The Struggle Against A Stadium’s Construction Became A Battle for the Soul Of Los Angeles
Sports venues like the new SoFi Stadium have been crushing poor communities around the country for over a century.
This commentary is part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.
In Los Angeles, residents of historically Black and Latinx neighborhoods are being pushed out of their homes as the construction of a new stadium, and the waves of development it has spurred, are driving up rent prices. Their struggle mirrors inequities that are playing out across the country: After decades of housing discrimination that has pushed Black and Latinx people into certain neighborhoods, many are now being pushed from their homes because of gentrification and rapid redevelopment. In city after city, stadium construction has accelerated these trends.
The struggle against the construction of the SoFi Stadium—the most expensive in the world—became a struggle for the soul of Los Angeles itself: what it wants to be, who it is for, and who it wants to include. Workers have died during the stadium’s construction, and now the structure is threatening to displace poor people and heighten policing in the area. The $5 billion colossus has also inspired tenants to take a defiant stand against the encroaching crush of displacement.
Gentrification in the Los Angeles County city of Inglewood has been proceeding at a breakneck pace in recent years—a trend that preceded the construction of SoFi but has long been driven by the construction and renovation of large entertainment venues.
As the SoFi deal was being rubber-stamped in 2015, Alexis Aceves was watching the fabric of her community unravel from afar. Raised in Lennox, which neighbors Inglewood, she was studying urban planning at University of California, Berkeley at the time. “I started researching the political landscape, the economic landscape,” she said. Aceves learned about the NFL and NBA teams that would soon start playing in Inglewood and how Mayor James Butts, a former police chief, had courted their favor. She was outraged that the Inglewood city government was allowing the school district to collapse while putting its resources into pursuing development projects that would benefit the wealthy.
While the stadium was in development, locals collected over 20,000 signatures (an impressive 20 percent of the entire population of Inglewood) asking for a vote on the project. But the City Council decided not to put the project on the ballot, instead unanimously voting in favor in February 2015.
It was clear there was going to be a fight on SoFi, and that billionaire Stan Kroenke, owner of the Rams and the developer behind the stadium, was going to partner with a set of police and developer-friendly officials, led by Butts. Gentrification has been shown to increase policing in neighborhoods; a lawsuit alleged that it was a driving factor in the Louisville, Kentucky, police raid that killed Breonna Taylor, which the city has denied.
Butts made grandiose promises about how the project would revitalize the neighborhood. In 2019, he told a local newspaper that SoFi would lead to the “Genesis effect,” likening the stadium to the technological device in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” that could transform uninhabitable planets into land suitable for human colonization. He claimed that, without the stadium, Inglewood was “a city devoid of hope with no aspiration for the future.” He has also been highly supportive of building a new Clippers arena. But following the money made critics skeptical that revitalization was Butts’s true motive—Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, who was pushing for the construction of the stadium, “donated more than $350,000 to a committee supporting Butts’s mayoral bid,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
Meanwhile, the school system in Inglewood is in shambles. In 2012, the state had to take over the embattled district.
This style of open quid pro quo between county officials and billionaires infuriated Aceves, who moved back to the area and got involved with trying to expose corruption at the local school board and take on gentrification.
Racist housing policy made Inglewood into one of the California’s last remaining Black enclaves, and systemic disinvestment has left its residents vulnerable to displacement. Originally Tongva land, Spanish settlers had seized land in the area by the late 1700s. By the 1920s, Inglewood was an extremely white place and used redlining and other discriminatory tactics to maintain this homogeneity. A Prohibition-era raid in Inglewood—once a sundown town like many in the county—uncovered dozens of Ku Klux Klan members, including a city constable who was killed in the gunfire. The bust led to a grand jury indicting 37 men for weapons and assault charges. All were acquitted.
The civil rights movement helped catalyze the next major demographic shift in Inglewood. With the thrust of the Great Migration, Southern Black people began moving en masse to West Coast cities like Long Beach and Pasadena and neighborhoods like South Central Los Angeles. But these areas were also redlined, meaning buying property there was virtually impossible. Even though restrictive covenants were deemed unconstitutional in 1948 and were outlawed federally through the Fair Housing Act two decades later, white resistance to Black integration dragged on for decades. Many white neighborhoods like Inglewood would end up flipping quickly as white flight, spurred by the nearby Watts riots in 1965 and “incentivized suburbanization” lured white residents to more conservative outskirts like Orange County in the ’60s. The effects of redlining are still represented in wealth disparity across races today.
Sports infrastructure has long heralded shifts in the makeup of parts of Los Angeles. The most striking example is the violent legacy of how local politicians used eminent domain to raze the low-income, Mexican American communities of Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop (incorrectly referred to as Chavez Ravine for the rest of history) in the 1950s with the promise of public housing. But when those plans were quashed by McCarthyist critics, the city made way for Dodger Stadium.
For decades, Hollywood Park Racetrack, now the grounds of SoFi Stadium, was a key destination in Inglewood to attract outsiders. Just north of Hollywood Park lies the “Fabulous” Forum, which opened in 1967 right as the city was rapidly changing complexion. The Lakers won several championships and enjoyed a great deal of success at the Forum over the ’70s and ’80s, and as the NBA became more Black-dominant, so did the makeup of Inglewood residents. The Forum was the home of the Lakers until their move to Staples Center in 1999, a shift that signaled a new era of downtown gentrification and hotel speculation.
Sports venues have been crushing poor communities around the country for over a century, and they’ve been doing it in a variety of ways. Often public funding is a part of the story. According to an article by Reuben Fischer-Baum in Deadspin, 61 percent of the 186 stadiums built since 1909 were publicly funded. Fischer-Baum also cites the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, built in the 1920s, as the first major example of publicly financed stadiums in America.
What’s truly amazing is that a century later, the Coliseum—a historically corrupt structure that was used by the Los Angeles Police Department as a staging area for Operation Hammer in the 1980s and is tied to one of the country’s most corrupt academic institutions—is still being used as a cudgel to displace working class tenants in the immediate vicinity.
In more recent years, developments like Barclays Center in Brooklyn and Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., have driven out poor residents and business owners. The consequences can quickly pile up. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the East Oakland Stadium Alliance in California has spent the summer protesting a proposed new baseball stadium because they argue it will disrupt labor at the Oakland port, which in turn would price working class people out of the area.
The publicly financed stadium has, in many places, fallen out of favor in the last decade. In their place, “privately financed” stadiums like SoFi have become more common, and the ways that these developments fleece the public trust can be more subtle: stealing land via eminent domain, tax credits, regulatory (often environmental) sidestepping, leveraging of public infrastructure and diversion of public resources, and so forth.
As the Black population rose significantly in Inglewood and other formerly all-white areas, so did Latinx residency—and with the rise in nonwhite residents came holistic disinvestment. A census report from 2016, the same year ground was broken at SoFi, found that Inglewood was 46 percent Black and 46 percent Latinx, with about half of its residents monolingual Spanish speakers. And 60 percent of its residents were renters, with a median income around $13,000 less than the county average.
Areas like Inglewood became prime targets for the likes of Wedgewood Inc., a bottom-feeding real estate firm that “acquires and flips 250 homes through foreclosure each month,” according to a UCLA analysis. Companies like these swooped in after the Great Recession in a foreclosure free-for-all that would strip more Black and brown people from their land—echoing the area’s history of stolen land and violent seizure of space.
Inglewood, one of the 88 incorporated cities in Los Angeles County, has long been a target for developers and speculators because until last year it didn’t have rent stabilization protections. That led tenants in Inglewood to experience up to $1,000 or more in rent increases.
Residents first started to see these kinds of increases after Madison Square Garden Company gave The Forum an expensive facelift in 2012. Then, in 2016, Ballmer announced his intent to build a Clippers arena right next to The Forum. What followed was years of legal conflict between Ballmer and MSG, as the two capital interests wrestled with each other and the city over the billion-dollar basketball arena. Ultimately, Ballmer bought The Forum this year, clearing the way for his brand new arena. The public had no say in any of this but was offered a community benefits agreement, a trend that gained popularity up in the ’90s and has never amounted to more than crumbs for communities that are shattered by development.
SoFi Stadium hasn’t opened yet—it’s promising to this month, with the kickoff of pro football’s regular season—but it has already drawn bids for mega events like the 2028 Olympics, the 2026 World Cup, and the 2022 Super Bowl. These kinds of events further incentivize commercial, hotel, and luxury development, as well as heightened policing and surveillance in the neighborhood.
In 2019, the Inglewood City Council passed a rent control measure in response to the volume of evictions and rent hikes that were happening. But it contained so many carve-outs that it was nearly toothless, and such measures generally lack enforcement mechanisms across Los Angeles County.
And as people were being pushed from their homes, promises of jobs and benefits to small businesses proved to ring hollow. Even before the pandemic took a toll on local business, many in the area expressed fears of being priced out because of the ballooning cost of land.
Inspired by autonomous bottom-up organizations like the Los Angeles Tenants Union, Aceves teamed up with Ocean Ker and other members of the burgeoning Inglewood Tenants Union in 2019 to form a more radical front. Ker had organized around campus and around policing and racial justice issues before moving to Inglewood, where he was flung into the tenant struggle by “happenstance of me coming to a City Council meeting.” Aceves pushed to include Lennox in the union because it was a major working-class immigrant hub with huge swaths of vulnerable tenants.
The Lennox-Inglewood Tenants Union (LITU) has been organizing tenants building by building in these two communities. Much of the focus has been on homes in direct proximity to SoFi and the nearby site of the proposed Clippers arena, as tenants have seen rent increases, evictions, and harassment via landlords as well as an increase in policing.
Now roads in Inglewood, where Aceves lives, are being repaired after years of neglect. But it comes with a sense of dread. “When we see this change, we have this anxiety because of this impending doom,” she said. “We’re already feeling that with the rent. You see all these people’s belongings on the sidewalk. It makes me think people are moving out abruptly.” Aceves says she has also seen more incidents of police harassing and removing unhoused people as property gets upzoned and the effort to cleanse the neighborhood of poverty ramps up.
In June, LITU supported tenants at an action at 919 S. Prairie Ave., directly across from SoFi, in an apartment building recently rebranded as Stadium View complete with new, cheap flipper fence aesthetics. Dolores Hernandez has lived in this building for 10 years, since that first wave of post-Watts riots integration, and she has complained about mold and disrepair to a largely indifferent landlord and unengagable LLC owner. Organizing efforts at this building have been met with calls to police by management.
“Homes are essential, stadiums are not” was one of the major points of the action, the first of its type for the tenants union. In addition to organizing individual buildings under COVID-19, tenants across the country have been demanding rent cancellation in lieu of deferred rent payment, which they argue causes rent-burdened people to accrue debt they will never be able to pay back. Poor tenants, particularly in Black communities, have been crushed around the country since 2008 as speculators have amassed more capital, more property, and more lobbying power, further deepening the inequity chasm. COVID is now laying bare the systemic failures of housing under capitalism, and ever-swelling demands for sweeping renter protections and decommodifying housing are starting to become mainstream.
Now, the small but scrappy volunteer-led unit is advocating for rent cancellation, as hundreds of thousands of Los Angeles County residents remain vulnerable to eviction. And they are coming up with a plan to oppose the Clippers arena, which came a step closer to reality after the sale of the land was approved this week, as the familiar pattern of public outcry being ignored and eminent domain employed to move land into the hands of the elite happens yet again.
The tenants plan on being a significant problem for developers, landlords, and politicians like Butts who have no answers for life under or beyond COVID. It’s clear officials at all levels are just bluffing their way through this and that there is no acceptable plan for Inglewood’s future that is not dependent on endless development. But in a world where nothing is bolted down and nothing is a given, the future is still up for grabs for anyone willing to fight for it.
Jonny Coleman is a writer and organizer with NOlympics LA, a coalition that supports the anti-gentrification efforts of LITU and Los Angeles Tenants Union.