LOS ANGELES — The latest development in the debate over art and gentrification in Boyle Heights took place earlier this month, when a public forum was held at the Pico Gardens complex, part of the largest public housing bloc west of the Mississippi. Dozens of community residents, activists, artists and gallery representatives attended the meeting, which was organized by Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD), a coalition of other groups including Union de Vecinos, Defend Boyle Heights, School of Echoes, and the Eastside Local of the LA Tenants Union. Bilingual listening devices were provided by language justice collaborative Antena, ensuring that language, at least, would not be a barrier to communication.
A bilingual pamphlet put together by organizers titled “A Short History of a Long Struggle” offered just that, portraying the current conflict as just the latest threat in a long battle against development by outside interests. “Before the Galleries Came, We Experienced 30 Years of Promises that Turned Out to be Lies” read one section heading. It offered some much needed historical perspective on this nuanced situation, but drew a very simple conclusion: “The coalition members of BHAAD demand that the galleries leave Boyle Heights immediately in order for the neighborhood to determine its own fate.”
Although the meeting was advertised as a discussion, it provided more of an opportunity for community members to express their grievances regarding the role that galleries play in gentrification. Longtime Boyle Heights residents addressed the crowd, recounting previous struggles to fight the demolition of the Pico-Aliso housing project (the catalyst for the formation of Union de Vecinos), attempts to privatize public housing, as well as crime and violence in their community. They expressed concerns that galleries would only be the first step in a wave of opportunistic development, driving up rents and forcing them from the place that they had worked so hard to make livable. “Long ago this was a very ugly place. No one wanted to come here,” said Edita Lopez, fighting back tears. “People said we were the worst shit. Why now do you want to come here? Why not before when it was horrible, why now? Now it’s beautiful, built by Latinos.”
One Eastside fixture that was notably absent from the forum was Self-Help Graphics, the 40-year old nonprofit visual arts center whose “mission is to drive the creation and promotion of new work by Chicano and Latino artists through fine art printmaking and multiple visual art forms.” SHG had held their own dialogue about art and gentrification on July 2nd, attempting to explain through a Powerpoint presentation the current Eastside development projects underway, the role of art and artists in gentrification, and to provide resources for community advocacy. After about 45 minutes, members of Defend Boyle Heights disrupted the meeting, holding signs reading “Self Help Graphics Enables Gentrification” and “PSSST…the Community Does Not Trust Self-Help.” They took the microphone from SHG and allowed Pico Gardens residents to decry the arrival of the art galleries before stating their demand that all galleries leave Boyle Heights. After about 20 minutes they left, chanting “We don’t need more galleries; We need higher salaries!,” despite an invitation from SFG Director of Programs and Operations Joel Garcia that they stay and engage in the dialogue.
On their website, Defend Boyle Heights posted a statement outlining their reasons for targeting SHG. “Unfortunately, SHG has more than once chosen the side of redevelopment, prioritizing art and artists over people’s livelihoods,” it read in part. One example cited is their relationship to the redevelopment of Wyvernwood, another Eastside affordable housing complex that is facing demolition. “I don’t have a problem with SHG. They do good work and keep art alive in Boyle Heights,” said Rigo Amavizca at the Pico Gardens forum. “However Felicia Montes, a so-called Chicana activist, has tried to sell a plan [to develop Wyvernwood] to the community. Joel Garcia is her fiancée, so there is a clear conflict of interest.” Amavizca is referring to Montes’s role as Director of Community Relations for a public relations firm hired by 15 Group, a private investment firm that acquired Wyvernwood in 1998.
Many of the people who spoke at Pico Gardens made it clear that they were not against art, only the galleries and art nonprofits that have recently moved in. “We’ve got the biggest art gallery in town down by the train tracks, by Sears Tower,” said a young man named Junior, referring to the landmark building whose pending redevelopment brings its own gentrification anxieties. “The galleries never invited me in,” said Raul Gonzalez of Mictlan Murals, who said he considers himself “a painter, not an artist. We need to ask these galleries the same thing we would ask any other business, a liquor store, even a church: ‘What are you offering to the community?’” A man named Facundo put it more bluntly: “Thank you for being here art galleries. We look forward to you all leaving soon!”
Representatives from only a few of the Boyle Heights art spaces were in attendance, and even fewer got up to speak. “I’m here to listen,” said Ethan Swan, the gallery manager of 356 Mission. “I feel very affected by what I’ve heard tonight. But I don’t know what the next step is.”
Another gallerist, who asked to remain anonymous, expressed frustration about the organizers’ intentions. “I was told that the meeting was being held so that the galleries could find a way to work with them,” she told Hyperallergic via email. “It was clearly not that, given from the moment I walked in and was handed that flyer, I knew it was more of an ambush.”
Robert ZIn Stark, who opened his gallery Museum as Retail Space (MaRS) in the shadow of the recently demolished 6th Street Bridge, said he was not aware of the meeting and so did not attend. He suggested looking beyond the galleries for the true enablers of gentrification. “Major policy and ordinance decisions by the different levels of our government are what create gentrification,” he told Hyperallegic via email. “Attacking art galleries is unfortunate because a good art gallery wants to bring unarticulated ideas into a greater dialogue, first and foremost. I would be happy to join these anti-gentrification organizations to help create a formal proposal to the City of Los Angeles to limit development in the area. It starts with discussing ordinances, creating petitions, and making officials accountable for what changes they are allowing.”
Although some may see this statement as absolving galleries from their culpability, it is true that neither the councilmember for Boyle Heights José Huizar nor anyone representing the major property owners in the neighborhood attended the forum.
A number of galleries who didn’t attend the meeting refused to comment when contacted by Hyperallergic. Mihai Nicodim, owner of Nicodim Gallery, however, had no qualms expressing his frustration when reached by phone recently. “We are not in Boyle Heights proper, this is an empty neighborhood. All of these warehouses were empty, most of them still are,” he said of the gallery’s location on the Western edge of the neighborhood. “Those pictures show this quaint little neighborhood. We are not even close to this. We’re on the other side of the freeway.”
Nicodim suggested that perhaps developers were supportive of the struggle to push galleries out of the slim warehouse district they now occupy. “Somebody wants these warehouses empty,” he surmised. “On Mateo, two galleries just moved out and now 300 condos are opening up.”
After leaving his native Romania in the 1980s, Nicodim settled in Los Angeles, spending much of the past 25 years only a few blocks from his gallery’s current site. “I lived on Factory Place, I lived on Main street, on 6th street, just across the river,” he said, though to many involved in this struggle, “just across the river” might as well be Beverly Hills.
“I’ve been told go back where you come from,” he said angrily. “The only other person I’m hearing this from is Donald Trump. Where do you want me to go, back to Eastern Europe?”
The meeting at Pico Gardens served the important purpose of giving a platform to those who, for too long, have not had their voices heard by those in positions of privilege and power. Despite any awareness raised however, it seems unlikely that their ultimatum demanding the turning over of all gallery spaces to the community will be successful. Furthermore, there is the question of who exactly constitutes the “community.” It is clearly not a monolithic body, but a heterogeneous group of individuals, families, and organizations that often have competing goals and interests. This meeting was an important step, but unless the conversation is widened to include city officials, property owners, and developers, no amount of solidarity against the recent gallery influx is going to protect the neighborhood against those who don’t have the best interests of its residents at heart.