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Sale is music to mariachis' ears

A community group buys the Boyle Hotel, a home to musicians who feared gentrification would drive them out.

January 16, 2007|Cara Mia DiMassa and Adrian G. Uribarri | Times Staff Writers

The musicians who make Mariachi Plaza their office and the Boyle Hotel across the street their home are not singing their last song yet -- or at least, it doesn't appear that way.

After mariachis waged a public battle over the fate of the Boyle Hotel, the four-story brick building that for decades has been a home for many of Boyle Heights' mariachis, the East L.A. Community Corp. announced Monday that it had purchased the hotel, along with a neighboring commercial building.

The organization is planning a $5-million fund drive to restore the hotel and keep it as an affordable musicians' residence.

The purchase marks a victory for Boyle Heights forces that have been fighting what they see as the creeping gentrification, stemming from the condo and loft boom in nearby downtown Los Angeles, of their working-class neighborhood. Those critics worry that upscale development in their neighborhood will eventually push low-income residents out.

"We were fearful that developers looking at the building would propose some sort of loft development that wouldn't include people who were traditionally housed there," said Maria Cabildo, the community corporation's executive director.

Cabildo called the Boyle Hotel, which was built in 1889, "an iconic building ... perhaps the oldest building in Boyle Heights, at the gateway to the Eastside. It's just part of the history," she said. "If you grew up in Boyle Heights like I did, you know this building."

For the musicians who say they often scrape by weekly on a few hundred dollars, earned by serenading wedding guests, restaurant-goers and playing the occasional funeral, the Boyle Hotel offered low rents and a built-in community.

But in recent years, the mariachis have been involved in a bitter dispute with Asamblea de Dios, an evangelical, Spanish-language congregation that bought the building in 2003 and had been making repairs. The mariachis and other community advocates worried that the landlord would upgrade the building beyond their financial reach. And they complained about dangerous conditions in the building.

The mariachis lobbied city officials, filed a lawsuit against the church for breach of contract and negligence, and even took their case to the Mexican Consulate, where they staged a musical protest that they hoped would curry the consulate's support.

Those protests also generated interest from other community activists, who are increasingly concerned that low-income neighborhoods on the fringes of downtown, including Echo Park, Boyle Heights and the USC area, could attract developers who had brought luxury housing to downtown.

There has been much debate about a proposal to convert the landmark Sears building in Boyle Heights into luxury lofts.

Cabildo said that her organization, which purchased the two buildings for just under $2 million after other deals on the properties fell through, hopes to preserve the building's affordable housing units, as well as provide a permanent home for the mariachis who have strolled the plaza for decades.

She said she suspected that the building would need "really major work." In meetings with tenants last week, she said, she learned that residents feared that the building wasn't structurally sound.

On Monday, residents who spoke with The Times said they had seen no evidence that things were changing at the building.

Several cited the condition of the building's bathrooms. In one, liquid had pooled on the floor. In another, cobwebs had gathered on ceiling pipes. An unpleasant odor wafted through the air.

"We don't want to live like animals," said 53-year-old Jorge Amezquita, who plays guitarron and vihuela and has lived in the Boyle Hotel for 17 years. "The smell that comes from the bathroom is disgusting."

Amezquita pays half of the $250 rent for a one-room apartment that he and a roommate share. But he thinks that even that is a sacrifice because of the conditions. "We live with cockroaches," he said.

Another resident, Macrina Cruz Arroyo, a housecleaner, refuses to shower in the building, but instead goes to her daughter's apartment a few blocks away. "In the morning, the smell from the bathroom would send you running," said Cruz Arroyo, 56.

Cabildo said her organization has begun working on the building. A property management company that works at some of their other single-room occupancy hotels was hired, she said, and last week, it sent a plumber to the building three times.

She said she understood residents' concerns but also believed that something else was happening in the building.

"We feel someone is coming on to the building and messing with the plumbing," she said. "Someone is possibly sabotaging the toilets. We send the cleaning crews out there, and by 3 p.m., you can't tell any difference."

John Ramos, an attorney who represents the mariachis in their case against the previous owners of the Boyle Hotel, said the building "is no different than any other low-income property that tenants or owners are not maintaining."

The only distinction he might make, Ramos said, is the Boyle's residents.

"I call them day laborers, except they work at night with instruments," Ramos said. "They stay in the corner across the street and people pick them up to play. They've been doing it in that fashion for 50 years."

cara.dimassa@latimes.com

adrian.uribarri@latimes.com

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