Art Washing in East Los Angeles

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A response to Los Angeles Times articles of November 3 and 4 on protests in Boyle Heights over gentrification by white artists and art galleries.

Art and artists washing clean city sections and neighborhoods for gentrification is an old story. Artists and art galleries created value in places previously undervalued. What is new is the awareness of neighborhoods that art is mainly a monetary subterfuge and not a stimulus to improving real communities. The American story begins in New York City in the 1940s, when artists seeking inexpensive places to create their work discovered Soho, a largely abandoned industrial district, then known as the Cast Iron District, after its distinctive cast iron-fronted warehouse lofts. They moved in and established the homeland of Abstract Expressionism. The galleries followed– Leo Castelli, OK Harris, and others. The bohemian free lifestyle of the artists attracted the life style wannabes. Soon enough, the developers, sniffing profits, moved in. Now it is hard to find a struggling artist in this fashionable neighborhood. The same tale happened in Los Angeles. Venice, the slum by the sea, afforded another generation of artists an inexpensive place to create their light, space, and west coast pop creations in the old storefronts of the destroyed amusement park zone. In came the lifestylers and the property speculators. The majority of the not famous artists were priced out. Then it was downtown’s turn to be the washing machine of gentrification.

In the abandoned and unreinforced buildings of downtown LA east of Alameda, young and not-so-young artists in the late 1970s and ‘80s found amazing cheap and large space that they could inhabit and work in. It was illegal to live there initially, but art promoters, like Joel Wachs, then an LA city councilman, saw the potential. (Wachs moved on to become head of the Andy Warhol Foundation in New York City.) The A.I.R. (Artist in Residence) ordinance was approved. Some artists and their supporters opposed the ordinance because they had seen what had happened in New York and Venice. Approving artist living and working in industrial zones was the preamble to gentrification and soaring property values. The ordinance was approved and later modified to make it easier to speculate in downtown property to become the Live-Work Ordinance. Property values soared and artists were gradually priced out of what the city proudly declared was the Art District.

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                Low cost artist housing by Watts Community Housing on Myers Street,

                                                    East Los Angeles designed in 1985

 The Boyle Heights Alliance Against Art Washing and Displacement protested in front of the new Nicodim Gallery in a building near the Los Angeles River in an area of old industrial lofts. Someone anonymously painted graffiti on the gallery’s roll-up metal gate “White Art.” The Los Angeles Police Department declared the vandalism to be a “Hate Crime.” The story and the response are misdirection. The protesters are partially right and partially wrong. The police action will only benefit the wrong groups. The graffiti artist apparently knows nothing of the history of Boyle Heights.

Artists had lofts in the area of old warehouses and industrial buildings between the LA River and the 101 back in 1980s. The truth is that this area isn’t Boyle Heights. Boyle Heights exist on the ridge above what was the bottomland on both sides of the river. The 101 Freeway cut it completely off from Boyle Heights in the 1950s. A cluster of lofts existed by 1984 at the east end of the Third Street Bridge. Because the river and the railroads separated this sliver from the zone of the Arts District speculation, it is the last area of lofts to be gentrified at the perimeter of Downtown LA. There were even a few forlorn galleries off Third Street East of the river.

In 1985 there was some political support for creating low cost artist housing to mitigate the inevitable already happening west of the river. Development of downtown Los Angeles was a political goal of elected officials and real estate promoters. The East LA portion of the growing art scene was too far removed to stimulate interest. However, The Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA/LA) funded the design of a low cost artist housing project on Myers Street in East LA. The project promoted by The Watts Community Housing Corporation never got beyond the design stage, however, as financing for the purchase of the building and re-construction could not be obtained. The timing was too early. Major real estate speculation had yet to begin. Also the construction of low cost housing for one specific group, mainly white, with a smattering of black and Latino artists is not a popular concept. It wasn’t then nor is it now.

Today the situation, with the saturation of Live Work spaces and the almost complete displacement of artists from the Arts District, has changed. Galleries, part of a worldwide art community selling artifacts for tens of thousands of dollars, like the Nicodim Gallery, have moved in. The threat isn’t to this area between the 101 and the river. What will happen is already a done deal. The threat is to the real Boyle Heights lying to the East. Around Hollenbeck Park are many late Victorian homes and early 20th Century dwellings survivors of the historic Boyle Heights before it became the center of Los Angeles’ Latino, generally Mexican-American, neighborhood. Boyle Heights before the decline of downtown was the center of Los Angeles’ Jewish and Japanese-American communities. From First Street to Whittier Boulevard, including the wonderful Hollenbeck Park, later sliced by the freeway, lived the core of discriminated-against communities.

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Boyle Heights tract, 1889

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Hollenbeck Park, 2009

After blatant discrimination crumbled with the move westward of the Jewish community, and the concentration of the Japanese community in Little Tokyo, Boyle Heights became largely Hispanic. A vibrant community came into existence with a distinctive Latin flavor. Its murals became a hallmark and the precursor to a larger mural movement that is the most significant public art in Los Angeles. Self-Help Graphics created a world-renowned and affordable art print center. Defenders of this community and its culture are right to protest vehemently the gentrification that will creep up the hill eastward from its downtown edge along the river. What is different here is that there was and is a significant population with a divergent ethnic interest in Boyle Heights. It is working class and middle class with a strong sense of community identity that occupies a zone with attractive and large houses. These Victorian and early 20th Century edifices are strongly attractive to gentrifiers and house flippers. If allowed to come in unchecked, a neighborhood that is significant to the broad diversity of Los Angeles will be lost.

Art washing is analogous to cleaning your sheets of the grime and smell. You end up with nice white bed linen, but all the character of their use is gone. In downtown Los Angeles in the early ‘80s, artists reveled in the fact they shared a similar passion for dumpster diving with the filthy homeless, who were generally never a threat of violence. They gave the area a certain allure and drove away the fearful. With gentrification, the wandering, often naked, homeless are gone, but crime is the big community concern. Crime depresses property values. If gentrification comes to Boyle Heights, the sights and smells that made this decidedly Latin community wonderful will disappear. Crime maybe lessened. The terrific and inexpensive taco stands that draw citywide favor will be replaced by fancy nouvelle cuisine eateries. The man with the umbrella cart on the sidewalk selling fresh papaya slices will be illegalized.

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Victorian House in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles

 

 

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Filed under Architecture, Art, Article, Culture, Los Angeles, Racism

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