Over the past 18 months, the struggle over gentrification and displacement in Boyle Heights has focused on a crop of about a dozen art galleries that have moved into the predominantly Latino neighborhood, and community activists who have taken a hard line against them, unequivocally demanding that all art spaces leave the area. According to residential real estate website Trulia, the median monthly rent for an apartment in Boyle Heights has jumped from $1,825 to $2,550 over the past year, a significant increase in a neighborhood where over 75% of the residents are renters and the median household income is just over $33,000, according to the LA Times.
Most mainstream media sources have painted this tense situation as a binary opposition between a largely white, moneyed art world, and a unified community of minority residents whose homes and way of life are threatened by the galleries’ encroachment. A new short documentary, however, takes a different approach. Produced by Field of Vision, “The Town I Live In” is narrated by Guadalupe Rosales, an artist with roots in both Boyle Heights and the arts community. “The media often portrays local conflicts like this in black and white terms of ‘us against them,’ and in the case of Boyle Heights, ‘the community versus the galleries,'” said Rosales and her film collaborator, Matt Wolf, via email. “In reality the situation in Boyle Heights and in many other communities facing gentrification is much more nuanced and complex.”
The documentary, which you can watch in full in the exclusive clip above, considers the less discussed and more personal perspective of what it’s like to be an artist from Boyle Heights. Rosales’s artistic practice involves archiving the Southern California Latino youth culture she grew up with — from photographs sent in by fans of her Instagram, to party flyers, home videos, and oral histories — and that she sees disappearing as her neighborhood changes. Despite her ties to Boyle Heights, Rosales was targeted by community activists Defend Boyle Heights when her exhibition opened last year at PSSST, one of the first art spaces to draw the ire of the group, and the first to close as a result of the controversy. “I want to be able to make art in my neighborhood and not be seen as someone who is enabling gentrification,” Rosales remarks in the film. On the contrary, she sees her artwork as an attempt to preserve her community’s heritage. “What I’m doing is part of activism, because something needed to happen to preserve history,” she says. “Sometimes I don’t know if I prefer a neighborhood with gangs or a neighborhood that’s being cleaned up. I don’t want another person to die, but I also don’t want this.”
Although Rosales is the center of the film, it also includes interviews with representatives from art spaces like Ethan Swan of 356 Mission — which has been a main target of Defend Boyle Heights — and Joel Garcia of Self-Help Graphics, a space founded in 1970 during the height of the Chicano Civil Rights Movement and that Rosales views as being an important resource for the community. Despite its historical legacy, activists still believe Self-Help Graphics encourages other art spaces to move into the neighborhood and therefore should leave as well. We don’t get to hear directly from the community activists, since they didn’t respond to requests to be interviewed; however, the film features documentation from several of their protest actions as well as archival footage from home videos collected by Rosales.
Instead of coming up with answers to the situation, “The Town I Live In” allows viewers to draw their own conclusions. “I don’t know what the answer is really,” Rosales says in the film. “I don’t know if there is a solution.”