Virgil and Burns

I moved to East Hollywood six months ago, to a neighborhood that some people called Virgil Village. It’s a mostly working-class Mexican and Salvadoran neighborhood and has been for decades[1. The 2013 estimates were 60% Hispanic, 20% non-Hispanic white, and 14% Asian. The median household income is $53,046. Around 14% of my neighborhood lives in poverty.], and it has an increasingly number of young, usually but not always, white members of the so-called creative class. While I’m not young anymore, I’m a member of that class by privy of my education and privilege. And I chose the neighborhood partly because of its proximity to both Silver Lake and Hollywood, but mostly because I could (barely) afford the large one bedroom apartment in a building from the 1920s. I guess I’m a gentrifier in that I live in a vaguely[2. It’s the best maintained complex on the street, but our plant potters were stolen from a Shell station and there are more than a few repairs that I’d recommend.] gentrified complex mostly populated by people similar to me. I guess the neighborhood as a whole is slowly gentrifying, but we’re several years from getting a Trader Joe’s; the closest Starbucks is still 1.1 miles away, which is pretty far in a Starbucks-packed place like Los Angeles.

My current neighbors have yet to say or do anything in my presence that is as offensive as the many of things I heard when I lived downtown, where the contrast between epic poverty and epic wealth is particularly glaring, and many of the people with that wealth (or think they’re destined for that wealth) are disturbingly unaware of their carelessness. Yes, I’ve heard complaints about my new neighborhood[3. Los Angeles Parking Enforcement likes to levy their regressive taxation rather aggressively in this rather poor neighborhood, while sanitation doesn’t bother to pick up the large items, like couches and TVs, left as trash on the curbs.], but the ones I’ve heard aren’t based in a disdain for the culture or class of the vast majority of its residents.

Yesterday evening, I was walking up Virgil, and a half block from the corner of Burns, I saw a stereotypically dressed and affected hipster — that slur for creative class types — strolling around the corner laughing on his cell phone. He strolled right into the collection of votive candles that have populated the southwest corner of that intersection since Leonardo Gabriel Ramirez, a 17 year old boy from the neighborhood, was shot and killed on May 23. He was the fifth person murdered in East Hollywood in the last 12 months, and the youngest. The crime is unsolved, as most crimes in poor communities are, especially when the victim is not white.

After kicking half of them over, he laughed in surprise and just kept walking. As he passed me, I yelled, “That’s a fucking memorial!” He didn’t even turn. I hadn’t stopped walking myself, and I was steaming by the time I got to the other side of the street. I turned, and I went back to the memorial. I righted all of the votives, propped up the ones that were too chipped to stay up by themselves, and I lit the one that had a wick I could reach with my lighter. I was still angry for the next half hour. When I was walking home late that night, I came upon the memorial again. The candle I’d lit was out, but someone had lit another. That’s when I took this picture[3. My next door neighbor took pictures of the memorial soon after its creation.].

I don’t know this guy. I don’t know if he even lived in my zipcode. I don’t know if he was drunk and not in command of his full faculties. I don’t know if he’s normally so disrespectful, or if he even understood what those candles were for. Of course, you’d have to be pretty unaware of your surroundings not to know what a grouping of votive candles in such a place might be. I don’t know if he’s the kind of gentrifier that are so easily maligned. But he seemed to be. What I saw was a young white man of a certain station who treated a local symbol of mourning like garbage. He was careless; his laughter and his phonecall were more important. He didn’t understand that he lived in a community where his neighbors were grieiving; he didn’t seem to think that he was part of that community, a community that is culturally, historically, and socioeconomically specific.

I don’t know enough about the politics of gentrification[4. I wouldn’t even know where to start. The Google Scholar search is insane. But there’s a musical about gentrification in Brooklyn by The Civilians. And some great humor by Mike Albo and Amanda Duarte], and I may be stretching to connect this man’s behavior to that thorny problem, which is particularly thorny in Los Angeles, where the housing shortage is grave. It might just be that this was just an example of a jerk and a misunderstanding. But his behavior seemed as symbolic of gentrification as those candles are of grief.