In the late 1950s, a thriving Mexican-American neighborhood was bulldozed to build Dodgers Stadium. Not far away, a half a century later, that same process continues, except the process now has name: gentrification. The socio-economic forces of gentrification are creating activists everywhere from Queens to London. At Newsweek, Alexander Nazaryan reports from the front line in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, where activists are fighting art galleries, which they believe are the first wave of gentrification and real estate redevelopment that lead to the inevitable the predictable displacement of people of color. This process is called “artwashing.” In this historically Latino community, where 89% of residents rent and 5% have college degrees, activists have drawn a line in the Los Angeles sand, and if some of them get squeezed out, they will do so with their voices carrying news of this problem to the world.
The above process is known as artwashing, which has come to widely describe displacement efforts in which the artistic community is tacitly complicit. The term appears to have first been used in mainstream media in 2014 by Feargus O’Sullivan of The Atlantic, in an article about a tower in once-destitute East London that had been redeveloped for high-paying tenants. They were being enticed, in part, by suggestions that they wouldn’t be gentrifiers but, rather, original members of a new artistic community. “The artist community’s short-term occupancy is being used for a classic profit-driven regeneration maneuver,” O’Sullivan wrote. He labeled the process “artwashing.”
Yet for many the notion of artwashing is no less urban myth than alligators in the sewers of New York. Several studies have concluded that art galleries do not displace low-income residents, but Defend Boyle Heights and the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD, pronounced “bad”) don’t care about academic urbanists’ peer-reviewed studies. They know the galleries are a cancer that must be eradicated, for they are “enemies of the people,” as Luna called them. “I want these galleries to get the fuck out of Boyle Heights,” he said, finally managing a bite of food.
The course of chemotherapy recommended by Defend Boyle Heights is relentlessly aggressive. Someone shot a potato gun at the attendees of an art show, and someone spray-painted “Fuck white art” on the walls of several galleries. Like the Battle of Stalingrad, this is a furiously contested, block-by-block affair. Both sides have suffered painful losses: the closure of Carnitas Michoacan #3, a 33-year-old eatery beloved for its nachos, the shuttering of PSSST, one of the Anderson Street galleries.