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Carlos Valdez, 26, has spent his life in the same northeast Los Angeles neighborhood.
“I’m Highland Park for life,” he says. “Born and raised.”
For most of that time, his home has been the same apartment unit where his mother and grandfather also once lived. The thing he loves most about it?
“To be honest? It’s the parrots,” he says. The wild parrots of Highland Park, in the tree below the apartment’s window.
“They would sit there, and it would be loud. It was annoying. But you get to see them, and they’re really pretty.” Green feathers, and once you get close enough, which Valdez learned to do, you notice “this little orange and red thing on their face.”
In the apartment above the parrots, Valdez became an entrepreneur. He loved computers, and as a teenager he started fixing them for family friends. “Ten dollars here, 20 dollars there. And I started seeing I could make my own business.”
Carlos Valdez (second from right) at his Highland Park shop in 2014.
Five years ago, he set up shop in a building a few blocks from his apartment. Rent was cheap: a few hundred dollars a month. His neighbors were other small business owners who mentored him and helped him build his customer base.
“I focused on only low income [customers],” he says, like his own family. “And I could help the community out by having low prices.”
But just as Valdez was establishing his business in the neighborhood, his neighborhood was changing around him, quickly. Low-income families have been moving away as investors buy and rehab properties across Highland Park, and raise rents to levels that often only new, wealthier residents can afford.
And then last August, Valdez got a letter from the landlord who owned his apartment above the parrots, informing him the building was being sold and giving him a few months to move out.
The place was too new to be covered by the city’s rent stabilization ordinance, which only applies to units constructed before November 1978, so there weren’t many options for Valdez. He and his wife and two kids moved to a hotel for a few months before they found a new apartment — smaller and more expensive, but all they could find in Highland Park.
A few months later, Valdez got more news. He was told an investment group would be buying the building where he ran his computer repair shop. “Really? I just lost my house. Now you’re telling me I’m going to lose my business?” he remembers thinking at the time.
But Valdez has taken steps to save his business. He says he had watched so many shops around him close after their buildings were sold, and rent doubled or tripled, that he decided to take a painful but preemptive step. “I told my wife, ‘We could stay here and play this game, or just move on before I run out of money.’”
Carlos Valdez’s new storefront in Eagle Rock.
Valdez found a new storefront, a few miles from Highland Park, and moved there recently. So far, he says business has been good. But he misses his old shop, and especially his old apartment.
He has a message for investors in Highland Park buildings and other gentrifying neighborhoods about how to treat the tenants: “Please, be kind.”
Valdez says he feels lucky that he has been able to maintain his business, and that he’s found a new place to live in Highland Park. He knows many who have not. “It’s like dropping a huge boulder on your shoulders — and you’re like, ‘I already had little rocks and a sack of potatoes on top of me. Now what am I going to do?'”
But he is still trying to hold on to the neighborhood.
“I was here when it was bad. I was here when it was good. I was here when it was really bad. And I’m here when it’s changing.”
One way or another, he’s says he is trying to stay “Highland Park for life.”
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