Opinion

A Boyle Heights Alliance Challenges Charles Gaines and Other Artists for Ignoring Local Voices

This open letter was sent to Hyperallergic by Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement, in response to an article by Charles Gaines, earlier this month.

Community picket at the opening of David Reed’s exhibition at 356 Mission (all images courtesy B.H.A.A.A.D. unless otherwise noted)

Editor’s Note: The following open letter was sent to Hyperallergic by Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (B.H.A.A.A.D.). It was written in response to an article about gentrification by the artist Charles Gaines. 

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This collectively written letter was drafted and revised between March 28 and May 24, 2017. In that time period in Boyle Heights, seven residents have been picked up by Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In the last year, five residents have been shot and killed by the LAPD — two of whom are the youngest people killed by police in Los Angeles. We write in a context of urgency.

In February, the APAN (Artists’ Political Action Network) organized a meeting at the Boyle Heights gallery 356 Mission that was billed as a “call to political action” to fight a “culture of fear, hatred, and exclusion.” On the day of the event, DBH (Defend Boyle Heights) and B.H.A.A.A.D. (Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement), in protest of holding a meeting of that nature at a gallery that contributes to gentrification and displacement drew a picket line outside the gallery space. Some artists crossed the picket line; some did not and stood in solidarity. In response, Charles Gaines circulated an essay through the APAN public network that prioritizes the voices of well-established artists over the demands of the Boyle Heights community.

A Tweet from a realtor

An Open Letter to Charles Gaines and the Artists of APAN

It’s not up to you to author the terms of struggle for a poor and working class neighborhood of color that is currently under housing siege. You are not exempt from reckoning with the racial and economic disparities at hand — especially you, who own homes or multiple properties, or who run art studios, work at universities, and have considerable cultural and institutional capital.

Gaines’s letter engages in a deeply troubling mystification of gentrification, a process he describes as one that, “hardly anyone understands.” What we have here is an epistemological conflict. Gaines and his peers’ notions of information and politics are being confronted by the knowledge and experience of Boyle Heights residents. People whose rent increased 300% understand gentrification. People who are called “nightmare tenants” understand gentrification. People who have been harassed and evicted by landlords, the police, and ICE understand gentrification. Gentrification is a well-studied, well-documented, and predictable process. Gentrification in its current form has been tearing up communities from New York City to New Orleans, from Detroit to Los Angeles. Thorough examples of writing on this process, specific to Boyle Heights, can be found in Magally Miranda and Kyle Lane-McKinley’s article on artwashing in a Blade of Grass and B.H.A.A.A.D.’s “The Short History of a Long Struggle.”

Boyle Heights has a poverty rate of 33% and a median income of $33,253, which is a lower median income than the average for all of Los Angeles, which stands at $53,000. Homeownership rates in Boyle Heights are at 11 percent. Low rates of homeownership have long displaced residents. In the residential community in Boyle Heights closest to where the galleries are located (Pico Aliso) 989 public housing families were displaced by efforts to “to improve the community.” Gentrification has led to the criminalization of youth and immigrants who live in the neighborhood as development moves forward. Art galleries are calling the cops for graffiti complaints, and participating in a hate crime investigation, opened after the graffiti “Fuck White Art” was written on Nicodim Gallery in November 2016. This came just months after 14-year-old Jesse Romero was murdered by the LAPD in broad daylight for tagging. In 2016, Los Angeles had the highest number of police shootings in the United States.

Until artists are willing to relinquish their demand for unchecked access to all neighborhoods at their convenience, for their sheer entitlement to space at the expense of others’ homes, artists will not truly honor the intersectional struggles going on right under their noses.

It is an outrage for well-established artists and artists with financial and housing security — often in more than one city — to contest the voices of Boyle Heights residents. We should not privilege the elite’s need to understand these processes on their own terms. Newcomers should practice solidarity and side with anti-gentrification activists, many of whom are long-time Boyle Heights residents who have been resisting displacement and erasure for the last 30 years! Is it reasonable to treat Gaines’s and APAN’s reductive analysis of the conditions in Boyle Heights as superior to the inductive, experiential knowledge that forges local on-the-ground resistance? Supporters of the boycott B.H.A.A.A.D and DBH have called against Boyle Heights galleries participating in artwashing and displacement and stressed that our actions come out of a long-term history of resistance and struggle. Gaines should study this background before making superficial and inaccurate comparisons with neighborhoods in New York City.

Some of Donald Trump’s most egregious policies can be found in the intersections of racism, housing, investment, policing, and displacement patterns going on outside the doors of some of the very art spaces where APAN seeks to galvanize its political work. Artists who want to help fight ICE deportations, racist police abuse, and other terrors of the US government (pre- and post-Trump), must trust the critical analysis and strategies of the people most affected by these abuses.

Twenty-two-year-old immigrant rights activist Claudia Ruede, one of the seven Boyle Heights residents detained by Border Patrol (image courtesy Immigrant Youth Coalition)

Gaines writes:

We knew that 356 Mission was one of the sites targeted by the Boyle Heights boycott, but we thought that gentrification could be one of the issues that we can address together with the activists. However, none of the Boyle Heights activists responded to our invitation, but they did show up to protest the APAN meeting itself.

 

Our response:

If you know there is a boycott, you don’t ask the community holding the boycott to cross their own picket line to “discuss” gentrification issues with you. If APAN is interested in deepening their understanding of the anti-artwashing and anti-gentrification fight going on in Boyle Heights, begin by understanding your role in advancing many of these forces of displacement. Ask where the groups fighting gentrification would like to meet, and what they see as the most urgent work to be done.

 

  • Artists with mobility to relocate and establish a home and art practice in LA should stop looking to invent their version of “the struggle.” Seek humility towards people facing much more intense vulnerabilities. Artists and gentrifiers should ask how they can join and support the ongoing struggles in our neighborhood. That means understanding who and what was here before you arrived.

 

  • The fight for housing justice and the end of artists and cultural institutions acting as channels for real estate development is absolutely politically tenable. We have already gained significant momentum and closed down one gallery; we have convinced some artists to abandon Boyle Heights real estate. Tenants rights groups are growing in size, as are eviction defenses, alongside the fight for universal rent control.

 

  • Artists cannot organize around politics, make political art, and yet ignore the material impacts and realities of their own presence, which only reinforces the violence of racial and economic privilege. Stop co-opting the struggle of those who are actually fighting for their community!

 

  • To organize and resist in the time of Trump is just another day in the USA. To insist that this regime requires new forms of organizing is to ignore the questions and realities that we have been facing since long before January 2017. We have found some questions so crucial that we had to shout them in the streets, like, “When your rent becomes unaffordable, where will you go?” And the urgent reality that “Eviction = Death.”

 

Gaines goes on to describe “white anti-mainstream” artists who deprive communities of color of resources in order to keep low-rent neighborhoods economically depressed, opposing developments and gentrification for their own benefit. Perhaps these “white anti-mainstream” artists Gaines takes aim at, who he sees taking advantage of communities of color, are the ones that could be found packed into the APAN meeting. Although there is no reason to defend the countless forms of liberal white supremacy, this misses the mark in Boyle Heights, where those directly impacted by gentrification are leading the struggle for their right to exist. He ends the letter with “This is why the whites who have moved in to Boyle Heights and who are anti-gentrification activists wrongly see themselves as resisters and not agents of gentrification.” It’s unfortunate that Gaines — a prominent artist of color who we imagine is no stranger to the ways racism can make people invisible — fails to recognize that women of color activists are the primary engines behind the fight against displacement in Boyle Heights.

In addition to the POC groups that are part of the Boyle Heights Alliance (Union de Vecinos and Defend Boyle Heights), other POC anti-gentrification groups involved in struggles across Los Angeles include LA Community Action Network, People Organized for Westside Renewal, Resist Displacement Los Angeles, El Sereno Against Gentrification, North East Los Angeles Alliance, Uplift Inglewood, Crenshaw Subway Coalition, and Chinatown Community for Equitable Development, in addition to the five local chapters of the LA Tenants Union led by strong POC majorities. Gaines assumes that POC residents want to be taken up in the arms of fantastic, benevolent redevelopment schemes, and that, as he writes, “These communities want to become socially and economically mainstreamed.” He echoes the constant chorus of artists and gentrifiers who insist displacement is inevitable and refuse to cede any position to those fighting for fair housing and the most basic rights, in effect erasing POC labor and struggle against so-called development. 

The group gathered inside 356 Mission for the Artists’ Political Action Network meeting

The struggle for sustainable housing, self-determination, and against artwashing in Boyle Heights is led by Mexican, Chicanx, and Central and South American people. The focus on white accomplices working with B.H.A.A.A.D. obfuscates a history and present reality where the bulk of the work is done by networks of Latinx organizers in DBH who are made up of the Ovarian Psycos, Serve the People – Los Angeles, Union de Vecinos, East Los Angeles Brown Berets, Wyvernwood residents, Cat Scan Collective, and Undeportables Productions, among many others. All these groups already existed when the galleries moved into Boyle Heights, and are a part of a long and successful history of struggle in Los Angeles stretches back to the Chicano blowouts, the Chicano Moratorium, and fights against the incinerator and water privatizations, as well as a prison on the border of Vernon and Boyle Heights, and the constant work to fight for housing. Why is the coalition of mostly POC groups so difficult to understand? B.H.A.A.A.D. is a coalition of many people of differing races and ethnicities which includes some white accomplices acting in solidarity, in hopes of creating meaningful and long overdue confrontations with their peers who refuse to cede entitlements around race, art, capital, and real estate. There is no reason (other than white supremacy and its reverberations) to foreground the work of the white accomplices in B.H.A.A.A.D. over the work of POC resisters in the coalition.

Gaines describes the “surprise,” “trauma,” and “despair” of the arts community and their “desire to do something” on the heels of the Trump election. Using the trauma of the arts community as his central frame, Gaines gives primacy to the abstract pain of the educated, mostly white, blue-chip professional artists and academics who attended the APAN meeting, over the actual threats of displacement and the historic decades of resistance of a community. 

For millions of people who live in constant struggle across the US the ascendency of this openly fascist regime was no surprise. Progressive politics exist in a ruthlessly racist, capitalist context. They have made very little social advancements, and are repeatedly propped up by open hostility to POC, trans, queer, low-income, and undocumented people. Gaines’s lament that the Trump victory marked the “end of progressive politics” in the US replicates the liberal democratic machine that is as responsible for the results as any conservative or right-wing agenda. “Progressive” artists imagine themselves to be separate from this system, and mistake things like “diversity” and “inclusion” for substantive, material concessions, including the forfeiture of accessing certain spaces, as well as opportunities and positions of artistic or intellectual authority. This confusion of “progress” with actual redistribution of wealth and freedom for self-determination is similar to the compromises politicians make in search of liberal solutions that offer no moral or material challenge to the violence, racism, and misogyny of the status quo.

We can all do better. As residents of the most rampant exporter of imperialism and neo-colonial white-supremacist brutality we must. Complacent reform-oriented political discourse will not improve our conditions. We are not fighting for a cheap place to live — we are fighting for all our ways of life to matter as much as the lives that are very different from our own. This fight is only ours if it includes all those who are rejected and excluded: black people, brown people, queer and trans people, the undocumented, the poor, the ones with records of incarceration, the disabled, the chronically ill, the mothers, those forced into active confrontations with the systems at-hand — the ones who have long been fighting the fight.

Signed,

B.H.A.A.A.D. 
Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement

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