The activists fighting to save inner-city LA from gentrification

Photo: ATOMIC Hot Links (Flickr)

Photo: ATOMIC Hot Links (Flickr)

The artists and designers had gathered for an exhibition at one of the new galleries on the east bank of the Los Angeles river. They were sipping wine and admiring the ceramic sculptures and dangling fabrics – a dual exhibition titled Rituals of Sphinx and Lamassu by Galia Linn and Elena Stonaker – when they heard the commotion.

“Fuera! Fuera! Fuera!” called a crowd outside, staring through the windows, chanting in Spanish. “Out! Out! Out!” Some wore hoods and covered their faces with bandanas. The gallery-goers gawked. Who were these people?

A Latina woman with a microphone, speaking Spanish, told them: “We are from the community here. We have fought hard to live here... we don't want you here. Go, please go.” “No one is an innocent actor in the fine art of gentrification,” said another woman.

The protestors, some waving banners, took up a new chant: “These gentrifiers have got to go, hey hey, ho ho.” Then another, more menacing chant: “Don’t feel safe, we’ll be back.” Guests inside the Museum as Retail Space (MaRS) reeled, recalled Melissa Fleis, a fashion designer who swapped San Francisco for LA. “People were in awe. They had to shut the gates to the gallery.”

Photo: Scott Hart

Photo: Scott Hart

The confrontation last September was the latest skirmish in an escalating battle between activists in Boyle Heights, a gritty Latino neighbourhood, and new arrivals. Galleries in particular, which are seen as harbingers of gentrification.

Moneyed outsiders have transformed formerly hardscrabble swathes of Brooklyn, San Francisco, Oakland and other cities, turning low-income housing into loft apartments, cafes and yoga studios. But Boyle Heights, just across the LA river from the lofts and skyscrapers of downtown, is resisting what it sees as the first wave: artists.

An eclectic coalition of residents, business owners, feminists, communists and other activists has vowed to protect the area's livelihoods, housing and Chicano heritage. Some operate through official channels – elections, zoning applications, legal challenges – and others use intimidation.

Perhaps these folks should feel uncomfortable. Boyle Heights is not a poverty zoo for wealthy people from west LA.

Covering this story for The Guardian, it felt like a throwback to my previous beat, Latin America, where protestors from Argentina to Peru to Venezuela, angry at governments or corporations, would march and chant “fuera”.

“Gentrification is a violent threat. When we feel it we may react in an angry way, through fear,” said Xochitl Palomera, an activist with the group Corazón Del Pueblo. “Boyle Heights is not going down without a fight.”

A militant group called Serve the People LA is a Maoist offshoot. It aspires to “complete liberation from the capitalist state”, a spokesman, Alex Brownson, told me. “Our emphasis is not on hipsters and white people walking our neighbourhood but when they come here… perhaps these folks should feel uncomfortable. Boyle Heights is not a poverty zoo for wealthy people from west LA.”

The activists have confronted realtors and tour groups, marched on galleries and used a brass band blowing with all its might to sabotage an open air-opera. They view artists as a vanguard, unwitting or not, of commercial forces which jack up the cost of living and uproot locals.

It happened across the LA river. Artists who moved into gritty, industrial neighborhoods a decade ago paved the way for today's booming arts scene – plus an explosion of loft conversions and boutique stores across downtown, now rebranded as DTLA. Boyle Heights fears it's next.

The irony is that many of the newly arrived artists are themselves fleeing gentrification. A tech boom has flooded the San Francisco Bay Area with programmers, executives and start-up entrepreneurs, which has driven rents to record levels - an average one bedroom apartment goes for $3,866. As a result, the city which nurtured Jack London, Armistead Maupin, the Grateful Dead and Maya Angelou is now hemorrhaging bohemians.

“San Francisco turned into this billionaire playground," said Andrew Schoultz, a painter. "Everything I identified with was being pushed out. The community that I loved was crumbling and disappearing. I just didn’t want to be in that city anymore. So I moved to LA.” San Francisco transplants – musicians, writers, designers, comedians – are fuelling LA's cultural renaissance.

“I’ve not looked back a single time,” said Jason Quever, founder of the indie pop band Papercuts, who relocated last spring. “As soon as I moved here my music career greatly benefited. I felt the effects of being close to the epicentre of the industry.” The catch for Angelenos is that the arrivals drive up rents, and not just in Boyle Heights.

“Whenever anyone, from anywhere, moves into my city with a Camry and a dream, I can feel my cost of living increase,” said Megan Koester, a comedian and writer, via email. Even unglamorous San Fernando Valley has become pricey, she said. “I tried to find an apartment there... and everything was out of my range. Do you know how humbling it is to be priced out of the fucking Valley?”

For activists in Boyle Heights the stakes feel even higher. “We won’t sit by and let Boyle Heights be taken over,” said a 27-year-old Mexico-born pest controller who identified himself only as Beto. Someone has taken to throwing feces at galleries. Someone else has used a spray can to write “white art” across their facades.

Gallery owners say they respect the community and exhibit local artists, but that cuts little ice with the protestors. They have started serving symbolic eviction notices: “You are hereby notified by the people of Boyle Heights, who have fought for decades to preserve affordable housing for low-income families, that you must remove your business from the neighborhood immediately.”

Bold words. But when you look at the billions of dollars transforming downtown LA – the skyline and at street level – and then walk across the bridge to Boyle Heights, so close, so obviously a target for development, you have to wonder who, eventually, will be the ones removed.