Mariachi Beto Lopez walks toward the Boyle Hotel from Mariachi Plaza in… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)
Until the cockroaches, mice and fleas took it over, the historic Boyle Hotel was once the "jewel" of Boyle Heights. For decades, it was a landing spot for mariachis, who frequented the nearby Mariachi Plaza in search of gigs at weddings and quinceaneras.
But in late 2010, the living conditions had become so poor that dozens of tenants were told to move out to make way for a $24-million renovation.
For Martin Mayorga, that was a relief. The 44-year-old mariachi is one of dozens of people finally moving back this month into the converted apartment building, which now has 51 units of affordable housing, commercial spaces, a community room and a mariachi center.
PHOTOS: Boyle Hotel
Mayorga can finally watch TV in his bed without fear of being bitten. He can fit his six instruments in his studio apartment and still have space to play. He can finally have a place he's proud to call home.
"This is a real message about the direction of the new Boyle Heights, where we preserve and honor its past but invest in Boyle Heights, which hasn't happened in decades," said Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar, who helped secure some of the project's funding.
The hotel at the corner of Boyle Avenue and 1st Street was built in 1889 and over the course of time had fallen into disrepair. Residents complained of filthy communal bathrooms, pests and a lack of private kitchens.
In 2006, the East Los Angeles Community Corp., a Boyle Heights group with a reputation for building and renovating affordable housing, bought the hotel and two apartment buildings adjacent to the original hotel for more than $3.6 million. The total construction cost $24 million.
Architects preserved the exterior of the building, restoring the signature red brick and gold cupola while stripping nearly everything inside to bring the hotel up to modern standards. The apartments in the back were razed, creating more space for a parking garage and additional units. As requested by tenants, every apartment now included its own kitchen and bathroom.
"It is a labor of love. It is a project that a lot of people told us we were crazy to take on," said Isela Gracian, associate director of ELACC. "If all other developers are running away from it, it's probably a project we want to run toward."
But some community members say the rents have not been as affordable as some tenants were promised.
Benjamin Barboza, 52, a mariachi musician who lives with his wife and five children in a house a block down Boyle Avenue, applied to live at the Boyle Hotel earlier this year. In preparation, he sold the possessions that wouldn't fit into the three-bedroom apartment, such as a washer, dryer and his children's bicycles.
He was quoted $658 monthly, but when he arrived to pick up the keys, property managers informed him that his rent would be $1,048.
"I feel deceived, defrauded and sad at the same time," Barboza said. "In reality, this was for my children, not for me."
The rent miscalculation affected all prospective tenants who went through the tedious application process of qualifying for affordable housing.
Gracian said they inadvertently used the wrong formulas to calculate rents and remain committed to keeping them as low as possible.
"This is the first time that something like this has happened to us," Gracian said. "We're in the business of moving people into homes."
Now, ELACC is making rent concessions on an individual basis with the hopes of making good on the promise of quality affordable housing.
Most of the mariachis have moved out, but ELACC hopes a space set aside for a mariachi nonprofit will continue the building's musical tradition.
Arturo Ramirez, president of Organizacion de Mariachis Unidos de Los Angeles, a nonprofit group aimed at helping mariachis secure pensions and other benefits, hopes the redevelopment will attract more people to the Boyle Heights area.
"When there's more people, there's more interest in mariachis," Ramirez said. "And that may generate more work for us."
Mayorga said the mariachis at Boyle Hotel have been replaced by families, but the musicians' community still thrives.
"Even though we're not here, we still come together at the plaza," he said.
And his new apartment?
"Now it's bigger, it's cleaner," Mayorga said. "I feel happy."