A multimedia exhibit resulting from a year-long collaboration between Cal State L.A. students and faculty and residents of an eastside Los Angeles neighborhood – “celebrating” the history of one of the areas’ large housing complexes – attracted a large number of people to the college last week, including some who currently live at the Wyvernwood Garden Apartment Complex in Boyle Heights.
“Storying Wyvernwood: A community based exhibition” – presented outdoors in the quad adjacent to University library on June 5 – included a large number of photographs and testimonies organizers said were intended to start a dialogue about the link between identity and where people live.
The California Faculty Association (CFA) and long-time Boyle Heights organization El Comite de la Esperanza partnered with honor students from CSULA’s English department and Undergraduate Studies research panel to create the multimedia project in keeping with the university’s “new initiative to embrace innovative techniques for academic research.”
While “Storying Wyvernwood” was in part an effort to show the rich history of the neighborhood, it also explored issues of gentrification and the “cultural impact “ these changes have on families and neighborhoods.
Since 2008, Wyvernwood’s owner, Fifteen Group Land and Development LLC, has been locked in a battle with many of the housing complex’s residents and others over their plans for a $2 billion mixed-use redevelopment of the 70-acre site that includes 1,187 rental units, 660 designated as low-income. “Storying Wyvernwood” shows the struggle for Wyvernwood’s future from the perspective of if its low-income residents, many who have lived there for decades and are afraid they will be displaced if the redevelopment happens.
Listed as a historical site by the Los Angeles Conservancy, the plan to redevelop Wyvernwood has led to “petitions, protests and ongoing conversations” for and against the project.
“Under Fifteen Group’s proposal, many low-income families will not be able to afford the new apartments,” Comite de la Esperanza member Rigo Amavizca told EGP. The group held a press conference during the exhibit to reaffirm their opposition to the redevelopment plan.
“We have been there for 38 years and we pay a little over $900 [a month] for a two-story, three bedroom apartment,” he said. New tenants pay over $1,500 for the same unit, he added.
CSULA professor Dr. Bidhan Roy led the “Storying Wyvernwood” project and says this type of meaningful engagement with the community “can offer students the chance to do research in innovative ways that produce new knowledge.”
“There are powerful ways in which the university and community can work together for the betterment of all of us,” said Roy in a written statement about the project.
“The CSUs are not separated from the communities … so we make sure that if there are struggles happening outside that we can work along or be in solidarity with them,” Lawrence Gandara, a CSULA student and project member told EGP. He said he has friends who live at Wyvernwood and was able to compile their first-hand testimonies .
“I’ve heard their stories and they have moved me not only to organize myself but to urge other people to get involved to help these communities stay intact,” he said.
While “Storying Wyvernwood” highlighted Wyvernwood residents opposed to the redevelopment, not everyone who lives there or in the surrounding neighborhood feels the same way.
Backers of “The New Wyvernwood” include a number of residents, community groups and local unions who see the redevelopment as a way to bring good paying jobs and more housing stock to working class Boyle Heights and nearby areas.
“Many people and organizations support the complex staying the way it is, but they don’t live here, they don’t know how unsafe it is,” Soyla Guerrero, a resident of Wyvernwood for the past 39 years told EGP this week. “I support the demolition 100% because [as it is now] if there’s an earthquake everything is going to be destroyed, the apartments are too old,” she said.
Opponents say redevelopment will add more density in an already dense area, all for the sake of greater profits.
“They want to demolish 1,187 apartments to build 4,400 new ones,” at the same time making those units unaffordable for low-income families, said Comite president Leonardo Lopez. The group has been fighting the plan since it was unveiled in 2008.
Ana Ruiz, a 47-year long time resident at Wyvernwood, said Fifteen Group should think about people, not just profits. “Don’t we matter?” she asked during the press conference. She said rents elsewhere are extremely high and she would hate to lose her “deeply-rooted” community. “It’s sad! What happened to caring about people? They only care about filling their pockets,” she said.
CFA’s Cal State LA chapter vice-president and Psychology professor Kimberly King told EGP Boyle Heights is part of the CSULA community and many of its young residents may one day attend the college. “We want to serve the people from Boyle Heights and when we met people from el Comite de la Esperanza, we felt we wanted to support them,” she said explaining their reasoning for taking part in “Storying Wyvernwood.”
In a statement emailed to EGP earlier this week, Fifteen Group reiterated its position that “all residents currently living at Wyvernwood will be able to remain at the improved site without paying any more rent than what they are currently paying.” The company said residents will not be displaced during construction, but will be able to continue living there, perhaps in a different unit, “before moving to their new homes.”
Fifteenth Group said many Wyvernwood residents support the project because they know it will beautify their community, create more parks, retail areas, affordable housing and will generate “thousands of construction jobs.”
“These are not just promises, these are legally binding commitments,” the company stated.
According to Guerrero, Fifteenth Group is giving residents the choice to either move into one of the new apartments and be paid $700 for moving expenses, or receive $18,600 if the tenant decides to move away.
Guerrero’s daughter Rosario rents an apartment near her mother and told EGP the property’s place in Boyle Heights history shouldn’t be such a big consideration in its future.
“Unfortunately, there has been a lot of crime and shootings here,” and Boyle Heights is not well thought of because of it, she said. “We all have memories but that shouldn’t hold us back from improving,” she said.
Amavizca told EGP it’s been over a year since they last had a public meeting with Fifteen Group, but added he knows the owner regularly contacts residents who support the project which he says they claim “is in the best interest of the community.”
It’s a position disputed in the “Storying Wyvernwood” exhibit.
For more EGP stories on Wyvernwood, go to www.EGPNews.com.