Terms of Art: Boyle Heights Youth Rally against Being Columbused by the New York Times

Ray Vargas works on a mural featuring the Boyle Heights Bridge Runners and scenes from the community at the Ambularte event last Saturday. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Speaking about her new 35,000 square foot gallery space, located in the western industrial edge of Boyle Heights, art dealer Michele Maccarone told the New York Times, “It still has a dangerous quality — I kind of like that. I like that we spent a fortune on security.”

It was a line that, to the students at CALÓ YouthBuild in Boyle Heights that read the Times‘ story in their classes, felt like a slap in the face.

Well, it was one of many such lines found in the article, New Art Galleries Enjoy a Los Angeles Advantage: Space, actually.

In chronicling the expansion of the arts district to the east side of the river, the Times‘ Melena Ryzik had managed to paint a picture of Boyle Heights that few from the neighborhood recognized.

Some of the blame lay with the artists and gallery-owners who were quoted as celebrating the rapid turnover in the arts district that saw homeless people replaced by “guys with mustaches, sipping lattes” and the growth of a “young scene” that inspired Boyle Heights transplants with the “energy” and “momentum” needed to take risks with their work.

But most of the problems lay with the assumptions made by the journalist herself. Calling the spaces along Mission Road “outposts” in an area of Boyle Heights “that still has an anything-goes feel,” Ryzik pointed to the newer galleries as “beacons in the neighborhood” and praised them for giving “the area the urban cultural density that Los Angeles mostly lacks.”

“I cried a little when I read that,” said Stephanie Ponce, one of the YouthBuild students that had helped put together Ambularte, a mobile art exhibit held outside Maccarone’s new space as a way to protest how the community had been characterized. “They are saying we need culture…[our] people are our culture!”

Sergio Quintero, the student that took the lead on organizing last Saturday’s event, agreed.

Newcomers to the area wanted to be there because of the vibrant murals found on so many of Boyle Heights’ walls, he said. What they cared about was being able to feel “edgy,” not being challenged to get to know the local people, artists, or the histories those murals represented.

The Ambularte event represented an opportunity, the students felt, to remind the larger arts world that there was an entire community with a rich and storied history of intertwining the arts with culture, heritage, and resistance just up the hill from where the new galleries stood. And that it was a community that they were proud of and that they loved.

"Art is Community; Art is Resistance" is projected on the wall of Michele Maccarone's new gallery space on Mission Road in Boyle Heights. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
“Art is Community; Art is Resistance” is projected on the wall of Michele Maccarone’s new gallery space on Mission Road in Boyle Heights. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

“The event is [being held] outside,” Quintero continued, “because that’s where our art usually is.”

He was alluding to the community’s history of exclusion from the kinds of fine arts circles within which Maccarone and others featured in the Times’ story are able to move with much greater ease.

Limited access to arts education in Boyle Heights and the limited value the art world places upon the work of Chicano and Latino artists has meant that artists from the community have had to forge their own paths and operate on the margins. In the early 1970s, that meant tagging up LACMA in protest of their marginalization, founding Self Help Graphics to foster expression and social consciousness within the Chicano and Latino communities via printmaking and other forms of visual arts, and painting outdoor murals that captured the community’s struggles for rights and the birth of the Chicano movement.

More recently, it has meant that self-taught artists from the community like Nico Avina (co-founder of Espacio 1839) have stepped up to both make art more accessible and help amplify the sentiments of the community regarding the changes they are witnessing.

One of artist Nico Avina's screen prints. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
One of artist Nico Avina’s screen prints. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Avina was one of the artists present Saturday night, making screen prints on his shopping cart set-up. One of the prints, at right, called out “Columbusing” — the act of “discovering” something that has been around for years and, often, renaming it or reframing it in a way that strips it of the culture or history it originates from. The other print proclaimed, “El barrio no se vende. Se ama y se defiende.” (The neighborhood will not be sold. It is to be loved and defended.)

Other participants at the event included artists Ray Vargas, Erick Yanez, and Vyal Reyes, organizations like Community Education for Social Action (CESA), Self Help Graphics & Art, Serve The People, Los Angeles Queer Resistance Collective, Revolutionary Autonomous Communities Los Angeles, Puentes y Fuentes: Talks on Displacement, and Sisters of South L.A., and the YouthBuild students themselves. Students built an altar to commemorate local businesses in Echo Park and Highland Park that had been lost as those neighborhoods transformed, staffed a solar-powered vending cart that they had built, and wrote messages in chalk decrying the negative characterization of the community by the Times and reaffirming their commitment to standing against gentrification.

That the students even bothered to take the time to put together an entire event to protest a poorly-written article might seem strange to some. After all, the New York Times is not known for its ability to decipher Los Angeles particularly well, or even to appreciate it as a full-fledged city.

But this sort of mischaracterization of Boyle Heights and communities like it around L.A. is not isolated. Nor is it without consequence.

As millenials and those of means move back to the cities, disenfranchised lower-income communities of color are seen as a sort of last frontier for urbanists — blank canvases upon which communities can be “re-imagined” and re-invented. Transplants to “gritty,” “sketchy,” and/or “ethnic” neighborhoods often speak of themselves as “pioneers” working to make it safe for others to follow or, worse, “making something out of nothing.” Craigslist ads emphasize the renovation of old buildings (which generally means that tenants in formerly rent-controlled apartments have been displaced), their proximity to downtown and the arts district (rather than community landmarks), and, not uncommonly, the distance to places like Guisados (a restaurant which draws customers from outside of the community).

Developers regularly send out press releases touting the purchase of major residential buildings as part of their effort to “ride the wave of gentrification” in “white hot” neighborhoods filling up quickly with creative and dynamic young professionals. And realtors chart “emerging” neighborhoods and the potential for “investments” in “up-and-coming” areas. They might even actively attempt to lead a tour through a “charming, historic, walkable, and bikeable neighborhood” and ply the invited arts district participants with artisanal cheeses and snacks (saving participants from the horror of having to sample the foods of the neighborhood they are contemplating calling home).

The messaging around communities like Boyle Heights, in other words, is often multi-layered, reliant upon a vocabulary that communicates conquest, premised on externally-driven transformation, and very rarely controlled by the residents themselves.

In a lower-income community where three-quarters of the residents are renters and many do not have proper leases, being bombarded with that sort of messaging can compound the stress felt by those who are already struggling to get by. The fact that residents are watching that messaging manifest as tangible change before their eyes is not helping the situation.

As noted in the Times‘ piece, Maccarone is one of several galleries to set up shop in the area in anticipation of the opening of the new Broad Museum downtown. [Someone linked to Maccarone even apparently attempted to re-label the community with the hashtag “eastbank,” effectively tying it to the arts district and de-linking it from Boyle Heights; it was since removed.] And as the 6th Street Viaduct replacement project gets underway and the area underneath the bridge is transformed into a park, it is sure to draw more galleries, cafes, and live-work spaces to the area (as will the expected transformation of the Sears building at Olympic and Boyle, which may host as many as 1,000 market-rate apartments).

Rents are already starting to go up along the business corridor on 1st Street. And residents are beginning to feel the squeeze, too. After 40 years in the community, Ponce’s family was pushed out because they hadn’t signed a proper lease and were unable to negotiate with new landlords. Similarly, Quintero and his grandparents were given six months to move out after their building was bought. While his grandparents were able to find a new place nearby, it was much smaller than their last one.

“I’m going to be couch surfing for a while,” Quintero shrugged. Having bounced around from place to place throughout his youth, he was prepared to be homeless, he said. “I’m used to it.”

It wouldn’t be easy, he said. But he wasn’t going anywhere.

“I was born and raised here. I have much love for this community.” he mused. “These are my streets.”

  • stvr

    You may say I’m a troll, but I feel like I’m BEING trolled. I’m just going to post this as a comment from time to time when it seems fit to serve as a reminder:

    Streetsblog is a daily news source connecting people to information about sustainable transportation and livable communities.

    Since 2006, Streetsblog has covered the movement to transform our cities by reducing dependence on private automobiles and improving conditions for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders. Our reporters have broken important stories about transit funding, pedestrian safety, and bicycle policy from day one. And our writing makes arcane topics like parking prices and induced traffic accessible to a broad audience.

  • stvr

    Just one more point:

    Searched “columbus” on urban dictionary to figure out what it meant as a PAST PARTICIPLE and this is what I got:


    (v) The act of stealing for one’s personal use, to gank something which is not yours. Roots of this word come from Christopher Columbus’ expedition to the Americas where he consequently stole land from the American Indians.

    Ted: Where’d you get all of these CD’s?
    Ron: Man, you know I went Columbus on the video store and took all of them.

    Yes, this was how I spent my day. Thanks SBLA.

  • dexter

    Really enjoyed this one. Thank you.

  • sahra

    Or you could just not read things you know you are going to hate. Because you keep threatening to leave, but you sadly just can’t seem to quit me. I’ve already said volumes about why these issues matter… and I said it again here: “As millenials and those of means move back to the cities,
    disenfranchised lower-income communities of color are seen as a sort of
    last frontier for urbanists — blank canvases upon which communities can
    be “re-imagined” and re-invented.” Those are the backdrops against which zoning changes and the upgrades to infrastructure are occurring. And there are consequences for the vulnerable residents of those communities because of the disinvestment they were subjected to over decades. Policy, therefore, be it bike-, transit-, pedestrian-, or housing-related needs to be responsive to these contexts and the potential for harm to those folks in the communities the city hopes to see grow. I understand that seeing the bigger picture is hard for some people, and I feel for those that struggle with such skills. But just because some folks can’t see those connections, it does not mean they are not there. But, please, carry on with your trolling. I would indeed hate to suspend the pleasure of someone that has nothing better to do with their time. All my best. -s

  • TRADical

    Not all art is created equal.

  • Militant Angeleno

    You’re not being trolled. You’re just butthurt.

  • Militant Angeleno

    Ryzik pointed to the newer galleries as “beacons in the neighborhood” and praised them for giving “the area the urban cultural density that Los Angeles mostly lacks.”

    “I cried a little when I read that,”

    ^^^ The story of The Militant’s life right there.

    Sahra, you rock.

  • Elbatmanuel

    I seriously do not like these articles, they do our community zero good. Communities should be pushing for more inclusivity, brown, black, white, poor, middle class and wealthy. These types of articles only work to further push a xenophobic view that BH is only for the poor brown folks, BH used to be ethnically and economically diverse, i’d like to see that happen again in my lifetime, this article doesn’t help.

    Also, please stop white-splaining these racial issues to us. The author has a graduate degree from LA most expensive university and she is paid to write articles about our poor brown community. She literally profits from it. I know your blog needs views and clicks, and that the fastest way to get them is to stir up racial and economic fires. But if you really would like to help us out how about pushing for tolerance, acceptance, and unity amongst all people. Or how about an in depth look at the real problem that have hindered this community for 4 decades (gangs, drugs, violence just to name a few).

    An art gallery in the industrial area of BH is not raising rents for those along 1st st. (its over a mile away) Espacio, eastsideluv, metro, casa, huizar they have more to do with a rise in rents than a flyer about real estate or a NY times article about art gallery owners, but why is there no mention of this?

  • Slexie

    Not agreeing with you isn’t trolling. What are we supposed to think of an article that demands poor people be allowed to remain poor? It’s like trying to make things better or nicer somehow is wrong. You act all superior by saying things like:

    “. I understand that seeing the bigger picture is hard for some people,”

    No. That’s just a way for you to skirt the issue. Some people don’t agree with your assessment of the situation. They are not trolling, or ignorant, or dumb, no matter how much you try to tell them they are. If anything the NY article is trolling you. Everyone knows NY journalists love nothing more than to dump all over anything LA. It’s been that way for decades and there are several reasons for their critical eye towards our west coast. The NY Times is the worst. They get lonely and have to take a jab at our water issues, our immigration issues, or whatever topic is popular at the time. We SoCal folks look up as if to say, “Huh? Did you say something?”. Because we don’t really notice them until they force us to. You fell for their trolling of a neighborhood the east coast knows nothing about. Don’t get pissy at the rest of us for pointing it out.

  • Chewie

    I get the concern about gentrification and cultural insensitivity with new people moving in to Boyle Heights. However, I think that if we are willing to criticize we should also be willing to take criticism. I will say that one way in which Boyle Heights is interesting is that it is 94% Latino and only 5% of neighborhood residents have a four-year college degree or higher [1]. Thus, the neighborhood is pretty homogeneous with respect to ethnicity and income. That makes me uncomfortable. I feel the same discomfort the other way too (e.g. regarding Beverly Crest, which is 88% white). It kind of sends the message that “this place isn’t for everyone.” I honestly think there is value in people of different backgrounds (ethnicity, income, life-experience, age, immigration status etc.) mixing in a neighborhood. Sometimes this leads to misunderstanding and conflict, but it is through that interaction that we can come to gain an appreciation for each other. LA is too segregated today. The challenge is, how do you solve that problem without screwing over the poor. We should keep in mind that it’s much easier for people with money to go into poor neighborhoods than it is for the reverse to happen. We should be talking about gentrification and affordable housing in the same sentences.

    [1] All stats from LA Times, starting here: http://maps.latimes.com/neighborhoods/neighborhood/boyle-heights/

  • sahra

    I think you’ve misread the story and others that touch on similar topics. It isn’t about ” further push[ing] a xenophobic view that BH is only for the poor brown folks.” It’s about recognizing that there is an existing community that has experienced disinvestment and disenfranchisement and is therefore vulnerable to being affected negatively by efforts to “transform,” “re-imagine,” and “re-vitalize.” It doesn’t mean no investments should be made, that art galleries shouldn’t be allowed or anything like that. But it does mean that those looking at re-zoning, developing, or investing in the area need to be thinking more holistically so that everyone (current residents in particular) are able to benefit from such investments. And so the transformation/growth happens in a way that helps to celebrate the culture of the area.

    I write a lot about gangs (e.g. http://la.streetsblog.org/2014/03/21/to-be-or-not-to-be-a-gang-banger-is-that-really-the-question/), actually, because I have done volunteer work with youth in both Boyle Heights and South LA for many years.

    I will say that you’re right… the gallery opening along Mission is not affecting rents at the moment, and may not (at least up the hill) for some time. But that wasn’t a point I was trying to make. I was looking at the layers of messaging around Boyle Heights as a community (not just that area) — it comes from city planning, developers, realtors, investors, and those looking to transform the area/build a new community within the community there. They are impacting the way investors are approaching the community.

    I won’t really address the whitesplaining comment because you are making assumptions about me based on what you think you know in an effort to discredit what I’ve written. That’s your right, even if you’re not nearly as right as you think you are. And I guess that’s really all I want to say about that.

  • 1976boy

    My understanding is that the stretch where the galleries are moving to was previously owned by a single landowner, who used the land and buildings largely for recycling reclamation businesses. As the property values rose, he decided to cash out and sold the buildings. I am not sure who he is but I was told he was a BH native. So what we have here is a local boy who made good by investing smartly a long time ago and taking the money when the time was right.

    I would have thought that an article that purports to tell the story of this should have dug a bit deeper into who was behind the acquisition of this property by the gallery owners,

    These galleries may be making stupid claims about culture, etc, but they are wrong about that and they will not last there. It’s a flavor of the week thing.

  • Joe Linton

    Happy to see a photo I took made it as source material for the mural at the top of the post: https://laecovillage.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/first-street-11nov21-2388.jpg

  • Thedialectic

    The owner of these buildings is Geoff Anenberg. His grandfather owned property in Boyle Heights, which was passed down to his father, and then passed to him. He is not a local.