The Battle for Sovereignty in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles


By Sam Russek

A coalition of activists against the gentrification of Boyle Heights managed to drive out one the most popular galleries in Los Angeles. Laura Owens’ five year old gallery, 356 Mission, shut its doors for good this past April after its final two exhibitions. In a statement on the gallery’s website, owners Laura Owens, Wendy Yao, and Gavin Brown wrote, “Although we don’t agree with their perspective, we respected it, and attempted to bridge that divide while working toward proactive solutions to the best of our abilities.”

The cooperative search for a solution was short-lived. In May 2017, Owens met with protestors to discuss what could be done regarding the ongoing issue of gentrification in Boyle Heights. Owens brought what she believed were constructive ideas to the table: “community land buybacks, campaigning for specific policy changes, providing laundromat services and sponsoring workshops for kids.” All were rejected.

The opposing party based in the Boyle Heights community included the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD), Unión de Vecinos, and Defend Boyle Heights. These groups entered the meeting demanding one thing, the same ultimatum they’ve given to all art galleries in the area: art galleries that can pay to relocate should do so immediately.

First named in the Atlantic in 2014artwashing refers to the idea that affluent artists outside the community are among the first to capitalize on the opportunity of cheap housing and land values. The ensuing art and newly opened businesses in turn lead to an increase in the average cost of living, much like what occurred in Soho and Tribeca and what’s currently occurring in other neighborhoods all over the United States. It follows a similar model to that of old-world colonialism: first come the artists who act as the missionaries, looking to bring the community together, in lieu of religion, with art-friendly spaces—a veritable wolf in sheep’s clothing, because then come the trendy restaurants, the breweries, the metro bike shares, and the police.

Artwashing refers to the idea that affluent artists outside the community are among the first to capitalize on the opportunity of cheap housing and land values.

Increased police surveillance in the area has been met with its own kind of protest. ICE raids in the area have increased exponentially since 2016. Leonardo Vilchis of Unión de Vecinos noted that, in light of recent Border Patrol and ICE activity in the area, the people of Boyle Heights are afraid to leave their houses. Those seen as responsible for increased police activity are the artists and gallery owners. In an open letter to Laura Owens, one woman wrote, “What are your neighbors supposed to think about your arrival, when, though you don’t carry them yourself, you bring guns?”

Tensions in Boyle Heights have been growing as far back as 2016, when someone anonymously spray-painted “Fuck White Art” on the recently opened Nicodim Gallery and police decided to treat it as a hate crime, suggesting, among other things, that they believe the person responsible isn’t white.

Protestors took the opportunity to commemorate the act of defiance against the Nicodim gallery, posting pictures of the graffiti online with the caption, “Unknown artist, Boyle Heights, CA, ‘Fuck White Art’ (2016), Graffiti on Metal Door.” This harkens back to earlier activist art in Los Angeles, particularly the work of ASCO in their response to a LACMA curator’s statement that Chicanos made graffiti, not art. Retaliating against his remark, the group spray-painted their names on the entrance to the museum, meaning to enact conceptual creation and ownership over the space. The LACMA’s subsequent erasure of the graffiti on the museum in essence erased the largest piece of Chicano artwork in the United States at the time.

Photo by Defend Boyle Heights

Photo by Defend Boyle Heights

Before 356 Mission ultimately decided to close its doors, anti-gentrification groups utilized a variety of tactics aimed at disrupting the art space and harassing its patrons and guests. Author Chris Krauss was to read from her new book published by Semiotext(e) at 356 Mission. But after a wave of protests in the middle of a panel at the CUNY Graduate Center in September, she and her publisher ultimately decided to cancel the event.

In a public statement, co-editor of Semiotext(e) Hedi El Khodi wrote, “As a Moroccan immigrant who grew up in a country with no freedom of the press and general censorship of books, I am troubled by the idea of being asked to remove books from any bookshop and to denounce people who are friends and I believe to be easy scapegoats for a much larger issue … This isn’t to say we are canceling because we recognize the boycott. We find it naive, making impossible demands for a functioning gallery to immediately vacate.”

Less than a month later, Boyle Heights activists again teamed up with like-minded New Yorkers to protest Laura Owens’s mid-career survey at the Whitney. A coalition of groups against gentrification stood outside the entrance to the Whitney and chanted “Laura Owens has got to go” as VIP attendees trickled into the building. The protests came to a head when the coalition entered the building holding a banner that read, “Laura Owens + Gavin Brown, Fuera de Boyle Heights”.

Shortly thereafter, Owens echoed El Khodi’s words in her own statement, saying, “The issue is extremely complex and multi-layered, and doesn’t solely rest on the existence or absence of galleries,” and that, “We have always come back to the conclusion that breaking our lease and leaving would not help solve the housing crisis or slow development.”

Many have marked the wave of gentrification sweeping through low-income neighborhoods as inevitable. Even the victorious protesters noted in a recent Instagram post, “If you could come collect the galleries and breweries Laura Owens’ project made space for that’d be cool.” Though the exit of Laura Owens from the scene is a victory, it may prove to be an anticlimactic one.

In the wake of 356 Mission’s exit, conflict has continued to follow the ever-growing L.A. art scene, and neither side shows any sign of ceasing its activities in the area. Two nearby galleries, Chimento Contemporary and Museum as Retail Space (MaRS) recently announced that they are closing their doors as well. Meanwhile, the Dalton Warehouse in South Central L.A. was targeted during the opening of a group exhibition. Four individuals covered the walls, artwork, and bystanders in red paint.

Defend Boyle Heights wrote in response to the event: “Face it: our councilmembers are vendidxs, our mayor is a pro-Olympics mini Trump, our non-profits haven’t materially solved any real problem in the hood: all we have is each other!” They, along with a slew of other organizations, seem to expect things to get worse before they get better. Recently a $500 million replacement bridge project connecting the Arts District to nearby neighborhoods has crossed over the 101 Freeway and begun construction in Boyle Heights. As Defend Boyle Heights wrote on Instagram, “The damage has been done.”

If gallerists hope to be accepted into any given community, especially one that is primarily low-income, they must take their jobs as community spaces seriously. They should expect to work for and with the community.

If this trend is inevitable, the citizens of Boyle Heights have a decision to make regarding who or what they want setting up shop in their neighborhood. In places like Brooklyn, condominiums have snatched up a large chunk of the cheap real estate in the area, whereas in Chicago, restaurants have taken over. Businesses have swooped in to take advantage of cheap prices in almost every major city in the United States.

As far as community spaces go, one has to ask whether art galleries are the villains these groups contend they are. Some gallerists and art collectives consciously work to foster a space of community involvement, such as nearby Mexicali Rose. The group in Pueblo Nuevo established workshops and created a space for working-class locals to create and discuss art. In the process, the new artists’ work has traveled from Mexicali to galleries in New York and beyond. The 2012 New York show was co-curated by none other than Chris Kraus, who, along with Semiotext(e), has advocated for the rights of the working class and dissected the forces and effects of gentrification through her work.

Whether the new businesses moving in are luxury apartments or condos, trendy restaurants or antique shops, none of these can compete with the kind of community space gallerists have the ability–if not always the penchant–to create. Galleries can affect neighborhoods similarly to apartment buildings or breweries, in that they incontrovertibly increase the cost of living for the surrounding area. Thus the dilemma: Do people accept these galleries knowing that they stand to benefit more from an art gallery that takes local involvement seriously—even if it attracts outsiders in the process—or do they continue to oppose them all? Not an easy issue to resolve. After all, the citizens of Boyle Heights might end up missing the gallerists when their next opponent decides on building a shopping center.

Perhaps it is imperative to think beyond the question of whether galleries should go. Are the galleries displacing people of color? Who is behind these galleries and who are they affiliated with? What are they doing to help enrich the area they’ve moved into, and who are they enriching it for? There is no denying that artwashing has traditionally unfolded through these galleries. However, this doesn’t preclude people from rethinking and redefining what an art gallery can be. As Defend Boyle Heights makes clear:

DBH never declared the new art galleries in Boyle Heights, or artists in general, as the principal enemy of the people. While most art is wack, true, we never rejected the totality of art or art spaces. But art spaces, from 356 Mission to Self-Help Graphics & Art (SHG), are the enemies of the people precisely because they hide their true nature behind aerosol paint and canvas. They cover up their funders, their investors - the developers - their true real estate intentions. They wash away the violence of gentrification with art.

If gallerists hope to be accepted into any given community, especially one that is primarily low-income, they must take their jobs as community spaces seriously. They should expect to work for and with the community. And if they don’t fully invest themselves in the neighborhood, not for profit but for the residents themselves, then they should fully expect to be asked to leave.