El Santuario de la Ferretería

It is a short walk from my apartment in L.A.’s Koreatown to Villanueva Hardware on Pico Blvd in Harvard Heights. I like to shop here because it’s close by, the owners are friendly and they don’t reply in English when I ask for things in Spanish. I was in there the other day getting keys made for a friend who will be visiting later this month from Oakland.

“Dos llaves por favor.”

It’s a dollar a key. Beat that, Lowe’s at Midtown Crossing!

I like Villanueva but I hate the sound of the key cutting machine. So while they cut the keys I headed toward the door to wait out on the street. Looking up, I saw something I’d never seen before. A little shrine above the door with the prayer, “Yo bendigo este hogar” ringed by a ristra of garlic and a crucifix.

There is something sad about life in KTown and Mid-City and too many other neighborhoods around L.A. these days. How much longer will anyone bless this home, and this ferretería? And of course it is the same story across the country in San Francisco, Oakland, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York.

When I moved into my Koreatown apartment four and a half years ago and countless times since my kids have expressed their discomfort at my contributing to the gentrification of the neighborhood. No matter that I had bought the place from a freelance writer with a Russian name who was moving back to San Francisco.

In Magnetic City - A Walking Companion to New York, architecture critic Justin Davidson explains how “Preservation is not just a battle to safeguard expensive antiques but a day-to-day incremental struggle with a constantly shifting agenda.” The same might be said of Villanueva Hardware and a million other small businesses, modest urban landmarks far from the agenda of the Los Angeles City Council.

Walking this stretch of Harvard Heights, it is hard not to notice the newly empty storefronts along the north side of Pico near Harvard. Contrast the loss of local small businesses with the new mixed use building at Western Ave and San Marino Street, the latest in a line of urban infill projects to come along on one of L.A.’s ugliest boulevards. With so many cities across the country struggling with the decline of small businesses and the seemingly endless rush by landlords for higher rents, it is time the character of changing urban communities assumed a more prominent place on the City Council’s agenda. L.A. and the rest of the country’s cities need a plan that better balances the interests and needs of city residents and preserves the viability of urban small business while ensuring property owners a fair return on their investment. Neighborhood residents deserve better than another coffee and bubble tea shop with good WIFI.

Yours in transit,

Joel

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