by Lizz Huerta
When I first moved to the neighborhood, Golden Hill, twelve years ago, I commonly saw brown women carrying their brown babies. They were at bus stops, corner grocery stores, gathered outside the panaderia waiting for a fresh batch of bolillos, six for a dollar. I moved to be closer to downtown, but not so close to pay downtown rent. I wanted to be near the art space where I did work, next door to my favorite bar. When I told my father where I was moving, he pitched a fit. The neighborhood had been known for crime. I assured him it had changed. Golden Hill was full of families, taco shops, ladies walking down the street shouting Tamales! The ice cream man was a paisa in a cowboy hat pushing a cart, he carried limes and chile powder for his customers.
I was part of the change. A young creative on a budget, I moved into a crappy apartment complex and promptly painted my living room Frida Kahlo blue. I had friends over for cheap wine, we’d walk to buy boiled corn smothered in crema, lime, and hot sauce. We drank tall boys in paper bags and sat on the hoods of cars until late, laughing. Friends started noticing for rent signs and moving in. I’d done the same on a walk home from a poet’s party. I’d wanted to live in the land of down and brown. Then it started to change.
A famous television eater practically dry-humped a pie from the local punk-staffed pizzeria and suddenly our streets were a “destination.” The grocer stopped stocking chicken feet and added a tofu section. Parking started to suck. I lived next door to a cooperative living hellhole housed with thrift store white kids, the bored looking kind. I started looking for a new place.
I moved less than a mile away, to South Park. I painted my living room orange. I hung art I’d purchased in Cuba, Italy, Oaxaca. There were boarded up storefronts. My first weekend I wrestled a knife away from my 12 year old neighbor; he was sick of being harassed for being white. I was two blocks from a grungy bar where the drinks were cheap and jukebox banging. Every Saturday night the local Polish American hall was rented out for quinceñeras, the banda playing until late. No one complained. I hung out at a funky bistro, the bar was always full of writers. We drank too much wine and confessed things to each other that would return as gossip later. A boarded up storefront became an independent video store. Moby came by the corner record store to promote his vegan cookbook. Still, I was living in a neighborhood where helicopters circled at night. There were alley cats. Fixer-uppers were affordable; young, creative types with good credit started buying.
I noticed the nanny brigade when my sister moved into the neighborhood. Every day the nannies would meet at the corner in front of her house. They pushed strollers with white babies named Sage, Forest, Violet, other variations of Crayola colors. The babies first words were in Spanish. The brown women weren't walking their own babies anymore, they were getting paid to mother and nurture the children of the people who were driving up the rent. They walked the babies to baby yoga, to baby sign, to story hour. My brown sister was confused for a nanny on more than one occasion when she took her daughter for evening walks. How long have you been watching her? One mother crooned. Since she came out of my fucking vagina, my sister answered.
A boarded up grocery store was transformed into a chocolatier. A dive bar that had been shuttered years earlier was rebirthed into a burger and beer bar with a wooden playground. One night, my love came home shaken from a walk to 7-11, less than two blocks away. Cops had rolled up on him, flashlights out. A neighbor had called in a suspicious brown man walking down the street. My love pointed at our window and called it home. They asked for i.d. anyway; why was he walking to 7-11 at ten at night?
I side-eyed the new folks regularly. Pitbulls and chihuahuas had given way to Shiba Inu and bulldogs. Bike lanes were painted on the newly paved streets. The local city councilman hosted happy hours so the new residents could tell him about the streetlight situation and rail against the recycling center that brought rummagers through the alleys. The hipster wave crashed and pulled out, clearing the way for yuppies. Rents exploded. The local Chaldean market saw the change and offered its space to a corporate chain. It’s a two minute walk to buy Up and Up toilet paper now. My favorite eatery closed, in its place opened a Mexican place serving artisanal tacos. I never see any Mexicans eating there.
I’m eight miles from where I was born and raised in the brown suburbia of Chula Vista, our southern sky bright with the streetlights of Tijuana. I’m a world away from track houses, from the kids I grew up with. Sometimes when I go to visit my parents I run into a childhood friend, he paid his way through college selling weed. We reminisce about playing border patrol on summer nights, practicing kissing on each other, sneaking joints. Our old neighborhood hasn’t changed but it will. Breweries have announced they’re moving in and craft beer is manna for hipsters.
Friends of mine are being displaced all over the country. Rents soar, neighborhoods become trendy and unaffordable. Those who move in try to take up the mantle of authenticity, hiring muralists, setting up Day of the Dead altars in October. I want to move to a neighborhood where late night parties are allowed and Saturday mornings are for washing cars to oldies. I don’t know if those neighborhoods exist anymore, or if they only endure in the same kind of faux nostalgia I scoff at when watching people on the street soapbox about ‘Murica on cable news. My new neighbors have a Pinterest worthy patio, complete with pallet furniture and painted cinder block tables that double as succulent planters. They play ragas on weekend mornings, we counter with Prince, Pete Rock, and Selena. They’re allegedly namaste as fuck but never make eye contact with me or my South Asian partner.
The neighborhood is undergoing yet another transformation. Priuses and Outbacks are being replaced by Teslas and luxury mini SUVs. I drove by a group of neighbors organizing against the city spraying for mosquitos, What about their organic gardens? I scratched my swollen mosquito bites and thought, What about my health? Are your tomatoes and dinosaur kale more important than my skin?
I went for a walk last week. No one says hello or makes eye contact anymore. I used to know the names of my neighbors. We used to sit on the backs of our trucks in the alley and drink beer, laugh until late. Now if anyone makes noise in the alley the white neighbors get nervous, peek out their windows to see what the brown folk are up to. They love us on panels about diversity, and they love our artwork on their walls, but fuck, they call the cops on us just as fast as ever. Instead of knocking on doors or you know, actually speaking to us, they leave passive aggressive notes and air their frustrations on the neighborhood app.
I recently passed a strange club, a group of white women wearing athletic wear, they pushed strollers that cost half my rent. They used the strollers for balance as they did lunges and squats. They sprinted, babies nonplussed and drinking from BPA-free bottles. I passed them and kept walking. I knew it was sunset without looking at the horizon because half the people in the streets had stopped to instagram it, probably #nofilter and #blessed.
I look for places for us to move but am lazy. I like being walking distance to housemade pasta and vegan brunch. And I know what happens when people like me move into a neighborhood and willing or not, make it cool and accessible. I’ve always believed artists are the groundbreakers, the frontrunners to any sort of movement, political, social or in the case of gentrification, geographical. I know I’m part of the cycle.
There’s a neighborhood I’ve had my eye on, full of immigrants and stores that are more swap meet than retail. Rents are cheap. When I hang out there I see the beginnings of familiar shifts; craft beer in the liquor store fridge, coffee shops selling co-op grown coffee, the first free library set up at the driveway of a remodeled house. But if we leave our place there will be two less brown faces, two less junky trucks parked on the street. Our landlord mentioned if we leave he’ll raise the rent $500. For now, we’ve decided to stay. We come from colonized cultures, getting pushed out and othered is nothing new. We say hello and startle strangers on the street who are shamed into returning the greeting. For now, it is enough.
Lizz Huerta is a Mexi-Rican writer living and working in San Diego, CA. Her work has appeared in ZYZZYVA, Time, xoJane, The Portland Review, Duende, Lumina, San Diego Citybeat, and various anthologies. She volunteers as a writing coach for storytelling organization So Say We All, and paints wrought iron to pay the bills. She is currently working on the young adult fantasy trilogy she wishes had been around when she was a kid: full of brown warrior women, and pyramids and jaguars instead of castles and dragons.