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Boyle Heights Public Housing Complex Feels Effects of Artwashing and Gentrification

Threat of gentrification in Boyle Heights mobilizes tenants in a decades-long struggle.

Robert Zin Stark of MaRS art gallery called the LAPD on Boyle Heights residents who were picketing the gentrifying space in 2018 (Source: AEMP)

The campaigns and struggles against art galleries in Boyle Heights in the 2010s highlighted the role that the collaboration between city development plans and art galleries plays in gentrification of the city. One of the key functions of artwashing is the way gallerists double as proxy real estate developers while city agencies and other interested parties, in pursuit of a higher-paying base, encourage the redevelopment and “cleaning up” of working class communities. As galleries began to open in Boyle Heights in the mid 2010s — from Nicodim to PSSST to 356 Mission — their spaces contributed to the criminalization of Boyle Heights community members and exacerbated the real estate speculation, rent increases, and evictions of longtime tenants.

Residents of Pueblo del Sol, a housing complex in Boyle Heights, have formed a tenants’ association to push back against the Housing Authority, the developers, and the city agencies that wish to make the area more attractive to developers, gentrifiers, and art gallerists. The Housing Authority for the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) has initiated a process to make housing on that publicly owned land even more selective and exclusive, through a program called Rental Assistance Demonstration (or RAD). The city, through help from the federal government and private developers, plans to renovate the housing units to make it more palatable for investors and gentrifiers.

The Pueblo del Sol apartment complex sits on what was once a dense public housing community called Aliso Village. The tenant organizing happening now at Pueblo del Sol is necessary to both prevent the Housing Authority from taking advantage of working class residents and to form a strong tenants’ association to amplify demands. History appears to be repeating itself, as government housing agencies have previously caused harm to working class residents in Boyle Heights. In the 1990s, HACLA, the municipal agency responsible for public housing and Section 8 housing vouchers, displaced hundreds of working class families and Latinx immigrant households from the Aliso Village and Pico Gardens public housing complexes. The sites were both demolished for new city-led developments as part of the larger federal push to convert public housing to privately managed income assistance housing (known as Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere or HOPE VI).

The urban planning trend at the time embraced the “low-density” style of housing, as it was thought to “deconcentrate” crime. Urban planners and HACLA advocated this framework, claiming low-density neighborhoods for working class people would mean a better quality of life if there were not as many poor people living together in one place. According to the organizers who fought the destruction of Pico Gardens and Aliso Village, the vast majority of residents did not return and were left to decide where they could settle in Los Angeles. Almost 10 years later, LA Metro and city and county agencies flipped their position and decided to incentivize concentrated housing near transit. Real estate developers began eyeing sites to build housing near transit stations: an approach known as “transit-oriented development.” Today, the same public actors and neoliberal agents, lurking to commodify housing and accumulate great amounts of wealth, continue to displace families and poor residents. That is, displacing the residents most likely to depend on bus and rail transit for their jobs and daily routines. City agencies and developers that desire to privatize housing and neighborhoods have kept their focus on Boyle Heights.

The Metro Gold Line Eastside Extension train departs from the Pico/Aliso station towards unincorporated East Los Angeles. Downtown LA can be see in the. background against a blue sky.
The Metro Gold Line Eastside Extension train departs from the Pico/Aliso station towards unincorporated East Los Angeles. The Pico/Aliso station is named after the Pico Gardens and Aliso Village public housing developments that were both razed as part of the HOPE VI redevelopment trend. Pueblo del Sol housing units sit adjacent to the station. (Source: AEMP)

But what does artwashing and the arrival of gentrifying art and creative media spaces have to do with government decisions about housing? A lot. These types of businesses and spaces thrive on co-opting the economic and physical circumstances of working class communities. Coffee shops and art galleries view disinvested neighborhoods as “edgy” and easily capitalize on the fact that they have been neglected by the government. Once these initial investors stake their claim to a low-income or working class neighborhood, it is well-understood as the gentrifying housing investors’ cue to start accumulating real estate. The city government will then choose to invest in this type of commercialized future for the neighborhood where newcomers, wealthier residents, and business owners can take advantage of the neighborhood, including limiting who gets to live there.

The process of commodifying human rights such as housing involves many different players. The city’s bureaucrats fabricate reasons why a housing complex, like Pueblo del Sol, needs more renovation and revamping, yet it is apparent who they are trying to serve with these processes. Pueblo del Sol’s proximity to spaces and resources invite developers’ interests and make it a prime target for further demolition of rent-stabilized housing and displacement of small businesses that serve the community’s needs. The displacement of longtime residents and community spaces is one step in the process of redevelopment. What follows is the construction of market-rate housing, flipping of homes for profit, and establishment of unaffordable business needs that cater to outside residents.

Photo of Pueblo del Sol Apartments. In front of the building is a fence with green wrapping and a large blue sign that reads: Pueblo del Sol Apartments. Renovation in Los Angeles. For Construction Information: Please Call (323) 981-0700.
The renovations happening under the federal privatization scheme, RAD,  are implemented by HACLA and are sponsored by the likes of Goldman Sachs, Citibank, and private real estate development firm, Related Co. (Source: AEMP)

There are several examples that illustrate the numerous pressures placed by the real estate industry and city agencies onto existing renters in Pueblo del Sol and the rest of Boyle Heights. Public infrastructure — like the Metro Gold Line rail transit, the Los Angeles River, and the forthcoming Sixth Street Bridge — is being commodified for real estate speculation. Developers use city and state incentives to build more dense market-rate housing that is likely not affordable to the longtime Boyle Heights resident. The real estate lobby knows that the communities with immediate access to transit are likely the “up-and-coming” areas and that renters are at risk of evictions due to this pressure. Also, the various warehouses that sit among the creative media and art gallery spaces remain targets for artist studios instead of community-serving uses. The people buying these properties are likely large corporate entities that want to frame the proximity to the Los Angeles River and the Metro Gold Line as a way to mark up property and rental prices. The Sixth Street Bridge and the proximity to a gentrified Arts District are also used in rental listings for Boyle Heights apartments that attempt to lure a wealthier, whiter demographic just east of the Los Angeles River. The river, meandering from the San Fernando Valley past Boyle Heights, has also been discussed as a target for future speculation; this raises the concern that river “beautification” efforts could serve as Trojan horse for gentrification.

HACLA understands this analysis. It works for them, as it does for the banks lending the money for Pueblo del Sol’s redevelopment. It works for real estate agents and for landlords, much like Vera Campbell. Campbell has purchased numerous properties in Boyle Heights since 2016, and their capital is invested in clothing manufacturing and — you guessed it — real estate. One of these properties was converted into an art gallery on Mission Road in Boyle Heights called 356 Mission. That gallery closed down in 2018 due to strong community activism and mobilization against its gentrification of the area. Campbell also displaced the Boyle Heights–based autonomous group OVAS (formerly known as the Ovarian Psycos) from their first temporary space. That space on 1st Street has remained vacant since 2016 precisely because millionaires like Campbell can afford this type of real estate speculation. Property owners like Campbell try to disguise their real estate motivations by their donations to nonprofits like Inner City Arts or Self Help Graphics, but it is imperative to realize their ultimate goal as a predatory real estate developer. That goal is to attract wealthy residents and more development. It works for all those that desire to turn working class neighborhoods into reimagined spaces without any poor people, Black people, Indigenous people, or people of color. A gentrified neighborhood is likely filled with expensive amenities: higher-income residents shop at expensive recording studio coffee shops and “artist lofts” begin at $3,000 because someone will pay for that luxury.

Real estate speculators target neighborhoods whose property values are low but increasing, allowing for more profit on their end. Once they are invested in real estate, they also begin investing in cosmetic neighborhood changes or signifiers (i.e., gentri-fences, more white people walking around, gray-colored homes, etc.). Other changes that real estate speculators use to their advantage are transit rail stations and commercial spaces like galleries, coffee shops, and media around all of these “improvements.” A united front among tenants is greatly needed, especially considering HACLA’s use of the LAPD to harass residents. The residents of Pueblo del Sol are currently organizing against HACLA’s efforts to displace them. Their struggle is also meant to share knowledge of what goes into withstanding landlord harassment. A crucial demand they have presented is that the decision-making process needs to be more accessible and transparent to the people whose homes are on the line.

Capitalists’ interests being masked as beautification and housing redevelopment for the supposed benefit of longtime residents is part of a long but enduring process to remove a specific group of people from a neighborhood to bring in a more lucrative set of tenants, homeowners, and investors. Artwashing, HACLA’s further privatization of Pueblo del Sol, and the 8,226 evictions filed in Los Angeles between March 2020 and March 2021 all reveal how poor and working class communities are under constant attack and threat of losing their homes. Even with the eviction moratorium set in place during the pandemic, tenants must remain organized, and allies need to listen to their demands. Recognizing this unjust and violent process is only the first step toward standing in solidarity with Pueblo del Sol tenants in Boyle Heights and tenants all over Los Angeles.

A graphic that reads: Contra-Agiast The Artwashing of Boyle Heights. A project by B.H.A.A.D in collaboration with Anti Eviction Mapping Project next to an image of a bee on a yellow flower and two signs that read "Fuck Artwashing" and "Hands Off Boyle Heights".
Visit www.artwashing.antievictionmap.com to learn more about the movement started by public housing residents, community members, and tenants activists against the artwashing in Boyle Heights. (Source: AEMP)

Simon is part of the the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (AEMP), a counter-cartography, data visualization, and multimedia storytelling collective that emerged in the San Francisco Bay Area in order to provide maps, data, tools, and stories to empower on-the-ground anti-gentrification organizing. The project has since grown to develop chapters in Los Angeles and New York City and ongoing solidarities with mapping collectives and anti-eviction organizations worldwide.