While politicians construct immigration plans in Washington streets, many immigrants are constructing new lives for themselves on city streets. WORLD’s Tiffany Owens is visiting neighborhoods in four major cities where immigrants live—Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and Atlanta—and seeing how settling into blocks with shared culture and language makes transitioning to life in America easier. The downside is that living and working in immigrant neighborhoods can stump assimilation and make it harder to learn English. Tiffany will eventually make some policy recommendations, but right now she’s concentrating on observing and showing you what she sees.
LOS ANGELES—As dusk settles on Echo Lake, families relax on lawn blankets and chat around picnic tables. Children streak around on scooters and chase each other on the playground. Teens buy grilled corn and fruit slushies from vendors, whose metal carts line the pathway.
The park reopened a week ago, after being closed two years for renovations, which cost $45 million. It attracts a diverse crowd: Latino families walk past lanky Anglo boys in cut-off shorts. Senior citizens stroll past young men throwing a football.
The lake is the centerpiece of Echo Park, a central city neighborhood nestled against a mountain. Palm trees and succulents cluster along the road; whitewashed adobe houses are tucked behind iron gates. During the 1950s, Echo Park was a bohemian hub for blacklisted writers and artists, but it declined during the past several decades as gangs spread throughout the neighborhood. Now, city officials and local residents are trying to wrest the neighborhood back. In addition to fixing up the lake, they’ve built new condos and transformed run-down buildings into new businesses.
The result is mixed: Gang violence is down, but rent is up. Revitalization efforts have attracted younger, more hip residents, who have opened coffee shops and organic markets. Long-term residents—mostly Latino families with lots of children—continue to flock to less expensive neighborhood stores.
Dennis, a native of El Salvador, welcomes the change. As he waits outside a streetside taco stand on the edge of the park, he talks about the neighborhood he’s lived in for 19 years. It’s better ever since “the Americans” came, he says, because they brought businesses and shopping.
Jennifer Huynh helps run Kien Giang, a family-owned Vietnamese bakery that’s been in the neighborhood since 1980. She recalled how her brother, then a fourth grader, was once robbed by gangs while riding his bike. The new businesses have definitely helped, she said, taking a break from making a wedding cake. Some gangs still tag the walls and a few drug dealers still linger, but for the most part, she’s seeing new and more diverse customers.
On Echo Park Avenue, Lisa Gerstein chats with friends outside the vintage clothing store she has run for 11 years. Gentrification is a mixed bag, she said. Crime is down, but property values and rents are skyrocketing. She lamented the recent destruction of vintage Art Deco buildings to make room for new condos. Without a miracle, she said, the area will only become more expensive.
Back at the park, people are enjoying the evening. A fountain sprays water more than a dozen feet into the sky with the downtown skyline as backdrop. A young Latina bride poses for photos with her groom. Two children laugh, chasing a soccer ball.
But the idyllic scene is short lived. Thirty minutes after I enter the park, a young Latino man with long Khaki shorts, a bald head, and spikes in his ear, struts across the lawn, a beer can at his feet. He kicks it over and over again, until he reaches the edge of the lake. Then he picks up the can, sets it on the edge of the lake, and kicks it into the water, yelling “GOAL!”
Half an hour later, he flees on his bike as a police car pursues him through the crowd. His friends run at first, before inching back to watch the cops pat down the young man. Parents pick up their crying children and leave. One man yells “police brutality” with a Spanish accent. Another shouts an expletive as the cops stuff the man into the back of the squad car.
Night falls on Echo Park.