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Razing the Barrio

Using every weapon at its disposal to wage war during the second phase of redevelopment at Pico-Aliso, the Housing Authority essentially achieved a total victory — until the blowback hit over a decade later.

A red, orange, yellow, and brown illustraion of a suited man leering behind a demolished building.
(Illustration: Kira Carlee | Knock LA)

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The Housing Authority learned from its mistakes in its first battle with the Pico-Aliso tenants, where it was forced to agree to a truce that allowed 250 families to remain at the redeveloped Pico Gardens in Boyle Heights. For the 685-unit Aliso Village next door, HACLA refused to give an inch, handing the entire complex over to private developers and demolishing it all in one fell swoop. 

The vast majority of families — thousands of people — were permanently displaced. In response to a public records request, HACLA claimed to have no records on the precise number, while organizers and multiple media accounts estimate that, at most, around 10% of the Aliso Village families were able to return to the redeveloped complex, Pueblo del Sol. 

Having begun to change the neighborhood with the first phase of redevelopment, HACLA was determined to go all the way. “Aliso Village will loom threateningly” over the new Pico Gardens and will “remain a huge neighborhood problem right next door,” the Housing Authority wrote in a 1997 application for federal funds, referencing the project’s “criminal element.” A revitalized Aliso Village would “have an economic impact on neighboring property owners who will benefit from the significant investment in the neighborhood.” 

Don Smith, HACLA’s executive director at the time, made his intentions explicit in a meeting with Elizabeth Blaney of Union de Vecinos (UdV). “He told us that he’s not going to do the phased redevelopment; that he learned from us,” she recalled during a phone interview with Knock LA

In Blaney’s words, supported by reporting in the Los Angeles Times, the relocation options for tenants at Aliso Village were as follows: “Either buy a house, relocate to another public housing development, or get a Section 8 voucher. Pick one of those three. When we’re done with demolition, we’ll send you a letter and let you know when we’re finished, and you can reapply to come back.” 

To get them out, HACLA stopped holding public meetings, publicly slandered UdV for resisting removal, lied to residents, and even had dissenting tenant leaders arrested

Aliso Village’s 685 homes were replaced by Pueblo del Sol, a privatized complex of 377 “affordable” units and 93 for-sale homes, 27 of which were allocated for low-income residents. The development was built and managed jointly by Related Companies — who we’ve seen, and will see again — and McCormack Baron Salazar, another massive owner-developer that expanded rapidly through the redevelopment of public housing across the country. Financiers included Eli Broad’s AIG SunAmerica, and, more recently, Citibank and Goldman Sachs.

A photograph of a young female resident of Aliso Village spray painting the words, "I love being here" on the wall of her home set to be demolished
A resident of Aliso Village writes “I love being here” on the wall of her home that is set to be demolished. (Photo: Union de Vecinos)

Richard Riordan: LA’s Donald Trump

“Taking big steps forward is sometimes hard on people,” said then mayor Richard Riordan, doing his best to feign sympathy for the Aliso Village tenants fighting for their homes. Riordan was speaking at a press conference in the summer of 1998 organized to celebrate a $23 million federal grant awarded for the complex’s redevelopment. Nevertheless, he insisted, “we won’t get where we need to go if we don’t have the guts to make the move.”

A different, more introspective politician might have stopped to reflect on the different “WEs” in that statement — the “we” who would benefit from a gentrified Boyle Heights, and the “we” who would be sacrificed in order to make it a reality. 

But that wasn’t Riordan. He was a businessman, an entrepreneur, a dealmaker. He was “tough enough to turn Los Angeles around,” as his 1993 campaign slogan went. He was a rich, white, country-club-going, tough-on-crime Republican who funded his own campaign, donated to all major politicians, and told voters he was too wealthy to be bribed. 

He was, in many ways, LA’s Donald Trump. And Riordan fit snugly within the city’s elite governing consensus. 

Riordan defeated Michael Woo in the 1993 election to succeed Tom Bradley. Though it was Woo who was seen as the heir apparent to Bradley’s coalition, Riordan and his predecessor as mayor were quite close political allies. With a net worth of at least $70 million when he entered office, Riordan was one of the primary donors to Bradley’s failed 1986 campaign for governor of California and contributed a total of $134,000 over the years to Bradley’s various mayoral campaigns. Bradley, in turn, appointed Riordan to a number of city commissions.

As Mike Davis wrote about the LA political landscape in 1993: “It takes a very fine razor indeed to split the difference between a ‘liberal’ and a ‘reactionary.’”

Both Riordan and Bradley supported the privatization of the city’s public housing at every turn, yet did so largely passively and mostly from behind the scenes. Riordan’s major contribution on this front was to provide a clear set of priorities for the overall direction of the city — namely, a revitalized downtown, a vastly expanded LAPD, and a city government run more like a business — and let the bureaucrats apply this vision to public housing.

A photograph of Richard Rioran and Bill Clinton, wearing black suits and red ties, seated next to each other in an office.
Mayor Richard Riordan (left) sits next to President Bill Clinton in the Oval Office. (Source: Wikimedia)

It’s no surprise, then, that Aliso Village, dangerously close to downtown LA and the international capital it attracts, was so relentlessly assaulted in the city’s quest for redevelopment and privatization during Riordan’s reign.

A Community Organized Against Violence

“We need to get beyond seeing the police and law enforcement as solutions to our problems,” Leonardo Vilchis declared in 1993, three years before UdV was founded. Back then, he was working closely with the tenants of Pico-Aliso as an organizer with the Dolores Mission church across the street. “Let’s talk about economic development for our community, let’s talk about jobs and schools and empowerment of our youth.”

The Pico-Aliso tenants had spent years fighting against the LAPD’s war on gangs. This is why, when the time came to defend their homes, they were able to mount such sustained resistance to a Housing Authority so committed to their removal.

Pico-Aliso, like all other public housing developments in LA, was routinely targeted for major police “sweeps” as the war on gangs escalated. Repression was the city’s strategy of choice in managing the community’s deep poverty.

Unapologetically violent policing was one side of this coin; softer social control was the other. In 1990, the Los Angeles County Probation Department used residents of Aliso Village as guinea pigs to test a new high-tech system for surveilling alleged gang members on probation. During declared “Red Alerts,” these individuals would have to be home to answer randomly generated phone calls. If nobody picked up, or if the computer found that the voice didn’t match, an officer would be sent to check on them. What happened if they were not home was left unsaid. Pending this program’s success at Aliso Village, it would be expanded to all of LA County. 

But 1990 also marked a turning point in the efforts of the community — in particular, the mothers — to address gang violence. 

It started with a campaign launched in September of that year, organized with the help of Dolores Mission, to requisition the guns in Pico-Aliso. “We mothers know where the weapons are,” one woman told the crowd that was gathered for the event. “If we all stick together, we can disarm this community.

Around 300 people marched through the neighborhood with candles, with some of the women singing in Spanish a hymn that would characterize their approach as their struggle against violence continued to evolve: “Not with force, not with violence, that is not how the world will change. … Only love can save us.”

By January 1991, the mothers of Pico-Aliso began to more directly confront the LAPD, establishing themselves as the Comité por Paz en el Barrio (“Committee for Peace in the Neighborhood”).

LAPD’s notorious “sweeps” were the catalyst for this more oppositional posture. Vilchis described one such sweep: “they took everybody who looked like a human being — little kids, gang members,” and also accosted the mothers who were on the scene. In response, the residents organized nine separate teams to conduct civilian patrols to monitor the LAPD at the complex, videotaping officers and taking down badge numbers. 

Yet the city’s answer for public housing communities remained the same: more cops and more caging. “[Operation] Hammer is a strategy in which we keep the pressure on,” boasted an LAPD captain with the Hollenbeck division, which covers Boyle Heights. “On a Friday or a Saturday night, we go out with 30 or 40 officers to known gang locations and arrest gang members for anything we can. Drinking beer in public. Anything.”

In downtown, meanwhile, well-heeled investors were showered with public money. In 1993, for example, the city gifted Ira Yellin, a major donor to Tom Bradley, $44 million to renovate Grand Central Market.

Pico-Aliso residents also had to deal with “the factories,” an industrial area just south of Aliso Village where the police would take residents to physically beat them. “Everybody knows the factories,” one of the mothers told a reporter with the Los Angeles Times. “It’s where you don’t want to end up.”

A teenager recounted being picked up by the police, driven to the factories, and assaulted on four separate occasions. “They know how to hit you with a club where it won’t bruise so much,” he said. The mothers of the Comité por Paz had persuaded him to overcome his fears of retaliation and file a formal complaint.

“It’s an absolute myth,” LAPD captain Bob Medina told the paper — before conceding that the police had indeed been using the factories to book and process arrestees since the 1980s.

A photo of Aliso Village residents marching and holding picket signs. The signs read, "Don't demolish our community."
Residents of Aliso Village protest against the demolition of their homes. (Photo: Union de Vecinos)

In the summer of 1993, residents with the Comité por Paz marched to LAPD headquarters across the river. After a period of relative peace, violence and abuse from the police had been rising for weeks, with a particularly violent sweep occurring on July 10 involving 100 officers shouting racist remarks about “Mexicans.” Residents were able to get a series of meetings with LAPD representatives, but it is not clear if these led to any substantive changes. 

The mothers’ anti-violence work persisted throughout the next few years. They continued to monitor the police, held “love walks” on Friday nights to discourage gang violence, and organized monthly potluck masses with the church.

The police reacted with skepticism, if not outright sabotage, echoing LAPD’s response to the historic 1992 gang truce in Watts. A report on one of the Comité’s events in the Los Angeles Times in 1994 presented a telling scene: As over 100 adults, teenagers, and children gathered for a barbecue-mass on the lawn of an elementary school just across from Aliso Village, LAPD’s notorious anti-gang unit Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) watched in unmarked cars from across the street, other LAPD officers regularly cruised by, and HACLA’s own police videotaped the event. The police stopped and arrested someone just down the block on an outstanding warrant — attendees believed this was done purposely to intimidate the organizers. 

“Their way of taking care of the gangs is jails, locking them up in institutions,” said Mike Garcia, an ex-gang member who helped organize the event. “We’re going to keep doing this and showing [the gangs] that we’re here for them and the answer is not locking them up.”

The CRASH officer on the scene had quite a different message for the young people: “I tell these guys, ‘You can make it but you’ll have to make it on your own. Nobody cares about you guys.’”

By the mid-1990s, as the land underneath Pico-Aliso became sufficiently desirable, the city settled on a new strategy: complete removal. 

HACLA Cries Emergency; Tenants Call Bullshit

Fearmongering around crime to attack anything vaguely left-wing was, and still is, an effective strategy. Using gang violence as a weapon to justify the mass removal of families was not some secret, conspiratorial plot, but openly stated policy at the highest levels of government. 

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed a “one-strike” policy that mandated the eviction of public housing families when any member committed a crime. HUD followed his lead with various provisions in its HOPE VI Program. One of the explicit goals for Aliso Village was “establishing and enforcing high standards of personal and community responsibility by barring drug dealers and other criminals from moving into public housing and evicting those already there.” 

From efforts to evict alleged “criminals” on an individual level, it’s an easy jump to justify the eviction of an entire community repeatedly stigmatized as “gang-infested.” 

HACLA also had another weapon in its arsenal to wage war on the community: On June 12, 1998, the Housing Authority declared a state of emergency for Aliso Village, claiming that the complex’s 33 buildings were structurally unsafe. 

“This project is old and can’t be modernized,” said HACLA’s executive director, Don Smith. “It is obsolete and needs to be torn down.” This claim was directly contradicted by HACLA’s own 1996 application for federal funds, which admitted that aside from some termite damage, there were “no substantial structural deficiencies.” 

Just days after the Housing Authority’s sudden announcement, over 100 tenants held a protest demanding that HACLA renovate rather than demolish their homes. The plans at the time called for only 269 units of very low-income housing to be rebuilt, effectively guaranteeing the displacement of over 400 families.

Then, in August, residents organized with UdV released their own independent report conducted by an engineering company that showed the buildings could be adequately repaired. “It would be a lot cheaper to retrofit than to demolish the project and start all over,” said a manager of the Pasadena-based firm. 

Years later, the conclusions of this report were vindicated by a case study by the Urban Land Institute (ULI), a prestigious real estate think tank that would also play a role in the redevelopment of Jordan Downs and Rancho San Pedro. According to the ULI: “It was not so much that the buildings were structurally unsound, as that uncontrollable drug gangs made them unsafe.”

Over 300 Aliso Village residents had also signed a petition opposing the demolition. Relocation and the right to return were again the major issues. HACLA insisted that residents would have “priority status” to return once the redevelopment was finished, but it was unclear how this would work given the reduction of units and the six-year timeline

While the Housing Authority’s plans for allowing tenants to return were uncertain, its approach to removal was not: “If we have to force people out of Aliso Village, we will,” Xavier Mendoza, HACLA’s “director of urban revitalization,” bluntly told the Los Angeles Times. HACLA soon stopped holding public meetings about the project, claiming they were “too confrontational” due to UdV’s organizing.

Instead of offering any material critiques of the engineering report presented by UdV, the Los Angeles Times printed a series of personal attacks on the tenants involved in the organization. One resident, who was in favor of the demolition plans, referred to them as “lease violators,” while Housing Authority spokesman George McQuade referred to UdV as “vultures” who were “taking advantage of the situation to get notoriety.”

A photograph of a white apartment building atop a green lawn (Aliso Village) before it got demolished.
This photograph shows Aliso Village before it was demolished. (Photo: Union de Vecinos)

Perhaps the most disappointing denunciation came from Father Gregory Boyle, who blasted UdV as “irresponsible” and accused the organization of needlessly whipping up fears. “I don’t think having poor people piled on top of poor people is what God had in mind,” Boyle said, defending HACLA’s plans to bring in wealthier residents. “If I thought anyone was going to be left out [of the new housing], I’d be at the top of the march.” 

What Father Boyle conveniently forgot to mention was that his nonprofit, Jobs For A Future — the predecessor to his famous Homeboy Industries — had already committed to support the privatization scheme in exchange for potential contracts with the Housing Authority. “Jobs For A Future … is very much interested [in] being included in any future RFP proposal relative to Aliso Village,” he wrote in a letter submitted as part of HACLA’s 1996 federal grant application. We “would deem it an honor to be considered a part of the team for this project.” 

‘We’ve Done All We Can For Them’

In October 1998, UCLA urban planning professor Jacqueline Leavitt again provided a clarifying perspective on the struggle in the pages of the Los Angeles Times. Sharply criticizing the decision to reduce the number of low-income units, she asked: “But is ‘mixed income’ just another euphemism for getting rid of the poor while pretending to help them?” She further argued that HACLA was repeating its deceptive tactics from the first time around, again “stonewalling” tenants on important matters, in addition to using sign-in sheets from meetings to demonstrate approval of its plans.  

Responding to Mayor Riordan’s remarks about “having the guts to make the move,” Leavitt wrote: “Public-housing residents have guts; it is they, not bureaucrats or elected officials, who have raised serious questions about the demolition of Aliso Village.” She concluded by calling for the City Council to step in. 

Leavitt could have also mentioned that, if money was really the issue (as the Housing Authority claimed), the city almost certainly could have found it. Just the previous year, under Riordan’s leadership, the city agreed to borrow $70 million from the bond market to help subsidize the construction of Staples Center.

As 1998 turned into 1999, it was becoming clearer that HACLA would remain on the offensive, doing all it could to prevent tenants from being able to remain at the complex. The issue came to a head with the arrest of three women, all members of UdV, in the summer of 1999, for the crime of being too disruptive at a meeting held by the Housing Authority. 

“The Housing Authority just lies to people,” one resident told the press. “They don’t tell you anything. They arrest people who speak out against them.” HACLA had also stopped letting nonresidents into these meetings, using police to check identification at the door. 

Out of one side of their mouth, Housing Authority officials continued to deny any legitimacy to critiques of their relocation-and-return plans. “We’ve done all we can for them,” Don Smith, the authority’s executive director, told the Los Angeles Times

Out of the other, HACLA was openly admitting they wanted to attract wealthier families, hoping to populate the project with households earning up to $30,000 per year, compared to the average Pico-Aliso family that earned just $12,000. “What we’re trying to do is change the social and physical [reality] of Pico Aliso,” stated Xavier Mendoza.

The Housing Authority’s scorched-earth tactics paid off: By April 2000, the last of the 685 families of Aliso Village were finally removed.

Tapping That Real Estate

Dubbed a “Renaissance in the Barrio” by LA Weekly, Pueblo Del Sol opened its doors in the fall of 2003. It quickly received multiple design awards, including an “Award for Excellence” from the Urban Land Institute. 

Ninety million dollars of private capital was invested into the 29 acres where Aliso Village once stood, a good chunk of that money coming from AIG SunAmerica, who received tax credits in exchange for its financing. More recently, Citibank and Goldman Sachs have made major investments in the project, again generously aided by public dollars. The development was quite a boon to Related Companies, too, which was soon thereafter chosen by the city and county to be the lead developer for the massive, and massively subsidized, Grand Avenue Project downtown.

As the new for-sale homes built upon the ruins of Aliso Village were being sold for up to $400,000 each — today, closer to $700,000 — a “zero-tolerance policy of the new private-sector management company” kept the wrong people out. This had been part of the plan since the beginning — HACLA wrote in its 1997 application for funds that the only way to “attract investors” would be to implement a “professional, ‘private sector’ bottom line mentality” in managing the property. 

“The beauty of HOPE VI is that it has tapped the value of that real estate,” Diego Cardoso, formerly the chairman of HACLA’s Board of Commissioners, told LA Weekly. Tony Salazar, one of the head honchos of the developer McCormack Baron Salazar, boasted of the positive impacts of wholesale population replacement, or, as he put it, “bringing the middle class back into very poor neighborhoods.” 

A photograph of a white building and. a brown building (Pueblo del Sol)
Pueblo Del Sol is pictured in 2023 (Photo: Jacob Woocher | Knock LA)

Leonardo Vilchis and UdV provided a different perspective. “HOPE VI is just an excuse for the federal government to deconstruct and reduce housing for poor people,” he stated. “If the intent was really to help poor people, then there would have been one-for-one replacement of demolished units. Was the point really to help people, or to move them and their problems out of the way of the real estate market?”

While HACLA claims to have no records about the precise number of people displaced, LA Weekly cites organizers who estimated that between 250 and 300 original families resided at the redeveloped Pico-Aliso as a whole, across both phases. Given that about 250 families returned in the first phase, this means only something like 50 returned to Pueblo del Sol. This is validated by reporting from SF Gate in 2006, estimating that only about 10% of Aliso Village families returned. Organizers today contend that this is, if anything, a significant overestimate.

Some 685 families lived at Aliso Village pre-demolition — that’s thousands of individuals who were displaced. 

“LA boosterism is back,” the Economist cheered as Richard Riordan’s second term as mayor was coming to a close. The Disney Concert Hall was finally financed, Staples Center was nearing completion, and Riordan had demonstrated an “extraordinary ability to get his rich friends to embrace their civic responsibilities.”

In Boyle Heights, the redeveloped Pico-Aliso was just the latest and most dramatic instance of the ruling class imposing its will on the masses. 

Yet the craven elites, used to messing around, would also, in time, come to “find out.” Twenty years after the beginning of their intense battle to save their homes, the mothers of Pico-Aliso would help to inspire and organize a neighborhood-wide war against the art galleries and gentrifying investors seeking to flip Boyle Heights’s real estate and empty it of its people. In the late 2010s, their organizing from almost 30 years prior would put the neighborhood at the forefront of the nationwide struggle against displacement and help birth the city’s militant tenants movement. 

Read more of this 10-part series, LA’s War on Public Housing: The Era of Demolition and Privatization, here.