Boyle Heights, the neighborhood east of the Arts District, just across the river, was long ago anointed as one of the next big neighborhoods to be gentrified. A group of radical activists has been fighting that tide for a while now, and its members recently have taken aim at what they consider the driving force of gentrification and displacement: art galleries.
"We have one pretty simple demand,"says Maga Miranda, an activist with the group Defend Boyle Heights, "which is for all art galleries in Boyle Heights to leave immediately and for the community to decide what takes their place."
Miranda is part of a new coalition calling itself Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement, or BHAAAD. "We’re not against art or culture," she says. "Obviously, the Eastside has been an incredibly active place when it comes to art and culture. But the art galleries are part of a broader effort by planners and politicians and developers who want to artwash gentrification."
At a two-hour community meeting on Tuesday night at the Pico Gardens housing project, activists and residents vented about what they see as an existential threat to the neighborhood.
"Galleries are creating more problems in our community," Boyle Heights resident Ana Hernandez said through a translator. "How many homes and how many jobs do we lose? Each gallery that opens in our community makes our community a luxury zone."
Another Boyle Heights resident, Delmira Gonzalez, described fighting against crime and gang violence for decades.
"We organized," Gonzalez said. "Our streets were terrible. Now everybody wants to come into this community. We don't want you here.
"We know that if the galleries go up, the value of the properties go up."
It has long been a trope that artists and art galleries are among the first stages of gentrification. Artists have often turned empty warehouses into art spaces. But whether that's the cause of gentrification or simply an early effect is unclear. According to a paper commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts: "A great deal of case study work demonstrates that individual artists, artistic businesses and artistic spaces (e.g. small galleries, theaters, music venues and art studios) function as a 'colonizing arm' that helps to create the initial conditions that spark gentrification."
Adding a further layer of complication to the debate is the fact that many of BHAAAD's organizers are themselves artists, or at least artistically inclined.
"We acknowledge the active role of art in gentrification," one of the organizers said at the meeting. "The organizers are ethnically diverse; some have only lived in Boyle Heights for a few years."
For much of its history, Boyle Heights was an ethnically diverse community. Many of its residents were Jewish. As of the 2010 census, however, the neighborhood was 95 percent Hispanic and Latino.
A few art gallery operators were in attendance at Tuesday night's meeting. Ethan Swan, the gallery manager of 356 Mission, sounded contrite and shaken when he got up to speak.
"I'm here to listen," Swan told the rather hostile crowd of about 100. "I feel very affected by what I've heard tonight. But I don't know what the next step is for me or for the gallery."
Another gallery owner was irate.
"The galleries are here to help. We're not the enemy!" she cried, before being shouted down and storming off. She spoke to L.A. Weekly on the phone the next day, on the condition we not print her name (for fear of retribution).
"I’ve worked in the art world for 25 years," she says. "I’ve never seen anything like this. Ever. Art galleries are usually a welcome resource."
Defend Boyle Heights has organized a number of protests and disruptive actions against art galleries in the last year. It has focused much of its attention on two not-for-profit organizations: the longtime Eastside institution Self Help Graphics, which moved to Boyle Heights in 2010, and PSSST, a "space" that opened about a month ago. PSSST cofounders Barnett Cohen and Jules Gimbrone were at the community meeting Tuesday night.
"We have been open, we’ve engaged with the community," Cohen says. "While we may have a certain amount of privilege, we in no way have the kind of power that developers have to stake out large swaths of property in order to attract the kind of people that can well and truly disrupt the community of Boyle Heights."
The gallery's first artist-in-residence is Boyle Heights–born Guadalupe Rosales.
According to a booklet that was distributed by BHAAAD at the meeting:
The PSSST programming looks worthwhile, thoughtful and interesting. It has the surface-level qualities of "serving the community" that one might want in an art gallery. But only a block away from PSSST, the Boyle Heights residents have been fighting displacement and multiple forms of violence for decades. The eviction notices are already being posted.
The "PSSST Gallery" was purchased in 2014 by an undisclosed investor who dropped over a million dollars into the purchase and architectural renovation of the former warehouse building. The investor has given the PSSST gallerists a 20-year, rent-free lease to do artistic programing. Concerns had been raised that the building could very easily be flipped and resold again to the highest bidder. In PSSST, we see, once again, the convergence of real estate investment and art.
Self Help Graphics also has faced scrutiny. Founded more than 43 years ago as a printmaking studio, it is considered an important Eastside community space. Artist-cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz recently posted a comment on Defend Boyle Heights' Facebook page, defending Self Help Graphics:
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I'm all against gentrification. (See my work if you don't believe it.) I'm with you too. Mostly. I have to say, attacking Self Help Graphics, or ANY artists that have contributed to making Boyle Heights or East Los a GLOBAL arts mecca is just plain WRONG. I don't know if this is a fight you are looking to pick, but I am telling you now, you are barking up the wrong tree. SHG, and other self-respecting artists and orgs too, have put years and years, blood sweat and tears — OUR WHOLE LIVES — into making Chicano art, and to make art accessible into the community, and to let the planet know that we are here and are important, and not going anywhere.
Defend Boyle Heights has accused Self Help Graphics of having ties to the developer that wants to demolish the affordable Wyvernwood Apartments complex; it's also castigated the nonprofit for its role assisting the producers of Hopscotch, the experimental mobile opera that took place last year in a fleet of cars. Part of the production took place in Boyle Heights' Hollenbeck Park, where participants were met by angry protesters.
"[Self Help Graphics has] been playing this role of gatekeeper for artists," Miranda says. "We’re saying that they need to make a bigger effort to amplify the voices of the people that are gonna be most affected by this, and that doesn’t happen to be artists in this situation. It happens to be people who can’t afford to live here anymore."
"It’s tough," Self Help Graphics associate director Betty Avila says. "It’s tough to hear folks call out an organization that has done so much to support the artistic community, the greater community. But it’s opening up a needed dialogue."