Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Twisted Anti-Gentrification

http://www.theguardian.com; October 18, 2017


Hello Everyone:

Happy Halloween and Day of The Dead to one and all.  Yours Truly thinks that real life is scary enough, so why not take the day and celebrate.  Okay, celebrate even more than you plan to.  If Halloween or Day of The Dead is not your thing, then feel free to indulge in as much candy and as many scary movies as you can handle.  Personally speaking, just pass the candy bowl and Blogger will be happy.  Alright, now on to something genuinely scary: gentrification.

Gentrification is scary because it means change.  Change is always scary, especially if it is your neighborhood.  Perhaps no place in Los Angeles is experiencing rapid change than Boyle Heights.  Rory Carroll reports in his The Guardian article "Are white hipsters hijacking an anti-gentrification fight in Los Angeles?" "The Los Angeles neighbourhood of Boyle Height has become a landmark battleground [Ibid; April 19, 2017; date accessed Oct. 31, 2017] against gentrification [Ibid; Oct. 2017], a contest widely seen as pitting working-class Latino activists against an influx of white-owned galleries."  However, what happens when the very people, the anti-gentrification movements are aimed at, hijack these movements for their own purposes?  This is the question that Mr. Carroll considers.

First, a little context to help us understand the situation.  The Boyle Heights defenders have used a wide array of tactics to harass and drive out the "art colonists."  Controversial strategies such as: rallies, threats, boycotts, breaking windows, and vulgar graffiti have been deployed with some success.  Protestors were able to drive out the Pssst Gallery and others have either cancelled or moved events.

For example, film maker and the writer of I Love Dick, Chris Kraus (Ibid; May 29, 2017; date accessed Oct 31, 2017) was recently forced to cancel a reading of her book at the 356 Mission gallery after activists threatened to disrupt the event (laweekly.com; Oct. 5, 2017; date accessed Oct. 31, 2017).

Managing editor of Ms. Kraus's publisher Semiotext(e), Hedi El Kholti, told the L.A. Weekly,

In this climate of harassment and online trolling, there'd be no point trying to have a conversation between Bruce Hainley and Chris Kraus about biography, fiction, and historiography...Defend Boyle Heights has promised to disrupt it (Ibid)...Bullying and intimidation are opposed to the very values of the work we publish. 

Boyle Heights, the birthplace of the Chicano movement, has become the case study model for anti-gentrification activists throughout the United States and Europe.  However, there is a twist to in Boyle Heights' anti-gentrification movement.

Rory Carroll reports, "There is, however, an overlooked twist: some of the most radical members of the Boyle Heights resistance are white artists, most of whom do not appear to live in the neighborhood."  Rather, these more radical members are using the "Defend Boyle Heights" banner "to attack former friend and colleagues in LA arts community."  Still others have targeted Latino artists and the not-for-profit organizations in the community, "accusing them of shills for invading capitalists."

These battle lnes have gone unnoticed, distorting the traditional anti-gentrification narrative and put the spotlight on a group of mostly Caucasian artist and other perceived outsides who have stitched political-and personal-agendas onto the anti-gentrification banner.

Joel Garcia, the program director of Self Help Graphics and Art (selfhelpgraphics.com; date accessed Oct. 31, 2017), told Mr. Carroll,

You have white guys telling a brown guy from the projects what to do in the community he grew up in"

Self Help Graphics and Art is a visual arts space that promotes Latino and Chicano artists however it has been accused of "collaboration with the galleries.

Irene Pena, who runs a community garden, said "outsiders infiltrated and took over her project.  They falsely claimed...that grant money from the University of Southern California (usc.edu) would lead to evictions..  Incredulous,

Who are they?  And why do they think that it's their right to come into Boyle Heights and attack people and organizations that serving the community?

Indeed.  There is more.

Steven Almazan, the former outreach chair of the Boyle Heights neighborhood council, was equally incredulous.  He said to Rory Carroll,"...outsiders were vocals in a campaign against a hipster cafe which has twice been vandalized.  Mr. Almazan said,

I found it kind of strange to hear people not from the neighbourhood speaking for the people of Boyle Heights."

However, there is a genuine sense of  urgency-"families are being evicted; other are facing big rent hikes-" silence criticism from local activists with tenuous connections to the area, but are perceived as energetic and savvy.

Rudy Espinoza the executive director of the Leadership for Urban Renewal Network (lurnetwork.org; date accessed Oct. 31, 2017, said,

A lot of them have contradictions that we know about but [we] chose not to say anything.

The non-profit organization has also been targeted by activists.  The reason was "...to avoid division and not undermine their effectiveness in raising awareness about the housing crisis."

Boyle Heights is a predominantly Latino community, situated across the L.A. River from the luxury lofts and skyscrapers populating the downtown.  Surging prices have resulted in displacement in Latino communities throughout East L.A., heightening fear that Boyle Heights could be next.  The arrival of the galleries and cafes established a sort of beachhead for developers to swoop in.  The mariachi musicians that congregated around Mariachi Plaza have already been priced out of home (latimes.com; Sept. 9, 2017; date accessed Oct. 31, 2017)

Nearly all the stakeholders agree that gentrification poses an existential threat to residents, in particular for renters.

the strategies and alleged motives of some of the activists have been problematic, raising the question "who speaks for Boyle Heights?"

'A racist critique'

Angel Luna, a local activist from Boyle Heights, dismisses any thoughts that outsiders hijacked the resistance.  He said,

That's a racist critique because it makes invisible the labour of people like myself.  To assume we're controlled by a group of white people is racist and offensive.

Mr. Luna added "The struggle was based on class, not race, and Defend Boyle Heights (@defendboyleheights), a coalition of radical groups, benefited from a wide from wide membership, including people not necessarily from the area:

The gentrifiers and alt-right agents are afaid of a diverse movement building.

Rory Carroll asked Angel Luna if some of the Caucasian artist brought their own agendas to the resistance.  Mr. Luna considered this,

That's a fair way to put it.  But I'm afraid of feeding this racist idea that white people are at the centre of this movement. 

Several of the well known protestors have or had connections to the gallery owners and artists caught in the crosshairs.

One such protestor is Kean O'Brien, an artist who taught a course on Decolonization and Deconstruction at California State University, Long Beach and a former close fiend of Jules Gimbrone and Barnett Cohen, the founders of the non-profit gallery Pssst.  When the friendship soured, he joined the campaign against the gallery.

In an email to Mr. Carroll, Mr. O'Brien wrote,

Those were my colleagues and friends that were making these big mistakes and causing displacement...It is very unfortunate that I lost my friendships with Jules and Barnett...however, I stand proudly in the position I have taken on art washing and will continue to challenge my colleagues, graduate school professors and friends as they participate in displacing people from their homes with their art careers.  Our art careers are not worth more than people's right to housing."

Messr. Gimbrone and Cohen shuttered the gallery in February, citing the "constant attacks" and "highly personal harassment" by the anti-gentrification activists as the primary reason (latimes.com; Feb. 22, 2017; date accessed Oct. 31, 2017).  Mr. Gimbrone declined to speak to Mr. Carroll, saying "he was 'still processing all that happened.'"

Rory Carroll reports, "Several artists and gallery owners, speaking anonymously, cited other cases of former friends and colleagues who now picketed their exhibitions and assailed them on social media."  One of the anonymous sources said,

It's all weirdly interconnected in their own art career.  It's about take-downs.

Sounds more like a severe case of professional animosity.

Guadalupe Rosales, a successful artist with close ties to Boyle Heights who exhibited her work at Pssst, had her car vandalized and was trolled on the social media.

Ms. Rosales declined to comment for the article on who targeted, saying only in a joint statement with Matt Wolf, the director of a film about her, "that the situation in Boyle Heights was much more nuanced and complex than the community versus the galleries."

Gallery sources provided documentation of individual artist who sought their representation before turning on them via anonymous social media accounts.  Essentially, galleries that declined to exhibit a particular artist or artist, for whatever reason, found themselves the object of a harassment campaign. when The Guardian confronted two of the alleged troll, one declined to respond, the other denied any wrong doing-i.e. both hiding behind the safety of their screen names.  Further, The Guardian could not verify their online participation in the campaigns so did not name them.

The anonymous Facebook page Defend Boyle Height from Boyle Heights (@DefendBoyleHeightsfromBoyleHeights), has focused on the role of Ultra-red, a small arts collective that promotes cultural and political struggle.

One poster, speaking on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of retribution, told Mr. Carroll,

It's people who are looking for a pressure point to bring about revolutionary change.

Person X said "he attend Defend Boyle Heights meetings to help combat gentrification but recoiled at the influence of the Ultra-red 'quartet.'"

The "Ultra-red quartet" is a reference to Elizabeth Blaney, Dont Rhine, and Walt Senterfitt (all Caucasian), and Leonardo Vilchis, who is of Mexican ancestry.  The four are also active in Union de Vecinos (uniodevecinos.org; date accessed Oct. 31, 2017), the L.A. Tenants Union (latenantsunion.org; date accessed Oct. 31, 2017) and Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (@BHAAADCoalition), offshoots of the Defend Boyle Heights supports base.

Dont Rhine is a faculty co-chair at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and not a resident of Boyle Heights.  Mr. Senterfitt is an AIDS research with a Yale Ph.D who recently moved to the community.  Ms. Blaney and Mr. Vilchis have been active in the community for decades.

The quartet have lectured and presented talks on gentrification, most recently at a Museum of Contemporary Art panel this past June (moca.org; June 1, 2017; date accessed Oct. 31, 2017).

Ms. Blaney was the only member of the quartet available to speak to Rory Carroll.  She told Mr. Carroll, "...the threat to Boyle Heights justified robust tactics.  Specifically,

People's basic need for shelter is being taken from them.  That's an act of violence.  It's a struggle of survival and self-defence.  All different kinds of strategy are open.  I'm not condoning smashing windows but I understand where it's coming from."

The quartet are not implicated in any act of vandalism.  Given Ms. Blaney's above statement, "All different kinds of strategy are open," it infers that they tacitly approve of smashing windows.

Elizabeth Blaney down played the role of white activists.

It's racist to imply that Latino members of the community can't think for themselves and are brainwashed by a group of white people.  It's ludicrous and insulting to all they're doing.

She continued, "...all those targeted by Defend Boyle Heights were gentrifiers or enablers."

What would you call white artist outsiders co-opting a Latino anti-gentrification movement to get back at galleries that refuse to exhibit their work?  Ms. Blaney is right, it is racist to infer that Latino members of a community are unable to think or organize for themselves.  

Joel Garcia of Self Help Graphics and Art denied being an enabler or gentrifiers accused the group of making false statements to enhance their legitimacy.  He said,

Our existence here threatens their validity to being social practice artists.  We embody community arts practice. These artists are trying to usurp that.  Attacking Self Help Graphics legitimises them-it has everything to do with their professional positioning.

Joel Garcia may have a point.