Development that benefits low-income neighborhood residents: the case of MacArthur Park in Los Angeles

Gerardo Sandoval

Urban revitalization efforts have historically led to either forcible removal or displacement of working class residents via market forces (gentrification). But in at least one case – Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park neighborhood – inhabitants were able to take a large-scale top-down urban revitalization effort and transform it to benefit their own low-income Latino immigrant community.

Because of the frequent history or removal and displacement, many communities of color view large-scale revitalization efforts as only resulting in gentrification. But these low income communities still need investment: infrastructure improvement projects, access to high quality and affordable housing, access to neighborhood jobs, good quality schools, recreational and public spaces, access to local and regional transportation systems, safe neighborhoods, and opportunities for civic engagement. The trick for progressive planners is to find ways to transform these potentially catalytic projects into community driven revitalization efforts that benefit current residents and lead to neighborhood improvements that mitigate the potential gentrification and displacement.

I have been studying MacArthur Park for the past 16 years and also grew up in the area. MacArthur Park is a Latino immigrant community near downtown Los Angeles that for the past 20 years has been struggling to maintain its Latino immigrant community in the face of pressures from large-scale urban revitalization. When I started I thought the area was going to be gentrified – particularly through the construction of a subway station planned as a catalyst for bringing in new economic development and higher end housing into the neighborhood.

But 20 years later, the Latino immigrant community is still as strong as ever, many neighborhood investments by planners have improved the community, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, even called MacArthur Park a national example for conducting transit oriented development in low income communities. These more equitable outcomes occurred because the various endogenous forms of capital (financial, political, and cultural) that existed in the neighborhood served as assets that immigrants could rely on to increase their agency and transform the redevelopment project

MacArthur Park residents were able to make what began as top-down urban revitalization work by tapping into their community assets as forms of political, financial and cultural capital.. First, the political capital is evident by the community organizations in the area that were well organized and advocated for community benefits. There are 10-15 progressive community organizations in the neighborhood whose work ranges from teaching English to immigrant rights work and housing advocacy. Another form of political capital, the local city council office was controlled by progressive Latinos and was proactive in pressuring developers and other planning institutions to increase affordable housing projects in the area. LA City Council members have land use jurisdiction in their districts. Hence, developers had to negotiate with the councilman’s office for any projects that would change the zoning requirements in the area and the progressive councilman used that as leverage to encourage mixed income and affordable housing projects. Third, the financial capital in terms of hundreds of local Latino small businesses understood that their survival was linked to the survival of the Latino residents in the community.

Lastly, the cultural capital that existed in the neighborhood served as an anchor to the immigrant led revitalization in the community. The cultural capital are the ethnic ties that immigrant groups maintain that help them create a sense of place. The MacArthur Park ethnopole (as manifested via Mexican and Central American cultural ties) served to create an active public space with cultural celebrations in the park. The park it self was transformed from a passive recreational space to now an active public space filled with street vendors, informal soccer fields, Central American cultural celebrations and political immigration protests. This form of cultural capital served as an anchor for the immigrant led revitalization in the neighborhood. By relying on these various forms of financial, political and cultural capital immigrants in MacArthur Park helped to built a sense of community inclusion and belonging and ultimately maintained their neighborhood in the face of possible displacement. Progressive planners can support immigrant led revitalization efforts by providing opportunities for participation, neighborhood activism and empowerment that built upon these endogenous forms of capital.