For many retail workers and business owners — even before the COVID-19 pandemic — the answer is fraught.
When you ask strangers who they think belongs in the middle class and if they consider themselves to be a part of it, so much depends on who you ask and where they live. Part of their answers are often measured by where they grew up, where their family’s roots are or where they work.
Several weeks ago, we went to talk to workers in three L.A. neighborhoods: Panorama City, Inglewood and the Fairfax District. And we asked Angelenos in the service industry — do you consider yourself middle class?
This was before the COVID-19 pandemic, when many retail workers and small business owners were still gainfully employed; before work for many evaporated almost overnight and California unemployment claims began skyrocketing.
But even before the current crisis, for many, the answer to the middle-class question stirred up strong emotions like sadness and anger because they felt that the economic status no longer included them. Several even said that in L.A. it’s practically impossible to attain the basic things relatives in other parts of the U.S. are able to achieve: homeownership, new cars, savings, vacation, retirement plans.
One thing unified our respondents, however. They said they love Los Angeles and want to stay here. Even if it means working two jobs, living with parents or clocking in some long hours as small business owners — L.A. is home.
We hope that in this new wave of economic uncertainty that remains the case.
Our first stop was the Panorama Mall in Panorama City — which isn’t a city, by the way, it’s a neighborhood — just north of Van Nuys. Panorama City is home to about 70,000 people who share 3.65 square miles in the San Fernando Valley. That’s more than 18,000 people per square mile, making Panorama City one of the most densely packed neighborhoods in the county. Over 70% of Panorama City is Latino, where the average household earns about $45K a year — low for the county — and each one contains about 3.6 people — which is high for the county.
Needless to say, the people in this working-class neighborhood are struggling to reach a middle-class lifestyle.
The Panorama Mall, which was built in the 1950s, boasts 75 specialty stores and is connected to a two-story Walmart. Across the street stands an abandoned Montgomery Ward that has been shuttered since 2001.
Inside the mall, older, possibly retired men of various nationalities lounge on rows of massage chairs and watch YouTube videos on their phones thanks to the free wifi. None of them use the massage feature. They laugh and chat with each other as uniformed security guards stroll by. They seem happy to have someone in the mall besides the employees.
We chatted with those working in the mall starting with Yarissa Flore of Bella all Natural.
Flore is a native Angeleno whose parents are originally from Michoacán, Mexico. Her folks moved to L.A. a few years before she was born and they own a home in South L.A. with an affordable mortgage.
Despite being at the age where many would find a roommate and move into an apartment, Flore lives at home with her parents for a variety of reasons, most of all, cheap rent.
Last year, the New York Times reported, that Angelenos need to earn $47.52 an hour to afford the median rent. Since Bella all Natural is not paying their sales clerks $93K a year, Yarissa commutes from her home near USC to the Valley each day.
“My mom is a stay-at-home mom,” Flore says. “She would help me with my homework after school, which was great. But my dad is always go-go-go. He’s always working. He never gets time off. But even when he does, the phone is always non-stop.”
Her grandparents have a visa that allows them to visit as often as they want, but they choose to stay in Mexico. Flore doesn’t think that her grandparents consider her family in L.A. middle class.
“No, they probably think we are at the bottom,” she says, laughing from behind the counter of perfectly aligned vitamins and supplements. “My grandpa has land and business over there. And other sons. They plant coconuts and limes and stuff, so they’re well-off. My grandpa is like, ‘Just come back home.'”
Tempting as it is, she’ll pass.
“I wouldn’t live there,” Flore says, “I can only be there like four days and I’m done. The internet is so slow. And everyone knows each other. That’s weird.” She’s a California girl who considers herself and her family middle class. Sorry, gramps.
So what would she like to see herself doing once she is more successful? “Being able to take vacations,” she says. “Not worrying about the price on the tag for clothes. Being able to pay bills without worrying about the balance.”
As we stroll through the mall, we decide to strike up a conversation with David Levi, owner of Fragrance Appeal. Levi has sold a wide variety of perfumes and colognes in that spot for a few years now and is glad to report that he saw better sales this Christmas than the previous one. He credits President Donald Trump for that.
For Levi, the middle class comprises “people who are working, paying their bills, surviving and living from month-to-month.”
“Middle-class people can live well if they can handle their paycheck wisely and if they’re not lazy,” Levi says. “Also, if they cook at home and not eat at restaurants too much.”
Are his customers middle class?
“Yes,” he says confidently.
Does he assume that’s the case because his customers do their research and come to him instead of buying Calvin Klein’s Obsession at a department store?
“Yes, because I will give them a better price,” he says. “This is a mall of middle-class people. This area is middle class. It can also be lower class. It’s mixed. I don’t know the statistics, but I guess there’s more middle class here. We are right in the middle.”
Of the dozens of specialty stores in the mall, electronics and furniture chain Curacao stands out as one of its anchors. Formerly La Curacao, the company caters to Latinos in L.A., Nevada and Arizona. And just outside Curacao at the Panorama Mall, you’ll find James Rivera, a salesperson for Spectrum cable and internet.
To understand the middle class, Rivera says, is to understand his company’s bundled packages.
Spectrum’s Gold Package goes for $170 a month. You get all the channels. There is also a combo that includes fewer channels but offers a wide selection of channels in Spanish. That one is $70 a month and includes internet and phone service.
His Basic Package delivers just 25 channels for $25 a month. Rivera says he signs a lot of people up for the Basic Package at the Panorama Mall these days.
Does being in the middle class mean that you have internet in your home?
“Internet is like electricity to people now — or water,” he says. “It’s necessary now.”
Rivera says those in the middle class often choose his middle package. But more of his customers can’t afford it or won’t pay up for all of those channels. Instead, they purchase smart devices like Roku or Amazon’s Fire Stick as an alternative to full-blown cord-cutting.
Despite all of this, Rivera says business is good and he expects a modest bonus.
“When rich people move into a new place,” he says, “they know it’s going to have cable and internet, for sure. We are the first people they call. But middle-class people think about it … before they get it.”
Down at Wetzel’s Pretzels, we found Kimberly Perez-Solis handing out samples to eager shoppers. She is studying political science in college and wants to be a civil liberties attorney one day. When she’s not in school, she’s at work. It’s a grind that doesn’t allow for much of a personal life and definitely not any vacations.
“You have to work every day if you’re part of the working class,” Perez-Solis says. “Vacation is not smart, financially.”
Neither is living in California. When asked if she knows anyone at work who owns their own home, she says she doesn’t think so. Employees of the pretzel chain in other states might be better off, though, she says.
“It’s very rare to find someone in the middle class who owns a house in California,” she says. “But if you ask someone at the Wetzel’s Pretzels in Iowa, it would be different. California is the most expensive state, so houses aren’t very affordable.”
Will becoming an attorney get her out of the middle class?
“Yes. It might. Law school and university is very expensive,” she says, already calculating how many years it would take her to pay off student loans. Her climb is all uphill. First things first, though, for her, is getting that education.
Elie Cardoza is bright and peppy and exactly the person you would want working for you at a store like Eddie’s Beauty Supply. He’s got such a positive attitude that even when he describes a negative situation, he does so with a smile on his face.
“I feel middle-class people don’t have the same rights as rich people,” he says. “We’re looked down upon. Take a look at Mr. Donald Trump. Look at what money can do for you. There’s people with money who do things they’re not supposed to do and they get away with it.”
Cardoza used to work in the food industry in Woodland Hills, an area he considers to be very wealthy.
“I was looked down on by the rich people there,” he says. “I’ve gotten cussed out, I’ve gotten — because of my sexuality — everything. But I come here to Van Nuys, and sometimes someone can be rude, but I am not looked down upon.”
Cardoza says he doesn’t know why one class treats another so poorly, especially in the food world where people in the kitchen can do nasty things to retaliate. He says he feels much more comfortable in the mall, in part, because of his heritage.
“Here I am considered middle class by customers because I am Latino, but in Woodland Hills, I am considered less because I am Latino,” he says.
No city in L.A. is going through more growing pains than Inglewood, the “City of Champions,” mostly due to the $2 billion mega football stadium being built on land that was once the home of Hollywood Park. The rents in Inglewood have soared so quickly that the city rushed to cap rent increases at 5% to 8% per year.
Many renters are still going to be in a squeeze since most people do not get 8% raises each year.
Inglewood is a near-perfect split among black and brown. The last census revealed the city’s population is 40.6% African-American and 40% Latino. At $46K, the median household income is a hair higher than Panorama City’s, but still low for the county. Over 26% of households with families are led by a single parent — which is high for the county. The struggle is real.
People call him Rico the Barber, which would be confusing if his name was Paul.
We caught Rico as he was having lunch at Comfort L.A., a relatively healthy, all-organic soul food restaurant.
Rico grew up in the South Bay in the ’90s and says he got everything he wanted because his family was solidly middle class. If he wanted a train for Christmas, he got one. But quickly, he came to realize he was fortunate.
“I grew up in Torrance but I hung out in Inglewood,” he says, “I hung out in South Central. I would go to my friend’s house and they don’t have the bare minimum of things. And I’d be like, ‘Damn.’ But then, I’d go to certain houses in Inglewood and they had it all, cars — everything.”
In between those extremes he also saw the middle, who he says comprise most of the people that he calls his friends.
“[The] middle class are people who work to pay bills, who work to purchase important things,” he says. “The money they make they use toward their homes, use toward their kids, use toward these bills that need to be taken care of. The poor don’t have anything and the rich has more than they need.”
Inglewood is quickly gentrifying and Rico sees it hurting those with lower incomes.
“Inglewood is pushing people out now,” Rico says. “You have to strap down or get out. That’s just how it is now. Cats are living in these bullshit apartments and they’re paying $3,000 a month. In Inglewood!”
“To keep it 100 — it’s a different race being brought to Inglewood. Caucasians. Asians,” he says.
So in order to keep his business growing, he had to build a private studio aimed at pro athletes and celebrities. If he was losing his middle-class clientele, he wanted a more upscale environment than a traditional neighborhood barbershop.
“I have a want and need of nice things,” Rico says, tapping on one of the two iPhones he carries. “I have a 9-year-old son. I want to go places. I want to enjoy life. I want to cut my grass and paint my house. And I want to walk out of my front yard and say, ‘Hey what’s up, how you doing?’ On a good vibe.”
And for that, he had to pivot away from $10 hair cuts.
Around the block, you’ll see a sign for Jino’s Pizza Beer. It is now known as Sunday Gravy.
Jino’s Pizza was founded in the early ’70s by a 25-year-old Persian immigrant named Ahmad Bashirian. But most people called him Jino.
Against all odds, it became a hit. Apparently, the community appreciated a non-chain pizza spot that had fresh ingredients and pleasant service.
Bashirian was so successful that he opened 12 other restaurants in L.A. — all in underserved areas like Carson, Hawthorne and other parts of South L.A. As time passed, he sold all but the original Jino’s, which is now run by his L.A.-born daughter, Ghazi and his son, Sol under the name Sunday Gravy.
When the siblings took over, they made many changes including trimming down the menu to focus on authentic Italian cuisine. The shift worked. In January, Eater placed Sunday Gravy on its list of 18 Essential Pasta Restaurants in L.A. The Bashirian touch lived on.
Ghazi says even though her dad built the business, he was reluctant to encourage his children to get involved in it because he knew how much time it took to be successful, and that time will take you away from your children. But such is the delicate balance and tough tradeoffs involved in owning a small business.
To Sol, people in the middle class “don’t have to worry about putting food on their table and making payments on their house. They can live a life where they can be healthy and happy and not worry about finances. It’s really that idea of the nuclear family who can live a decent life based on the work that they have.”
And that is gone, he says.
“I think it’s done,” Sol says. “I feel like we live in such a pressurized society that even [for] the families who do come here and can eat here on a regular basis, there’s always that little bit of worry on the back of their head that something could happen. I think our health care system has a lot to do with that. You never really know what’s covered and what’s not.”
Sol says that friends and customers his age are slow to start families these days because of the expense — which squeezes the size of the middle class.
“I think it’s shrunk so tremendously. If you look at the prices on my menu and see the quality I’m giving people — I’ve been told ‘This is food you could sell in other parts of L.A. for 50% more in price.’ I keep prices low because I want people in here who are in this community,” he says, adding that his bread comes from a neighborhood bakery.
“I want everyone to be able to eat my food,” he says. “I don’t want people who have lived here for a long time to have to move when we have amazing resources here. Bringing those quality foods here is a continuation of what my dad did.”
On the other side of town, we ran into Misael Ortega. He sells custom-made furniture at the corner of 8th and Florence Avenues during the week and at swap meets in Palmdale on Sundays.
It might be a tough hustle to sell goods in a barren parking lot, but Ortega has dealt with so much more in his young life. So his perspective about the middle class is radically different than the others we talked with, but his definition seems to be in line with theirs.
“I feel that middle class is local businesses or people trying to start their own thing,” Ortega says. “It’s people who want to rise, but they haven’t reached that top yet.”
The 22-year-old immigrated here from Puebla, Mexico and recently became a U.S. citizen. “I remember when we moved up here it was really difficult,” he says. “Coming from a place that was like a Third World country, city life was just really different.”
Having grown up in rural Puebla, this meant working harder to meet basic necessities.
“You had to bring water to your house,” Ortega says. “Here you just turn the dial. Because of living like that, I feel like I know what lower class is.”
That experience made him adverse to working a typical 9-to-5 job. Instead, he wants to be part of a local, family-owned business where he has more control over his future. And he has good reason to believe in himself. Ortega has watched his family go from ironworks to kitchen cabinets to furniture in just a matter of years. Each of their previous businesses still exists.
As far as markers of the middle class, Misael knows that having a car doesn’t always mean you’re doing well. He recalls living next to a small one-bedroom house in Watts whose several occupants crowded inside while two exotic cars sat parked out front.
Ortega does, however, view his vehicle as a symbol of progress.
“I feel that my family is middle class. Ten years ago, I would say we were lower class. I used to take all these busses right here,” he says, pointing down Florence Avenue. “That would be my form of transportation. Now, I don’t have that need. I mean, I don’t want to waste gas because I don’t want to make the Earth worse, but having a car is really important for work.”
The Fairfax District
Compared to Inglewood and Panorama City, the fact that the Fairfax area has a median income of $66K per household might make it seem borderline rich, but in actuality, it’s within the average in L.A. County. The population is 84% white and more than half of its residents over 25 have a four-year degree — which is pretty high compared to the rest of the county. Conversely, the average household includes just two people, which is relatively low in the county.
What’s telling, is that the people who we spoke to, who work in the historic Farmer’s Market, happy, optimistic and as sharp as they are, can’t afford to live in the neighborhood.
Chris Meehan and his wife Prodigy are school teachers who decided to jump into the competitive world of bookselling. How competitive? Well, the richest man in the USA has a website that was based on book sales.
The couple runs Elephant Alley Children’s Books and they’re online too.
Prodigy is an aspiring children’s book author. After the couple noticed that they had collected a wide variety of books as research, it occurred to them that it might be great to turn that into something where they aren’t spending money, but making a little bit of money instead. So they began selling at local farmers markets around their home in the South Bay.
“It went well, but it’s a lot of work to bring bookshelves and five to six boxes of books to a market, set up, sell for four hours,” and then tear down and bring it home, he says, only to sell a disappointing amount of books. “It was a lot of work for not a lot of return on investment.”
They figured that since they were in the world of farmers markets, why not email the Farmers Market by the Grove to see what opportunities might be there.
“They were very, very receptive,” Chris says. “They were curious to hear what we were doing. They were super supportive.” So the market offered them space.
Despite there being a three-story Barnes & Noble nearby, along with other distractions for children, according to Chris, their trial run at the Farmers Market, which began in November, has been a success.
“I think they were pretty happy with us,” Chris says. “They posted on their Instagram and sent people to us.”
But truth be told, there is a lot of competition for his would-be customer’s cash.
“Food here is pricy,” he says, “there’s an amazing toy store — the oldest one in L.A. There’s a sticker store that sells just stickers. There’s two different ice cream shops, which kids love. And there’s a candy bar. So there’s a lot vying for the kids’ attention. And then in the Grove, there’s American Girl. So yeah, there’s a lot of competition.”
There was a time when two teachers could afford a house in L.A., but that is no longer the case it seems.
“With two teachers, buying a house is tricky,” he says. “Buying a house in this area is impossible. Even with three income earners, it’s not going to happen. Places like Lawndale, Inglewood and South Bay are more affordable. I have friends who are teachers who were able to buy a house in the South Bay. It needed some work and they’ve been fixing it up over the years.”
Most teachers have summers off. Chris says that some of his cohorts earned extra money in the summer as tutors or from random jobs. He says he used that time for traveling or for planning on opening a bookstore instead.
We couldn’t leave before visiting Kip’s Toyland, the “amazing” toy store Chris had mentioned earlier. There we found 17-year-old Jonathan Ortiz working on the sales floor. He was born and raised in Koreatown and is a senior at Roybal Learning Center.
He says that when the landlord raised the rent in the apartment he shares with his parents, he told them he would cover the difference with the money he earns working at the toy store. He works as much as he can after school and on Saturdays.
He is the oldest of three children. His father works for the post office and his mom is a housewife.
Was it great to have a stay-at-home mom?
“Yes,” he says.
Was food was waiting for you when you got home?
“Yep,” he says.
Will you go to college next fall?
“I’m not sure,” he says. “It’s a really tough decision. That’s the thing — the money. It’s hard for us middle-class people.”
If he gets into Cal State Northridge, which is his first choice, Ortiz would look into moving out and living in the dorms. “I’ve heard that it’s fun,” he says.
According to Ortiz, he can tell the difference between affluent customers and those who might be middle class based on how they shop.
“When it’s a big purchase, it’s like nothing,” he says. “It’s shocking. They’ll just pull out the money like, ‘Here you go.’ They’ve just spent like $300 on toys. It’s like no big deal to them. Most of the time, when I show them around they say ‘Yes’ to everything.”
Middle-class people, however, are less impulsive. “Sometimes they’re picky, but if I think about the really good toys, they’ll usually buy it,” he says.
Ortiz says middle-class people usually like to buy Legos, Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, Lite-Brite and Nerf products because they’re reasonably priced and durable.
On the way out, we had to make one final stop at the gourmet cheese store Itty’s Cheese, curious to learn just who its frequent shoppers are.
“People in the middle class are people who can afford to live without struggling,” says Alana Luckart from the small confines of the store. “If you have income to buy extra cheese, you’re probably middle class. Although, I am not middle class, I buy cheese because I love cheese. It’s why I work here.”
She’s a perfect fit for the place.
“Cheese is life. I mean, I have it tattooed on my arm,” she says, pulling up her sleeve to reveal a tattoo of Swiss cheese with the word “Cheesus” written below.
Why do you think you are not in the middle class?
“Because I used to be and I know I’m not anymore,” she says. “I used to have a house and a family and a career and all that good stuff. But that was my other life when I was married and I am not anymore. I’m sort of a nomad now. I guess because it’s easier. That’s how I afford to live.”
Luckart is the mother of a 19-year-old college student who she lives with now.
“She came down here to go to school,” she says. “Her dad is paying for her apartment. I said, ‘I’m going to stay with you for a while.'”
Twenty years ago, according to Luckart, being in the middle class was “more attainable for people.”
“People were able to be in the middle class without working so hard,” she says. “I don’t think there’s a middle class anymore. There’s a lower-middle-class and there’s the rest of us below. And then there’s the rich.”
But is there something about cheese that unites the classes?