Ice cream shop at Mariachi Plaza, part of First Street Businesses association.
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By Xóchil Ramírez
Boyle Heights Beat
In 2012, many residents of Boyle Heights greeted the arrival of a Walgreens Pharmacy with mixed emotions. The opening on César Chávez triggered conversations about gentrification and its threat to local mom-and-pop farmacias.
Since then, that conversation has turned into a heated debate as developers propose more and more plans for large-scale redevelopments in the working-class neighborhood. Proposals to redevelop 143 buildings and 1102 units making up Wyvernwood apartments and to create 1,000 residential units and mixed use offices and retail at the old Sears Tower site are likely to attract more upscale residents and shoppers.
Community members and organizations understand that change is inevitable, but they don’t want to see local businesses pushed out. Some local non-profits have formed collaborations to help support and preserve local businesses, such as those in historic Mariachi Plaza and along the First Street Corridor. Many of these shops and restaurants have been in Boyle Heights for decades.
“I like Ramírez Pharmacy because it’s a community-oriented store,” says Boyle Heights resident Perla García. “I know that the staff cares about Boyle Heights. Walgreens can hire staff from anywhere, and it’s not a guarantee that new staff from other areas will support the neighborhood as a whole.”
Michael Ramírez operates Ramírez Pharmacy on César Chávez, a business started by his father in the late 1970s. He shared his concerns about Walgreens when it opened in 2012. While the competition from the big pharmacy threatened his business, today he says it also spurred him to improve.
“You always have to look for change, new products, new ideas, new services to offer to your client base,” says Ramírez.
Although his business has been able to maintain its customer base, Ramírez says Walgreens lures away some customers by promoting specials and discounts for joining a store club. The experience, he says, has made him understand the importance of customer loyalty and the necessity of local community to support each other.
Sales “decreased in terms of foot traffic, because I know a lot of people would rather go to a big box store to purchase over-the-counter items,” he says. But Ramírez says his pharmacy’s prescription sales and home deliveries help him get by.
Still, businesses like Ramirez Pharmacy may have a tough fight ahead. Many small business owners in Boyle Heights do not own the buildings they occupy, and some renters do not even have written long-term leases, according to Carla DePaz, community organizer for East Los Angeles Community Corporation, who is organizing local small business owners.
“When rents go up, they are at risk of being displaced for another business that is able to pay,” says DePaz. “There are also some owners looking to cash out and sell the property because the value has increased.”
The First Street Businesses association, formed in 2015, works to help local shops and restaurants stay open. “One of the goals for First Street Community Businesses is to create a symbiotic relationship between neighborhood businesses and its community members,” says Carlos Ortez, the owner of restaurant Un Solo Sol, who is president of the association.
The association helps create a united political voice and leverage resources. In one recent effort, association members fought back when a developer proposed to buy city-owned buildings across the street from Mariachi Plaza. He also proposed demolishing a block that housed many local businesses to construct a shopping center. A competing developer proposed building affordable housing on the same site and preserving the existing small businesses.
The First Street Community Business Association launched a letter-writing campaign and went to City Hall. In May, the city decided to approve the proposal that wouldn’t harm the businesses, which the association counts as a win.
Coalition building was essential in halting another big redevelopment project as well.
In 2014, Metropolitan Transit Authority released plans for a redevelopment in collaboration with private investors, who wanted to demolish many of the buildings that housed First Street businesses. Minerva Villa, the owner of J & F Ice Cream store, informed every nearby business about the plans. Working with ELACC, the businesses launched a letter-writing advocacy campaign to oppose Metro’s plans.
Now that the owner of many of the same properties in Mariachi Plaza, Anita Castellanos, is planning to sell the buildings, ELACC is working with businesses to make sure they have leases so they won’t be displaced, no matter who buys the buildings.
“Redevelopment can be a scary thing, if whoever is developing does not have the interest of ensuring community access and housing for folks in the community” says ELACC’s DePaz.
She hopes to build citywide alliances that bring different communities together. For First Street, it’s about power in numbers and resources, she says. “Now when [there are] threats or rumors of properties being bought and sold, [business owners] feel more empowered to work as a group,” says DePaz.