Safer-at-home is changing the way we experience our neighborhoods. As Community Engagement & Partnerships Lead at Nico, Gabe Mendez describes his role at Nico and shares his thoughts about what makes a strong neighborhood (and some great local initiatives!) in the face of COVID-19.
Gabe, what does your role entail at Nico?
My role is to educate members of the community in and around Echo Park on what it means to become a shareholder in Nico’s Neighborhood REIT, while empowering them to see the value of investing in local real estate. I also focus on building partnerships that broaden Nico’s reach while also advancing our goals as a Benefit Corporation, which include supporting positive social, economic, and environmental change in the neighborhood.
What’s your professional background?
I studied marketing and political science at the University of Delaware. I initially wanted to become a lawyer and go into civil service, but pivoted and eventually landed my first professional role working in marketing for Citibank’s Community Development team. That’s where I realized I could combine my passion for storytelling, civic engagement, and social impact.
Since then, I’ve worked for both leading corporate companies, as well as startups, helping them to redefine their brands, tell their stories, and connect with their customers in an ever changing digital world.
Why is Nico’s mission important to you?
I was born and raised in New York City, Washington Heights to be exact, and I also spent a lot of time growing up in the South Bronx. In many ways, both communities have a lot of similarities to Echo Park. They’re diverse neighborhoods with a lot of history that still have a lot of local businesses and tight-knit communities. I’ve seen both begin to change more recently, without a lot of regards for the people that live there.
Preserving the social and physical fabric of neighborhoods like this, while helping them grow economically and socially, is something that’s important to me. Much of the community in all of these neighborhoods can benefit from learning to invest – and I think there’s an important role companies such as Nico can play in empowering people them to do that.
I’m also really proud of Nico’s rent assistance program that financially supports the residents in our buildings through the health crisis and Safer-at-Home order.
How has the changing housing market affected you? How has it affected your favorite neighborhoods?
I’ve lived in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco –- all of which are experiencing a lack of affordable housing. Increasing demand and limited supply, has made finding housing in each a challenge for many, even those fortunate to have a well-paying job. Personally, I’ve also seen it create hurdles for family and friends of mine who want to own a home one day. Owning a home is an aspiration I think everyone should have a path toward achieving.
Some of my favorite neighborhoods are East Village in New York, The Mission in San Francisco, the Highbridge area of the Bronx, and Washington Heights, where I grew up. All of them are seeing an increase in property value and new real estate development that continues to force longtime residents and small business owners to reconsider their future in the neighborhood. When I think about why these neighborhoods are special to me, it has a lot to do with the people and places who call them home.
While the full extent of how the current health crisis will change the housing market and neighborhoods moving forward, I think it will only put further emphasis on the importance of making sure our communities and their economies can withstand a situation like this. It also underlines the need to reconsider how communities build wealth which is very much the impetus for why Nico was started.
During the Safer-at-Home order, what initiatives have you seen in Echo Park that continue to cultivate strong communities?
When the Mayor’s Office enacted Safer-at-Home and non-essential businesses began closing, it seemed that there were already a number of initiatives stood up. The Dream Center has been delivering care packages every day for the past month to the homes of elderly citizens. Sage Plant Bistro has been providing customers a way to purchase meals for healthcare workers on the frontline. LA Works, while not Echo Park specific, has launched a number of virtual initiatives people can sign up for without ever leaving their homes. Inclusive Action for the City started a Street Vendor Emergency Fund to support vendors weathering the pandemic. And SELAH has continued to support the unhoused community with delivery of essential hygiene care products and hot meals at their Saturday Suppers held in partnership with The People’s Concern. Resister Hood LA and SELAH are also developing a “Safe At Home Hygiene Kit” that people can put together at home and drop off with a homeless service provider partner organization. The kit contains a toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, lotion, soap, bath wipes, comb, a first-aid kit, a pair of socks, and COVID-19 information.
I’ve also seen the efforts of the Echo Park Neighborhood Council to keep the community informed of the various services and programs being offered to help families and parts of the community most impacted. And you also have organizations like Dublab who are developing media programming like their Quarantine Tapes which is a hosted radio show featuring guests who discuss how they’re experiencing the pandemic.
How are you seeing other neighborhoods around Los Angeles, and the country, responding to COVID-19?
There’s been more grassroots efforts surfacing primarily in online neighborhood groups where people have been posting information about which local businesses were open, how they could support them, which stores were still stocked on essential supplies, and so forth. What’s really stood out to me during Safer-at-Home was how quickly people considered how they could help others in communities, especially those who were elderly, living alone, or more “at-risk.” People are creating spreadsheets that include their contact information and how they can offer help in a number of ways, such as food shopping, taking care of pets, and even spending time on the phone or in a video call to keep people who are lonely company.
People just seem to want to be there for one another right now, and I don’t think there’s anything that defines a strong community more than that.