The predominantly working class and Latino community of Boyle Heights, just east of downtown LA, has been embroiled in a dispute over art galleries. Activists are calling on the galleries to pack up and leave, arguing that galleries invite investment, which brings in higher-income people looking to move in. Landlords raise rents to meet demand, displacing low-income residents.
“This is not a battle against art or against culture,” said Elizabeth Blaney, co-founder of the tenant rights group Union de Vecinos. The group was founded 20 years ago to stop the demolition of the Aliso Village public housing project. Her group is part of a coalition called BHAAAD, which stands for Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement.
“People have to understand this in the context of what’s going on in Boyle Heights,” Blaney said. “You have on the south side the Wyvernwood development and Sears. Between those two projects there’s going to be 5,150 units of luxury market housing. And then you come along the river on the west side and you have the river development, you have the galleries right along the route. You have the demolition of the Sixth Street Bridge, and the construction of that is going to connect everybody to the Arts District downtown. And then on the north side you have the Metro development of its eight lots, the Gold Line itself. So we are encircled by development and a huge investment of some public money as well as a lot of private money that is going on here. So when you just look at the galleries and how they’re contributing to all of that collectively, it’s causing a lot of problems for rent increases here in Boyle Heights and displacing tenants.”
The counter-argument is that art galleries attract tourism, business, hotels and restaurants, and can give new life to an area.
One of the unlikely targets of BHAAAD has been Self Help Graphics & Art, a nonprofit founded 43 years ago by Sister Karen Boccalero. She was a Franciscan nun who studied under Sister Corita Kent at Immaculate Heart College, and worked to promote Chicano self-empowerment through art. The arts space leads youth programs with schools, hosts free art workshops and discussions, sponsors cultural events, and organizes one of the most popular biggest Day of the Dead celebrations in Los Angeles. Betty Avila, the group’s associate director, makes a distinction between her group and the galleries being targeted.
“I think it’s important for any sort of organization or entity that’s coming into a place like Boyle Heights that is experiencing a lot of change to understand the community that’s here,” Avila said. “It’s not a blank slate. This neighborhood has been in flux always, when you consider the different types of demographics over the past century. It’s unfair to come here and not acknowledge who has been here, who has been doing work with the community. That’s also acknowledging that there’s many different communities within Boyle Heights. So I think it’s important that those new entities make that connection.”
Self Help Graphics moved into their current location five years ago — a renovated fish-processing plant across from a Metro Gold Line station — after they were priced out of their previous location. So they have also felt the impact of rising rents.
Gallery owners in Boyle Heights feel unfairly targeted. For example, Eva Chimento opened her gallery Chimento Contemporary in Boyle Heights last summer.
“Well, at first I was surprised and very emotional,” Chimento said. “I feel like I poured my heart and soul into my space and I’ve poured my heart and soul into the people I hired, which are all Boyle Heights residents.”
This is her second gallery in two years. She had one in Hollywood that closed because rent was too high. Chimento said she doesn’t see herself at fault for rising rent prices for Boyle Heights residents.
“Not at all. In fact I’m going to be in the same position they are when my lease is up. I’m already looking for other avenues and other places,” she said.
Another new gallery, PSSST, has been targeted by protesters, even though they’ve tried to focus on artists of color and low-income artists. That gallery had to delay its opening because of these protests. They’ve stopped talking to the press because of the negative reactions regarding the artwashing protests.
This is an issue that goes back years. There was the fight over the demolition of Aliso Village in the late 1990s. There’s also the Wyvernwood Garden Apartments, a 70-acre housing complex in Boyle Heights built in 1939.
“Wyvernwood is LA’s first garden apartment community,” said Rigo Amavizca, who is active in the group Defend Boyle Heights. “Right now it’s in danger of being demolished because developers from Miami have proposed to demolish every building you see here to build high rise luxury condominiums.”
Amavizca grew up in the Wyvernwood and still lives in a rent-stabilized housing unit.
“We’ve been here for about 40 years and we pay just under a thousand dollars for a three-bedroom, two-story” home, he said.
Amavizca is also a member of the group Somos Wyvernwood that formed to oppose a $2 billion project by a Miami developer, the Fifteen Group, to demolish the housing units and build a mixed-use development. The developer has offered to make 15 percent of the new units affordable, with preference given to the current tenants. But Somos Wyvernwood is instead calling for repairing and rehabbing the current structures.
Activists say they’ve seen how low-income people of color have been displaced from neighborhoods like Echo Park and Highland Park. They don’t want the same thing to happen to Boyle Heights. Elizabeth Blaney from Union de Vecinos described it as “following the dominoes” and realizing that their neighborhood is the next to fall. Her group is in contact with other housing advocacy groups across the city.
The housing crunch is affecting everyone, including Betty Avila with Self Help Graphics & Art. She grew up in Cypress Park and went to high school in Boyle Heights.
“Northeast L.A. has always been home for me, and so on a personal level I experienced and am experiencing what’s happening in Highland Park. It’s a difficult situation because you have families who have been there for a long time and are homeowners and they’re fine, but their children can’t afford a home and they’re in their own neighborhood. The frustration that I see happening in Boyle Heights is something that I am personally experiencing and a lot of my community is experiencing,” she said.