Gentrification as Subject Is Now Hot in Hollywood—But King of the Hill Savaged it Best

All of a sudden, gentrification is a hot topic in Hollywood. The scabrously funny Legends of Chamberlain Heights devoted an episode to the subject this year, and it’s been a recurring plot point the past couple of seasons on the Showtime hit Shameless. It was a through-line to the little-seen 2017 film Lowriders, and America Ferrera produced a Latino-centric take called Gente-Fied that’s yet to screen beyond a tantalizing promo. CBS is prepping for the second season of Superior Donuts, which takes on gentrification in Chicago. And just the other week, on Million Dollar Listing New York, star Fredrik Eklund fretted about how realtors such as him were irrevocably changing working-class neighborhoods, which was a bit like the buffalo hunter realizing perhaps he shouldn’t have killed all those animals while standing on a pyramid of skulls.

I know all about this trend, both as someone who’s covered the subject in downtown SanTana and beyond for 15 years and as a failed screenwriter: In late 2015, I sold a script to one of the major networks about gentrification in Boyle Heights, where shit’s been going down for years. It didn’t get to pilot because network executives said my main character wasn’t fleshed out enough—that’s fine. But it’s nice to know that studio suits are paying attention to real-life issues in Southern California for once. Expect more projects and episodes and pitches to come—and yet we’ll all fail to match the sharpest Hollywood treatment of gentrification: a 2008 episode of King of the Hill titled “Lady and Gentrification.”

The cartoon about Hank Hill, surburban Texas life, and propane and propane accessories seems an unlikely vehicle to take on the subject—but the show always sided with working people above the rich and hipsters. The episode begins with Hank’s employee, Enrique, asking if Hank can give a speech at his daughter’s quinceañera. Hank tries to demur, saying all he knows about her is that she once “ate fruit salad at the company picnic,” but then he grudingly agrees. Meanwhile, Peggy—in her later-seasons role as a realtor—shows a generic home to a hipster named Asa. “I want something reaalll,” he whines in his yellow scarf, pink shirt and cardigan.

The plots quickly intertwine, as Hank visits Enrique’s home in the Arlen barrio, which is depicted as bucolic: kids play soccer on the streets in front of pastel-painted houses, while a woman makes tacos on a sidewalk grill and an ice cream man yells, “¡Paletas!” Peggy inadvertently takes Asa to this neighborhood, but he immediately wants to buy a home. “This is real,” he declares. “Which means ‘no whiteys.'”

Actually, Asa, like all hipsters ever created, meant “no one except cool people like me.” Peggy quickly starts selling more barrio homes to hipsters, all pendejos with facial hair, mohawks or insufferable glasses. Hank worries that this influx is changing the family-oriented neighborhood, to which Peggy responds, “Cool young people are good for neighborhoods. They come in and bring new life: art, music, a funky nightlife.”

How many times have you heard that said by newcomers in downtown SanTana?

Things get worse. Asa and his pals barge into the local taquería, uttering tourist-level Spanish (“¡Hola, mi familia!” “¡Cervezas, amigo!“) before removing the norteño CD to put in music that Enrique says “makes me feel weird and depressed.”

When Hank gets up to put the norteño back on, the hipsters surround him. “Whoa, I think this ese is in the wrong barrio,” one says, while Asa snaps, “You know where you are, gringo?”

Enrique pleads with Hank to tell Peggy to stop bringing in more hipsters, pointing out that the taquería now sells salmon tacos. “I don’t want a new life, Hank,” he says. “I like my life and my tacos the way they were.”

But Peggy is defiant, bragging that she’s “flipping Little Mexico like a giant, golden quesadilla” and that “neighborhoods change with time. Hispanics didn’t always live there. Who knows who lived there before them? Native Americans probably owned those houses.”

How many times have you heard that said by newcomers in downtown SanTana?

Peggy doesn’t feel remorse until Enrique announces at his daughter’s quinceañera that they can’t afford the rent anymore and must move. The Hills and other longtime Arlen residents band together to drive the hipsters out using Peggy’s realization: “It’s not about where they want to be, but where they don’t want to be.” And what hipsters don’t want, according to King of the Hill, is socioeconomic diversity and families. Boomhauer, Dale and Bill Dauterive show up, the hipsters leave, Enrique finally buys a home—and Hank gives his speech.

In a little more than 21 minutes, the show brilliantly captured the nastiness that’s gentrification. And while the ending is trite—it’d be nice if Latinos and others affected by rising rents could just magically buy property and stave off the coffee shops—the episode’s lessons resonate nearly a decade later. Hipsters are a plague that contribute nothing to neighborhoods other than their own self-entitlement and must be opposed on all fronts. Barrios are a beautiful thing that need no change unless longtime residents want it—and on their own terms. Good neighborhoods are defined by the people committed to its essence, not scenesters who’ll bounce to the Next Big Thing at the drop of a Snap. And when your neighborhood taquería starts selling salmon tacos, that means the hipsters have arrived—BARF!

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