Gentrification Protesters in Los Angeles Target Art Galleries


But the backlash from activists in the neighborhood has reached a new intensity in the past month. Now the Los Angeles Police Department is investigating the vandalism as a hate crime and is promising more patrols in the area.

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Mihai Nicodim, who owns the Nicodim Gallery and immigrated from Romania, said, “It’s pretty sad that after 30 years I am being told to go back where you came from.”

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Monica Almeida for The New York Times

Urban areas across the country, including Oakland, Calif.; Washington; and Brooklyn have also battled anti-gentrification movements, but typically the ire has been directed at developers and city hall. In Boyle Heights, the anger is focused almost entirely on the art galleries, which they portray as outsiders that are simply harbingers of real estate speculators looking to make money off the lower-income neighborhood.

Mr. Nicodim opened his gallery two years ago, after operating a smaller space in Chinatown. An immigrant from Romania, he has lived in Boyle Heights for more than a decade. For a year, he said, he ran the gallery with no problem. Now, he said, “It has escalated to the point where it feels dangerous.”

“There is this perception that if you are doing art you are this rich white guy from Beverly Hills,” he said. “But I am not this rich white guy. I came to this country with $36 in my pocket. And it’s pretty sad that after 30 years I am being told to go back where you came from.”

The activists in the neighborhood are making no apologies for the radical tactics and portray themselves as defenders of working-class neighborhoods in the city. They look to other neighborhoods, such as Echo Park and Silver Lake, that were once working class and are now filled with upscale bakeries that sell artisan doughnuts and have replaced mom-and-pop taco shops and locally owned grocery stores.

“We think of gentrification as displacement and white supremacy,” said Nancy Meza, an organizer of Defend Boyle Heights, a group that formed nearly a year ago and has organized most of the protests against the galleries. Ms. Meza said that some gallery owners brought dogs out to intimidate local residents walking the street. “These galleries are coming in and trying to replace the current culture that is already in Boyle Heights. They are not looking to attract members of our communities.”

As the protests have built in recent months, many gallery owners have tried to ignore them. Mr. Nicodim did not report either episode in front of his gallery to the police. But somebody did. After Capt. Rick Stabile saw reports of three separate cases of vandalism targeting what was labeled white art, he said it was “common sense” to pursue the acts as hate crimes because they were targeting the owners based on race. There are no suspects so far, but a hate crime conviction is punishable by up to a year in jail. After the episodes, he organized a meeting of the gallery owners and promised them a greater police presence for gallery openings.

“Everyone has a right to protest, but when it becomes a hate crime, we have a problem in the area that we really need to address,” Captain Stabile said. “The concern is this getting more out of hand.”

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An “Altar of the Displaced” at Espacio 1839, a community art center in Boyle Heights, expresses concerns about the impact of gentrification.

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Monica Almeida for The New York Times

As rents across the city have skyrocketed, gentrification has been a persistent worry for longtime residents of Boyle Heights. Some welcome the changes, which include a bustling subway station in Mariachi Plaza and improvements to local parks and schools that had been neglected for decades. More recently, Chicano residents who grew up in the area but left for college have begun to move back in, opening their own businesses in the area — a process they’ve referred to as gentefication, a play on gentrification and gente, Spanish for people.

Self Help Graphics and Art, a nonprofit that has worked in the area for more than 40 years, has held forums about the pitfalls of gentrification for years. The vast majority of residents in the neighborhood are renters, many living with a near constant threat of eviction. When the group opened its doors for such a meeting this summer, a dozen activists came in and took control of the microphone, holding signs that read “Out with the galleries, out with the sellouts.”

Betty Avila, the associate director of Self Help, said it was unfair to conflate the nonprofit, which focuses on exhibiting Latino artists, with the galleries that have opened up on Anderson Street, the industrial-looking strip that has been drawing the art collectors east of the Los Angeles River. But Ms. Avila shares many of the protesters’ concerns.

“Residents see that the neighborhood is attracting more people who would have never come in here before, and they see people who are interested in living here who can’t afford downtown looking to move here,” she said. “You have a community that is really frustrated and afraid of being displaced. The galleries are the most visible sign of change now, and you go after what you see. It’s not all art; it’s art that’s not for this community.”

The gallery owners see the focus on race as misplaced and unfair. After Eva Chimento opened Chimento Contemporary last year, she said, two activists came into her gallery, threatened her and demanded that she show Latino artists. This summer, she attended a Defend Boyle Heights meeting only to be shouted down by activists.

Ms. Chimento said she refuses to discuss her ethnicity with the activists, but she has shown several local artists and is preparing an exhibition with two Puerto Rican artists about immigration. She has repeatedly told activists that she hires from the community and welcomes local residents into the space. This year, she took down the sign from her gallery to try to deflect threats. And she no longer uses local banks or restaurants out of fear of being recognized and targeted.

“I’ve been scared and nervous and jumpy. In the beginning I wanted to leave, but now it’s principle,” she said. “To say that white galleries need to leave, so they can decide what goes in their spaces, it’s an unrealistic expectation. There’s no way I can leave my space unless they give me $20,000-plus to buy me out of my space, because I have a landlord, just like everyone else.”

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