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Tenants worried about the future of L.A. hotel

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Janet Favela is making one of her regular visits to the Boyle Hotel. The 25-year-old organizer with East Los Angeles Community Corp. is carrying a stack of fliers in a brightly colored bag emblazoned with the image of Mexico City’s famous Garibaldi Plaza, a popular destination for mariachis.

Favela walks through a gate shuttering the front door and proceeds up a long staircase in the four-story residential hotel, built in 1889. She proudly points out some of the changes her agency has made to the shabby Boyle Heights building: newly painted hallways, security cameras and clean bathrooms.

The nonprofit organization bought the hotel a year ago, promising to restore it from slum-like conditions while preserving it as an affordable residence. Most tenants are among the dozens of mariachi musicians who gather daily in the nearby Mariachi Plaza looking for work.

This day, Favela is handing out fliers about free tax preparation services offered by her agency. But when she knocks on doors, few tenants answer. When they do, they look at her skeptically, grab a flier and quickly shut the door.

It’s been the same response for months. It doesn’t matter whether East Los Angeles Community Corp. is offering free computer classes or inviting tenants to community meetings to solicit their input on the building’s renovation. Residents distrust the nonprofit’s promises to help them.


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Favela, whose family was displaced years ago when Staples Center was built downtown, looks resigned as she leaves the building. She thinks her agency’s efforts to renovate the hotel may be the last chance to preserve a community landmark as affordable housing.

People don’t see the urgency,” she said. “This is our attempt at trying to keep a part of Boyle Heights alive.”

In 2004, the mariachis waged a public battle over the fate of the Boyle Hotel, saying the evangelical congregation that owned it had allowed already dire living conditions to worsen.

When the nonprofit stepped in to buy the building, the move was greeted as a victory for local residents who worried about the tide of new development planned around the $900-million Gold Line commuter rail extension, which would include a plaza stop.

One year later, residents say the new owner is just as bad as the old – pushing them out of the hotel by making living conditions unbearable. The tensions underscore the difficulties the agency has encountered in a community that fears the many changes gentrification brings, especially higher rents.

Musician Joel Ramirez, 67, who has lived in the building for 25 years, doesn’t have much faith in the nonprofit’s professed good intentions. “They’re pretty much the same as the previous owners,” he said. “They say they’re going to fix things and they don’t.”

Agency officials said that improvements were being made to bring the building up to code but that the necessary disruptions have sparked fear and anger among residents. They said the $200 to $300 monthly rent that most tenants pay could double when the remodel is complete, but stressed that would still be affordable.


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Isela Gracian, also an organizer for East Los Angeles Community Corp., acknowledged that all tenants might be temporarily displaced during renovations, which could take more than three years. The agency would try to help residents find housing nearby, she said.

Even though they aren’t going to be in the building for a certain amount of time, we still want them to be in the plaza,” Gracian said.

The problems her nonprofit is grappling with are not unusual, housing advocates said.

It doesn’t matter if you did this in East L.A. or downtown or Brentwood, it would be the same,” said Mike Alvidrez, executive director of the Skid Row Housing Trust, which has developed affordable housing downtown. “It’s an intrusion into [tenants] lives. It is disruptive. None of us want to move from our homes, but sometimes for the greater good that’s what has to happen.”

For decades, mariachi musicians, dressed in their handsomely embroidered charro outfits, have gathered at 1st Street and Boyle Avenue, hoping to lure customers for a wedding or quincea�era. In 1998, the Mexican state of Jalisco, the birthplace of mariachi music, donated a stone kiosk built by local artisans to stand in what is now Mariachi Plaza.

It is the centerpiece of what city officials hope will one day be a flourishing cultural center and tourist attraction at the gateway to East Los Angeles. Development plans call for a 100,000-square-foot retail, office and residential project surrounding the plaza.

This is going to be the hottest place in L.A.,” said architect Frank Villalobos of Barrio Planners Inc., which helped design the plaza. “It’s going to be the center of mariachi culture.”

But whether the mariachis will be there to help celebrate the new development may depend on what happens at the Boyle Hotel.

When East Los Angeles Community Corp. bought the hotel, it pledged to raise $5 million to restore the building. The agency has a long and successful history of renovating and constructing affordable-housing projects.

Our model as a nonprofit developer is to build based on community input,” said Maria Cabildo, president of the agency.

But its team of organizers – mostly young college graduates with a background in social activism – has met with little success. Only a handful of residents ever attend tenant meetings.

Part of the problem, agency officials and residents concede, is that previous owners left a legacy of distrust. Asamblea de Dios, a Spanish evangelical congregation, bought the building in 2003, quickly renamed it Vista de la Plaza and began remodeling with little concern or input from tenants.

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Some tenants who sued the church group said they were considering doing the same against East Los Angeles Community Corp. over deplorable living conditions.

Rats run up and down the walls. They come inside our rooms and climb onto our beds,” said Ramirez, the longtime tenant. He points to a hole in the foundation of the building. “The wood is rotted. The building is rotting. Water leaks through the ceiling.”

The community agency also has failed to convince residents that some changes were for their benefit. After the nonprofit installed several security cameras, a group of tenants petitioned the owners to take them down. The agency refused and some of the cameras were stolen.

In January, six illegally built kitchens and a bathroom in occupied units were ripped out to comply with city housing codes, organizers said. Now residents use a communal kitchen and bathroom.

I think what they want is to frustrate us to the point where we won’t want to live here anymore,” said Jose Raul Cortez, 65, another mariachi tenant whose kitchen and bathroom were removed.


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Mariachis Take Complaint to Consulate

The mariachis of Boyle Heights took their year-long housing battle to the doorstep of the Mexican Consulate on Thursday, staging a “musical protest” to press for the consul general in Los Angeles to get behind their cause.

Cristina Ramos, a representative of the mariachis who live in the Boyle Hotel building on First Street, said what was at stake is practically the Mexican culture, and as Mexicans we are here to ask for [the consul’s] support.”

The Boyle Hotel has long been a traditional meeting point for mariachis in Los Angeles, who congregate for work at Mariachi Plaza across the street.

The mariachis, courtly gentlemen who on Thursday let their music speak for them, have been lobbying the city and elected officials to intervene in their dispute with the Boyle Hotel landlord, a Spanish-language Christian church group named Asamblea de Dios, which bought the building in 2003.

They allege that the landlord has allowed already dire living conditions to worsen during a renovation project, while the church’s meeting hall in a storefront downstairs is kept tidy and well equipped. The storefront church replaced a mariachi instrument shop, which the mariachis also allege was forced out by the new owners.

Since [the new landlords] arrived, our lives have gotten worse,” said Jose Morfin, a resident of the building.

Leaders of the church were out of the city and unable to comment, said a man who answered the door around the corner from the Boyle Hotel main entrance.

Ninety residents of the Boyle Hotel filed a lawsuit against the owners in Los Angeles County Superior Court in January claiming negligence and breach of contract, said John Joseph Ramos, a law clerk and the son of the residents’ attorney, Juan Ramos. The case is pending.

At the consulate in MacArthur Park, two mariachis in traditional silver-studded suits were allowed to deliver a letter to the consul general, Ruben Beltran. Outside, about a dozen of their fellow balladeers strummed and serenaded with renditions of folk songs such as “La Negra.”

Although the Mexican consular office has no jurisdiction to intervene in the dispute, the mariachis and their supporters hoped they could win more support from the consul’s well-connected friends.

Mireya Magana, a consulate spokeswoman, said the letter would be analyzed for its merits.

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In Protest, Mariachis Sing for Their Survival

No minivans lined up to hire a band at Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights on Monday night. The balladeers milled about in baseball caps and heavy winter jackets, dragging on cigarettes, sipping hot atole, and played their sones and ballads for no one but Santa Cecilia.

Well into the night, they huddled around the simple altar to the patron saint of musicians.

Some were praying for their very survival.

This is our home base; it’s the womb of all the mariachis in the United States,” said Victor Garcia, a 43-year-old vihuela player from Mexico City. “This is where our work is. This is where everyone comes to hire us. We don’t want them to kick us out.”

If there is anything more forlorn than an un-hired mariachi, it is a homeless one.

But that could be the fate of some of the itinerant Mexican musicians who, like countless others before them, came to Los Angeles with little more than their instruments and a passion for the music of the mariachi.

They congregate at the Boyle Hotel, a dark brick building erected in 1889 that for decades has served as the unofficial way station for mariachis who arrive from the Mexican heartland on their way to San Francisco, Chicago, New York and places in between.

They make their living easing homesickness and serenading wedding guests. They honor a death with mournful tunes such as “Amor Eterno.” They greet the dawn of someone’s birthday with “Las Mananitas.”

Most get by paying the cheap weekly rents at the Boyle Hotel and surrounding buildings, which keep them near the triangle-shaped plaza where mariachis can be hired any time of day.

But as a new owner makes major interior improvements to the building’s units, rents are rising, and Garcia and others who live there say that they may have to move out.

Here comes the work, and right away you run upstairs, get dressed, and you’re ready, ‘Vamonos,’ ” said mariachi Gregorio Munoz. You’re missing an element [to the band], and you run up there and find someone, quick.”

A Spanish evangelical congregation bought the building in March, and since then, contractor Allen Golden has renamed it Vista de la Plaza and embarked on a plan to make the building cleaner, safer and more attractive.

His crews have repainted, rewired, refloored, repiped and remodeled several of the units after decades of neglect. The old paint contains lead, and rodents are common in the building.

Only one man was evicted for failing to pay rent on time, said Golden, who added that not all rents have been raised.

But Juan R. Ramos, a Montebello-based lawyer looking into the matter for the tenants, said the evicted mariachi had not been given adequate notice, possibly because of a language barrier. He called the eviction just one example of Golden’s efforts to gradually alter the make-up of the building’s tenants.

We feel like it’s a constructive eviction, because of the way the construction is ongoing – some of the people can’t stand it, so they leave,” Ramos said. “Some have been threatened with rent increases, and that if they don’t like it, they can leave.”

For his part, Golden said he would make no apologies for trying to beautify the old hotel and a nearby apartment building, also used by mariachis, which is owned by the same group.

He has denied intimidating or harassing any tenants, pointing out that he chose to subsidize improvements without increasing the rent for an elderly woman in a recently renovated unit.

Golden said he helped relocate one of the hotel’s commercial tenants – a hair salon – around the corner to a space he said is nicer than the dingy, cramped space it once occupied.

We want to build places that you could get in Santa Monica, on the Westside,” Golden said Tuesday inside the new salon, its gleaming wooden floor reflecting the fresh yellow paint on the walls. “We don’t try to build barrio facilities here.”

The planned extension of the Metro Gold Line just below Mariachi Plaza could draw new businesses, Golden said. The changes to the neighborhood, he said, are inevitable.

We are certainly not on any campaign of any sort to displace mariachis from the place where they’re living,” Golden said. But he said mariachis earn enough to handle a rent increase, adding, “If they do not think this a good place for them to live, they are certainly free to leave.”

Elias Valdivias Zaragoza, 52, a vihuela player who lives in the adjacent apartment building on 1st Street, stayed at the Boyle Hotel when he arrived in Los Angeles from a tiny ranch in the Mexican state of Jalisco. He and his 29-year-old son, Juan, also a mariachi, pay $120 a week for a space where workers have ripped open walls and part of his ceiling.

Mariachis, Zaragoza said, live off their music. They don’t do heavy day labor work because they must protect their fingers. In most cases, they picked up their instruments as children and teenagers and never stopped.

This work is varied,” Zaragoza said. “Sometimes I make $1,000 a month, sometimes much less

After months of claims and counterclaims, orders and meetings with housing officials and Los Angeles City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, the Boyle Hotel mariachis took their case to the public on Tuesday, during the annual Santa Cecilia celebration and Mass that draws musicians from throughout Southern California.

Organizers dubbed the festival a “musical protest” for the Boyle Hotel mariachis.

Hundreds of onlookers sang along with mariachis.

Behind this symbol, the plaza, there is another symbol,” Father Luis Angel Nieto of the Resurrection Catholic Church told the crowd.

It’s the building where many of you first arrived. Today, many of you have moved on to other places, thank God. But many still there are being intimidated

Some mariachis cheered, and the priests began blessing players and their instruments. Then the musicians lifted their violins, guitarrillas and trombones and together began playing the old mariachi standard “Mi Virgen Ranchera.”

As the sounds set off a tangible vibration through the crowd, a few mariachis released a flock of white doves.

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