In the past few years, the links between art and gentrification have been at the center of many conversations in Los Angeles. Most recently, anti-gentrification protestors in Boyle Heights have brought attention to what they call “art washing”–the role that wealthy and white artists and galleries play in spurring displacement. But there is another way that art and artists become intertwined in the larger fight for housing justice: Independent, grass-roots artists themselves are being evicted from their neighborhoods, and their creative practices are being made increasingly invisible.
In Downtown Los Angeles’ (DTLA) so-called Arts District, the long-time residents of 800 Traction Ave. — Japanese American community activists and artists — are being evicted from their live-in work artist lofts. Now, they’re mounting a fight for their livelihoods — and their homes.
In May, Donaldson, Lufkin & Jennrette Real Estate Capital Partners (DLJ), a large New York developer and past subsidiary of Credit Suisse, bought the 800 Traction building and a neighboring brick structure at 810 Traction for $20 million. Credit Suisse (CS) has an alarming human rights record, including: pleading guilty to a felony for having “conspired to help U.S. citizens hide assets in offshore accounts in order to evade paying taxes;” facing charges for laundering drug cartel money in Italy; facing a lawsuit seeking compensation for claims that CS investments are directly responsible for some of the personal injury caused by South Africa’s former apartheid government; and, being convicted in Japan for assisting and covering up corporate crime. A former Credit Suisse AG trader was sentenced to 30 months in prison for his role in causing the 2008 financial meltdown.
DLJ is now evicting the tenants at 800 Traction Ave. in order to make a profit, and this is not an isolated attack. In late 2011, DLJ purchased the Taft office building at Hollywood and Vine, spending $15 million on renovations for the office space that now houses many tech and entertainment professionals. The group owns a large-scale apartment complex called Eastown in Hollywood which, in 2016, the L.A. Times reported as still being developed. According to the Business Journal, DLJ also owns the Thornton Lofts, ocean front property in Venice. And while the real estate group has gone to the Cultural Heritage Commission of L.A. to request a “historic building designation” for 800 Traction — a designation that could potentially secure the company a 20 percent rebate on restoration costs — the new owners have completely disregarded the tenants who’ve made the neighborhood what it now is.
First designed by L.A. architect John Parkinson, the building at 800 Traction dates back to 1918 when it was built for the Ben-Hur coffee and spice factory. The then industrial building was converted into artist-in-residence lofts after a 1981 city ordinance allowed the previous owner to legally convert the warehouses into live-in lofts. Since then, artists such as sculptor Nancy Uyemura and printmaker Matsumi Kanemitsu have worked tirelessly to make the once-industrial area a vibrant center for cultural activism and artistic pursuits. They created a Traction Ave Community Watch, beautified the historically industrial landscape, and cultivated creative spaces in which artists could organize.
Uyemura, one of the women being evicted from 800 Traction, has been in the building for 32 years; Jaimee Itagaki, another woman being pushed out, has called the building home for over 20 years now. Together, the residents created family at 800 Traction.
“We’ve had weddings, birthdays, parties and more parties,” Uyemura said in a zine created to educate the public about 800 Traction. “We created and worked, made art and celebrated life.”
On October 18, despite the residents’ refusal to give up their only home, Jamie Itagaki received her official Unlawful Detainer notice — the court order for eviction. But the artists working to save the building and fight the city’s housing crisis are not backing down and they have doubled their efforts against DLJ, including an anti-eviction parade on November 4 to kick-off this new stage of their campaign. The parade, a march in support of tenants at 800 Traction as well as 454 Seaton St., another building under threat, represents a growing movement against corrupt city officials who push for systemic displacement and a calculated attack on the city’s most vulnerable communities. Recognizing this connection between the evictions at 800 Traction and the struggles of renters across the city, Stand With 800 Traction activists have joined forces with the L.A. Tenants Union who, among many other things, resist gentrification in Boyle Heights and fight the displacement of Mariachis by greedy landlord BJ Turner.
For the Japanese Americans fighting to stay in 800 Traction, DLJ’s latest eviction is part of an ongoing struggle against greed, displacement and cultural repression. As explained in a statement from the tenants, the current development of DTLA is nothing new — “it is simply a continuation of forced displacement.” The recent evictions are part of three waves of redevelopment that have historically impacted the Japanese American and Little Tokyo community: the WWII Japanese American concentration camps, the expansion of DTLA’s Civic Center in 1952 and the displacement and evictions by the Community Redevelopment Agency in the 70s and 80s. Now, the community faces a fourth wave: the redevelopment of Little Tokyo and the Arts District. And their struggles connect directly back to the fight to protect and support women.
Creative expression makes space, and provides visibility for, those fighting oppression in the various forms it takes — from rising rent prices to sexual violence to attacks on immigrant communities. While high-brow galleries infiltrate brown, working class communities, independent artists continue to use their practices as a means of social activism. These artists are the ones pushed out so that big galleries can make a profit. They are also the ones that allow feminist spaces to grow, that push for a more just society, that allow other activists the freedom to work towards dismantling the systems that dominate us.
The core of 800 Traction’s struggle is the fight for basic access to affordable, comfortable housing — and the right to creatively and vocally push for a more equitable future. That’s a fight against the ideologies of capitalism, white supremacy, (neo)colonialism, and patriarchy; and, that’s a fight that matters across the country more than ever.
AUTHORS NOTE: A previous version of this article appeared on the Ms. Magazine blog.