A phrase that I have heard more than a few times is that “Highland Park is the Portland of LA.” This couldn’t be farther from the truth. If these cities were friends, Highland Park would be the girl who had recently gotten her first kiss from a boy and Portland the girl who was already giving blowjobs. Portland has the infrastructure of a small city that’s ready to go through urban puberty, waiting for its budding population and housing to grow with anticipation. On the other hand, Highland Park is still potty training, cleaning up gang related shit, making its longtime residents crawl out of it in all fours and being babysat by a man who is out of touch with his constituents and the area he is supposed to be tending to.
Both cities bear a striking resemblance. They both go overboard in the amount of coffee made readily available to its citizens. For casual drinkers, this can pose a dilemma. But for coffee lovers, this is a big fucking deal. It’s coffee overload. It’s like that one scene in 1983’s “Scarface” in which Al Pacino’s Tony Montana dips his face into a mountain of cocaine on his desk. These establishments are no longer called “coffee shops,” they prefer to be called “coffee roasters.” As a consumer, you’re forced to choose between them like a maiden choosing a suitor. You’ve got your dark, tall and strong or light, short and sweet.
Similar to Portland, Highland Park is going through a dramatic makeover. Buildings–residential and commercial–are being erected all across the Northeast LA neighborhood, raising rents, displacing people of all colors and economic classes; including the disappearing middle class. It is this group that is simultaneously summoning and suffering the effects of gentrification. It seems as though this buzzword only poses a problem when it affects the middle class, not the working immigrant class. The middle class enjoys the quaintness of the boho chic coffee shops and restaurants, but it despises the drug paraphernalia adorning the sidewalks.
Highland Park wants to be more than it can be and pretends to be more than it should. It prides itself in its decrepitude and its lack of variety and quality. Portland is what Highland Park wants to be when it grows up. They both have that underlying punk-rock-blue-collar-DIY mentality, but Portland balances its rough exterior with its smooth cohesiveness. A Portland cashier will provide excellent service with a middle finger raised at you behind her back. In Highland Park, you’ll just get the middle finger in your face as you wait for someone to even acknowledge you.
A recent Vogue article painted Highland Park as having pristine streets, friendly people and a blemish-free history. It was a letter written by someone who had just fallen in love with the subject. The author made sweeping generalizations that swept the town’s social deficiencies under the rug and threw the older businesses and residents under the bus. An LA-based news website, LAist.com, quickly fired back with a spiteful and sassy article that deconstructed the aforementioned one, point by point. Instead of using the runway and limelight to bring up real issues like rampant homelessness and muggings, it was an appeal to “keep Highland Park weird.” Both articles–in their positivity and negativity–peddled a pastoral narrative where the residents of Highland Park were satisfied with what little they had.
Portlanders have plenty of unifying agents like a shared history, sports teams, national parks and a zoo. People from all over the country and the world are welcomed, more or less, by the residents. The newcomers enthusiastically adopt the practices and customs of the locals. In Highland Park, the opposite is true. People that move there don’t want anything to do with the people that were already there. The locals share that same disdain. Each party believes that the other is out to ruin whatever they have going on. There is no “Highland Park Pride,” gay or straight. For the most part, the locals give off a feeling of mistrust and the newcomers give them the silent treatment.
New residents resent the long-time residents for having neglected the neighborhood, plummeting it into an uncontrollable downward spiral of crime and neglect. This has empowered incompetent elected officials to coast through their terms without lifting a finger to improve conditions and are guaranteed reelection. The locals resent the new residents for viewing their long-time homes as “fixer-uppers” and changing all of the old businesses to new ones that they don’t feel welcomed to.
What it comes down to is the citizens of each city. Those from Portland run their city towards something better. Their counterparts in Highland Park have run it to the ground. The sex that Portland citizens have with their city is consensual. It is lovemaking on a bed softly lit by candlelight, to the tune of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” On the other hand, Highland Park gets fucked by its citizens in a dark alley, against a rusty chain link fence, lit by the piercing headlights of an old Chevy truck, to the tune of “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails.
All I can hope for Highland Park is that its citizens start to see one another a bit more like neighbors and less like enemies. I hope that in banding together, they elect officials who actually support their hopes for a better community. One that gives a restless, disenfranchised brown and black youth a place to gather at that isn’t defaced by graffiti. As well as provide a burgeoning white and Asian infancy with open-air spaces for them to play in. I hope that its streets get cleaner and its buses continue to take hard-working Americans of all ethnicities to work. My ultimate hope is that the residents of Highland Park work and fight towards building a place deserving of them.
But until that day, Highland Park residents will have to swallow the placebo of blissful ignorance, and continue to allow old couches to be dumped on their sidewalks and give their change and leftovers to the junkies sleeping on them. This medicine has managed to quell the pangs of a community forging and birthing its identity.
Oseguera, J. L., Jr. (2017). Standing Underneath Two Sisters [Drawing]. stripSearchLA, Los Angeles, CA.