A couple days ago I came across a piece on LAist the really resonated with me. The author, John Kamp, talks about the impending demolition of a favorite hang-out, El Gran Burrito, near the Metro station at Santa Monica and Vermont. I’ve never eaten there, but Kamp’s description of this funky taco stand reminded me of so many other LA gathering places that have disappeared.
I understand the reasons why El Gran Burrito is getting bulldozed. The City has approved a Permanent Supportive Housing complex with 187 units, 105 for Extremely Low Income households, and 80 for Very Low Income households. (The two remaining units are for managers.) The City desperately needs Permanent Supportive Housing, and it makes perfect sense to build next to the Metro station so that residents will have easy access to transit. I really can’t object to the project. Still, we need to acknowledge what we’re losing.
Kamp identifies himself as a landscape and urban designer, and he’s not happy about the trend in LA toward “generic, modern, high-density apartment buildings with retail spaces on the ground floor”. He laments the loss of our “quirky, shacky spaces tucked into hillsides and between larger buildings”. I know where he’s coming from. And it’s not just the bland conformity that characterizes so many of the new buildings. The really painful thing is the loss of community. These low budget, lowbrow restaurants are where Angelenos gather and mingle. You stop in with a group of friends and run into some other folks you know, or maybe you start talking to a group of total strangers. You get to know the people behind the counter. You get to know the community.
I’m thinking of Carnitas Michoacan #3 in Boyle Heights, which got turned into a Panda Express. Longtime patrons were saddened to lose a place they’d been coming to for decades. Taix on Sunset has been purchased by a real estate investment group, and there are plans to construct a six-story mixed-use complex on the site. (The new project would include space for a scaled-down version of Taix.) One of the most depressing losses was El Chavo, also on Sunset, which was bought up by another real estate investment group. What used to be a cozy, old-school Mexican restaurant was turned into an oppressive modernist fortress. The plan was to make it into an upscale restaurant/nightclub with multiple bars. Last time I passed by the place looked like it was closed.
I also think of the way Union Station has changed. Up until a few years ago it had a great little bagel shop where you could pick up something to eat and drink while you were waiting for your train. There was also a small newsstand where you could get gum, snacks, sodas. Today both of them are gone. Instead of a mom-and-pop restaurant serving fresh bagels they now have a Starbucks serving cardboard pastries wrapped in plastic. Instead of the newsstand they now have a chain convenience store with all the personality of a concrete block.
But we also have to take the longer view. I love Union Station, but in order to build it the City razed a good part of LA’s original Chinatown. Many people were pushed out of their homes. As a compromise, the City agreed to build a new Chinatown, which is the one we know today. While many Angelenos have a real affection for the area’s funky charm, let’s face the facts: an authentic immigrant community was levelled with zero regard for how the residents would be impacted; the “replacement” was a faux-Chinese outdoor mall designed to lure tourists.
Nothing lasts forever. Especially restaurants. The City is constantly changing. If El Gran Burrito gets bulldozed to create housing for the people who need it most, I can see the justification. But in many other cases, including the ones listed above, it’s just a raw deal for the community. While fast food chains and investment groups boost their profits, neighborhoods lose gathering places that brought people together. Seems like this is happening more and more often in LA these days.
Kamp is one of the many Angelenos mourning these losses. If you’ve seen a beloved hang-out get bulldozed, you’ll want to take a look at his piece in LAist.