Echo Park market prepares to close in the face of steep rent increase

May 25, 2014

ECHO PARK –   For nearly 50 years, El Batey No. 2  has anchored the corner of Echo Park and Delta Avenues at the bottom of a brick apartment building. Here, a 74-year-old woman named Evelia has tended to the family business that served a primarily Latino clientele with all manner of merchandise, from soda and Mexican foods to beer and cleaning supplies. Now, after watching the block gentrify with boutiques, a coffee house and gourmet grocery, El Batey is preparing to close early next month after failing to come to terms with the new landlord.  Representatives of the new owners have talked about raising the rent approximately 300%, said Ramon Pack III, an attorney and Evelia’s son. “Not only is that not feasible, it’s a slap in the face,” he said.

Evelia, a native of Mexico, and her family have deep roots in Echo Park, where she lives a block away from the store.  She once worked as a cashier at Nayarit, a former Mexican restaurant that is now home to The Echo nightclub, before becoming a familiar presence at El Batey No. 2. The store opened 48 years ago in a former Jewish deli (El Batey No. 1 used to operate in Silver Lake).  The business expanded into the adjacent space, selling on credit to the neighborhood’s Latino customers, many of whom lived upstairs in the apartment building.  The store might have been dark and dusty at times, but Evelia served as a welcoming presence. She turned her regular customers into friends, jotting down their birth dates in the store’s ledger and delivering home cooked meals to those who were housebound.

El Batey remained in business even when gang violence was at its peak, with frequent shootings and gang members in control of the block. In fact, Mi Vida Loca, the 1993 movie about Echo Park female gang members, filmed  a shooting scene outside the store’s front door.  But it was gentrification, not gangs, that took a bigger toll on El Batey’s business.  As the neighborhood changed and many immigrant families were priced out, Evelia’s pool of Spanish-speaking customers shrank.  Whites and other non-Latinos have also patronized El Batey but the store has continued to struggle.

“It was the Latino community that supported me,” said Evelia from the behind the counter of what is, for now, one of Echo Park’s oldest businesses. “I sold a lot of beans, tortillas, candy, pan dulce because the people here had families with many children.  Not anymore. That ended.”

In April, the landlord unexpectedly ordered El Batey to vacate the building in 30 days but the business was able to get a one month delay to try and negotiate a lease.  Pack III  said he was in contact with several representatives of the company over the past month but it looks like he was getting the run around, he said.  Negotiations never began. Meanwhile, other prospective tenants were notified that the space was coming up for lease, Pack III said.

The Eastsider has contacted leasing officials for comment.

At the end of this week, a representative of the landlord issued a last-minute deadline:  El Batey would have until next Wednesday to come up with a long list of documentation – including renovation and business plans, an approved contractor, three years of detailed financials records – if it wanted to negotiate a lease.  Pack III said that’s totally unrealistic. “That’s another way of saying “we want your family out.’”

Evelia has been through this once before. In 2008, the store was faced with a steep rent hike after the building changed hands.  But Evelia, who was profiled by L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez at the time,  remained in business.  Now, she’s seeking public support to buy more time in the building, which was sold for $9.275 million at the end of last year, to sell off inventory and wrap up her affairs.

What will Evelia do when the store closes? “I will just go home.”

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