Building a Movement for Equitable Land Use in Long Beach

This post was authored by Christine Petit and Elsa Mei Tung of Long Beach Forward and originally published on LA Thrives’ blog. The piece is second in a series of blogs from SPARCC LA partners, which is now entering its third year of collaboration under the Strong, Prosperous and Resilient Communities Challenge. 

Gentrification and displacement are at the fore in Long Beach’s Cambodia Town—home to the largest population of Cambodians outside of Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, displacement and its related trauma are an indelible part of the Cambodian community’s memory. Cambodians first arrived in Long Beach as refugees, having been violently displaced from their homeland by the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. Since then, Cambodians have created a place of their own in the heart of Central Long Beach.

Photo credit: United Cambodian Community

As development in Long Beach expands beyond its downtown, neighborhoods that historically have not seen investment are now targets for development. The proposed redevelopment of two retail plazas in Cambodia Town threaten to displace longstanding immigrant-owned, community-serving small businesses and cultural institutions, including a Cambodian supermarket where residents buy culturally-specific ingredients they can’t find anywhere else. In expressing why these places matter to them, community members tell stories of food, proms, medical appointments, and weddings—all centered around the languages and cultures of the multi-ethnic Cambodia Town neighborhood.


via LB Post

News of this potential displacement came just days before the December 4, 2018, “Investment Without Displacement” conference convened by the Strong, Prosperous, And Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC). Several Long Beach SPARCC partners began sorting out the facts of what was happening and strategizing with one another about next steps. Shortly thereafter, local media attention and public outcry led the redevelopment projects to be delayed indefinitely from Planning Commission consideration. United Cambodian Community then organized several community-based organizations (CBOs) to form an ad hoc working group around these specific projects with the goal of organizing the impacted businesses and residents, and over the long-term, creating a community-centered vision for the future of Cambodia Town.

What’s happening in Cambodia Town is the tip of the iceberg for that neighborhood, but Long Beach residents and advocates, including Housing Long Beach, have been fighting gentrification, displacement, and housing injustice for years, especially since the Downtown Plan adopted in 2012 paved the way for significant market-rate development without renter protections or community benefits. Moreover, Long Beach environmental justice advocates have been battling for decades to mitigate the severe pollution from the Port complex, the 710 freeway, railyards, oil refineries, oil drilling, and industrial sites—all located in and around neighborhoods of color. More recently, groups focused on safe streets, active transportation, and healthy food access have made strides in promoting health and safety in physical infrastructure and policy.

Photo credit: East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice

While we celebrate our grassroots movement building in housing justice, environmental justice, mobility justice, and food justice, we also recognize that in many ways, our justice movements have been siloed. Our movements have not developed strong, unified, integrated community organizing and advocacy around equitable land use. This lack of unified organizing was seen most regrettably in the battle around the City’s General Plan Land Use Element in 2017 and 2018, whereby NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard) from wealthier, whiter East Long Beach organized vigorously and promoted anti-density narratives with racist and classist undertones. While the Building Healthy Communities: Long Beach (BHCLB) Environmental Health Work Group sent the City a comprehensive letter calling for equitable land use priorities—some of which were incorporated by the City—our ability to offer an equity-based counter-narrative to the boisterous NIMBY narrative was limited.

Out of this realization, however, comes opportunity.

Equitable land use is the common thread that not only connects multiple parts of the BHCLB CBO network, but also weaves together the struggles of sometimes disparate city neighborhoods: the concentrated low-income communities of color of Central, West, and North Long Beach that are most in need of investments in health, housing, and community development. BHCLB’s participation in SPARCC LA has sparked a shared focus on equitable development and a level of collaboration, capacity building, and regional connectedness among Long Beach CBOs and allied city staff not previously seen.

Photo credit: City of Long Beach

In 2019, technical assistance through SPARCC LA is poised to build and strengthen Long Beach CBO capacity and buy-in in capital planning, housing and land use policy, and LA Metro advocacy. Local partners—many of whom are new to community development—are also energized to convene “ideas lab” learning sessions, specifically on community land trusts and community development corporations (of which Long Beach has zero). Across sectors and neighborhoods, folks are excited to aim for the newfound north star of equitable development and share opportunities to organize, participate, advocate, and influence different planning and development processes in Central, North, and West Long Beach.

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