greetings from york valley




Hi Everyone,

I spent some time today walking on York between Avenue 49 and Avenue
56, the experience illuminated. This is a work in progress, something
I wrote because even though I don’t have the language yet to respond
to the situation, I felt I should respond as best as I could.

To use a term I heard first from my friend Sesshu, the US suffers from
“apartheid imagination.” Chipotle, the burrito restaurant, recently
commissioned artists and writers to design a series of beverage cups–
not one of those commissioned was Latino… this is a place that
serves carnitas, burritos, guacamole! All non-whites are routinely
cropped out of the picture by the apartheid imagination. But the
imagination is flexible–the people who are excluded vary. MTV did a
study that found young people generally feel that racism is caused by
acknowledging and talking about race and that racism can be ended by,
in essence, “not caring” about race. In the case of this particular
form of blindness, other markers are used to designate who will be
excluded by the apartheid imagination. In the case of gentrification
in LA, white and non-white are not the only delineations, although
they still seem to dominate. Class and aspiration can also exclude
someone from existing in this imagination. Immigrants are not seen by
the apartheid imagination, working class people, blue collar workers,
and people who don’t aspire to the gentrified/boutique model of
consumption also are cropped out. People interviewed for articles on
gentrification routinely say things like “it’s so great that young
families are now moving into Highland Park.” when they mean to say
that young affluent families are moving into the neighborhood. This is
the result of wrong perceptions, wrong ideas–the apartheid
imagination is crippling to those who use it, destructive and
degrading to those who it means to exclude. The apartheid imagination
also happens to be the frame through which many gentrifiers seem to
define and construct their dreams.

Walking up and down York, I watched the aesthetics of each restaurant
and vintage shop that has been opened in the last 5 or so years. It
felt a little like walking through two different cities at once:
Highland Park, where I spent my early childhood and have spent almost
a decade as an educator, and York Valley, an offshoot of other cities
defined by niche and boutique business projects. The two cities exist
so distinct from one another that I felt like I was walking alongside
an accordion-fold book of which pages had been torn and replaced with
pages from another story, the oscillation between the two was
rhythmic, uneven and disorienting. The aesthetics of the new
businesses were part of this disorienting rhythm.

What is it that makes an aesthetic choice so divisive? What do the
shared aesthetics of these businesses (The York, Ba, Art Grist, Shop
Class, Hermosillo, Cafe de Leche, Town etc.) mean to their owners?
Their customers? The neighborhood? There is an obvious difference
between the “new” businesses and the established businesses in their
style. I think that the aesthetics, like earth tones and neutral paint
jobs, sans serif, vintage or ironic fonts in signage, and a shared
preference for modernist bareness, are signals to shoppers that these
places are going to be expensive to shop in. They also serve as
markers that connect them to the uniformity of this gentrified world
in other communities like Silverlake, Los Feliz etc.

This is important because maybe many people shop to define themselves–
where they shop is who they become. Because shopping is a statement of
who you are in a consumerist culture, you need to choose correctly to
maintain a particular identity. The aesthetics of signage and
decoration let us know which shop to choose.

Because they aim for exclusivity, the aesthetics may also tell certain
people that this store isn’t for them–that it’s too expensive,
doesn’t offer them what they need, or that they might be entering a
social situation where they could be patronized, objectified or
ignored. Maybe they say to us “You are now entering the Apartheid

I think there’s another layer to these aesthetic choices though. In
many stories I’ve read about gentrification, frontier or pioneer
themes come up. People who are considered gentrifiers have defined
themselves as “urban pioneers” or will insist that Highland Park was a
cultural “wasteland” before they got there. Or, there will be a
tendency for existing residents to be treated as part of the
landscape, “lots of Mexicans”… This mode of thinking draws from a
deep US mythology of the Frontier, where the frontier is the empty
land full of the promise of progress–increased wealth for the
individual and the nation. In fact, the idea of progress can’t exist
without the frontier in the US imagination. On York, the “frontier”
mythology is put into effect–in this case, the uniformity in look and
services these businesses offer act as clear markers… they’re
crystal clear signals that these businesses are not of or for the
existing community and also that they are part of a larger trend of
“progress” because they share an aesthetic and purpose with other
business across gentrified sectors of the city. Their aesthetics mark
them as outposts on the edge of the “frontier” and also tie them back
to more gentrified areas that where the frontier has been “tamed”.
Now, I don’t think the effects of gentrification are the same as the
effects of the US’ colonization and pillage of America, but the
mythology persists and is operationalized in the process of
gentrification–the mythology is obviously alive and a motivating

I walked down York and felt sad to see the social topography of
Highland Park split. One set of businesses out of reach for the
majority of its potential and local clientele and broadcasting the
fact out onto the street. It made me feel disheartened that the
apartheid imagination defined York based on the desires of a few
people rather than the needs of the larger community. That consumerist
“business as self expression” has trumped “business as service.” The
proliferation of vintage stores and boutiques that serve as
expressions and advertisements of their owners’ world view wilted me a

My family came to Northeast LA from Mexico and Arizona about three
generations back. There is also a large community of first generation
or immigrants to the Northeast. To me, it’s not as much how long
you’ve been in any one place, but why you came to the place.
Immigrants and working people have moved to the Eastside because it
was designated to them through racist Federal and local laws that
forbade them from moving into “white” communities. A historic,
national rhetoric of violence, and local acts of discrimination,
intimidation and violence reinforced this apartheid system where
Highland Park and more accurately, the industrial Eastside, (like East
LA and Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights) were created as redlined
ghettos for immigrants and working class people. And though we were
marginalized and routinely pushed out of power, we persisted in place
and built cohesive communities and political presence. We did this in
the face of discrimination and oppression from all levels of
government and mainstream culture. The cities we live in were left
disinvested, abandoned and left unprotected from predatory practices.
Still, art groups formed, civil rights groups made changes, people
worked and survived and built from the core of a community that bases
part of its agency in a specific place.

The threat of gentrification is real because it threatens to disperse
this community cohesion that’s been cultivated over generations by
immigrants and working class people. It threatens our political voice
as working people and people of color because it threatens one of the
things that voice rests on, which is our community cohesion. Whether
we came here in this lifetime or have roots going thousands of years
deep, the power of community is a resource that working people need to
hold on to.

That’s all for now, any thoughts would be great!


Henry Wright

Not sure if these links will work:

Apartheid Imagination:


First mention of it I can find comes from Albie Sachs, in reference to
post-apartheid South Africa



Identity in consumerist culture:

Forbidden White communities:

In a country whose institutions historically fail or deliberately
erase us, community constitutes a central pillar in surviving hetero-
patriarchal white supremacy:


Frederick Jackson Turner