Institutions 23-02-2017

Take your art someplace else | The LA activists waging guerrilla warfare against gentrification

Over the past decade, Los Angeles’ contemporary art scene has expanded at breakneck speed. Many of the city’s less affluent areas have begun to feel this change dramatically, and perhaps none more so than Boyle Heights, just east of downtown. The neighbourhood has experienced an influx of galleries in the last few years, but residents are pushing back. Anti-gentrification activists in Boyle Heights, which has long been seen as the heart of LA’s Mexican-American community, have waged a persistent campaign against this creeping wave of gentrification — with galleries as their primary point of attack.


Now PSSST Gallery, a nonprofit arts space that opened in Boyle Heights a year ago, has become the first significant casualty of the activists. Yesterday, the gallery announced it would close its doors permanently after being the target of continued action from groups such as Defend Boyle Heights and Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement.

Though the tactics of these groups have been hardline, they have certainly been successful. Boyle Heights is one of the last surviving areas of LA whose original inhabitants have not been significantly displaced. Residents of the neighbourhood have witnessed climbing rents in once working class areas like Echo Park and Silver Lake — with swathes of artisan-donut-selling bakeries springing up where local groceries once were — and know that to prevent the same thing happening where they are they have to fight hard.

“Gentrification is a violent threat. When we feel it we may react in an angry way, through fear,” Servir al Pueblo activist Xochitl Palomera told The Guardian. “Boyle Heights is not going down without a fight. We know what we’re up against and we’re not afraid. Our roots run deep here.”

 

Servir al Pueblo (Serve the People) activists in Boyle Heights. Image via The Guardian

 

Galleries, the typical portents of rocketing rent prices and the privatization of social housing, have been the main site of Boyle Heights’ fight against gentrification. Nancy Meza, an organizer of the group Defend Boyle Heights which has coordinated the majority of the protests against galleries, argued that they do not cater to local residents in any way. Speaking to the New York Times, she said: “These galleries are coming in and trying to replace the current culture that is already in Boyle Heights. They are not looking to attract members of our communities.”

Many of the galleries in Boyle Heights are incredulous in that face of these criticisms, feeling that they have a strong commitment to the livelihood and values of the local community. PSSST was opened in March by two young artists, Barnett Cohen and Jules Gimbrone, with the promise of supporting “underrepresented artists — women, people of color, or L.G.B.T.Q.-identified — who challenge existing structures within the arts.” In a statement about their decision to close due to the persistence of the local activists, Cohen and Gimbrone said, “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. We could no longer continue to put already vulnerable communities at further risk.”

But for many residents, who are renting with the constant specter of eviction hanging over them, life is precarious and the threat of gentrification is an all too potent one. However well-intentioned individual galleries may be, however committed to supporting local artists and artists of colour, their appearance in Boyle Heights inevitably opens the floodgates for property redevelopers and yuppie prospective homeowners. The joint statement issued by Defend Boyle Heights and Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement, intended as a riposte to that of PSSST Gallery, drives this fact home sharply. “For the 296 families living in Pico Gardens, fighting against the privatization of their public housing and the thousands of Boyle Heights tenants that are struggling against harassment and rent increases, this is a victory,” they state. “PSSST’s rightful departure confirms the importance of fighting against the ‘common sense’ notion that gentrification is supposedly inevitable.”

Now PSSST Gallery has succumbed to the constant protests, it looks like activists are only likely to turn the pressure up further still. Other closures, surely, will be soon to follow.

 
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