Regular readers will know that this year we've had a blog post or two about artists vs the social welfare of non-artists. Ever since Hayao Miyazaki completed The Wind Rises and film critics rushed to say it was a film about artists I've been stuck on this idea that if that's really what the film is about Miyazaki's most piercing observation has gone largely unremarked upon, that the vocational artist is invariably both the builder and servant of some kind of empire. There are some artists and writers and musicians who would say that all art is political. Then, in that sense, all art is propaganda made by the artists as servants of ideology on behalf of that ideology's empire. If the reactionary right forever bewails the eternally receding golden age the left seems to have another problem, failing to recognize its own imperialist ambitions within any given cultural context and the existence of its own empires.
To put the matter another way, making a safe space for artists of a particular set of groups can be seen as a threat that could displace poor people in a neighborhood and disrupt what used to be what they had of a job base.
That was the introduction for a blog post on an arts venue that opened up in Boyle Heights. And here we are in 2017.
Art and Complicity: How the Fight Against Gentrification in Boyle Heights Questions the Role of Artists
July 20, 2016
Boyle Heights has witnessed eastbound waves of gentrification that have transformed Echo Park and Highland Park into more affluent and white neighborhoods. The proliferation of artist studios and galleries has come to signal the arrival of additional enterprises that raise property values and cost of rent for businesses and housing tenants, eventually resulting in their displacement.
Newcomers, including artists, have been drawn to Boyle Heights by its rich cultural character -- forged from generations of Mexican, Japanese, Russian and Jewish immigrants relegated to the city’s eastern periphery -- as well as its cheaper rent and property in an increasingly unaffordable city.
Today, one of the most standout reminders of this community’s hardships is Boyle Heights’ calcified industrial zone. The community now sits among the remnants of former warehouses and factories, like the skeleton of a creature that curled up and died many lifetimes ago. Longtime residents of Boyle Heights in some ways, consider themselves the keepers and guardians of these bones, for many still remember when they were animated and provided their families with humble but dignified sustenance.
Gonzalez and Ana Hernandez, another member of Union de Vecinos, recall the factories, warehouses and cold storage plants where families once worked. They remember that the building that PSSST now occupies on Third Street, was once a Halloween costume factory.
It was along these industrial zones that Father Greg Boyle and the mothers of Pico-Aliso organized walks that grew into marches for jobs for their children and husbands. Hence, these were the origins of Homeboy Industries and their famed mantra “Nothing Stops a Bullet Like a Job.” More broadly, jobs would help this community reclaim its streets.
So when galleries started moving into these warehouses in the mid-2000s, residents did not see it as a sign of new life breathed into their community, but rather many were cautionary of what that meant for their own future in this place. In their journey of recovering from decades of gang violence and drugs, they kept their eyes set on a new horizon.
“Our vision for Boyle Heights has been more jobs and better education,” Hernandez says.
However, that future now faces different challenges with the arrival of investors, speculators and more affluent residents. Among them, the arrival of artists. [emphasis added]
“It’s ironic and sad. People have lost their jobs. They were pushed out of their neighborhood. And today arrives a new force that is transforming the zone of the factories to create a completely different culture. So not only are they actually stealing their work, but also their labor of love for creating a space for the young people. What the community created is now being occupied by others,” says Union de Vecinos member Leonardo Vilchis.
“We have struggled to make our community a better place. Now that we’ve cleaned up our community, it’s not fair for the galleries to just come here, like PSSST that gets to lease that space for free for 20 years. Its not fair,” Hernandez says. [emphasis added]
“The architecture is supposed to be accessible. It’s supposed to be inviting to the community,” says PSSST board member Adrian Rivas, who has strong grounding in the Chicano/Latino art community in L.A. He remains hopeful that PSSST can offer Boyle Heights residents and local artists access to a cutting-edge arts and gallery space.
“I’ve always heard, ‘Why can’t we have these spaces? Why can’t we show our work in spaces like that?’ We love our rasquache spaces too, but why shouldn’t we have a space like this?” he adds.
Most importantly, Rivas believes that PSSST could provide local artists with a space to experiment with new forms and practices. He notes that recently, PSSST’s first artist-in-residence, Guadalupe Rosales, invited L.A. Chicano artists and DJs to collaborate in a series of performances at the gallery where they were able to share the work they are known for, as well as to experiment.
According to PSSST founder, Jules Gimbrone, the importance of experimental art spaces for marginalized communities, particularly for queer artists and folk, is underscored by the June shooting at Pulse, a queer dance club in Orlando that left 49 young men and women dead. “These spaces for freedom of experimentation are rare for trans, youth and people of color. There’s no room for mistake as they are always performing with a lot of risk. We need to cultivate safe spaces.” [emphasis added]
Citing the shooting at Pulse over in Orlando, Florida as a reason for the need for a safe space for experimental art in the Los Angeles area seemed ... pretty difficult to buy. "safe space" for whom, evidently, never stopped being the salient question. So ... here we are in 2017.
February 22, 2017, 10:50 AM
Citing harassment and online trolling, the co-founders of an art space in Boyle Heights announced Tuesday that they will close the nonprofit, calling it a casualty of a raging fight over gentrification. [emphasis added] PSSST, which opened on East 3rd Street last year, came under fire from some residents and activists concerned about a new wave of galleries moving into the largely Latino neighborhood of Boyle Heights.
“We are unable to ethically and financially proceed with our mission,” co-founders Barnett Cohen and Jules Gimbrone and community outreach coordinator Pilar Gallego said in a statement on their website. “Our young nonprofit struggled to survive through constant attacks.” [emphasis added] ...
LOS ANGELES — Citing “the ongoing controversy surrounding art and gentrification in Boyle Heights,” nonprofit art space PSSST has decided to close, according to a statement posted on their website. Their 5,000-square-foot building located in the predominantly Latinx neighborhood opened just last June amid accusations from community activists that the influx of galleries was contributing to gentrification and the displacement of long-term residents. Despite PSSST’s non-commercial focus, it was simply their presence that posed a threat, as Leonardo Vilchis of Union de Vecinos told Hyperallergic at the time: “The question of whether the gallery is for profit or nonprofit does not make a difference to us. Serious damage has been done in the community by nonprofit institutions, foundations, public agencies, and private/public investment […] The issue for us is less a question of who is doing the damage, but what damage is being done.”
Community activist groups like Defend Boyle Heights and BHAAD (Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement) have repeatedly called for all galleries to leave Boyle Heights, to be replaced with social services, child care, grocery stores, or laundromats. Many of the galleries do not own their buildings, however, so it is not clear how realistic this request is. [emphasis added] “As PSSST does not own 1329 East 3rd Street — and our lease was directly dependent on us maintaining our 501(c)(3) status and mission — the owner will now assume control of the building,” their statement reads. “We have no say in how they choose to proceed or what they will do with the property.”
Anti-gentrification protests targeting the galleries have been a constant presence over the past nine months, as protestors posted mock eviction notices on gallery doors, chanting “Fuera!”[“Out!”] as they marched past posh opening parties. Tensions continued to escalate when “Fuck White Art” was spray-painted on the roll-up gate of Nicodim Gallery, prompting a ill-considered decision on the part of the LAPD to pursue the vandalism as hate crime. [emphasis added]
As John Halle noted in quoting Bordieu not so long ago, there's no such thing as racism, but there are a lot of racisms. Last year it seemed that the trans/queer element for the art venue was not going to be considered sufficiently justifiable to anti-gentrification groups to give the arts venue a pass. Conservatives on the whole seem both incapable and unwilling to consider the possibility that there is a wildly fractured left; or to put it another way, the idea that the gay community isn't monolithic doesn't fit into culture war propaganda for either the left or the right coalitions. So the prospect that a gay/trans/queer friendly arts venue would get denounced by working class people of color might be read too glibly as an observation of the ideological incoherence or hypocrisy of the left.
How about ... we consider things like tax codes that in some contexts explicitly favor artists over, say, families?
The report calls these buildings POSH developments, Politically Opportune Subsidized Housing. They’re priced in such a way that families with children or those who are extremely poor could not afford them. To be considered affordable for those whose income is 60 percent of the area median income, rents can be 30 percent of the set income level. But often, the rents for these buildings are at the very upper end of the spectrum. For a one-person household in Minneapolis, the maximum allowable rent is $910. A-Mill studios rent for $898. Most tax-credit developers don’t set the rents that high because their projects are in lower-income neighborhoods and because they are targeting lower-income tenants. But developers of POSH properties do. The buildings also require application fees and reservation fees (to keep a unit off the market while the application is processed), additional costs that would make units out of reach for low-income families, the authors say.
In 2007, the IRS tried to crack down on subsidized housing that gave preference to artists. They said that doling out credits for such properties potentially violated the tax code because such housing was not “for use by the general public.” Soon after, lobbyists succeeded in inserting an item into 2008’s Housing and Economic Recovery Act (HERA) that exempted artists’ housing from the tax rules requiring projects using tax credits be used by the general public. Since then, according to Orfield and Stancil, subsidized artists’ housing has grown rapidly in Minneapolis and other areas. [emphasis added]
The artist properties share a few characteristics. They’re usually conversions of historic buildings (which can more easily win developers tax credits). They have restrictions on the professions of the tenants (usually artists). They’re located in hip neighborhoods where the market rent is among the highest in the city. And they are often built with loans from the city to promote the public good, by making a place for artists to live.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with promoting the public good and building more affordable apartments in trendy and expensive neighborhoods. POSH properties can help high-income neighborhoods become more economically diverse. And the not-in-my-backyard objections that often come with affordable housing are less likely to be present for POSH properties, because neighbors rarely object to artists’ buildings that look like luxury condos and hold mostly white tenants. POSH properties help lower-income white people and artists who want to live in cities but otherwise would be pushed further out into suburbs.
Kinda reminds me of the South Park episode from season 19 "The City Part of Town". Gentrification seems awesome to the people who can afford the bespoke hipster culture that emerges from it but working class people find things are lamer than ever.
So while artists and entertainers can say they feel vilified in the age of Trump the reality seems to have been, to go by journalistic coverage of things that went on well before Trump announced his candidacy, resentment of artists receiving undue favoritism compared to working class families was incubating over the last decade. If you can't parse the admittedly occasionally arcane distinctions between "liberal" in its academic usage or its colloquial intra-tribal usage on the one hand, and neoliberalism on the other you can get an inaccurate sense of the left and center-left in the last ten to twenty years.
While it's fairly normal for conservatives to scoff at the idea of white privilege being a thing, and while on the internet there are progressives who wield the term "privilege" presumptuously as a way to presume the guilt of people they disagree with ... the thing about privilege is that we've just seen a case where the mere fact that an arts community has gay or queer leadership won't insulate them from being the targets of protests along both racial and class divides.
Conservatives seem temperamentally unlikely to appreciate that the left and liberal are not on the same page and that even within the left people aren't all on the same page. We live in an era in which an arts venue couldn't bolster its street cred with homage to LGBQT causes because when it came to the issue of gentrification the arts scene was regarded as emblematic of what might be called a class enemy in more old school Marxist terms.
So when I wrote that sprawling blog post last year considering what artists were saying about being artists in the age of Trump ....
I was thinking of a lot of things but one of the things I was thinking about was the coverage of the Boyle Heights arts venue and how the solidarity that the liberal/left scene seemed to take for granted against Trump's candidacy was a self-generated illusion. For the people who benefited from a globalist scene it was inconceivable that anyone would want something else. The possibility that partisans to the left and the right of what might be called the presumed Clintonian center might choose someone else, whether Sanders or Trump, was impossible to imagine, apparently.
Of course thanks to the Electoral College vote Trump became President.
It would be a shame if in the years to come artists continue to look at themselves as having some kind of persecution complex because playing the role of the persecuted and misunderstood visionary is something that can be taken up by just about anyone. Mark Driscoll tried that here in Puget Sound for a few years. Reportedly some guy named Milo may have a similar play but it's not limited to peple considered unacceptably to the right. The trouble is that people who are ostensibly liberal or left get this way, too.
We're not that far into the Trump administration and it still seems that people in the culture industry have failed to grasp that they may have been regarded by people outside those indsutries as something old Marxist terminology might dub class enemies.
I try to read on both the left and the right and at the edges as well as the center. Well, whatever the center is ... . The traditional coalitions that were assumed to get things done on the left and right have fractured and in that sense it wasn't a surprise a populist agitator got a following.
The closure of PSSST may be a warning for intra-liberal/left artists that there is not, in fact, a presumed unity or cohesion in the liberal/left scene any more than there's necessarily a cohesion between mainstream conservatives and what's increasingly known as the alt-right.
Artists and entertainers may tell themselves their sympathies are with the working class but that may only be in relative terms if the alternative is the high finance caste. It might turn out that artists and entertainers don't have anything in common with working class types if it came down to a question of what they want to do and what they consider the ultimate end of living. On that score the entertainment castes may ultimately have everything in common with the haves rather than the have-nots.
So there's that. Incubating another little project or two as well. But for now highly elaborated linky posts ... .