From Mercadito to Metropolis
Written by Elaiza Armas
Photos by Anthony Acierto & Sarah Kim
In the center of downtown Los Angeles lies a hidden gem where the elite cross paths with blue-collar workers and huaraches meet oxfords. Housing bars frequented by hipsters on one end and quinceañera boutiques ready to embellish 14-year-old girls in over-the-top dresses on the other, is an epicenter of gentrification—the Grand Central Market.
Throughout the market, Spanish-speaking patrons munch on $3 tacos from Tacos Tumbras a Tomas. Nearby, visitors sip champagne with plates overflowing with oysters from The Oyster Gourmet bar.
“I didn’t recognize it because it got gentrified,” said Ben Yoo, a UC Santa Barbara student, as he took a bite from a carne asada taco from Las Morelianas. “A part of me misses how rugged it was, but I kind of like it too because it’s cleaner now.”
The market, which opened its doors in 1917, was originally a place where low-income families flocked for affordable food and produce. Since the renovation of Spring Street and Grand Central Square, however, an influx of wealthy vendors has pushed out the market’s traditional discount sellers.
AFTER THE CLEANSING, NEW VENDORS GRADUALLY MADE THEIR WAY IN AS OLD ONES WERE FORCEFULLY PUSHED OUT.
“I used to come here for pupusas and chicharrón, but now I come for McConnell’s Ice Cream,” Yoo said.
In the early 1990s, the market underwent a major renovation under owner Ira Yellin to reflect downtown LA’s new generation of Latinos who visited the market to shop for produce at prices cheap enough to feed an entire family.
The market remained that way until 2012 when 62-year-old Ira died. After which his wife, Adele, took over management and proposed a “deep cleaning,” of the market that included freshly painted ceilings, walls and polished floors.
After the cleansing, new vendors gradually made their way in as old ones were forcefully pushed out. Now, the real issue at hand is whether or not Adele’s intention was a “deep cleaning,” of the market or more of an ethnic cleansing of the people.
Cultural changes are the easiest and most visible to see after gentrification takes place, but that’s only what you see on the surface level, said Arturo Romo, an activist and member of the North East Los Angeles Alliance.
The North East Los Angeles Alliance is a group of north east LA residents dedicated to understanding and documenting the effects of gentrification on immigrant, working class and poor communities, according to NELA’s Facebook. Romo believes the market services were made for working-class people.
“To create segregated cities all over urban areas creates invisible borders, but ultimately it’s class based—at first (the location) seems more diverse, but economically? It’s not,” Romo added.
However, in an interview with The Planning Report, Adele said, “I do not want this to be a gentrified place. I want this to be a real, authentic environment. I want the stalls to feel like they belong, reflecting the history of the market, but moving into the 21st century.”
Despite this, many frequenters of the market fear that it is becoming more commoditized and less of a unique community.
“I don’t really like it. I just don’t dig it,” said Gabe Zimmer, a downtown resident who has been visiting the market for over a year. “It doesn’t feel authentic to me, especially places like Eggslut. I don’t feel like this is a place where families can come anymore, all the new stuff is so expensive.”
Zimmer, who moved to LA to pursue art, believes the new changes do not properly reflect the changing population, which to him are the young creatives that value human interaction more than survival, he said.
“I’m a creative, an artist, but I can’t even afford to live here,” Zimmer said. “If there were actual creatives living here, there wouldn’t be $15 omelets. People like me don’t live like that, you know. The new people that come here are rich, not creative.”
But old and new businesses continue to boom. Marlon Medina, manager of Jose Chiquito, said his business has embraced the change and the amount of new customers it has generated, but fears management will boot them out the moment a newer, more hip vendor comes along.
“If we stay, it’s going to be good for us,” Medina said. “We pay about $3,000 for this place. It’s hard, but we’ve been selling a lot so we are good, but the thing is we have to stay and that’s what we never know.”
Medina, along with other vendors, who asked to stay anonymous because of fear of management kicking them out, said management ultimately decides if they can stay or not, regardless if they make a profit and pay the rent on time.
“Maybe next month they’ll send us a letter saying they want us out, maybe they won’t. We have been here since 1998 and they won’t give us a lease. We can try to change things, but right now all we can do is wait,” Medina said.
When venturing to the south side of the market, a three-man band trumpets an experimental fusion of Mexican corridos, a musical ballad, and Christmas carols that perfectly combine Spanish romance with American holiday classics.
The sound of the trumpet echoes through the market as a reedy, organic accordion weaves its way through the rhythm and, for a moment, racial borders dissipate within the music. Dissipate, but never disappear.
Yojana Orantes, a previous employee of the market, remembers when businesses were owned strictly by Latinos 11 years ago. Back then, it was more of a farmers market. The fruit was straight from Mexico. The vegetables were fresh and cheap. Elbow-rubbing and short strides made visitors question if they were at the farmers market or a crowded concert, Orantes said.
IT’S A DOUBLE-SIDED STORY...
IT BRINGS IN MORE BUSINESS,
BUT WHAT DOES IT PUSH OUT? The influx of new vendors has not only pushed out some long-time merchants, but has also reduced the number of homeless loiterers around the marketplace, said Frank Lucero, a Grand Central security guard.
Lucero said he wonders how the vendors that were pushed out are making ends meet because, as far as he knows, when they were let go, this was their only job and their only source of income.
Gentrifying low-income communities is like shuffling a deck of cards in your advantage—you’re not getting rid of the cards, you’re just moving the low cards to the bottom, Romo said.
“That’s gentrification,” Zimmer said. “It’s a double-sided story, yeah it brings in more business, but what does it push out? ... What are you losing? You’re making more money, but is money really the end all, be all at the end of the day?”