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When Teen Angst and Gentrification Collide

Jade Adia's 2023 YA novel puts teenagers “on the front lines” of conversations about neighborhood change.


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People walk past Leimert Park Plaza during a Juneteenth celebration in 2021. The plaza is depicted in Jade Adia’s novel as the beating heart of a fictional neighborhood facing gentrification. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon AFP via Getty Images

After the killing of George Floyd in 2020, teenagers and young adults were among the millions of protesters who marched against police brutality and racial injustice in the waves of demonstrations that spread across US cities.

“They brought Bluetooth speakers, and they were dancing and just bringing a completely different energy to those protests,” recalled Jade Adia, a Los Angeles-based author who writes about gentrification, capitalism and the experiences of growing up Black. Watching those young protesters inspired Adia to write her debut young adult novel that summer — a coming-of-age story about a group of Black teens trying to save their South LA neighborhood from gentrifying.

There Goes the Neighborhood, which was published in March, follows 15-year-old Rhea as she reacts to the changes in her community: Billboards plastered with faces of white people have cropped up, advertising the fictional Kofa Park as LA’s “up-and-coming hot spot.” Trendy shops and Pilates studios have replaced her favorite neighborhood spots. And worst of all, her best friend Zeke and his family face eviction as their landlord seeks out investors to turn their apartment building into a luxury high-rise.

In a desperate attempt to save Zeke, Rhea and her friends orchestrate a far-out plan to scare off investors and potential newcomers by creating the illusion that the neighborhood is run by a new and dangerous gang. To their surprise, the plan works — but a little too well. When police accuse the nonexistent gang of murder, Rhea and her friends scramble to find the real killer.

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Part comedy and part mystery, the novel takes readers on a wild ride of plot twists and teenage antics. It also touches on very real issues Black and brown youth experience across the US — including discrimination, over-policing, and displacement in the name of urban renewal — as well as on their resilience.

In an interview with Bloomberg CityLab, Adia said the book is dedicated to young people who are fighting the status quo, despite being disillusioned by the lack of government action on issues they care about — from social justice to climate change to things that are happening right in their neighborhood. “I wanted to tackle the topic [of gentrification] in the most accessible way possible,” she said, “by putting young people and their experiences on the front lines of the conversation.”

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you write about gentrification, and all these other complex issues of inequity, for a young audience?

I tried to kind of ground this story in that very universal experience that a lot of people have, which is that deep-seated fear of change in those early teen years. For my main character Rhea, it’s like, “OK, you’re 15, you have a lot of rage.” And then you’re seeing your friend group change, and you’re seeing changes in your own family, and within yourself. And on top of all of those changes that everyone can relate to at that age, imagine your neighborhood changing.

So I tried to weave in all of the gentrification stuff around that theme to try to make people understand why it’s so high stakes for her, and why she speaks about these things with such fierce loyalty and protectiveness. It’s because the world’s spinning too fast and she’s just trying to hold down, and in this case she’s dealing with something that has real political and social consequences.

So Rhea sets out this absurd plot. Without giving too much away, what does the way in which her plan plays out and the unintended consequences of it — say about the challenges and triumphs of being a young protester or activist?

She thinks of a very controversial, very problematic plan to save her neighborhood that works until it doesn’t and everything starts to fall apart. But the place where her plan starts from is very valid: She’s acutely aware of the anti-Blackness that is informing all the changes around her, so she’s like, “How can I play into this and try to turn it on its head against the people that are trying to weaponize it?”

I wanted to make her idea pretty outlandish because her character is deeply disillusioned by society in a lot of ways, and by the political process. She has neighbors who she really respects and admires, and who are going down the traditional protest and community-organizing path, which she doesn’t feel is responsive or urgent enough. I think that is how a lot of Gen Z people feel right now: They’ve just seen so much and they’re exhausted, and they have a very well-founded skepticism about the political and organizing process.

But I wanted the book to ultimately still have a hopeful ending because the conclusion Rhea comes to is that there is genuine power within your community, genuine change could happen at the local level, whether that’s through policy, local government or local organizing. I wanted to highlight that as a source of optimism for young people.

Why are stories like these necessary for teenagers to read?

I think what’s happening right now with gentrification — this systematic re-segregation and scattering of low-income people — is something that isn’t being talked about, particularly with young people who are experiencing the brunt of this.

One of the things I find disturbing about gentrification is that when you’re scattering people, you’re really disrupting social capital, which is extremely valuable not just for the safety nets, but also for the ability to organize and mobilize. I read the other day about how in Brooklyn, the Department of Transportation took down the Avenue of Puerto Rico sign, and the community came out [to protest], and that’s amazing.

Can you talk about how your own experience of growing up in Los Angeles inspired you to write this book?

I grew up in an extremely tight-knit neighborhood where I felt super supported by neighbors who, over the years, have become my family by extension. So I was really lucky to have this experience where if there was something happening in my house, I could walk down the street and open someone's door and go sit at their dinner table.

That was a really special way to grow up, a way that I didn’t even realize was that unique until I went away for college. Every time I came back I would go around and be like, “Hey where did this place go or what happened to this family?” And they’d be like, “Oh, that place closed,” or “They moved.” So it was really only in my college years where I started to see this sort of accelerated gentrification starting to change like my particular area where I grew up.

You know, I didn’t experience gentrification growing up in the way that the characters in the book do. But moving back to Los Angeles for law school and just seeing how much has changed, it was definitely something on my mind.

Did this neighborhood inspire the town of Kofa Park?

It's kind of an amalgamation of a bunch of different neighborhoods within South LA, and part of the reason for that was because I didn’t want to jinx my actual neighborhood with the accelerated gentrification that’s being experienced in the book. But I wanted it to have some familiarity for people who do know Los Angeles. There are some places that were extremely important to me in my childhood that aren’t here anymore, largely due to gentrification, and I wanted to recreate them in the book, so there’s a scene that takes place at a Black roller-skating rink, for example, that was an intergenerational and important staple of the community.

I also did my book launch in person in a place that actually inspired many of the scenes in the book. Leimert Park Plaza appears frequently in the book under a different name, but for anyone who’s been there, it’s very immediately recognizable as sort of the beating heart of a lot of these neighborhoods. So that was really special, because that was down the street from where I grew up.

Tell me a little bit about how you wanted your book to depict the experience of being a Black teenager.

I decided to write this as a comedy because it was extremely important to show the multi-dimensional experience of growing up Black in America. Yes, we’re going to have to deal with racism and classism, but we’re also having panic attacks about trying to hold someone’s hand for the first time.

Sometimes in young adult literature, if there’s a book about a Black kid dealing with racism even peripherally, it has to be very heavy, very sad, very focused on the trauma. Those stories are important, but I wanted a narrative [about] a very anxious, nerdy, quirky Black girl living her messy girlhood experience.

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This post originally appeared on CityLab and was published April 17, 2023. This article is republished here with permission.

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