Immigrants and the Revitalization of Los Angeles: Development and Change in MacArthur Park

by Gerardo Sandoval


Paul Davidoff Book Award 2013 Honorable Mention by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning

MacArthur Park, a low-income immigrant community in Los Angeles; although plagued by crime and violence well into the 1990s, it was able to turn a large-scale redevelopment plan to its advantage. This book describes and analyzes how that unusual result came about. Other attempts to “improve” marginal areas have generally led to the displacement of the areas´ low-income residents, and part of the resulting hostility has been directed at city planners. City-planning professionals have long been deeply involved in efforts to redevelop low-income neighborhoods, including urban renewal and the resulting destruction of many low-income communities in the 1950s. The profession’s difficult relationships with communities have become a key theme within urban planning. The self-revitalization of MacArthur Park’s Mesoamerican immigrant community and the community’s internal organizations and relationships with supporters, planners, and politicians at all levels, make a fascinating and revealing case study. MacArthur Park’s case, although perhaps an anomaly in its positive outcomes for the local community, highlights the opportunities and approaches that offer hope of positive outcomes in other communities. The processes of co-adaptation and co-evolution observed in MacArthur Park can be helpful in understanding redevelopment and supporting revitalization elsewhere, arguably across a wide range of communities and redevelopment efforts.

How was a low-income immigrant neighborhood able to absorb a large-scale top down redevelopment project––centered around a new subway station––and make the redevelopment work to the benefit of the neighborhood? How did the changing Mesoamerican neighborhood adapt and respond to the city´s redevelopment pressures and actions? In this revelatory case study, a complex adaptive systems framework helps us to understand changes in the neighborhood and in the institutions affecting it. We see how agents and institutions both within and outside the neighborhood evolved as they adapted to each other. This new approach to framing the process of neighborhood change brings out––and can make accessible––much more of the complexity and power of the political and economic dynamics in immigrant neighborhoods, as well as the potential that such dynamics hold for revitalizing cities.

Building upon on-site observations and review of key documents, records, and literature, this case study relied on interviews with a broad cross-section of stakeholders in seeking to understand and explain the mechanisms the immigrant community used to make redevelopment work for its members. Stakeholders interviewed included representatives of community-based organizations, local businesses, residents, informal workers, city politicians, city planning staff members, and police.

The study’s findings reveal that various forms of capital (social, political, financial, and cultural) present in immigrant neighborhoods may not only increase the neighborhoods’ attractiveness as targets for redevelopment but also help them sustain their immigrants’ milieu in spite of such challenges.

In MacArthur Park, the processes of mutual adaptation and co-evolution between the neighborhood’s endogenous organizations and city institutions could proceed because three critical factors––immigrant capital, community-based organization’s grassroots network power, and Latino city-wide political power––converged to sustain the Mesoamerican immigrants’ milieu. This study provides new insights into emerging forms of local economic development in an increasingly globalized world. Redevelopment specialists also need to consider new spatial relationships such as the often-strong transnational linkages found in immigrant communities.

Redevelopment in low-income communities––if it is to benefit those communities––requires attention to cultural continuity and to particular possibilities for adaptation. Planners and urban scholars, in their training, practice, and research, working with communities, need to be able to identify, assess, safeguard, develop, and build upon the strengths and resources of multicultural neighborhoods. This book will be a valuable resource for them.


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