This New Short Doc Examines The Intersection Of Art, Gentrification, And History In Boyle Heights
Boyle Heights has seen an increasing number of anti-"artwashing" protests in the past year and a half, reaching a peak this year with the closure of PSSST Gallery and active resistance to Weird Wave Coffee. The protests adopt a decidedly uncompromising stance—"f*** white art" has been graffiti'd on gallery spaces, and protesters make a direct link between galleries and neighborhood gentrification. The argument behind groups like Defend Boyle Heights and their partner group Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement is the common pattern of artist arrival as precursor to real estate speculation in a neighborhood. In an effort to prevent the displacement of Boyle Heights' predominantly working class community, they protest the mere existence of art galleries in the area.
So how does that affect artists who grew up in Boyle Heights themselves?
For Guadalupe Rosales, she feels trapped at the center of the battle. Her art practice includes archiving the youth culture of Boyle Heights in the 1990s—the same era when she recalls "drive-by shootings every weekend." She finds immense pride in creating permanence and respect for the era (which frequently included discriminatory criminalization at the hands of the LAPD) and she can't imagine herself separate from her neighborhood.
In her new documentary The Town I Live In (posted above), Rosales and her filmmaking partner Matt Wolf dive into the web of activism, pride, protest, and history that currently manifests in Boyle Heights' contemporary anti-artwashing movement.
In the film, she watches her neighborhood change, and she recognizes the emotional pain at the crux of the entire fight: seeing a neighborhood and world disappear when strangers deem the land profitable. At the same time, she believes in the power of spaces for Boyle Heights residents to talk and commune and showcase their work. She cites the benefit of Self Help Graphics & Art as a reason not to exclude art from the neighborhood. Self Help Graphics was founded in 1973 during the Chicano Civil Rights movement and has remained a neighborhood stalwart and service ever since. It has also become a target of the anti-gallery protests in Boyle Heights; activists accuse the gallery of divesting itself of culpability and responsibility in the changing landscape of the neighborhood. Rosales sees Self Help as a foundational component of her own work as an artist.
She expresses how she "want[s] to be able to make art in [her] neighborhood and not be seen as someone who is enabling gentrification." Recalling the ever-present danger of growing up in Boyle Heights in the early 90s, she adds, "Sometimes I don’t know if I prefer a neighborhood with gangs or a neighborhood that’s being cleaned up."
The film features a short interview with Ethan Swan, the gallery director over at 356 Mission. He describes how, after protesters vandalized certain galleries, police installed security cameras in the area. "Increased police surveillance and increased police pressure are one of the hallmarks of gentrification," he says. "It counteracts why a lot of these galleries might exist in these neighborhoods in the first place."
Throughout, Rosales reiterates the confusion and tension of the fight. She told Hyperallergic that "The media often portrays local conflicts like this in black and white terms of ‘us against them,’ and in the case of Boyle Heights, ‘the community versus the galleries,'” adding that, "[i]n reality the situation in Boyle Heights and in many other communities facing gentrification is much more nuanced and complex."
The documentary was unable to feature representatives from the activist groups in Boyle Heights.