Interviews

A Photographer’s Visual Record of Her Gentrifying Los Angeles Neighborhood

In 2017 Samanta Helou-Hernandez created an Instagram account paying tribute to Virgil Village, a vibrant, predominantly Latino community currently experiencing rapid gentrification.

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books Main Stage (photo by Lexis-Olivier Ray)

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which took place this past weekend, is an open-air book fair held at the campus of the University of Southern California and features hundreds of regional vendors, performances, and talks with both celebrity and local talent in an event that attracts over 100,000 attendees annually. I went to attend a panel discussion about the importance of archiving the experiences of brown and black communities. (And, in an unfortunate case of life imitating art, the event took place on the margins of the book fair at the 11th hour, or as one volunteer described to me, “in the middle of nowhere.”) The fact that this conversation took place at USC — a neighborhood with its own sordid history of displacement — set the stage for a pertinent conversation.

Despite the odds, over 75 people made the trek from the main stage to fill a medium-sized room in the Andrus Gerontology Center to listen to Alejandra Olmedo, Samanta Helou-Hernandez, Guadalupe Rosales, and Jorge N. Leal, three talented artists and archivists, talk about giving people a voice, preserving oral history, and the need for physical spaces to support brown and black communities. The inspirational one-hour conversation was moderated by NYLON Español Editor in Chief Marty Preciado.

I learned about the event through the work of USC alumna and panelist Helou-Hernandez, the creator of This Side of Hoover, an Instagram account and photo series that has paid tribute since 2017 to the community of Virgil Village, a vibrant, predominantly Latino population nestled between Silverlake and East Hollywood in Los Angeles, currently experiencing rapid gentrification. As a film-based photographer currently working on a documentary about preserving the oral history of black Angelenos, I have followed This Side of Hoover for its focused lens on a very specific neighborhood. The sprawl of Los Angeles means that history and culture can vary street by street sometimes; Helou Hernandez’s photographs not only speak to the cultural diversity that Los Angeles is famous for, but for the individualized stories of its communities.

Participants of the Arts+Culture panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books (photo by Lexis-Olivier Ray)

At the panel, Helou-Hernandez spoke of a young teenager in her neighborhood known as “the mayor of Virgil Village.” Despite only being 12 years old at the start of the series, he received his nickname because he always knew what was going on in the neighborhood. The boy — who lived on the same street as Helou-Hernandez — dreamed of one day owning a house on Normal Ave, the street that he called home for most of his life. “I saw him as a future journalist, as someone with a lot of talent,” Helou-Hernandez said during her conversation with NYLON editor, Marty Preciado. A couple of years later, the “mayor” and his family were displaced from Normal Ave, thankfully to a different part of Virgil Village, but there rent is substantially higher, and Helou-Hernandez says the mayor isn’t the same. “He’s still in Virgil Village but it’s not Normal Ave.”

After the panel, I caught up with Helou-Hernandez in the quad outside the Gerontology Center to talk about the value of documenting a neighborhood while it is in the process of gentrification, as well as the importance of knowing your tenant rights.

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Lexis-Olivier Ray: I’m very happy I made it to the panel, but unfortunately I had a difficult time finding it. This conversation is very important to the people that it affects but is largely ignored by everybody else. Do you feel like a sideshow to the main stage here?

Samanta Helou-Hernandez: That’s something that I noticed today. It’s interesting because I went to panels that were in the central area of the book fair but if you look around you now the book fair isn’t here [laughs]. I went to school here and I know this is a trek because I made the trek to the cafeteria over here and I never thought about the Gerontology Center. I guess it brings up questions about accessibility and why our spaces aren’t made accessible.

Albert was born and raised in Virgil Village. He paints murals around the neighborhood including these two pieces for a Pentecostal church on Virgil Ave: "For me when I walk down Virgil, it’s cool because it makes me feel like I belong. These people have been knowing me since I was a kid. They saw me grow up. Every time I do paint, they’re the same people who are always out there. So when they first started seeing me painting they would trip out like where did this talent come from? It’s cool to be recognized and not judged because of my tattoos. These are my people right here. I get stereotyped a lot because of my tattoos. They think I’m a gang banger. Now that people know me as a painter as an artist. That’s why I do it. Because it’s my neighborhood. I do my art as a sign of resistance against gentrification because most of my art is about culture, religion, stuff like that. It’s like “hey we’re here, we’ve been here, we don’t need you taking over, we belong here you don’t. this is our home.” I love Virgil Village, the people that still live here we all get together. We have a group chat on Instagram like 50 people. There’s a homie nearby and his house we call it headquarters. There’s a sense of unity and I feel like we are losing it. " #thissideofhoover #muralist #streetart #virgilvillage #easthollywood #gentrification #gentedevirgilvillage

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L-OR: Tell me about your photo series and Instagram account, This Side of Hoover. What was the catalyst or event that inspired you to pick up your camera and start documenting?

SH-H: In 2016 I was living across the street from where I live now on Normal Avenue [in Virgil Village] and we received a letter saying that we needed to leave or temporarily relocate. I had already started seeing and documenting the changes in the neighborhood but when that happened and I saw an entire apartment building full of families have to leave, it really hit home and humanized the experience for me because it was happening to me and the people around me. I saw the stress it was creating for people.

"My name is Felix Joaquin. I'm from Guatemala and I work as a barber. This place was bought by my father in 1989 from a man from the Philippines and we’ve been running it since. At first I started working here to follow in my father's footsteps but little by little I liked it and now I enjoy what I do. I have many people who came here as children and now still come as adults. The birds are a tradition. My grandmother sold live animals in Guatemala. And she had a talking parrot. When my dad arrived here, he managed to get one and when he left me the business he left me with the parrot as well. With this career, my father has had a good retirement and it’s a job that isn’t too tiring. It’s pushed us forward. The neighborhood has changed; there are new people. Before there were more Hispanics and there were Filipinos. Now many white people come. The Filipinos are gone. My business hasn’t been affected since I only do my business here, but housing is different. Many people come and say that the rents are very expensive." ———————————— "Soy de Guatemala y trabajo como peluquero. Este lugar lo agarro mi papa en el 1989 de un señor de Filipinas. Y hasta la fecha estamos conduciendo lo mismo. Al principio comencé para seguir los pasos de mi papa y poco a poco me fue gustando y ahora disfruto lo que hago. Yo tengo muchas personas que les empecé a cortar de niños y todavía vienen de adultos. Los pájaros son una tradición. Mi abuela vendía animales vivos en Guatemala. Y tenía un cotorro que hablaba. Cuando mi papa llego aquí logro agarrar uno y cuando me dejo el negocio me dejo el cotorro también. E visto que mi padre ha tenido un buen retiro y no es un trabajo cansado y nos ha sacado adelante. Aquí ha cambiado, hay nuevas personas. Antes había mas hispanos y había filipinos. Y ahora vienen mucha gente blanca. Es lo que se ve más que se está moviendo a esta área. Los filipinos ya no hay. En el negocio no me afectado. Como yo solo hago mi negocio aquí, pero de vivienda no se toda la gente viene y dice que la rentas son muy caras." #thissideofhoover #virgilvillage #easthollywood #gentrification #gentedevirgilvillage #portrait

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L-OR: What tactics did your landlord use to get people out of the building?

SH-H: Once the new management took over the building we started seeing little changes, like they installed cameras and started locking the laundry room, and then eventually we got a letter saying they needed to retrofit the building and we had two options: either we temporarily relocate for like six months or leave permanently in exchange for money. But what they really wanted was for everybody to leave for the least amount of money possible. I don’t know anybody that stayed because they make it really difficult for you to turn down their offer. But what you don’t realize is, the money is gone in like eight months.

L-OR: What did you learn about housing rights through this process?

SH-H: Luckily, my roommate studied urban planning. She knew to go to this free clerk downtown that we could take our notice to and ask what our rights were and we also looked stuff up online. But it was a long and confusing process so imagine how difficult it is for a community that mostly speaks Spanish — they don’t know that they have these resources. It’s not easily accessible information, especially for Spanish-speaking communities.

L-OR: Could you briefly describe what your initial goals were with starting This Side of Hoover?

SH-H: My goals were to create a visual record of the changes going on in the neighborhood as well as archiving the stories and legacies of people who have lived here and made the neighborhood the vibrant place people so often say they’re seeking. I wanted to make sure people’s stories and histories are not forgotten as displacement continues. Ultimately, the goal is that people will realize what is lost when neighborhoods become sterile and the struggles that people face as they are priced out of their communities.

L-OR: You used the word ‘vibrant’ a lot when describing Virgil Village. I feel like the public often generalizes and tokenizes brown and black communities or low-income people to make it seem like we’re all the same. Can you speak about the vibrance of the Virgil Village community and what makes it unique?

SH-H: As I’m going through the process of documentation I’m going through all these layers [of history]; Virgil Village used to be a Japanese community, it was heavily Filipino at one point, then it was Central American, and obviously Mexican. Those are all individual cultures that express themselves differently. The result is a diverse community that caters to more than one group of people. There are carnicerías that will sell you the goods that you need to make tacos or pupusas. There’s the art that’s created in the signage and places of worship — like the pentecostal church which is primarily for the Salvadoran community — that’s why it’s so colorful and vibrant, because there’s this long history with many layers and different cultures creating community next to and on top of each other.

L-OR: You’re also an avid film photographer. What is the significance of film in your work and do you think it’s important to archive spaces on a physical medium like film?

SH-H: When I do my own personal photography I tend to use film; there’s something I really love about the process and the way it looks and it’s much more tactile, so when I started documenting my neighborhood casually in 2015 that was my medium of choice. When I started This Side of Hoover in 2016, I knew I didn’t have much time. Ideally I would have done it on film but sometimes the story is more important than the medium, so the latest stuff I’ve done I’ve shot everything digitally. Gentrification happens so quickly that I didn’t have the time to shoot film.

L-OR: I’ve found within my own community, the Historic Filipinotown of Echo Park, that the neighborhood is actually really divided when it comes to gentrification, with some residents supporting it in favor of higher property values and in some cases lower crime rates. What has the tone of the community been like in Virgil Village?

SH-H: Everybody whom I’ve talked to [in Virgil Village] is a renter — nobody is a homeowner, I don’t really know any homeowners in Virgil Village. The way the renters see the pros and the cons is, it’s a lot safer and they’re happy about that but they always go back to the cons.  It brings up this question, “don’t we deserve safe communities too?”. They see the positive sides but they also know eventually it’s not going to be for them.

Sqirl day vs. night. Sqirl was one of the first gentrifying businesses in Virgil Village. They opened their doors 6 years ago to serve their signature brioche toasts and coffee as well as a variety of seasonal dishes. Every day, hordes of mostly white people descend from their respective neighborhoods to line up for breakfast and lunch.  A coffee here can run you up to $5 and a salad $13. Once their doors close for the day at 4pm, the demographic shifts drastically. Brown faces fill the small restaurant as Latinx workers toil away until the wee hours of the morning to prepare everything for next day’s service. In an Eater article from 2016, Jessica Koslow, the owner of Sqirl, described one of the reasons for her success, “my cheat is this shitty corner on Virgil and Marathon. The cheat is, like, I pay two dollars per square foot.” Before Sqirl opened, the space rotated between a Salvadoran and Mexican restaurant with a liquor store next to the eatery. At one point in the same article the chef tells the writer about a church next door that refuses to leave so she can expand her restaurant. “It’d be open already, Koslow told me, if the church that occupies the middle of the three storefronts she’s planned to take over would agree to move. The church has roughly four members, and her 92-year-old landlords don’t have the heart to kick them out until Koslow finds them a new home. ‘Our lease is like a two-page document that’s handwritten,’ she said. ‘It’s just crazy.’” #thissideofhoover #easthollywood #virgilvillage

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L-OR: What’s the future of This Side of Hoover? How can the general public help you and how can members of marginalized groups help themselves?

SH-H: I’m going to continue documenting the changing landscape and people’s Virgil Village stories. In the future, I’d like to make it even more participatory where people submit their photos and personal histories of the neighborhood. I also want to dig into the past even more and find more stories from when the neighborhood was predominantly Japanese. The public can help by submitting their stories! I hope it makes us realize that our histories are important and valuable. I think it’s complicated to give advice as to how marginalized groups can help themselves because often the issues are very systemic and often times information is not made readily accessible to marginalized groups. I think we all could contribute by helping our neighbors and making things like information about tenants rights and pro-bono legal help more accessible.

"My name is Elvia Consuelo Perez. I'm from Guatemala. Our job here is to make bread. We opened this place eighteen years ago. Pan dulce is a tradition. We have different varieties: pan frances, sweet bread, and bolillo which is for the Mexicans because many of them come here. There are a lot Mexicans and Salvadorans that come here. Everyone has their preference. We like to have a little bit of everything so our customers can leave happy. For food we have hen soup, beef broth, pepián, mole, and typical things we eat in Guatemala. I like cooking because it's my talent. It’s been two years since this neighborhood started changing. There are a lot of Americans now. In a way the changes are good because before there was a lot of gang members and right now there’s less. But many customers that I had are no longer here because were evicted and the rent is so expensive. It hurts me a lot because many friends in this area have left. We are sad because we know eventually they will evict us too. But I have faith in god. When I die that's when I'll leave this place." —————————————- "Soy de Guatemala. Y nuestro trabajo es hacer el pan. Empezamos hace diez y ocho años en este lugar. El pan dulce es una tradición; comemos mucho pan los guatemaltecos. Tenemos el francés, el pan dulce, el bolillo que es para los mexicanos porque vienen muchos. Vienen mexicanos y salvadoreños. Cada quien conoce su pan. Nos gusta tener un poquito de cada clase para que ellos se vayan felices. Y de comidita tenemos caldo de gallina, caldo de res, pepián, mole, lo que comemos en Guatemala. A mí me gusta porque es mi talento la cocina. Tiene ya aproximadamente dos años que ha estado cambiando aquí poquito a poquito. Ya hay bastantes americanos. En una parte son buenos los cambios porque antes había mucho pandillero y ahorita a estado menos. Pero mucha gente de aquí que tenía yo, ya no está porque, los están desalojando y la renta es más cara. A mí me duele mucho porque muchas amistades de esta área se han ido. Nos da pena que con el tiempo nos van a desalojar a nosotros también. Pero yo espero en dios. Hasta que yo me muera salgo de aquí." #virgilvillage #gentrification

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Arts+Culture: Past, Present, Future, curated by Marty Preciado, EIC of NYLON en Español, Conversation 2044, took place at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on Sunday, April 22. 

You can visit This Side of Hoover on Instagram

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