Race and Gentrification: Investigating the Racialized History of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Boyles Heights, by Ella Fortney

July 29, 2021
ARCH 355
Professor Ipek Türeli

Figure 1: Orozco, Ernesto, Members of Defend Boyle Heights Protest in Front of Weird Wave Coffee Brewers, photograph, July 17, 2017, (Boyle Heights Beat).1

It’s July of 2017 and a group of protesters gather outside of Weird Wave Coffee on East Cesar Chavez St. in Boyle Heights Los Angeles. They are here to demonstrate against the shop’s presence in the community – it is seen as the most recent perpetrator in the ongoing process of gentrification unfolding in the neighborhood. The shop had opened earlier in 2017 and almost immediately faced backlash from the community. It has been vandalized nine times in the past four years, and there are regular demonstrations in front of it. Other new businesses, particularly art galleries, have faced similar opposition and sometimes even more extreme acts of resistance (in one case, protestors stormed an exhibition and threw laundry detergent at attendees). To someone outside of the community, who might not be aware of its history or who lacks the perspective that comes from facing housing instability, these actions might seem like an extreme response to coffee or art. However, if we situate this response in the broader discriminatory history of housing and planning in LA, it becomes clear that the fight is not about coffee, it is about the power to control space. From this perspective, we realize that the anger from the community makes complete sense.

Boyle Heights is a working-class neighborhood located on the Eastside Los Angeles, right across the LA River from Downtown. It is a historically Jewish and Latinx neighborhood that has had a significant Black and Japanese presence as well. The multiculturalism of the area was born out of racist real estate and zoning practices from the early 1900s that essentially established West Los Angeles (the area closest to the ocean) as a middle class residential “zone of whiteness” and East Los Angeles as an industrial area with housing for immigrant workers2. These practices, which continued well into the 1960s have laid the foundation for the racially and economically segregated reality of Los Angeles today. Though the residents of Boyle Heights did not have control over the processes that pushed them into this area, they exercised much autonomy in shaping the community in the years that followed. Since its establishment, the neighborhood has been a center for activism and social resistance. In the 40s it housed much of Los Angeles’ Jewish socialist organizing and in the 50s it became a key space in the Chicano Movement. Today Boyle Heights is known for its murals, mariachi, colorful infrastructure, and rich community involvement. Over the years the racial makeup of Boyle Heights has transformed, in part due to shifting notions of ‘whiteness’. By the end of the 1950s, much of the Jewish population had moved to the Westside or suburbs of Los Angeles, and Boyle Heights became majority Latinx. In the 60 or so years since, this has remained the makeup of the area. Recently though, with the loom of gentrification, the community has been faced with another potential demographic shift. However, this time people are not leaving because of newfound privilege or opportunity, they are leaving because they are being pushed out of the community they built.

The architecture of the neighborhood documents all of these changes – through it we can read the multicultural history of the neighborhood. Architecture though does not just passively reflect the community that makes it. It of course also has the potential to shape the cultural, aesthetic, and economic reality of its surroundings. Because of the way architecture is tied to property it is important to understand the way power is embedded in the execution of these changes. This lens shows the complicated position of architecture in gentrification: as both an expression and source of community and as a weapon that can be used to dismantle it.

The role race plays in contemporary conflicts over gentrification in Boyle Heights is rooted in the broader racialized history of Los Angeles. The racially segregated zoning of the city and unequal access to resources and investment were deeply harmful but, incredibly, they produced neighborhoods with a strong sense of community. Because people couldn’t rely on the government or institutions for support, they learned to rely on each other and developed their communities themselves. Professor George Lipsitz of UC Santa Barbra’s Department of Black Studies refers to this phenomenon as turning “segregation into Congregation”3. This means that there is a strong attachment to these spaces – they are rightfully a source of pride and a symbol of the community’s resilience. In the past, Boyle Heights and other parts of East LA had been ignored by investors. In “Guerrilla Urbanism: Urban Design and the Practices of Resistance.” Dr. Jeffrey Hou of Washington University describes the irony of the current attention the area is getting from developers – people are excited about the same conditions that scared them off just a few decades ago. All that has changed is the framing: street vendors that were once seen as a nuisance are now part of the neighborhood’s valued ‘small business economy’; the history of social resistance once seen as threatening is now received as friendly community activism4.

Unfortunately, the generational labor that has gone into producing these newly valued spaces is not acknowledged in the current system of property ownership. This makes the fruits of this labor easily exploitable, which is where gentrification comes in. Around 75% of Boyle Heights residents are renters – a reality connected to the systemic discrimination that has made it incredibly difficult for communities of color to accumulate wealth and own property5. Not only does this mean that they are often unable to profit from their cultural and spatial contributions to their neighborhoods, it additionally puts them in a vulnerable position where they can be displaced from the very community they helped build. This is especially cruel when you consider the fact that the people who have the money and resources to move in often do because they have profited off of the same system that has made the people they are pushing out so vulnerable. Take the example of the historic murals of Boyle Heights. These pieces are not just beautiful, they are physical manifestations of the community’s dedication to creating a space for themselves within a city that did not accept them. They are a form of speech – communicating to the rest of Los Angeles that even after decades of being ignored, or worse, the community is still here and they are beautiful and proud. Institutions that have never shown interest in the past are now finally taking notice. But their interest isn’t in respect or justice for the people who are responsible for the culture of the area that outsiders now value. They are interested in the profitability of what the community has produced. Investors aren’t excited about the murals because they are internalizing their message, they are excited because public art makes for better property values.

One way of understanding this process is as a capitalist derivative of extractive settler colonialism. In “Gentrification and the Aesthetics of Displacement”, doctoral candidate Anastasia Baginski and Dr. Chris Malcolm of UC Irvine build on traditional understandings of gentrification as displacement, which often frame cheap property as the only resource developers seek to take advantage of. In their expanded definition, they establish that gentrification additionally involves “extracting aesthetic value from previous cultural forms embedded in resistance and oppression.”6. This value is then transformed into a sanitized version of itself to be sold to outside (mostly white) consumers. Even seemingly innocent talk of Boyle Heights as an ‘up and coming neighborhood’ bears an eerie similarity to the colonial strategy of “invasion and transformation of supposed new territories”7. The process is then justified by the same logic of traditional colonialism: the idea that the existing community is incapable of capitalizing on its resources without outside intervention. This framing is problematic not only because it paints the community as ignorant and powerless; it additionally wrongfully assumes that they are static. The community is resistant to gentrification not because they do not want to grow and improve, or to have access to better resources. They are resistant because they desire autonomy over these processes to maintain the sense of community and place that they have developed over generations.

Though the threat of outside forces coming in and profiting off the established culture of Boyle Heights is troubling, an alternative concern is that instead of appropriating the existing atmosphere, newcomers will simply get rid of it. A big part of this has to do with the aesthetics of the structures moving in. As philosopher Henry Lefebvre establishes in The Production of Space “Space is a contested field that competing ideologies attempt to shape according to their goals and needs”8. In other words, the aesthetic of a space is not neutral. It tells us about the people who design it, what purpose it serves in the community, and who it seeks to serve in the community. Aesthetics communicate ideologies – conflicting styles are often symbols of groups fighting over control of a space. In the case of the coffee shop, we see the clash of the minimalist white facade with the colorful buildings in the surrounding area. These aesthetic concerns might seem superficial, but they are symbolic of deeper cultural and racial tensions. The racist zoning practices discussed earlier were about keeping out non-white bodies but also any spatial and aesthetic manifestations associated with the poor or people of color. This infrastructure, just as much as the people themselves, was seen as a threat to what George Lipsitz calls the “White Spatial Imaginary.” In his piece Rasquachification, Race and the City9, Roberto Bedoya describes growing up in San Francisco’s East Bay. He recalls the way white attendees of a nearby church would react with disgust to the colorful houses of his neighborhood. In some sense they were reacting to the loudness of the homes – the way they challenged the city’s narrative, enacted through policy, that these people do not deserve to take up space. Bedoya argues that this aesthetic of ultra visibility is a form of resistance which he calls the “Rasquache Spatial Imaginary”, in reference to Lipsitz’s work.

All of this raises important questions about ownership and rights over space (neighborhoods, cities, etc). The community of Boyle Heights sees their neighborhood as something that needs to be protected from outside investors (one of the activist groups central in the fight over gentrification is appropriately named Defend Boyle Heights). The investors however don’t necessarily view Boyle Heights as belonging to a distinct group – anyone who can afford to move in and own land in the area has a right to do what they will with it. One might look at that percentage of people renting in Boyle Heights and conclude that the community doesn’t have a right to protest newcomer’s use of land due to their lack of traditional ownership. This however ignores the decades the community has dedicated to building the character and culture of the neighborhood. The labor, again, that has produced the recent interest in the first place. The central question then is what determines a legitimate claim over a space: is it the legal documentation that establishes ownership (our current system seems to think so), or could it be something less tangible but more meaningful, and account for the historical and cultural connection the people of Boyle Heights have to their neighborhood. Marxist geographer Dr. David Harvey tackles this question in his book Rebel Cities: from the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. In the preface, he argues that we will only achieve a just and logical politics of urban space once “it is understood that those who build and sustain urban life have a primary claim to that which they have produced, and that one of their claims is to the unalienated right to make a city more after their own heart’s desire”10. This would require a radical rethinking of the way we currently understand property. It would also presumably transform the way we think about and approach architecture. Going forward I think this will be an interesting and important concept for architects to try to imagine and maybe start navigating.

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Ella Fortney is an undergraduate student at the Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture, McGill University. This essay was written for ARCH 355.

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1 Orozco, Ernesto. “Members of Defend Boyle Heights Protest in Front of Weird Wave Coffee Brewers.” Boyle Heights Beat, July 17, 2017. https://boyleheightsbeat.com/defend-boyle-heights-sparks-controversy-with-anti-gentrification-push/.

2 George J Sanchez, “‘What’s Good for Boyle Heights Is Good for the Jews’ : Creating Multiculturalism on the Eastside during the 1950s.” American Quarterly 56, no. 3 (2004): 633–61. https://doi.org/10.1353/aq.2004.0042.

George Lipsitz “The Racialization of Space and the Spatialization of Race: Theorizing the Hidden Architecture of Landscape,” Landscape Journal 26, no. 1 (2007): 10–23. https://doi.org/10.3368/lj.26.1.10.

4 Jeffrey Hou “Guerrilla Urbanism: Urban Design and the Practices of Resistance,” URBAN DESIGN International 25, no. 2 (February 19, 2020): 117–25. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41289-020-00118-6.

5 Susan Carpenter “LA Proposes ‘Community-Driven Housing’ Plan for Boyle Heights,” Spectrum News 1, September 4, 2020, https://spectrumnews1.com/ca/la-west/housing/2020/09/03/la-proposes–community-driven-housing–plan-for-boyle-heights.

6 Anastasia Baginski and Chris Malcolm, “Gentrification and the Aesthetics of Displacement,” Field Journal of Socially Engaged Art Criticism, n.d.

7 Ubaldo Escalante, “There Goes the Barrio: Measuring Gentrification in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles,” Master’s thesis, Columbia University, 2017.

8 Mareike Ahrens, “‘Gentrify? No! Gentefy? Sí!’: Urban Redevelopment and Ethnic Gentrification in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles,” aspeers, n.d.

9 Roberto Bedoya “Spatial Justice: Rasquachification, Race and the City,” Creative Time Reports, October 10, 2014, https://creativetimereports.org/2014/09/15/spatial-justice-rasquachification-race-and-the-city/.

10 David Harvey, “Preface,” in Rebel Cities: from the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (London: Verso, 2019).

 

Additional References

“Defend Boyle Heights Points of Unity.” Defend Boyle Heights (blog), n.d. http://defendboyleheights.blogspot.com/p/points-of-unity.html?view=timeslide.

Delgado, Emanuel, and Kate Swanson. “Genteficationin the Barrio: Displacement and Urban Change in Southern California.” Journal of Urban Affairs, 2019, 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1080/07352166.2019.1680245.

Franco, Dean J. The Border and the Line: Race, Literature, and Los Angeles. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019.

Harvey, David. The Right to the City. New Left Review, 2008.

Jan, Tracy. “A New Gentrification Crisis.” The Washington Post, July 31, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/podcasts/post-reports/a-new-gentrification-crisis/.

Kruzman, Diana. “Weird Wave Coffee Reports Ninth Vandalism.” Boyle Heights Beat, February 15, 2019. https://boyleheightsbeat.com/weird-wave-coffee-reports-ninth-vandalism/.

Lipsitz, George. How Racism Takes Place. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011.

“People Are More Important than Property: in Response to Huizar’s Defense of Weird Wave Coffee.” Defend Boyle Heights (blog), August 4, 2017. http://defendboyleheights.blogspot.com/2017/08/people-are-more-important-than-property.html.

Reft, Ryan. “The Shifting Cultures of Multiracial Boyle Heights.” KCET, January 1, 2017. https://www.kcet.org/history-society/the-shifting-cultures-of-multiracial-boyle-heights.

Zubrinsky Charles, Camille. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Race, Class, and Residence in Los Angeles.” Urban Geography, 36, no. 3 (2015): 465–67. https://doi.org/10.1080/02723638.2015.1005415.

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