You Are Where? The Name Gentrification of Low-Income Neighborhoods
When trendy areas adopt place names with deep roots, like L.A.’s “Eastside.”
By Henry Fuhrmann • October 9, 2018
Los Angeles has been described, not necessarily affectionately, as dozens of suburbs in search of a city. It is a thicket of neighborhoods whose boundaries are loosely defined and thus subject to debate. Even as we struggle to navigate it, the city that so many of us love provides a platform for exploring issues surrounding the naming (and renaming) of places. The main question is: Who gets to decide on and define those names? And the question for writers and editors is: How do we approach our work when disputes arise?
“People adopt names, but they’re not just names. They’re full of meaning, nuances, history, cultural, and political relationships,” social geographer Ali Modarres told the Los Angeles Times in 2014. He was referring to the definition of what constitutes L.A.’s Eastside, a question steeped in matters of race, ethnicity, and class.
“People adopt names, but they’re not just names.”
—Ali Modarres, director of urban studies, University of Washington at Tacoma
Modarres could just as easily have been referring to South L.A. and the city’s Westside, or any number of areas well beyond Southern California. The debate lives wherever residents with deep roots in a neighborhood differ with newcomers or argue with developers over the naming of their home.
Often it’s a matter of what not to call a place.
Essayist and teacher David Ulin, a colleague from my days at the L.A. Times, has complained about “Cali” as one of many dismissive terms that reflect the stereotype that in California “we are not quite serious.” Ulin puts the nickname in the same category as “La La Land” and “Lotus Land.” Sure, 2Pac and Dr. Dre rapped about “Cali” in the ’90s. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, but I’m with Ulin: The word makes me cringe. I doubt that anyone I grew up with in the ’60s would ever use the term.
The label “South-Central L.A.,” for the neighborhoods south of downtown, has a similar effect on many longtime Angelenos, its connotations of urban blight and crime obscuring the broader history. Seeking to overcome the stigma, residents persuaded the city to adopt “South Los Angeles” as official usage in 2003. Skeptics questioned what they saw as merely a cosmetic change. But as one resident told the L.A. Times, the decision inspired hope: “With a name change and a new attitude of the people, maybe when the government decides to bring jobs in, they will bring them to our neighborhood, instead of ignoring us.” More recently, with the area exhibiting a drop in crime and other advances, there has been a drive to adopt “SOLA,” though that term has not caught on.
“South-Central L.A.” is an example of what journalist Rick Kenney . . . has defined as “verbal redlining”: the use of place names, deliberately or not, as racial, ethnic, and class signifiers.
“South-Central L.A.” is an example of what journalist Rick Kenney, who writes often about identity and usage, has defined as “verbal redlining”: the use of place names, deliberately or not, as racial, ethnic, and class signifiers. As he explains, just as redlining is “discrimination based on racial and economic mapping of cities and neighborhoods,” verbal redlining is the use of geographic identity to discriminate.
Kenney introduced the term at a 2017 panel for ACES: The Society for Editors in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he recalled the civil disturbances that had erupted in that city 20 years earlier after the fatal shooting by a White police officer of a Black motorist. “At a community forum that followed the disturbance,” he recently said by email, “some complained that local news media always referred to the affected area, where many were injured and much property was destroyed, as ‘South St. Pete,’ an unofficial label that, longtime residents noted, meant ‘where poor Blacks live.’” He cited the Parramore neighborhood in Orlando, Florida, and the Hill District in Pittsburgh as other places where verbal redlining and media emphasis on crime can overwhelm more complete coverage.
To continue with the real estate metaphors, let’s consider what I’ll call “name gentrification.” I refer not to the phenomenon of higher-income outsiders moving into (and irreparably changing) poorer, often non-White neighborhoods. Instead, I’m thinking of the growing use by many Angelenos of “the Eastside” to describe Silver Lake, Echo Park, and other trendy areas outside the Latinx-majority neighborhoods that have proudly claimed that designation for decades. These residents haven’t moved to the traditional Eastside. They’ve moved “the Eastside” to where they live.
These residents haven’t moved to the traditional Eastside. They’ve moved “the Eastside” to where they live.
Historically, “the Eastside” was understood to mean the neighborhoods east of the Los Angeles River: unincorporated East L.A. plus the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, and often neighboring El Sereno and Lincoln Heights as well. The L.A. Times, in its Mapping L.A. database, goes with that old-school, four-neighborhood definition.
The traditional Eastside has become a point of pride, as the L.A. Times noted in 2014, “synonymous with the Chicano movement, home to working-class immigrants and the social justice battles of the 1960s,” a place that marginalized communities “once were relegated to but are now proud of.” The current Starz series “Vida” captures that spirit in its dramatic portrayal of two sisters caught up in concerns about gentrification and the sacredness of the community and its history.
So when residents of Silver Lake and Echo Park—gentrifying, in-demand neighborhoods favored by young professionals—claim to be part of “the Eastside,” what they might consider to be the use of a utilitarian label ignores the history as well as marked differences in culture and demographics.
For example, Mapping L.A. found the combined Eastside area to be 91 percent Latinx in its analysis of Census 2000 data. All four neighborhoods ranked in the bottom one-quarter for median household income among 265 total neighborhoods in Los Angeles County. Silver Lake, by contrast, was 34 percent White and 42 percent Latinx and fell at the county average for income. An educated guess (plus a check by zip code in the Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey) would suggest that today, after years of further change and gentrification, the disparities between the “new” Eastside and the traditional Eastside remain stark.
Such usage [said culture writer Javier Cabral] “is an insult to the working-class Latino immigrants who helped make it the edgy, world-class city that you are proudly geotagging on Instagram and want to move to today.”
The reinterpretation of “the Eastside” often appears in coverage of food and entertainment. Having a pithy catchall to describe in-demand areas of L.A. is understandably appealing, especially as an alternative to “the Westside,” where much of the city’s wealth and media attention are concentrated.
Culture writer Javier Cabral is having none of that. “Silver Lake is not ‘the Eastside,’” he states in his Twitter bio. He laments seeing the term “appropriated by realtors and developers and people who have never traveled east of the river as a buzzword to rake in a couple more tens of thousands of dollars for a property, or just to sound cool.” Such usage, he said by email, “is an insult to the working-class Latino immigrants who helped make it the edgy, world-class city that you are proudly geotagging on Instagram and want to move to today.”
“We are not being overly sensitive,” Cabral said of those who defend the traditional definition. “We are respecting geography and all of the residents of the city of Los Angeles. . . . If someone like me who was fortunate enough to grow up in the real Eastside doesn’t defend it, who else will? It’s my social and community responsibility as an East Angeleno.”
Modarres, who teaches at the University of Washington at Tacoma, knows his L.A. geography, as he previously taught on the Eastside at Cal State Los Angeles. When Leonardo DiCaprio, who spent some of his youth in Echo Park, bragged that he grew up in East L.A., he generated a social media storm in 2016. The professor was among those who place-checked the actor: “Unless he grew up east of the L.A. River,” Modarres told LA Weekly, “I don’t want to hear about it.”
“East Los Angeles signifies more than geography—it signifies a culture that has resisted an idea of being put into the larger systems of control,” Modarres said at the time. “When we talk about East L.A., we talk about a culture that shaped itself in the face of external pressure and treatment.”
Clearly, when it comes to place names, opinions differ and mileage varies. What is a thoughtful writer or editor to do?
When we risk offending marginalized communities by taking sides . . . we can instead describe places by street names, boundaries, or directional cues.
When we risk offending marginalized communities by taking sides—as when using a term like “the Eastside” in an untraditional manner—or when in doubt, we can instead describe places by street names, boundaries, or directional cues like “the neighborhood west of Figueroa and just south of the 10.” (In Southern California, our freeways are places, and yes, the the is intentional.)
Another approach: When using a potentially contentious neighborhood name, clearly state your terms. The Eastsider, a local-news blog published by former L.A. Times reporter Jesús Sanchez, chooses a broader definition of “the Eastside” that incorporates Silver Lake, Echo Park, and areas that others label “Northeast L.A.” I still recommend the old-school boundaries, but I endorse Sanchez’s decision to post an explanation and a map upon founding his site in 2008. He writes: “I have no interest in setting up an Eastside Boundary Task Force to decide who can or can’t call themselves an Eastsider, who does and does not belong, who is in or out. That’s so Westside.”
Digital tools like Google Maps make it easier than ever to get around, and it makes sense to consult them when writing about unfamiliar places. But the tools are only as accurate and sensitive as the humans who make them. As The New York Times reported in August, Google Maps cartographers engendered criticism and mockery after using questionable real estate listings to rename neighborhoods in New York, Detroit, San Francisco, and Los Angeles in ways that residents found puzzling. (That is, wrong.)
In this analysis I don’t pretend to be unbiased: I attended college on Los Angeles’s traditional Eastside in the 1980s, well before today’s gentrifying neighborhoods became destinations of desire. Like Sanchez, I don’t claim to have the final word on my city’s boundaries. Still, weighing L.A.’s wonderful diversity against its often fraught history, it made sense to explore the subject, using Kenney’s approach as a guide.
Referring to verbal redlining, he notes: “That specific lesson in learning conscious style helps students understand the tragic history of such language use and, by identifying and discussing it, requires them to explore and discover and suggest and adopt pro-social alternatives that do not discriminate, but rather are more accurate, more helpful, fairer, and more ethical in their orientation.”
And that is why style choices are often more than cosmetic.
Henry Fuhrmann, an adjunct instructor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, worked at the Los Angeles Times from 1990 to 2015. Before retiring as an assistant managing editor, he led the print and digital copy desks, chaired the standards and practices committee, and oversaw the editorial stylebook. He is a longtime local leader of the Asian American Journalists Association and serves as a member of the executive board of ACES: The Society for Editing.