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Destroying the Neighborhood to Save It

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Destroying the Neighborhood to Save It

Anti-gentrification activists in Boyle Heights despise even their natural allies. October 10, 2017
Cities
The Social Order

If “the revolution devours its own,” as the saying has it, then anti-gentrification activists in Boyle Heights, a heavily Latino district just east of downtown Los Angeles, have been feasting. They have greeted liberal artists and hipsters with racial taunts, vandalism, boycotts, and mask-wearing demonstrators. In several cases, they have succeeded in forcing events and establishments to move their activities elsewhere. But their victory is pyrrhic, hindering the vitalization of a long-struggling neighborhood and its ambitious new entrepreneurs.

​The most recent Boyle Heights skirmish neatly illustrates the conflict between the bien pensant interlopers and the longer-term residents who resent them. Chris Kraus, a well-connected and celebrated writer, had been scheduled to speak at a local arts center and performance space. Kraus is best known for her cheekily titled cult novel I Love Dick, which was turned into a popular 2016 Amazon series. The show’s creator, Jill Soloway, was also the producer and creator of the gender-bending and Emmy-award winning series Transparent.   

​Kraus’s latest book, and the subject of her planned talk in Boyle Heights, is a biography of Kathy Acker, a “scholar, stripper, victim, and media-whore” who gained a degree of notoriety and fame in the eighties as an avant-garde novelist. An excerpt of the book had already appeared in The New Yorker, a publication that has profiled Kraus in the past. Kraus was also lucky to have ultra-hip Semiotext(e) as her publisher. The company’s website describes it as a “punk rock” publisher “best known for its introduction of French theory to American readers.” Kraus had previously co-edited a volume for Semiotext(e) titled Hatred of Capitalism: A Semiotext(e) Reader

As it happened, Boyle Heights locals were unimpressed with the more-radical-than-thou pedigree of Kraus and Semiotext(e). Most anti-gentrification groups have developers and their political allies in their sights; Boyle Heights activists have it in for the area’s art galleries, which they believe—not without reason—to be a harbinger of gentrification. Kraus’s event was due to be held at one such gallery and performance space, 356 Mission, whose owners had done everything short of committing business hara-kiri to distance themselves from any neighborhood upscaling. 356 Mission may not be a legal nonprofit, but the website assures us that all profits go back into the business; further, “356 Mission does not own the building in which it operates. We rent the building from Vera R. Campbell (Boyle Heights Properties). The space was vacant from 2009 until 2012 and prior to 2009, it was a piano storage building for decades.” In other words, it is just the sort of establishment that both Semiotext(e) customers and Boyle Heights natives could welcome as politically acceptable.

​Instead, the artists and gallery owners suddenly found themselves in the same enemy camp as destroyer billionaires like Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, or even President Trump. (One protest flyer read: “Donald Trump is a Developer and so is 356 Mission.”) For the anti-gentrification protestors, art galleries are by definition capitalist enterprises, and thus enemies of “the community.”  

One of the major local activist groups calls itself The Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAD). “Artwashing” refers to artists, arts organizations, and their corporate sponsors who, unwittingly or not, rebrand and upscale—i.e., gentrify—low-income neighborhoods. (The related term“pinkwashing” refers to gay newcomers to those neighborhoods, who cause wine bars and dog groomers to come snooping for real estate.)  BHAAAD was not interested in compromise with their presumptive political comrades. “[A]ll new art galleries [should] immediately leave Boyle Heights,” the group announced on Facebook.“Those buildings should be utilized by our community members the ways we best see fit which may be converting them into emergency housing, shelters, or centers for job training.” Kraus and her sponsors had little choice but to cancel their event. 

In February, the activists also forced the closing of short-lived nonprofit arts space PSSST, despite its claim to have been “by and for a diverse array of underrepresented artists.” PSSST explains that it had to close because “our staff and artists were routinely trolled online and harassed in-person. This persistent targeting, which was often highly personal in nature, was made all the more intolerable because the artists we engaged are queer, women, and/or people of color.” But in late-revolutionary Boyle Heights, these labels no longer automatically command respect. BHAAD demanded “the full decolonization of Boyle Heights,” and called local sympathizers “coconuts”—brown on the outside, white on the inside.  

Another gallery was spray painted “Fuck White Art.” (The LAPD deemed the graffiti a possible hate crime, though gallery owners refused to pursue the charge.) Weird Wave Coffee, a hipster coffee shop whose walls are adorned with work by local artists, has been targeted by protestors carried signs saying “White Wave Coffee,” and “AmeriKKKano to go.”

​For all their overdone excoriation of people who are likely their ideological allies, the Boyle Heights activists are not totally wrong; gentrification is bound up with artists in complicated ways. (See “Portrait of a Neighborhood as a Hipster Haven.”) The list of working-class neighborhoods that have succumbed first to artists, and then their patrons, friends, and providers of kale is long: Soho in Manhattan, Shoreditch in London, Bushwick in Brooklyn, the SOWA area of Boston, Wynwood in Miami. And though LA Weekly reports that the city’s rent-control laws protect 88 percent of the area’s renters, some longtime residents, including an enclave of mariachis, have seen their monthly bill go up by 50 percent or more.   

​Still, in their Mao-quoting zeal, the activists are thwarting not just their interloping co-revolutionaries, but the neighbors whom they say that they want to protect. Before being forced to close, PSSST gallery was showcasing Boyle Heights-born Guadalupe Rosales as its first artist-in-residence. Rosales doesn’t believe that she is producing “alien art,” as one activist described the art scene in Boyle Heights on Facebook. “What I’m doing is part of activism,” she says, “because something needed to happen to preserve history.”  

​Similarly, Lino Campos, who opened a barber shop called The Cream Shop in 2016 and has lived in Boyle Heights for most of his life, has been placed on the gentrifying enemies list. His trendy styling attracts young customers from outside the neighborhood, despite its $20 cost, in a neighborhood where the going rate is $8 to $12. Campos argues that his barbers spend more time on the specialty cuts he offers. “I want to be [the] first Chicano to have a chain of barbershops where we can continue to support other communities as well,” he told the Boyle Heights Beat. “Hopefully, I will live to say that we’ve already got our ten shops.”

Lino Campos can dream of expanding his tonsorial empire, but he will first have to overcome the neighborhood revolutionaries who oppose his vision. 

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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