The area where Lincoln Heights blends into Chinatown is the kind of place where you’ll find Mexican immigrants making Italian subs in a Korean-owned market
It’s a sun-drenched afternoon in Lincoln Heights, and Albion Elementary School students are kicking a soccer ball that suddenly flies over a fence and lands outside of El Milagro Market. The kids, who owner Humberto Martinez affectionately calls “mis babies,” ask him to throw the ball back. It’s a typical afternoon routine for Martinez, who counts on the students to buy snacks from his little market.
Designated a Los Angeles landmark in 1989, it was opened in 1929 by the Milagro family, back when the neighborhood still had a sizable Italian population. Martinez only knows of two Italians left in the neighborhood, an older couple who live on Avenue 17. Sometimes they stop in to buy tortillas.
Some remnants of the Italian neighborhood are still around, though it’s now mostly Latino. Lulu Castillo, who has lived on Avenue 18 since the 1960s, used to buy $2.75 Italian subs from Lanza Brothers Market on North Main Street. That market is Korean-owned now, but the subs are still on the menu.
John Lanza, an Italian immigrant who moved to Los Angeles in the late 1800s, opened Lanza Brothers in 1926, when Italians lived and worked on Main Street and the area was called Little Sicily. When his son Louis Lanza retired, he sold the market to John Kim, a Korean immigrant who, at the time, had a clothing business in Downtown. From behind his antique register, Kim recalls a conversation where he promised Lanza that he would not change the market. Fifteen years later, the recipes haven’t changed.
“I used to come here and steal the hell out of the candy when I was a kid,” says Carlos Rodarte, chuckling. “This was the neighborhood store. It still is. This market is a gem.” Rodarte, who moved to Lincoln Heights from Zacatecas in 1958, now works at the market alongside his daughter Landy Sanchez and Michelle Chun, a Korean immigrant who moved to LA from the East Coast. Together, they sling salami-filled subs to hungry artists and construction workers.
Much like nearby Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights has been a home to working-class immigrants seeking an affordable place to live and work for decades. The neighborhood has wrapped its arms around a diverse group of people: Germans, Italians, Chinese, Koreans, Mexicans; these are the layers that exist in many corners of Los Angeles.
The portion of North Main Street where Lanza Brothers stands could easily go unnoticed. East of the LA River and Chinatown, this stretch of land is now mostly industrial. Semi trucks pass relentlessly from a nearby rail yard. There’s a car parts shop, a massive UPS facility, and two wok oven fabricators.
At General Restaurant Equipment Co., Ruben Ramirez cleans and drives a forklift. He lived on Avenue 19 for 20 years, when $400 a month afforded him a little house. Ramirez says he left because of gang violence, but he still hangs out in the area after work. Walking down Albion Street toward El Milagro Market, he waves at old neighbors and stops to chat with Martinez before settling on a friend’s porch to sip a beer.
This neighborhood ecosystem is fragile; residents say they are starting to feel the shift that comes with house flipping, warehouse renovations, and rising rents.
Warehouses behind the market have been painted gray, a color that now signals renovations, and in some places, gentrification. What was once a carpet factory is now a modern lamp and furniture studio. Across the street, Uber stores e-scooters and e-bikes that make up its growing fleet of dockless vehicles.
In 1979, after the Pabst Blue Ribbon Brewery on North Main Street shuttered its operations and put its property on the market, the Carlson family scooped it up. Taking advantage of a 1981 city law that allows artists to live commercial spaces, they carved it into 310 lofts and renamed it the Brewery, home of the Brewery Artwalk. “We have a lot of original tenants that have been here for decades. Why change it? We are happy. They’re happy,” says Steve Carlson, who runs the Brewery with his daughter, Kristen.
Sculptor Bruce Gray moved into the Brewery 28 years ago, when the loft had no bathroom or kitchen. Some days, he says, he found birds on the floor that had fallen through open skylights. The lack of amenities gave him a large space for welding in peace. Living in the complex allowed him to create a community of like-minded artists, who often congregated to talk shop at the Brewery’s bar. “My whole career has been here at the Brewery. It certainly has changed my world more than I can possibly say,” he says. “For me, the most interesting time of my life has been living here.”
The Carlsons’ “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” ethos has kept the Brewery relatively insulated from outside forces of gentrification. Rent has gone up, making it difficult for some of the artists, but for the most part things are the same as they were 38 years ago, and the Carlsons say they have no desire to change it.
Resident Kate Hoffman, a color consultant, lovingly refers to the Brewery’s community as the “Island of Misfit Toys.” But while canvassing recently for a local politician, she noticed a lack of connection to the outside neighborhood. “It really made me feel connected to the neighborhood in a way that I hadn’t been,” she says. “I wish there was a little more interaction with the neighborhood.”
Hoffman says she worries about how quickly the city is changing. She worries what the increasing cost of rent and the redevelopment of the LA River might mean for her community—both in and outside of the Brewery. “I think about the future like five years down the road, when my rent might be closer to $2,000 a month. I might not be able to afford it anymore, and that makes me really sad, because this place has become my home.”
Small-business owners in the neighborhood are feeling anxious too. Marcos Moreno, an immigrant from Michoacan, Mexico, has worked in the neighborhood for 20 years and runs Correas Market, a small meat and produce store on North Main Street. “A lot of my clients have disappeared. Their main complaint is rising rents. People come here worried because landlords are asking them to move out,” he says, speaking in Spanish.
Moreno is a butcher selling cuts of meat for Latino dishes. The majority of his clientele is Mexican. As he slices thick cuts of stomach for menudo, he pauses. “Look, this is stomach—Latinos eat this for menudo. Americans don’t really eat menudo. Chinese people don’t really eat it either,” he says. “So if the Latinos leave, who is going to eat this menudo?”
Next door, Lucia Mancia, an immigrant from El Salvador, who fled the violence of the civil war in the ’80s, runs Jessica’s Variedades y Regalos. In her little shop, she sells everything from clothes and toothpaste to chips and batteries. Older Latinos buy calling cards to communicate with relatives in Mexico and Central America. Mancia started selling her wares at swap meets until she saved enough money to rent a space in Highland Park. In 1997, she paid $550 in rent. Three years ago, the landlord declined to renew her lease. She settled on this space, because it’s affordable, and Moreno watches out for her during lonely shifts at the shop.
But business is not the same as it was in Highland Park, where she had a loyal customer base. “Time passes by here and no one comes in. In Highland Park I had an employee, but I can’t afford one here. I have the hope that in the future things will get better,” she says. Mancia says she is thankful her landlords haven’t hiked the rent. “They see I have difficulty paying my rent. They see that I don’t miss a day. I work seven days a week, because I have to,” she says. “If not, I won’t be able to afford it.”
Back on Avenue 18, Lulu Castillo walks out of her home: a mint-colored Victorian built in 1885. As a girl, Castillo passed the house daily on her way to school. She told her mom the “castle” would one day be hers. That dream came true in 2001. Castillo walks down the street past El Milagro Market to her childhood home, where her sister Lorraine Martinez now lives. Standing on the back porch, where you you can still hear the sounds of kids playing at Albion Elementary, Castillo and her sister look out at the Downtown LA skyline. “This is a special place,” Castillo says. Martinez agrees.
In her new column “Intersections,” journalist Samanta Helou Hernandez is creating an archive of LA’s changing neighborhoods.