DBH: About Self Help Graphics Accountability Session and Beyond

First published on http://defendboyleheights.blogspot.com/

On Saturday, July 2, Defend Boyle Heights (DBH) led an action to temporarily disrupt a public event hosted by the 40-year old Chicanx artist nonprofit Self Help Graphics & Art (SHG). The event was supposed to be a community meeting to discuss the role artists play in gentrification in Los Angeles, and particularly in Boyle Heights. However, since the beginning of the meeting, thanks to our supporters in the audience who sent us pictures, videos and notes on what SHG staff were saying, the community dialogue was already painting the artist and therefore the galleries free of culpability. Furthermore, this was not a dialogue. A dialogue seeks to get the input from the audience or participants. This event was a lecture – with SHG staff telling the audience what artists are or are not guilty of. The vast majority of attendees were either nonprofit workers and/or artists themselves, including representatives from the PSSST gallery and other newer galleries near the SHG building on 1st Street–galleries that the community has previously taken a hard stand against.

At approximately 4 P.M., DBH led a group of 30-to-40 people, which included several long-time residents of the community and members of Union de Vecinos, Ovarian Psycos, Serve the People – Los Angeles, East Los Angeles Brown Berets and the Backyard Brigade, into the SHG building. We flanked both sides of the stage where SHG staff were addressing a crowd of approximately 45 people. We chanted “El barrio no se vende! Boyle Heights se defiende!” as we held signs denouncing gentrification and in particular the role that SHG and others have played in being complicit with gentrification. One of our members took the mic from an SHG staff person and a couple of residents from the Pico Gardens Projects denounced the art galleries moving into the neighborhood irrespective of the rent-increases, evictions and overall redevelopment that accompany them. They spoke about the community’s need for actual authentic affordable housing and sustainable jobs, and that the community doesn’t need any more art galleries, especially ones who refuse to work with the community prior to moving in (which all art galleries close to the Sixth Street Bridge are guilty of). We read our demands, which state that all new art galleries must immediately leave Boyle Heights and that those buildings should be utilized by our community members the ways we best see fit, which may be converting them into emergency housing, shelters or centers for job training. As we left the building, we chanted “We don’t need more galleries; We need higher salaries!” That is to say, Boyle Heights is a low-income renter community. Get the fuck outta here with that argument that we need more art galleries. Boyle Heights has always been a cultural and artistic icon, with or without galleries. That is not a genuine and immediate need of the vast majority of community members.

Defend Boyle Heights, as a partner of the newly-formed Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD), has been organizing against PSSST due to their ties with gentrifying real estate agents and real estate firms responsible for the displacement of  working class families in Highland Park. PSSST gallery has faced backlash since its inception from its own community of artist as well as Boyle Heights community members due to its lack of transparency and community engagement. On May 13, 2016 Defend Boyle Heights and other partners such as Union de Vecinos, Ovarian Psycos, Serve the People – Los Angeles and the East Los Angeles Brown Berets led a grassroots march targeting PSSST in their role as a gentrifying force in our community. Prior to the march, PSSST found out about the action and was pressured into postponing their grand opening. We wanted to send a clear message that art galleries such as PSSST, with a history of gentrifying communities, are not welcomed in our community.

After this action, a letter written by BHAAAD, DBH and community members was sent to PSSST leadership with our demands and to meet with community members during two proposed dates at a neutral location where community members would feel safe. Community members also demanded that PSSST do the work in outreaching to other galleries to attend the meeting and hear from community as well.

This “dialogue”, then, facilitated and organized by SHG with representatives of PSSST and other art galleries, failed to acknowledge and seek the active participation of long-standing community residents. This dialogue actively undermined months of work done by the community. Defend Boyle Heights has been very transparent about our demands towards PSSST and have published them throughout our social media channels. SHG failed to include the ongoing community fight against PSSST as part of their “dialogue”. If we had been provided a safe and productive space to collaborate, SHG would have known that  1.) the community already had a meeting set up with artists who have defended the art galleries scheduled for July 12 at 6 p.m. at the Pico Gardens Projects (1526 E. 4th St, LA, 90033 and that 2.) the community has a set of demands which include

  • PSSST must do the work to set up a meeting with at least 1 representative from from each of the galleries in the Boyle Heights “Arts District” to demand the following from them;
  • We demand that all existing galleries leave immediately. Thereafter the community will decide what they want the space to be used for i.e. emergency housing/shelters, job training, etc.

There cannot be a community meeting around the role artists play in gentrification without the community and without artist being fully aware of the current landscape in Boyle Heights. As community members, we have dedicated our time, love and efforts to begin creating an autonomous space where we can begin to discuss our strategy to fight the fine art of gentrification.

“Artists Don’t Gentrify. Developers and City Planners Do:” 

A DANGEROUS STARTING POINT

If we are to have a frank discussion about the role of artists in gentrification, this is a troublesome place to begin. Art and, more broadly speaking, cultural production, certainly have played a VITAL role in gentrification, especially in Los Angeles. Influenced by the work of Richard Florida in the early 2000’s, planners and developers have long considered the role of the so-called “creative class” in urban renewal. Boasting that the creative class, an outside group of creatives and opinion makers, will bring an influx “new money and energy,” developers and planners have justified building infrastructure to lure in outsiders to under-resourced, primarily people of color neighborhoods rather than focusing on the needs of existing community. This idea borders dangerously close to eugenics, even, such that migrants and queer people are undesirable in all of these plans except in small amounts. That is to say, the strong communities that we helped forged in the wake of deindustrialization and organized abandonment as cultural centers continue to go unrecognized except as the quaint disappearing background for hipsters and so-called creatives, making it possible for Craigslist housing ads to lure in outsiders with lines like “only .X miles from Guisados tacos.”

DBH is developing an analysis on gentrification in order to better resist it. As with any problem, and the desire to solve a problem, we must get to the root of it and study the hierarchy inherent in said problem. Gentrification is no different. We define gentrification as the natural process of capitalism which concentrates capital into the hands of the few and powerful over the many and supposedly powerless. Gentrification is the redevelopment of an area with the goal of increasing property values, raising rents and overall cost of living. People who cannot keep up with the pace of redevelopment become displaced. Gentrification has always displaced the poor and working class. In Southern California and various urban centers places in the U.S., historically, those displaced have been the Black, Mexican, Chicanx, Latinx and Asian working class, often times irrespective of their contributions to the art and well-being of a community. We recognize the strong leftovers of colonialism in contemporary capitalism which are evident in gentrification, such as the white supremacist colonizing mentality of “discovering” a new area. And the racist practices of building managers and landlords discriminating against people of color in favor for the ideal white and affluent hipster tenant.

DBH posits that there are two levels or categories for gentrifiers: Low-Intensity and High-Intensity.

Low-intensity gentrifiers are those (“the creative class”–artists and opinion makers like college students or recent graduates, some workers, etc., often referred to as hipsters) who move into an area such as Boyle Heights because of its cheap rent and cultural history, but in doing so landlords, developers and new incoming business owners begin catering to their needs, which ultimately displaces the original community. Most of the time, low-intensity gentrifiers behave with ignorance. DBH contends that there is no room for ignorance given the dire situation and, as such, those who are not fighting against gentrification will be fought against. SHG and many of the artists defending the Boyle Heights art galleries are in this category.

High-intensity gentrifiers are the main and most vicious type of gentrifiers. They are the developers, real estate agents, city planners, bankers and other agencies with authority in housing (nonprofits can fit in this category). They only care about profit, even if it displaces people. Developers will buy a multi-unit property, redevelop it, raise rents and evict renters who cannot afford higher rent. Real estate agents largely focus on buying or selling houses, but they too only care about increasing profit. City planners develop new ways for land to be used, often pushing a capitalist agenda. Bankers and other agencies with housing authority, such as some nonprofits, may also be high-intensity gentrifiers. Banks own houses, rental properties and industrial properties. Ultimately, they decide who will live, rent or occupy the property. Some of the newer artists in the Boyle Heights art galleries are in this category, such as PSSST (whose building was bought by an anonymous entity that purchased the building for $1 Million) and Maccarone galleries. In Boyle Heights, we have already begun identifying high intensity gentrifiers, namely, Metro, The 15 Group, Adaptive Realty, Brian Neman and Hyde Property Management LLC and other house and property-flippers.

So, can artists be complicit in gentrification? You’re fucken right they can!

When we stop imagining that artists don’t play a role in gentrification, we can begin to see that there are alternative ways for artists to engage in this fight against displacement. Other ways of engaging DO exist. Take, for example, the work of a fairly new artist of color collective, L.A. Onda. Fully aware of how artists have been historically used in neighborhoods for the purpose of “artwashing” and erasing local people and histories, they have been a key component of the new coalition Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD) which is directly confronting the new art galleries popping up in Boyle Heights. ARTISTS DON’T HAVE TO BE PAWNS IN THE SCHEMES OF DEVELOPERS AND CITY PLANNERS. ART IS A WEAPON. LET’S POINT IT AT DEVELOPERS INSTEAD OF COMMUNITY.

It makes absolutely no sense to displace the responsibility of gentrification from artists to developers and city planners when more often than not they are all working in conjunction, even if one is more powerful or higher up than the other. For example, the PSSST gallery in the new Boyle Heights gallery or arts district has had their building purchased for $1 million by an anonymous donor with whom they signed a non-disclosure agreement. In other words, someone with a lot of money INVESTED into this nonprofit art gallery based on a speculation that there would be a return on their real estate investment in the future. Any statement that artists showing their work in mostly white art galleries in Boyle Heights do not contribute to gentrification is either naive and/or dishonest.

The Right and Duty of Community to Organize Autonomously

When we understand that funding from organizations that have a vested interest in redevelopment and renewal (code words for gentrification) compromises our organizing, it becomes our duty to call for and build spaces outside of those funding structures, such as nonprofits or city projects. Where developers/planners/gentrifiers want our communities only in small amounts to add flavor and spice to their gentrifying colonies, it becomes our duty to amplify the voices of those of our residents who stand the most to lose from these programs. One of the biggest tragedies of gentrification is that some Chicanx and non-Chicanx artists, homeowners, etc. may ride out the wave of gentrification and watch their art or their homes increase in value. Despire the fact that the vast majority of Boyle Heights residents are low income renters, there will be an incentive for some to support gentrification. They will sell out their working class counterparts. To them, we say, you have chosen a side in this class war. Therefore, DBH is orienting itself to this demographic in serving and defending their right to continue to call Boyle Heights home.

Many will disagree that the community has a right and duty to organize autonomously and insist on working within the system via strict adherence to NGOs, union bureaucracies and neighborhood councils. Some of these organizations have done a lot of good work for community, but they also have the potential to compromise our demands because of fear of “biting the hand that feeds.” Well, often the hand that feeds is also the hand that controls you.

To the people who criticize autonomous organizing, we say that we have seen so much get done when community organizes outside of the nonprofit sector, that is, outside of the legitimate parameters of the bourgeois state. Often times, organizing with NGOs is an impediment for the above-mentioned reasons. We have witnessed the power of autonomous community organizing and won some immigration reform, education reform, better job contracts and overall better quality of life for our families and neighbors. We have fought and won for a life worth living and we can do it again. Although our lives are far from perfect or even qualitatively better, it is a hopeful and correct path we are taking. We will continue to fight gentrification in Boyle Heights tooth and nail with or without the support of people with money and resources. Somos lxs de abajo y vamos por lxs de arriba.

There will be those who accuse us of being divisive or creating disunity among our own people. To them, we say that we did not CREATE the divisions and disunity. The people who have been facilitating and managing the gentrification process in Boyle Heights for years now are the ones who have bred disunity and distrust. They have perpetuated class inequalities and been complicit. Our goal is to shed light on these spaces that have not stood with working class community. We are prepared to lose friends and would-be allies, but we will also forge stronger more intentional bonds by building on the right side of this fight.

Why Call for Accountability from Self Help, Specifically: A Short, Ongoing List

  1. A Conflict of Interest: Felicia “Fe” Montes and the Displacement of Wyvernwood Residents, Renewal of the 6th Street Viaduct

Felicia “Fe” Montes is the fiance of Joel Garcia, director of programs and operations at Self-Help Graphics & Art. Felicia Montes is on the payroll of Urban Strategies as the director of community relations, the public relations firm that was hired by the Miami-based private investment firm, 15 Group, and more recently the developers of the 6th street bridge, to create a more inviting atmosphere for redevelopment, specifically in the proposed demolition of the Wyvernwood apartments.

*A study by the Pat Brown Institute in 2013 found that in 2010 approximately 72 percent of residents in Boyle Heights rent their home.

  1. Gatekeeping: Self Help Graphics Rubber Stamping and Lifeline for Problematic Gentrifying Process such as SHG support of Hopscotch mobile opera where non-Boyle Heights residents were invited to Hollenbeck Park

In the fall of 2015, The Industry, an artist nonprofit company, organized a mobile opera called Hopscotch which toured around Los Angeles in public spaces, such as historical sites and parks, including Hollenbeck Park. They sold tickets for approximately $125. They brought in predominately white and affluent people into Boyle Heights. The entire opera was in English and there was no evident desire to work with the community of Boyle Heights and in particular the regulars at the park, including the vendors. Furthermore, there was an actor in the opera playing the role of a paletero man playing a cajon (percussion) on his cart and selling organic ice cream to the audience, again irrespective of his robbing clients from the park vendors who have been coming to the park for years. For the vendors, this is their livelihood. Hopscotch participants also stated that Boyle Heights community members “should be thankful for them bringing art into our community”. Since Serve the People – Los Angeles (STPLA) members distribute food and clothing every Sunday at the park, they ran into Hopscotch during their performance and confronted them. And after a brief series of confrontations, the Roosevelt High School marching band, community members and STPLA successfully kicked out the mobile opera. For more of a backstory, click here and here. Self-Help Graphics & Art aided Hopscotch with material support in the form of artistic consulting, lending them the paletero prop and eventually facilitating a friend of Joel Garcia’s to be hired as security for Hopscotch due to the confrontational tactics employed by STPLA. Joel now denies this. However, Hopscotch has publically thanked SHG for their support.

  1. Self Help Graphics & Art’s Board of Directors and leadership will be held to task and subjected to the utmost scrutiny due to their position in the community as leaders and their vested interests in gentrification projects.

Rudy Espinoza, Interim Executive Director of Self Help Graphics and current Executive Director at Leadership for Urban Renewal Network (LURN) and Board of Director and Alfred Fraijo Jr. have both openly expressed support for redevelopment and “urban renewal” in a community fighting gentrification.

  1. Self Help Graphics Has Never, to Our Knowledge, Publicly Acknowledged Its Direct Displacement of Local Jobs

And although SHG has been in the Eastside community for 40 years, it only recently relocated to Boyle Heights in 2011 where it displaced a fish factory where residents of the immediate working class community were employed. SHG also has a unique position of being located in a heated community battle zone against gentrification given the fastly developing “ Arts District” across the river which poses a direct threat to Boyle Heights.

SHG leadership must be self critical of their role in the current political landscape as well as provide authentically open communication and support to community movements fighting gentrification. We call for a moratorium on SHG’s work with outside artists and galleries that pose a threat of gentrification by any means. 

*Espinoza hopes his background in urban planning will help Self Help be part of a movement to revitalize Boyle Heights.” (http://www.boyleheightsbeat.com/self-help-graphics-takes-art-to-the-streets-2-10015)

*Rather than being entirely opposed to gentrification or change, I’ve focused my work with developers on using change as a tool for renewal within communities that are struggling because they’re underserved either by retail or by a lack of affordable housing. (http://hispanicexecutive.com/2014/sheppard-mullin/ )

To Our Friends

More statements/polemics will be forthcoming on why many of us in Defend Boyle Heights, Serve the People – Los Angeles, East LA Brown Berets, Backyard Brigade, Ovarian Psycos, Union de Vecinos and under the umbrella of Boyle Heights Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAD) and others decided to organize an action against SHG and will continue to hold problematic forces in our community accountable.

But to be brief and clear: to resist gentrification is a material, necessary and disturbing struggle. Lines will be drawn. Friendships will be tested, and some may end.

In the protracted process of gentrification and building the resistance to it, there will be moments where individuals and groups will either work with gentrifiers or work against them or be unsure and vacillate back and forth. Those are the three categories people take as positions, more or less.

Unfortunately, SHG has more than once chosen the side of redevelopment, prioritizing art and artists over people’s livelihoods, as hopefully made clear in this statement.

Let’s be real. We all have friends everywhere, in nonprofits, in the arts, perhaps even working for the city or a real estate firm, etc.

But this is bigger than one individual. It is about community. To not attack because of personal friendships or relationships or because they put together a free workshop once or organized a cultural event doesn’t take away their problematic position and their politics of putting themselves over the people.

SHG is not the permanent target of DBH, nor is it a target of our partnered organizations or individual members. SHG is one of many parts in the process and problem of gentrification. In the violence that gentrification perpetuates, in the unsafe and unstable reality of the majority of Boyle Heights residents live in, we say then those complicit or refusing to chose a side should not feel safe. Gentrification is about people’s livelihoods. The people, the vast majority of low-income renters and workers of Boyle Heights who struggle with stable living, are our priority. If a nonprofit or a cultural icon sides with redevelopment or refuses not to act in the better interest of Boyle Heights residents, then they need to be pressured to choose a side. If gentrification is class war, which side are you on? Are you serving the people, defending the people? Or are you pushing the people out?    

In short, we will not resort to liberalism. We have to remain militant, both in politics and in practice.

Gentrification is violence, Defend Boyle Heights is resistance!

Self-Criticisms And Thoughts in the Aftermath of the Accountability Session

In the aftermath of our accountability session with Self Help Graphics, many community members have been asking for more information about our motivations, some in good faith and others unfortunately in bad faith. Here is an example of a criticism we as DBH more or less agree with.

Upon reflection, we believe that we should have had a statement prepared prior to the event, upon which we could have built up. In future actions, we will attempt to rectify this so that the community knows exactly where we stand and can make informed decisions for themselves based on our research and analysis. And we should have made a better connection to SHG’s connection to processes of gentrification on the day of the “dialogue” as well.

Still, other criticisms have been in bad faith. For example, the claims that DBH are cops or infiltrators for disrupting the SHG “dialogue,” or snitch-jacketing are unprincipled and harmful. DBH contends that snitch-jacketing is always wrong and opportunistic. Instead of dealing with the matter at hand or the politics at play, it is a cop-out to call us cops or COINTELPRO or wreckers. This is lazy and condescending at best and dangerous, malicious sabotage at worst. Furthermore, the claims by some mostly in the SHG leadership that the community was being manipulated are untrue. Had we not disrupted the meeting, it is clear to us that the voices of local residents would not have been amplified. To the claims that the “youth” are acting out of ignorance are examples of respectability politics that illustrate a sense of arrogance from the part of many artists or NGO leaders who have “made it” and feel they no longer have to engage in autonomous grassroots community organizing. They suggest that if we behaved better, we wouldn’t be facing the real threat of gentrification and this is dangerous because it suggests that we, the working class residents of Boyle Heights who are being crushed under the weight of capitalist expansion, somehow brought this on to ourselves or deserve to be displaced and banished.

El Barrio no se vende! Boyle Heights se defiende!