LOS ANGELES — A normally quiet and industrial stretch of Mission Road that abuts the Los Angeles River came to life on Saturday evening when a group of artists and activists put together a mobile art exhibit celebrating the working-class neighborhood of Boyle Heights. Organized by students from nearby CALÓ YouthBuild charter school, the Ambularte exhibit invited local artists and community organizers to celebrate the neighborhood’s history in the face of gentrification.
Ambularte was organized in response to a New York Times article covering a trend of New York gallerists moving westward in search of larger spaces and cheaper rents. The article describes 356 Mission and Maccarone Gallery, fine art galleries located in Boyle Heights, as “outposts” of the art world and a part of the expanding Arts District. Boyle Heights is adjacent to the Arts District and Downtown LA, which are undergoing rapid economic change and development.
“As far as [the galleries are] concerned, they’ve found a bunch of vacant warehouses and figured nobody has established any sort of community out here,” Genaro Francisco Ulloa, a teacher at CALÓ YouthBuild, told Hyperallergic. “This rhetoric and narrative deny opportunities for people who are living here to speak for themselves.”
CALÓ YouthBuild educates 16- to 24-year-old students with programs centered around community action and development. As part of an economic justice campaign, Ulloa’s students wanted to focus on issues of gentrification that have besieged their community in recent years.
Sergio Quintero is a student coordinator of Ambularte and began attending CALÓ YouthBuild this year. “Besides my family being displaced, unfortunately, there are many more getting evicted or rents rising way above what they can afford, so they have no option but to move,” Quintero told Hyperallergic. “It’s a topic that should be widely talked about and has to be fought to save our neighborhood and the culture that lives within it.”
Boyle Heights has had no shortage of gentrification scares and tone-deaf media coverage. Last May, a real estate flyer advertised the neighborhood as a “walkable and bikeable neighborhood” just “2 seconds from the Arts District,” enticing potential homebuyers with “artisanal treats.” The company that put out the flyer apologized after receiving heated responses from wary Boyle Heights residents.
Plans for a mixed-use development to replace the Wyvernwood Garden Apartments also came under fire last summer from a coalition of residents, activists, and preservationists. Several generations of organizers fought to save the historical landmark, which is also home to 6,000 people. Another plan to redevelop the neighborhood’s historic Mariachi Plaza into a shopping and medical office development came to a halt after similar opposition from residents.
Ambularte is just one of many creative ways in which this neighborhood of almost 100,000 residents have fought to preserve the people and places they love. Confronting the building that houses Maccarone Gallery, which opened this year and was the main subject of the New York Times article, organizers set up a generator to power lights illuminating paintings and illustrations by local artists as well as a “displacement altar” telling stories of businesses and neighborhoods lost to gentrification. An image projected onto Maccarone Gallery’s facade read “Art is community” and “Resistance is for everyone.”
Artist Ray Vargas contributed a live art piece, painting a street scene of people jogging or bicycling past neighborhood landmarks like the Mariachi Plaza kiosk and the Sixth Street Bridge, while graffiti artist Vyal Reyes spraypainted a live mural of a watchful eye looking out for the community. Nico Avina, an artist who co-owns community art space Espacio 1839, set up a mobile screenprinting cart and gave out prints declaring resistance against gentrification.
“I think what really bothers me is the way [gentrifiers] Columbus everything they do,” Avina told Hyperallergic. “They swear they discovered something that was already here … We as a people are very creative. Art either through spoken word, theater, or visual art can be a way that we counter what we disagree with. It’s a sort of nonviolent resistance. We all need to be creating artwork, inspiring one another.”
For student organizers of CALÓ YouthBuild, the event was an opportunity to participate in the community and have a voice regarding issues affecting their lives. According to Ulloa, most students plan to look for a job to support their families after high school, and many of them live with extended family members in order to afford rent.
“Displacement is not just about families getting pushed out,” Ulloa said. “It’s about the youth not being able to survive and focus on any long-term goals. It develops a culture around survival and immediate needs.”
The story of Boyle Heights as told by Ambularte has nothing to do with the opening of blue-chip galleries or the revitalization of Downtown LA. Instead, it has everything to do with the long history of political organizing and art-making that has made the neighborhood an important center for working-class Latino culture. Local organizations like Self-Help Graphics & Art, which once galvanized the Chicano arts movement in the seventies, continue to play an important role in supporting the arts.
For newcomers like Michele Maccarone, who reportedly lives in the rarefied confines of Bel Air, to tell the New York Times that Boyle Heights “has a dangerous quality” to her liking is to treat the economic struggles of locals as window-dressing while contradicting the experience of those who actually live in the neighborhood.
For Erica Segura, a student organizer who has been attending CALÓ YouthBuild for a year, Boyle Heights is home and she plans to remain in the distant future. “I love the culture that this community offers,” Segura said. “I love that I can walk down the block and feel safe ‘cause I know my community is going to be there. After I graduate, I’m going to continue working and advocating for women and my community.”
Ambularte: A Mobile Art Exhibit took place in front of Maccarone Gallery (300 South Mission Road, Los Angeles) on November 7.