In East L.A.’s Boyle Heights, an art gallery closes, and a group of activists and residents claim a victory in their battle against encroaching development.
In May of last year, a nonprofit art gallery called PSSST was preparing to open in the neighborhood of Boyle Heights, a working-class Latino community just across the river from downtown Los Angeles’s Arts District. Instead, on what should have been opening day, the gallery faced a crowd of protesters gathered in front of the space, banging drums, holding posters, and chanting slogans in English (“We don’t need galleries, we need higher salaries!”) and Spanish (“¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!”). At some point during the day’s protest, someone threw feces at the window, according to the owners; eventually, a neighbor called the police.
You can see part of the protest in the video below (it contains some strong language).
This was not the first, last, or angriest protest against the art galleries popping up in Boyle Heights, but it would turn out to be a milestone: Last week, PSSST announced its shuttering. “Our young nonprofit struggled to survive through constant attacks,” reads a statement on their site. “Our staff and artists were routinely trolled online and harassed in-person … we could no longer continue to put already vulnerable communities at further risk.”
PSSST’s closing is the latest development in a pitched battle around art and gentrification in Boyle Heights. New galleries have begun popping up on and around Anderson Road at the west edge of the neighborhood, spilling over from the Arts District—and bringing with them the threat of displacement. At least, that’s how many residents see it. The term many of them use: “artwashing.”
“Artwashing is the use of art and artistic labor to perpetuate and enable gentrification,” says Angel Luna, a resident of the neighborhood and a member of the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD). Luna’s group, together with organizations like Defend Boyle Heights and Serve the People LA, have accused the galleries of paving the way for new development and speculation that will eventually end up displacing residents. They’ve organized marches, held protests, and worked to make life generally uncomfortable for both new businesses and the people who patronize them. The anti-gentrifiers viewed PSSST’s closure as a victory for their movement: BHAAD and DBH quickly released a celebratory statement online after it was announced.
As cities nationwide struggle with issues of affordable housing, new development, and displacement, disputes over the effects of gentrification are common. What’s different about the battle in Boyle Heights is the protesters’ tactics. They have been militant, insistent, and extraordinarily confrontational—often singling people out for public condemnation and physically chasing out unwelcome visitors. In April, a widely read piece in the Guardian on the neighborhood described members of Serve the People chasing an experimental opera performance out of a public park, leaving vicious messages for realtors (“I hope everyone pukes on your artisanal treats”) and intercepting a group of urban planning students on a walking tour, demanding that they leave.
Not all residents are on board with this militant approach. “Some groups have found very extreme ways to show that they’re against changes in the neighborhood, ways that show this place is only for a very specific group of people,” Steven Almazan, a teacher in the Boyle Heights area, told CityLab last year. “The neighborhood shouldn’t say, ‘Get out—this place is mine.’ You want to find a balance. We want investment from the city here,” he says.
Older advocacy groups like the East Los Angeles Community Corporation, or ELACC, have a more compromise-based approach, building affordable housing developments in the area and trying to secure tenants better deals during evictions and displacements. But after many years of work, they ended up coming under fire for forcing residents out and planning unwanted developments.
BHAAAD and DBH, on the other hand, are not interested in conversation; they’ll accept nothing less than total capitulation. “BHAAAD has pursued militant and aggressive tactics on purpose,” says Luna. “We chose these tactics because we understand that city council members, politicians, and non-profiteers aren’t going to advocate for us, and we have to fight back.”
The groups have also earned some criticism for targeting artists, especially now that a longstanding neighborhood art space called Self-Help Graphics and Art has become embroiled in the controversy. Much-loved as it is by many members of the community, the space is accused of helping new galleries as they move into the neighborhood. Despite criticism, BHAAAD and DBH remain undeterred. “We believe that attacking the galleries is a useful strategy,” explains Luna, “because we are directly attacking the amenities that developers are trying to use to attract new people into Boyle Heights.”
Last September, protesters staged the widest-reaching demonstration yet: Dozens of residents marched out to what’s now known as “Gallery Row” on Anderson Road, disrupting several exhibition openings and serving all the galleries with mock eviction notices. This is how they described their own protest on Facebook:
Gallery attendees were harassed and harangued, pelted with water and bottles and an endless barrage of verbal assault. They were stopped in their tracks, surrounded, chased back to their vehicles and out of the area around Anderson Rd where the majority of these galleries have begun opening up. The galleries themselves were surrounded while members of the community banged on their windows, entered their galleries to smash bottles, and continued the barrage of verbal assualt [sic].
BHAAAD put up several Facebook and YouTube videos of the incident.
Such tactics are also notable because they seem to be working. It’s true that Boyle Heights has seen some changes in the last few years, and rents are going up. But it remains a firmly Latino, working-class neighborhood, managing to preserve its identity even as surrounding neighborhoods like Echo Park and Highland Park rapidly gentrify. The PSSST gallery’s closure is proof, they say, that they’re successfully turning the tide.
“[The gallery closing] does point out that the community’s efforts to slow gentrification are more effective than they might have felt six months ago. Six months ago there was a sense that the Arts District was going to push right through Boyle Heights,” says Dana Cuff, a professor of architecture and urban design at UCLA.
At the same time, Cuff says it’s too early for Boyle Heights to declare victory. “It’s hard to use measures like failure and success in this case, in my mind. Gentrification is a massive economic and real estate city force. One gallery closing isn’t something that you could call a success or a reversal,” she says.
Luna says that BHAAAD and other community groups have that point clear. They’re celebrating PSSST’s closure, but won’t rest until all the galleries are gone. They’ll continue to fight any incoming business or development project that they feel doesn’t serve the interests of the neighborhood (last year, another large focus was the closure of Carnitas Michoacán, a neighborhood staple taco place, to make room for a Panda Express; it ended up closing down despite protests).
The more complicated work, of course, comes in deciding what kinds of businesses should be allowed to make their way into the neighborhood. There is a housing shortage in Boyle Heights (as in all of L.A.), and unemployment is at 8.6 percent, above the city median. How do you allow investment without encouraging population change and displacement?
Luna’s answer: very carefully. He says Boyle Heights groups do want new housing, but they want it to be truly affordable, with all rents calculated for median income in Boyle Heights, which is just $34,000 per year, compared to L.A. County’s median of $55,000. They don’t want any new developments to displace existing residents—and where they must, they demand residents’ right of return. Anything less than that, Luna says, amounts to nothing more than “a compromise with gentrification.”
“We want things like...a new laundromat on the corner of Whittier and Boyle. We want our streets and sidewalks fixed,” he says. “We shouldn’t have to wait until white people live here for someone to care enough to fix the sidewalks.”