaped by “stage model” gentrification (13). The Chicano art collectives that formed in the 1970s, he says, and the mostly white Arroyo Arts’ Collective that formed in the 1980s both enriched community life. Such neighborhood groups protested big box stores, mini malls, and chain restaurants in an effort to keep the urban character of these neighborhoods. They advocated for wide, bike- and pedestrian-friendly boulevards. They supported and celebrated local businesses, made public art, and started festivals. All this community-building, Lin suggests, attracted new homebuyers and businesses, which means that such groups also inadvertently set gentrification in motion.
Now, in Highland Park, tenants are fighting with landlords over evictions and rising rents. Some old timers are cashing out and moving on. Middle-class and upper-middle-class families are moving into flipped houses, and these newcomers are often white. Many of these white newcomers see themselves as investing in the neighborhood, but they often don’t acknowledge or see the reverse flow of history that has them returning to urban neighborhoods their predecessors once fled, nor the racial dynamics of that return.
The white homeowners interviewed in NPR’s York & Fig report on gentrification in Highland Park, for example, don’t feel like they are part of the problem. One homeowner distinguishes himself from other gentrifiers by his age: he says he is older than the young hipsters he sees in cafés. Also, he bought his house from another white person, an artist, who had lived in it since the early 1990s. She too laughs at the idea that she was a gentrifier; she simply needed affordable space to make her art. The distinctions are those of intention, and these distinctions seem to be important to white folks. The unspoken sentiment being that there are reasons for this trespass, and the intentions are good. It’s not about taking. It is about wants and needs. We are just trying to get by. Like anyone, we just wanted a good deal. An extra bedroom, maybe a yard. We love the tamales down the street. We like our neighbor’s chickens. We will make a habit of walking. We recycle our children’s toys. We plant gardens. If others must roll over, move, scooch, crouch, cover, and duck to make way for us, well—that was never our intention.
I too have this desire to be seen as benign, or even good. Urban neighborhoods exert a pull on the white people of my generation, those of us raised in the suburbs by parents who had fled the cities (or like mine had moved from small towns to suburbs for better opportunities). These moves were seen as progress, despite their roots in the fear of a perceived “other.” Now their children want to escape the strip malls and chain restaurants, the reliance on cars, suburban conformity, and the legacy of racism. We want to ignore racism and our participation in it, to see our part as pure progress, ourselves as good. We want to believe in white evolution.
I too want to believe displacements and exploitation aren’t my fault and that I am just one trespasser in an inevitable line of trespassers, starting with the lion. I want to dismiss the effects of my trespass because, I argue to myself, we needed a place to live. When my husband and I bought our house, we were priced out of neighborhoods near our apartment, places like Echo Park and Silverlake, but also out of middle-class suburban communities we didn’t want to live in anyway. We liked Eagle Rock for its diversity. We liked its walkability, its playgrounds, restaurants, farmers’ markets, museums, festivals, and public transportation, all things that characterize city life. Such were our good intentions.
Sometimes white people speak in code to protect the vision of their own goodness. Developers and house flippers, for instance, who might employ the phrase urban blight and decay to describe what they see as they discuss the importance of even one new coffee shop in attracting white homebuyers, whom they simply call homebuyers. In this way, whiteness is coded in, invisible. When I read this in the York & Fig report, I wonder what exactly is frightening to these white people when they see my neighborhood. Empty lots? Peeling paint, an unswept street, or an overgrown lawn? Even now, when many houses have been renovated, yards newly landscaped, violent crime low or average, and a vibrant nightlife budding, some white folks are still afraid. I must conclude that the unspoken fear is the remaining presence of (walking on sidewalks, ducking in and out of stores, waiting for buses, and playing at the park) people of color, and especially poor people of color.
In 2016, a group of anti-gentrification activists in Boyle Heights, another historic Latinx neighborhood that is quickly gentrifying, chased out an experimental opera and a group of UCLA students on a walking tour, saying such events contribute to the gentrification blaze. On another occasion, social media erupted over a flyer for a bike tour organized by a realtor. Activists called it a “gentri-flyer,” and the realtor canceled the event. In the fall, someone spray-painted “fuck white art” on the doors of a few art galleries (14).
It’s easy to become reactive when I read these stories, to feel put upon when whiteness is called out. But I don’t think anyone is arguing for racial segregation when they protest gentrification. No one is suggesting we go back to the time of red-lining, housing covenants, or bombings, for white people to live in all white neighborhoods. This reactionary thinking over simplifies the issue and makes it easy for me to dismiss the anger. This anger is more complex, older than that. I think it is about protecting old neighborhoods from newcomers whose presence destroys them. It is a call for respect, a call to become more human in our thinking. To consider the human implications of what we call growth or progress.
A few months ago, one of my students, who is Latinx, wrote about gentrification in Highland Park for an assignment in my class. She wrote that she no longer recognizes the neighborhood where she has lived her whole life. On the sidewalks, she sees white hipsters on phones who don’t see her. In restaurants, she can’t afford the food. One of our babysitters, also Latinx, and someone who grew up in Highland Park, told me her elementary school has become unrecognizable to her. She laughed and said, “It’s a good school now.” This school is one we thought about enrolling our son in for kindergarten. When we toured, I was grateful for its higher test scores, renovations, and new science and language programs. And its demographics have changed—it is attracting more middle-class families, and they are often Latinx but also white, Asian, and black.
Still, I wonder: Is this progress?
Another of my students recently stayed after class to discuss her son’s school in Highland Park where a new group of mostly white and more affluent parents had started attending PTA meetings and demanding things for their children. The way they talk about the school, she said, makes it sound as if no one cared about it before they showed up. She has served on the PTA for years and has sent all three of her children to school there.
When I asked what frustrates her the most, she said, “We’ve been there this whole time, and it was fine. I say, if you want to help, great. But don’t come in and start acting like you own the place. You just got here. Listen to the people who’ve been here for years. We were not silent before you came, and we will not keep silent now.”
P-19 has had a litter of cubs with P-45, the Malibu interloper. P-19 lives in the Santa Monica Mountains with her cubs who are big for their age and strong. Nicknamed the “Selfie-Cat,” P-19 photographs well. She is lean and golden, her fur like velour. Her muscles attach to bone. Her pink nose is outlined in black and shaped like a butterfly. Her golden eyes are counter- point to her long canines. She is simply one more beautiful cat among many, but everyone thinks she is different: she preens, she struts, she looks straight at the wildlife cameras. In this way, she is like everyone else here. Everyone says it’s like she is seeking an audience, worship, validation, company.
In reality, she hunts alone, sleeps alone, plays alone. Unlike coyotes and wolves who run in packs, or the African lion in its pride, P-19, like all mountain lions, seeks privacy. She licks her paws, punctures a neck or two, and turns in for the night, her body heat for her alone. She enjoys her own company. She climbs trees and hides in caves and sometimes, if necessary, crosses a freeway.
She is all around us. She was here before us, bloodying her paws, crying out in the night. Her ears pick up soft sounds. She enjoys waiting. She can wait and wait and wait.
Recently I took my daughter to a make-up dance class. We came in late. I was gripping my five-year-old son’s hand and, in my other arm, held my daughter and a backpack full of snacks, colored pens, spare underwear, ballet and tap shoes. My son was not thrilled about attending the class and had already informed me that he would likely become bored. My daughter was excited, but I was nervous. Her new favorite phrase was “Go away!” and with a new fondness for tantrums that involved screaming, hitting, spitting, or throwing her entire body on the floor, I’d been imagining the many ways in which the hour could go awry. Squatting down to replace her tennis shoes with ballet shoes, I spotted someone out of the corner of my eye. I often see familiar faces at the park or the market, but it wasn’t until my daughter was settled in class and my son was drawing on blank pages I’d torn from my planner that I registered the face as that of a famous actor rather than a friend. Her daughter, it seemed, was enrolled in the same dance class, and the actor was busy chasing a younger sibling around the room. I knew her from TV and film roles, but she’d also voiced a female character in one of my daughter’s favorite animated films. I imagined my daughter’s pleasure had she known the voice of ________ was sitting just a few feet away, and I felt a rush of excitement.
On summer afternoons, my husband and I have seen another famous actor at the public pool where we swim. He starred in a police show we used to watch, and he had played one of our favorite characters. I wonder if celebrities moving in is another phase of gentrification, which I admit, can be thrilling. There is the electric flash of seeing someone famous, the familiar screen-face now made flesh but also, I admit, a new thrill in the idea that the presence of such people may mean an increase in the value of our home, the soil beneath us suddenly turning to gold.
The celebrity element makes me uneasy too. I fear that Botox and exotic vacations, parking meters dominated by Teslas and Land Rovers, will soon become the new neighborhood norms. At what point will I feel as if I no longer fit in? And why do these scenarios bother me more than the idea that my invasion, my trespass in this neighborhood, has pushed others out?
Like P-22, I seem to be here for the long haul. In the economics of exploitation, our gain has come at a great expense. But unlike the lions, we are more than instinct. My husband and I talk about how to be good neighbors. We send our children to a local public school. We listen to the parents who have been there longer than us. In the afternoons at pick up, I start conversations with Spanish-speaking grandmothers and mothers, not just the other newcomers like me. We make efforts to support the public life of this plac —its rec centers, libraries, pools, public transportation. We learn our neighbors’ names, vote in local elections, call our representatives. We know this neighborhood was not a blank space before we arrived, now newly alive with us here. We know our presence here is destroying something—and there is no absolution.
1 Beth Pratt, When Mountain Lions Are Neighbors: Wildlife in Today’s California (Merrifield, VA: National Wildlife Federation, 2014), 23. https://www.nwf.org/~/media/PDFs/Wildlife/V-Z/Beth Booklet_WhenMountainLionsAreNeighbors_
2 Tanya Dewey and Anupama Shivaraju, “Puma concolor,” Animal Diversity Web, 2003. http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Puma_concolor/.
3 Melanie Gonzalez, “Is My Gentrifying L.A. Hood Getting Worse or
Better?” zócalo, June 15, 2015. http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2015/06/15/
4 “History of Eagle Rock,” The Eagle Rock Association, accessed December 6, 2017. http://tera90041.org/resources/history-of-eagle-rock/.
5 Laura Pulido, Laura Barraclough, and Wendy Cheng, A People’s Guide to Los Angeles (Oakland: University of California Press, 2012), 29–30.
6 “History of Eagle Rock,” The Eagle Rock Association, accessed December 6, 2017. http://tera90041.org/resources/history-of-eagle-rock/.
7 “Mission San Gabriel History,” Missiontour.org, accessed February 10, 2017. https://missiontour.org/wp/sangabriel/mission-san-gabriel-history.html.
8 Derek Hayes, Historical Atlas of California: With Original Maps (Oakland:
University of California Press, 2007), 8–9.
9 Robert M. Fogelson, The Fragmented Metropolis (Oakland: University of
California Press, 1993), 4-5.
10 Louis Sahagun, “DWP Archaeologists Uncover Grim Chapter in Owens Valley History,” Los Angeles Times, June 2, 2013. http://articles.latimes.com/2013/jun/02/local/la-me-massacre-site-20130603.
11 Dana Goodyear, “Lions of Los Angeles,” The New Yorker, February 13, 2017. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/02/13/lions-of-los-angeles.
12 R. Bruce Gill, “To Save a Mountain Lion: Evolving Philosophy of Nature and Cougars,” in Cougar: Ecology and Conservation, edited by Maurice Hornocker and Sharon Negri (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 6.
13 Jan Lin, “Northeast Los Angeles Gentrification in Comparative and
Historical Context,” last modified June 4, 2015. https://www.kcet.org/shows/departures/northeast-los-angeles-gentrification-in-comparative-and-historical-context.
14 Elijah Chiland, “Boyle Heights Is Battling Fiercely against Gentrification,” April 19, 2016. https://la.curbed.com/2016/4/19/11463010/boyle-heights-gentrification.