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In the spring of 2018 Los Angeles Times reporter Gustavo Arellano argued expansive gentrification threatened the future of working class Latinx barrios “from the Mission District in San Francisco to Barrio Logan in San Diego.” For Arellano, the survival of barrios depended on unlikely alliances between conventionally antagonistic groups within these communities. Through the title of his opinion piece Arellano posed the following question: “Can ‘chipsters’ and barrio activists find common ground?” In doing so, he identified two groups that, in Los Angeles, starkly contrasted in their political views and cultural tastes. Noting that Chicano hipsters (Chipsters) and activists both take an anti-gentrification stance, Arellano’s piece touches on the increasing complexity of anti-gentrification groups and tactics within the barrio. Indeed, how each camp approaches anti-gentrification activism effectively reveals the political urgency of embracing a complex Latinx identity in public and scholarly discourse.
As commercial and residential development in Los Angeles' downtown continues to spill into nearby communities, working class Latinx communities experiencing these transformations have remained vigilant in critiquing and organizing against the physical and cultural displacement of their neighborhood. Recent media coverage in Los Angeles and across the nation has followed anti-gentrification movements taking place east of the Los Angeles River. Places such as Boyle Heights and Highland Park have received much attention for, among other things, their explicit and emotional response to businesses and organizations symbolizing, to anti-gentrification protestors, a threat to existing working class and immigrant residents. Although residents in these barrios view gentrification as a threat to the permanence of fellow working class and immigrant residents, anti-gentrification strategies have revealed the heterogeneity of anti-gentrification activism specifically, and the Latinx community generally.
Located in proximity to historic urban cores, redevelopment of downtowns has rendered barrios contentious sites. In the eastside barrio of Boyle Heights, the rising presence of art galleries, coffee shops, and construction sites have altered the streetscapes of the community so much so that residents feel disconnected from, rather than centered in, these transformations. The present, post-Great Recession context, has similarly altered the local housing landscape. Rising corporate landlords and weak rent control protections have exacerbated an already hot L.A. housing market to place the barrio increasingly out of reach of economically vulnerable residents — a trend that continues to make Los Angeles the most rent burdened city for renters. Together, the changes have cultivated a weary outlook on gentrification.
Despite widespread concern among local organizations, opposition to gentrification has taken a variety of forms. From workshops to rent strikes and boycotts, exactly how to stop gentrification has proved contentious among various organizations. Particularly heated anti-gentrification areas have been between some established organizations in the barrio and coalitions engaging in newer forms of activism. Both long standing organizations and new coalitions have relied on images of homogeneous, working class, Chicano population to conjure support.
In Boyle Heights, the local working-class and Chicano movement history has sustained an image of a homogeneous ethnic group-- a homogeneity reified by ongoing racialization of Latinos and, specifically, Mexican immigrants. In this brief essay the authors argue that examining these tensions in anti-gentrification activism can help scholars think through the future of Latinx geographies in ways that transgress conceptualizations of this group as a homogenous group and, instead, explore research in ways that embrace inter and intra- Latinx diversity.
Scales of Anti-Gentrification
The stigma around gentrification often positions most community members against gentrification— a process they view as spearheaded by white gentrifiers and often leads to the direct displacement of long term residents, ultimately resulting in the transformation of the neighborhood’s cultural fabric and minority working class composition. The question of whether the eastside should remain an incubator for working class, immigrant, residents continues to inform and polarize local gentrification debates. For some residents the social upgrading advanced through gentrification is principally understood as following a “trickle down” process of investment from outside the community that benefits all residents. Others consider gentrification as a structural force that must be wholly resisted lest socioeconomic and direct displacement lead to the removal of yet another barrio from the Los Angeles landscape.
Longtime community organizations like the East Los Angeles Community Corporation (ELACC) and Self Help Graphics (SHG) have long maintained a presence throughout L.A.’s eastside, serving working class residents. Founded in 1995, ELACC is a non-profit based in Boyle Heights that is rooted in interconnected issues of economic development and affordable housing. Through organizing and advocacy, ELACC’s mission is to instill financial empowerment alongside asset development while involving the community in this process. First known as Art, Inc. in 1970, Self-Help Graphics & Art emerged from a collective of printmakers in L.A.’s Eastside. Soon after becoming a non-profit in 1973, SHG relocated between spaces in the eastside and eventually circled back to its first home—Boyle Heights. During the 1980’s, they gained recognition for acting as an incubator for Chicana/o and Latina/o artists. As an arts organization, SHG has since been creating spaces for artists of color in an overwhelmingly white and exclusive art industry in the city. Most recently SHG, with the assistance of local politicians, acquired a permanent location in Boyle Heights that has safeguarded the organization from rising rents and potential displacement. The deep community work accomplished by these two organizations over decades has rendered them important and well-respected institutions in the region by area residents and civic leaders.
As the community landscape continues to change and threaten the barrio, both organizations have publicly committed to fighting against gentrification. To challenge gentrification, ELACC proposes three solutions: real estate procurement, asset and wealth building, and community organizing. Preserving neighborhood assets to serve low to moderate income families, the organization offers a series of workshops, counseling, and events that make it accessible for community participation and advocacy. In this way anti-gentrification efforts by ELACC are rooted in an institutional approach seeking to increase stability through an increase in the supply of low-cost housing as well as an increase in homeownership rates. Alternatively, for Self Help Graphics, their anti-gentrification strategy has largely sought to offer affordable and culturally relevant community programming (such as their annual Dia de los Muertos event-- their largest and longest running cultural and fundraising event). SHG has sought to extend this history of community service during a period that has seen a drastic rise in white-owned art galleries in the barrio-- a presence widely viewed by local residents as catering to “white art” and outside, non-residents.
Recently, however, long-established groups ELACC and SHG have come under fire by new generations of anti-gentrification activists for supporting gentrification. Driven by a sense of urgency regarding the cultural, political, and residential displacement of working class, immigrant, Latinx residents, a coalition of groups against gentrification has advanced new forms of political activism that starkly contrast efforts by longtime organizations. In doing so, these anti-gentrification activists bring a diversity of experiences and perspectives that fall outside prevailing notions of “respectability politics” and force individuals accused of being gentrifiers to think carefully about the ways gentrification is perpetuated, unwillingly or not, by people of color.
“Boycott Self Help Graphics”
In the midst of an exploding presence of art galleries throughout Boyle Heights, Self Help Graphics hosted a discussion forum aimed at creating a collective Latinx artist response to the new artists and galleries in the barrio. Specifically, the event, “Artists Dialogue about Arts & Gentrification,” sought to establish collective “guidelines and agreements to mitigate any and all potential threats of displacement.”
Shortly into the meeting, the event was interrupted by a local anti-gentrification group named Defend Boyle Heights. Chanting, “El Barrio No Se Vende, Boyle Heights se Defiende” (The barrio is not for sale, Boyle Heights will be defended), members of Defend Boyle Heights entered the forum with banners and posters that read, “Self-Help Graphics Enables Gentrification”, “Art is a Weapon, Point it at Developers”, “Out with the Galleries, Out with the Sellouts” among many others. Bringing the meeting to a standstill, two women in the anti-gentrification group each shared a testimony with the audience—touching on themes of economic access, affordable housing, and opposition to white-owned art galleries. Finally, the demonstrators presented a list of demands that included:
- Boyle Heights does not need another art gallery.
- We demand that all existing galleries leave immediately and leave it up to the community on what to do with those spaces.
- As community artists you have a responsibility to your community in times of community struggles, don’t ignore us and don’t patronize us. We cannot afford the luxury of an art gallery, what happened to art as resistance? Arte en las calles, no en las gallerias (Street art, not gallery art).
Notions of Self Help Graphics, as an organization with strong connections to the local working class Latinx, largely Mexican, and immigrant community was, and continues to be, challenged by anti-gentrification activists. Anti-gentrification activists have argued SHG’s newly attained status and recognition (by art and civic organizations alike) position them in conflict with the working class, immigrant, Latinx community they once served. SHG’s subsequent partnership with upscale, white-owned art galleries has, in the view of anti-gentrification activists, rewritten the historic arts organization social contract with working-class Chicanx to re-align itself with outside interests and, ultimately, pursuing political and economic benefits for short-term gain. In doing so, SHG and its supporters are viewed as expressing “utter contempt for the majority of working-class renters struggling to survive and afford rent.” Such powerful critiques formed the impetus for a call to boycott the arts organization—one which has generated dynamic discussions about whether such long-established organizations like SHG are outside critique. These newer forms of activism reveal the varying approaches to gentrification in the barrio, while simultaneously highlighting the ways these approaches rely on homogenous visions of unity and history in regards to the barrio. In doing so, these intra-Latinx clashes point to the urgency in interrogating the ways, for example, Chicanx movements—those past (in SHG’s history) and present (through DHB)— are contingent on the homogenization of the surrounding community.
“No more displacements, guarantees for all”
During the Fall of 2015, ELACC drew criticism from local anti-gentrification activists when the organization issued eviction notices to five properties standing in the way of one of the organization’s many development projects. With 50 affordable housing units and retail space, the mixed use project, according to the organization, contributed to their overall effort to increase affordable housing in the barrio. According to ELACC, constructing housing units that include a 55-year affordability covenant ensured their project would increase the affordable housing supply and, effectively, retain long-term residents—a win in the fight against gentrification. However, anti-gentrification activists argued that without a written guarantee of “right of return” for the residents of the five properties under eviction, ELACC’s actions were, in activists’ view, advancing gentrification in the barrio. Arguing “no more displacements, guarantees for all,” activists were unsatisfied with ELACC’s assurance that a verbal “right to return” extended to residents. They expressed skepticism that such verbal guarantees would be honored, pointing to barrio residents who argued ELACC had previously refused to honor such verbal agreements in their case. Eventually, anti-gentrification activists and renter’s rights groups secured the “right of return” for all residents. Yet, for many community members and outside observers, the protests against ELACC, a longstanding community organization poses new questions regarding what gentrification is, who gentrifiers are (or can be) and how community groups should, appropriately, respond. The complex ways that racial and ethnic identities are entrenched in physical place are revealed in these anti-gentrification struggles. In this way Latinx geography is uniquely positioned to illuminate the ways “geographies of gentrification” intersect with changing racial demographics across U.S., and specifically, the increasing diversity of the Latinx population.
Compounding the struggle for housing security in one of the nation’s tightest housing markets, tensions among Latinx anti-gentrification activists offers unique insight into the diversity of Latinx-majority places. Specifically, such case studies challenge conventional notions of Latinx-majority places as homogeneous and perpetually united along ethnic and class dimensions—an approach that might better position scholars to understand the challenges and opportunities facing this community in an ever-increasingly precarious urban landscape. Doing so helps scholars approach studies of Latinx places in ways that foreground intra-group diversity and tensions.
In The Trouble with Unity social scientist Cristina Beltrán urges Latinx Studies scholars to rethink how conceptualizations of Latinx communities as homogenous inhibits strategic, inclusive movements against oppression. Drawing on democratic theory and Third World Feminisms, Beltrán asks us to reconceptualize Latinidad as “rooted in common experiences and animated by a shared sense of linked fate” (157) and, instead, heed to the political reality of Latinx heterogeneity. Doing so, she argues, advances a Latinx political project that begins at the premise that “Latino interests are multiple, crosscutting, and periodically opposed to one another” (163). Confronting the multiplicity of Latinidad better prepares civic leaders and activists to engage varied interests within the community rather than operate from a position of assumed, fixed, homogenous interests. The ongoing tensions revealed within Latinx groups generally and Mexican-origin groups specifically, then, ask scholars to approach these articulations with intentionality and avoid retreating to notions of political homogeneity. The authors of The Latino Question similarly argue that the conventional homogeneity of the Latino category forecloses opportunities to better assess the social location of Latinx populations across the U.S. and, subsequently, call for “new forms of critique and struggle through which labouring Latina/o classes, including the fragile first-generation middle class, might go beyond the limits imposed upon them by the logic of market capitalism to propose a Latina/o power of constructive and lasting effects, one through which a class teaches itself to think about capital while acting against it” (174). In this way, taking the diversity of Latinx populations head-on engages the contemporary complexity of Latinx experiences and permits more dynamic possibilities for future alliances and social movements. New forms of activism in urban spaces are particularly relevant here. If we can appreciate that Latinos have long influenced the urban environment, then changes in urban policies generated by the growth of the Latinx population the back-to-the-city movement also stand to influence Latinx identity and relationships. Latinx geography is uniquely positioned to contribute to understanding of spatial urban processes by revealing the relationships and mechanisms that constitute the contemporary Latino Urbanism.
The existing “winner-take-all” urbanism and heightened levels of inequality that characterize urban places continue to underscore the need for a re-evaluation of Latinx as a political category. New forms of activism, through organizations like Defend Boyle Heights, ask us to embrace a politics of identity through activism—one which generates a new social contract to reconfigure power relations at all geographic scales. Rather than forging a new Latinx political identity in consumption choices as suggested by Gustavo Arellano, new forms of activism locate a Latinx identity in the re-articulation of Latinx groups and their relationship state. The lived experiences of millennials and of immigrants seeking to make a way out of the constraints of late capitalism has produced these new forms of activism-- here taking the forms of anti-gentrification groups. By taking seriously the experiences and points of view of anti-gentrification activists, scholars are better able to assess how these new forms of activism are extensions of historical struggles and, simultaneously, how the state has similarly evolved to maintain barrios in marginalized positions. Bringing such realities to light help us rethink what is at stake when new forms of activism ask us to re-evaluate alliances with groups that have long been part of the barrio landscape. Rather than settle for superficial solidarity, these new forms of activism are an opportunity to recall the long arc of history and, as Laura Pulido has reminds us, remember that the state has historically been antagonistic to communities of color.
The tensions among anti-gentrification activists in a Latinx barrio highlight the conditions of late capitalism which generate new forms of political activism in these historic places. In addition to the ongoing responsibility of scholars to challenge the whiteness of the discipline, the rise in the representation of Latinx populations in the U.S. will necessarily compel scholars to respond to increasing complexity of the Latinx experience across urban geographies to better capture and understand the dynamic ways Latinx communities are (re)imagining, (re)articulating, and (re)making their relationship to the built environment and space. Embracing the heterogeneity of Latinx groups in urban places can better position scholarship to anticipate challenges arising as city populations increase and diversity becomes prevalent.