June 26, 2019

Gjusta and injustice in Los Angeles

To get to the newest, coolest food spot in Venice, you have to drive through the newest, saddest homeless encampment in L.A. 

Gjusta occupies a former warehouse where Third Avenue ends at Sunset Avenue. As much as this part of Venice, near Rose Avenue, has scaled up to become Silicon Beach — full of successful tech companies and promising startups — it also has become Skid Row West or, as the locals are calling it, Skid Rose.

The homeless have been leapfrogged by the onward march of gentrification that began on Abbot Kinney Boulevard, swept east up Rose then south on a stretch of Lincoln Boulevard whose hookers and crack dealers may be the last to know that real estate agents are now calling their turf — thanks to an efflorescence of boutiques and cafes — “The Linc.”

One very cold Sunday over the holiday break, I watched a young, disheveled blond woman on Third Avenue emerge from a blue plastic tarp. Latino, Black and white men huddled in sleeping bags, wedged into doorways, buried under sheaves of stained cardboard. Every doorstep was taken — no vacancy. 

According to the official Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, in 2013, 1,389 homeless were living in L.A.’s 11th City Council District, which includes Venice, up 10 percent from just two years before. And from what I can tell as a resident, the problem is only getting worse. If you want a 3-D picture of America’s income inequality, come to Third Avenue.

The smell of Gjusta’s fresh sourdough perfumes the whole wretched street. Teslas and SUVs drive past the cardboard shelters some call home. A pair of unmarked white doors separates squalor from luxury. 

Gjusta’s owners found an ideal former warehouse space to house their vision of a European food emporium. You can order a $12 lox and bialy, the lox silky and home-cured, the bialy baked in-house. A cup of Gjusta coffee — micro-roasted, fair-trade beans, with a jolt of acidity — costs $4.35. 

“We give you refills,” the man at the counter adds when he sees my reaction. For 4 1/2 bucks, I want the burlap and the burro, too.

But I paid it.  And I sampled the vast array of superb house-made pastries, the house-cured charcuterie — duck confit, merguez — it’s all there. Sometimes the ambition exceeds quality control — I had to point out that Moroccan lamb sausage shouldn’t be raw and cold inside. The pastrami is several rungs below that of Wexler’s Deli and Langer’s, and the homemade hummus belongs in a health food store, which is not a compliment. 

But the staff is friendly, the kinks ironable, and real food costs real money. The question is, how do you eat it without real guilt?  

I know Gjusta focuses on local, fresh, sustainable ingredients and provides jobs for dozens of people of all backgrounds and skill levels — Gjusta is not the bad guy.  

The glaring contrast between the high-end food and the utter despair camped outside is not Gjusta’s fault — it’s ours.

We have created a society that perpetuates our ability to drink hot $4.35 coffee amid people who must spend 43-degree nights outside. 

It’s no one’s fault and everyone’s responsibility. Rich hipsters — I call them ripsters — have brought all their money and deliciousness to Venice and downtown, and that’s good. But I wonder: Can you have sustainable food in an unsustainable society?  

We live in a world where progressive social values are winning, but progressive economic policies are losing. For too long, as a country, we have refused to address the rising income gap that makes some homelessness and a struggling middle class inevitable.

There are 58,000 homeless in L.A. County — many hidden, but others very visible in ripster-rich places like downtown and Venice. Mayor Eric Garcetti pledged to end veteran homelessness in L.A. in 2015 — that clock is ticking. But that group includes just 2,600 people, leaving tens of thousands more in need.  

The solutions don’t require magic. Some of our local Jewish communal institutions, most notably Valley Beth Shalom and Leo Baeck Temple, have devoted enormous resources to addressing homelessness, successfully. On a larger scale, many other cities have had success reducing homelessness through housing-first programs, providing residences along with teams of medical and social service experts, and other proven solutions. But there is also the insecurity faced by a tenuous lower-middle class constantly at risk of homelessness, which could be offset by raising the minimum wage, improving the social safety net, and investment in public works and job creation. Again, the solutions are clear, the political will less so.

You don’t have to step outside of Gjusta and walk down Third Avenue to know that America is now coming face to face with the human cost of the rising income gap. Addressing it, and the human suffering it creates, must be paramount on the agenda of the next Congress, and of the president. Otherwise, we’ll all be eating great bread with bad consciences.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.