This project is a compilation of maps, artifacts and narratives on galleries detailing the ongoing fight against artwashing and displacement in Boyle Heights, drawn from the archive of the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement. We write this in the middle of the COVID 19 pandemic with 491,000 households bracing to fight against potential evictions when LA’s moratoriums expire. The struggle for housing in LA will now face a wave of further pressure and speculation by city and private developers — no doubt some will once again use art and gallery space as their entry into working class neighborhoods.
If you trace the steps of gentrification—the conversion of a working class community into one designed for and populated by wealthier classes—you will find a distinct pattern: Developers and real estate speculators have their eyes trained on the arrival of artists as the moment to start accumulating property. A 2007 article in Bloomberg gives this advice: “Want to know where a great place to invest in real estate will be five or 10 years from now? Look at where artists are living now.”
Art is an industry, and the way that it interacts with other industries—global finance and land use among them—materially impact our lives. All the progressive intentions in the world cannot stop the blunt mechanisms of urban real-estate speculation.
We made this map because these galleries need to understand their impacts on the history, culture, and community of Boyle Heights. But we also made it for ourselves and our community—to record our own sense of place, to insist on being heard by cynics who dismiss our drive for survival as unfair or short-sighted, and to fortify ourselves to continue the resistance we have been sustaining for decades.
The gallerists targeting Boyle Heights may think their economy is benign, but they are banking on that flip of the coin that will grow careers and cash out of disinvested warehouses and low-income apartment complexes. Many artists are directly investing in the displacement of their neighbors by moving resources and capital into disinvested spaces.The presence of international art-world capital contributes, on an exponential level, to the displacement of this community.
What if the whole block of galleries—and then the rest of the neighborhood—reverted to community control? Our many organized autonomous movements—like the Union de Vecinos Eastside Tenants Union, the Ovarian Psycos, and the Immigrant Youth Coalition, as well as the street vendors, Mariachis, and the day laborers—have fought for this vision.
Gentrification is not an inevitable future. It is not the march of objective progress. It is a result of deliberate actions and decisions, which can be changed, if we collectively take direct action. It is one vision of the future, which particular groups and individuals in government and business are working to make a reality. But we can outwork them. We challenge everyone—but especially non-profit developers, land-bankers and gallerists—to reconsider their collective role in the future of Los Angeles.
HOW PROFITEERS BROUGHT ARTWASHING TO BOYLE HEIGHTS:
As BHAAAD’s “Short History of a Long Struggle” explained, the Boyle Heights warehouse district, sometimes known as The Flats, has birthed decades of militant neighborhood struggles over jobs, police abuse, gang violence, environmental racism, and institutional disinvestment. The women and organizers in Union de Vecinos have spent many years fighting against bulldozers, institutional neglect, gang violence, and police occupation. Their struggle and labor is the reason this neighborhood is now seen as a “safe” place for investment and blue-chip galleries.
For nearly 20 years, urban planners and developers have religiously believed that the only way for poor communities to survive was by chasing after the "creative class"-young, mostly white professionals in the arts, media, and tech industries—who would then attract new businesses and investment. Thanks to the work of hacks like Richard Florida, the people who build our cities have drooled over these upper-middle-class designers, artists, writers, makers, and other "creatives” and worked tirelessly to lure them into under-resourced communities of color, often by propping up businesses that have nothing to do with the needs of that community.
In Boyle Heights, officials have dreamed of bringing private investment and wealthier residents to the First Street corridor since at least the early 2000s—and they’ve always weaponized the industries of art, tech, transportation, academia, and nonprofits to do so.
The plan to gentrify Boyle Heights was born in a university. In 2009, then-Councilmember José Huizar (arrested in June 2020 for money laundering and corrupt development schemes) recruited 12 graduate students in urban planning to explore the feasibility of designating part of the neighborhood as an “arts district”—an area where “arts-related” businesses are granted tax exemptions and flexibility in zoning. By 2010, Huizar announced multi-million-dollar plans to attract art galleries to the area. In 2011, LA City Council created and funded a task force to develop the district.
As more of the creative class opened up shop in Boyle Heights, the national elite began to take note and glorify their presence as bringing light to an uncultured, desolate wasteland. “Within a few minutes’ drive of one another, the galleries are beginning to give the area the urban cultural density that Los Angeles mostly lacks,” the New York Times proclaimed in 2015.
In reality, public art and creativity have always thrived in Boyle Heights; capitalists simply haven’t noticed it because it isn’t heavily funded, branded, or institutionalized. The city exploited the community’s organic traditions, claiming that its task force would uplift “an arts movement based in the neighborhood's rich history of ethnic diversity, rich culture and art”—yet at the same time, actively fought to quash that artistic expression so that they could replace it with art as commodity, art as money, art as capitalism.
Until the task force was established, the city had banned all mural painting in Boyle Heights. Street art and graffiti were criminalized and whitewashed. But when, in 2013, the city saw an opportunity to use art to attract wealth and prestige, they hired institutional artists to enact their own public mural program—a utility box painting project, funded through a $10 million grant from LA Metro and strategically placed to brighten up their new rail line. “We’re encouraging more murals; it’s going to be a great arts district once we’re done,” Huizar bragged.
The opening of LA Metro’s Gold Line stations were part and parcel of the effort to drive white money into Boyle Heights. As early as 2003, then-Councilmember Antonio Villaraigosa said the Gold Line would “be an engine for economic development and lead to the revitalization of First Street.” Huizar later called it the “catalyst” for the “artsy coffee shops and small bars opening up.” His spokesperson Rick Coca further clarified that rail and bike lanes were installed in Boyle Heights not in response to a demonstrated community need, but to serve “visitors to the 1st Street Arts District.”
One autonomous community center adjacent to the so-called “1st Street Arts District” where art galleries began transplanting to was La Conxa. This space has always been run as an autonomous community center and a brave space, also serving as headquarters for the OVAS (formerly Ovarian Psycos). The OVAS, their members, and community aligned organizations hosted various forms of programming that centered community members of different ages professions, and backgrounds. Their events, actions, and activities reflected a commitment to resistance to capitalism and patriarchy while also building community strength and unity in Boyle Heights.Their energy, contributions, and vision were the exact opposite of what many art galleries would bring to the neighborhood.
In August 2016, Vera Campbell’s company, Boyle Heights Properties LLC., who also owned other arts-related properties in the area including 356 Mission art gallery, bought the property at which La Conxa was located for $1,700,000. In October 2016, Campbell significantly raised the rent at La Conxa to around $1,500 per month. Campbell had plans to demolish the 1214 E. 1st St. property and turn it into a gallery space. It has been mostly unoccupied and unused since the OVAS were displaced, but recently some have seen private events taking place there. A single family home in the rear half of the property has remained empty, too, since a family there was displaced in 2016.
The struggle against different art gallery owners is just one story of how Boyle Heights residents led their fight directly to those doing the harm in the community. As these different galleries have proven, they are themselves a large puzzle piece in the wave of real estate speculation and commodification that is attempting to gentrify Boyle Heights neighborhoods. This process of gentrification in Boyle Heights involves the racial banishment of long-time residents by attracting real estate speculators to use the existence of art galleries, tech spaces and media spaces to attract high-income & wealthy property owners. Art gallerists and other gentrifying figures do not offer any resources to contribute to the self-determination of existing residents nor do they offer any tangible support to local neighbors. A laundromat, a day care center, a local corner market - all of these establishments are more affordable and serve a greater purpose than exist as an art gallery.
Today, the fight continues against new and remaining gentrifiers that move into the warehouse district of Boyle Heights, but also against the landlords and LAPD in Boyle Heights. and entities that seek to undermine organized community networks of support as we see in local autonomous spaces and tenant union associations. Local residents and their organizing efforts continue to fight the next wave of gentrification with invaluable takeaways and distinct experiences in fighting back against wealthy gentrifiers, regardless of the form it may take to sell or buy the Boyle Heights community.
This text has been adapted from The Short History of a Long Struggle, a collaborative work by organizers from the Women of Pico Aliso, Union de Vecinos, and Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing & Displacement. Read the full piece here.
This map shows the arts businesses that have capitalized on the city’s strategic gentrification planning and funding initiatives to remake Boyle Heights in their image. Some of these businesses were still operating when COVID-19 began, selling vanity goods that are utterly mismatched to the buying power and material needs of the long-neglected neighborhood. But in other cases, community resistance—demonstrations, boycotts, public education, and yes, truly public art—successfully shut gentrifying businesses down, marking the first steps in reclaiming their space for the people. These tactics work. Still, we must also be wary of the potential for businesses to leave one area only to find another to exploit. Whether it’s Chinatown or West Adams, one community’s victory cannot be the catalyst for another’s destruction. Click on a business’s name or location on the map to see who owns the building and runs the business. Then go Beyond the Data to explore the history of the struggle over that site, as told by those on the front lines of the ongoing battle of Boyle Heights.
“The galleries moving to South Anderson Street are part of a globalized and sophisticated city of the 21st century, in which a tourist from Hong Kong or Paris might think nothing of trekking to Chimento Contemporary and paying $20,000 for one of its artistic offerings. Only the light coating of concrete dust on that tourist’s shoes will suggest that this was once something else, that ferocious battles were fought over this land, with history, justice and community deployed as weapons.” (“The 'Artwashing' of America: The Battle for the Soul of Los Angeles Against Gentrification” Newsweek, 2017)
Community members were always confident in their efforts to fight back against art galleries and their real estate speculation. The above quote only cements the threat that these art galleries represented to Boyle Heights. The struggle against different art gallery owners is just one story of how Boyle Heights residents led their fight directly to those doing the harm in the community. As these different galleries have proven, they are themselves a large puzzle piece in the wave of real estate speculation and commodification that is attempting to gentrify Boyle Heights and other Los Angeles neighborhoods. This process of gentrification in Boyle Heights involves the racial banishment of long-time residents by attracting real estate speculators to use the existence of art galleries, tech spaces, and media spaces to the area. In turn, these commodities attract high-income earners & wealthy property owners who have proven time and again to dismiss the community’s concerns andexistence in favor of their own conveniences. Similar to art gallerists, the tech businesses that are moving into Downtown L.A. and the Arts District do not offer any resources to contribute to the self-determination of existing residents nor do they offer any tangible support to tenants in crisis. A laundromat, a day care center, a local corner market — all of these establishments serve a greater purpose to the people who make up the neighborhood.
Today, the fight continues against new and remaining gentrifiers moving into the warehouse district of Boyle Heights, as well as against the landlords,LAPD, and ICE in Boyle Heights. Additionally there is also struggle with entities that seek to undermine organized community networks of support as we see in local autonomous spaces and tenant union associations. Local residents and their organizing efforts continue to fight the next wave of gentrification with invaluable takeaways and distinct experiences in fighting back against the many forms of artwashing, wealthy gentrifiers, disingenuous non-profits and City developers attempting to speculate and profit from the sale of the Boyle Heights community.