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Demolished East Austin Piñata Shop Is the New Center of Austin’s Gentrification Debate

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The gentrification of East Austin is a well-told story and hot-button subject. The 1928 Austin master plan placed most residents of color on the east side of the city (beyond what is now I-35). The current property tax structure in Texas, however, makes it difficult for longtime residents to keep their homes as taxes go up while wages don’t. And the basic cultural forces that have made hipster havens out of neighborhoods like Oak Cliff, in Dallas, and Lower Westheimer, in Houston, are at play. 

Jumpolin, an East Cesar Chavez mainstay that sold piñatas and party supplies and rented moonwalks is the latest victim of gentrification, as Time Warner Cable News reported Thursday: 

For the past eight years, Jumpolin owners Monica and Sergio Lejarazu have been selling piñatas and other party supplies from their shop on Cesar Chavez.

Tuesday morning, Sergio Lejarazu drove by and saw the crews tearing down the business—with everything still inside.

“I don’t know what happened because we don’t receive any information about the demolition,” Monica Lejarazu said.

The building that houses Jumpolin had been sold to new owners in October 2014. Although the store had two years left on its lease, investors in East Austin typically don’t buy the increasingly expensive property there in order to keep low-margin piñata shops alive. So it seemed almost inevitable that the new owners would at some point bulldoze the longstanding business in order to flip the property into something that would make them a lot more money. 

The optics of this reality, however, look terrible, and news of the piñata shop’s destruction quickly resonated throughout Austin and beyond

Jordan French and Darius Fisher of F&F Real Estate Ventures, the company that had bought the property, quickly began a public relations offensive. One of the two (who did not identify himself by name but did post a photo of the demolition order as proof of identity), posted his side of the story on Reddit:

Hi everyone – I am an owner of this property, and I feel it’s important to tell our side of story here.
Demolishing the building in this way was a very last resort. We’re residents of Austin. We love this city, and I can understand how the pictures make this look like a terrible scene. Unfortunately, we were left with no other options after spending months asking the tenants to vacate the premises.

While this situation is really sad, the tenants had been given notice of eviction for failure to pay rent and for illegally storing hazardous materials on the property. For these reasons, the demolition was fully and legally permitted by the city of Austin.

The tenants were given ample notice of this demolition. This wasn’t some surprise that they came back to one morning. I really wish there had been another way to settle this incredibly difficult situation, but the evicted tenants left us with no choice.

That sounds fairly convincing and paints the owners of Jumpolin in a bad light: Were the Lejarazuses lying about the fact that they had no warning? Had they been properly evicted already? What hazardous materials were they storing? 

To further complicate matters, the Jumpolin owners’ credibility was already damaged. Last May, co-owner Sergio Lejarazu was arrested on suspicion of buying stolen bikes in a sting operation. Lejarazu pled guilty to a charge of attempted theft last June, and the conviction called Jumpolin into question. Who would sympathize with attempted bike thieves?

French and Fisher do have some savvy when it comes to public relations. The two have been in the news before as the owners of Wiki-PR, a firm that used short-term accounts to favorably edit Wikipedia pages on behalf of clients. (Wiki-PR was subsequently banned from Wikipedia, which rewrote its guidelines to prohibit the paid, undisclosed editing services that Wiki-PR provided.)

At any rate, French and Fisher’s PR savvy may have been at work in their explanation on Reddit, as some of the facts don’t bear out their claims. As Shelley Seale reported on CultureMap Austin, the attorney for the Jumpolin owners insisted that the business had not been evicted and had not defaulted on their lease. Furthermore, the Austin Fire Department had no record of the fire code violations that French and Fisher claimed existed. 

It’s possible, as the AFD representative that Seale spoke to notes, the issue was with code compliance rather than the fire deparment, which would have its own records. It’s also possible that the Jumpolin owners were playing a PR game of their own (Sergio Lejarazu admitted to Seale that they had received a notice to vacate two days before the demolition, which belies the “We had no idea this might happen” narrative his wife set forth last week). But when the inconsistencies in French and Fisher’s statement came to light, their comments to Seale leaned heavily on innuendo

French, however, said that he believes the piñata and party business was only a front for the real dealings of the store. He points to an arrest record in May 2014 that shows Sergio was arrested for buying two stolen bicycles from a police informant. It’s unclear whether he knew the bikes were stolen when he bought them; in any case [Lejarazu attorney Doran] Peters maintains that the arrest is completely irrelevant to this case.

“Probably their livelihood was selling helium and stolen bicycles,” French said. “They weren’t making a living selling piñatas; they were selling something else. I don’t want to speculate what that is.” However, he went on to suggest that it was likely “uncontrolled substances.” “That’s just my opinion, though,” French stated.

When asked why he would demolish the building with the inventory and property inside, he said, “You’re assuming we knew something was inside. Sergio was not selling piñatas at the location—he had piñatas at a neighboring location—in the weeks leading up to the demo.”

French also pointed out that the situation is not over a residential lease. “The Lejarazus weren’t living there. This is a totally different ballgame. That building isn’t even conducive as a retail space to be selling piñatas,” he added.

Whether the Jumpolin building was “conducive” to selling piñatas is a matter of opinion, but the Lejarazus had made it work for eight years in that building, and it’s not the place of the landlord to insist that the building isn’t being used as efficiently as possible if the tenant still has two years left on the lease. 

It’s also worth reiterating that Lejarazu has not been convicted for anything related to stolen bicycles, and that the helium French mentions doesn’t require a permit to sell. The “uncontrolled substances” French refers to are vague—yet it’s hard not to infer that he means to suggest that they were perhaps selling drugs, even though drugs are a controlled substance.

No matter which way you spin it, though, it’s a bad look in a city whose racial issues are real and ever-present when new owners tear down a business that sold piñatas for children in a traditionally Latino neighborhood. And it’s an even worse look when one of those new owners gives an interview in which he implies that the Lejarazus may have actually been drug dealers and, likening the Lejarazus’ business to “a house that was infested by roaches,” promises that the site “will get cleaned up, landscaped, and beautified” like the high-end landscaping firm Big Red Sun nearby.

Businesses that serve the community that has traditionally lived in East Austin are now constantly at risk of being replaced by those that are of less interest to longtime residents. Yesterday’s community laundromat can well be tomorrow’s high-end restaurant, and gentrification’s exclusivity can remain hidden beneath the surface. But when property owners go on the record talking about cleaning out roaches, the issue is brought out into the open in ways that definitely attract attention. 

(Photos 1-4 by Peter Williams; photo 5 via Flickr)

(This post has been updated to reflect that Sergio Lejarazu pled guilty to a charge of attempted theft. Previous records searches had not indicated a conviction.) 

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