The 'Artwashing' of America: The Battle for Los Angeles

In the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, artists and activists have faced off in a pitched battle about the future of the city.
Angel Luna, an activist with Defend Boyle Heights.

They know the end is near, which is why the young men and women of Boyle Heights have taken to the streets with such fury, clad in bandanas, hoisting placards that leave little room for compromise. They’ve been charged with promoting violence and anti-white racism, but they don’t care. They’re in a desperate fight to keep this rise of land on the East Side of Los Angeles from becoming the next Silver Lake or the next Echo Park, formerly Latino neighborhoods overtaken by glass condominiums full of white people who have come from Beverly Hills, or maybe the hills of Arkansas.

Many of the young men and women nurse bitter memories of Chavez Ravine, a Mexican-American enclave forcibly cleared to make way for Dodger Stadium. Almost nothing remains of it 50 years later, and maybe nothing will remain of Boyle Heights either in a few years, except perhaps a plaque in Mariachi Plaza timidly describing what this neighborhood once was, before the beloved El Tepeyac restaurant became a vegan smokehouse, or just an empty storefront with papered-over windows.

And what of the people who now live there? Of the neighborhood’s 92,000 residents, 94 percent are Latino, 33 percent live in poverty, 89 percent rent, 95 percent do not have a four-year college degree, 17 percent are undocumented immigrants. Where will they go? Angel Luna, a 24-year-old activist with Defend Boyle Heights, knows: “Fucking Victorville,” the poor, arid plains east of Los Angeles.

There is no “Victorville” outside of London, but the residents in that city’s formerly working-class neighborhoods like Shoreditch and Brixton are victim to the same forces moving with blitzkrieg speed toward East Los Angeles. They are not dissimilar from the nationalist movements now resurgent across the West, pitting a global, techno-fluent elite against less-skilled underclasses intimidated by cosmopolitan culture, with all its shows of wealth and sophistication. Gentrifying neighborhoods—whether deep in Brooklyn or on a hillside of Rio de Janeiro—are where those forces clash. Such clashes have become so frequent that The Guardian has an entire online section titled “Gentrified World,” chronicling conflicts in Montreal, Moscow and Jakarta, even post-industrial Birmingham, once England’s motor city.

Stopping “the economic forces of gentrification” is Luna’s plan, he informed me over lunch at a Mexican restaurant off Mariachi Plaza. He spoke like a revolutionary but looked like a kid, one who hasn’t had it easy, growing up in a rented apartment with his mother and three siblings. Luna now works in retail. He still lives with his family, and they still rent. A tattoo of an Aztec deity peeks out from beneath the right sleeve of his T-shirt. Enormous glasses give his face the look of an earnest student reading Marx for the first time in a Paris café as the spring of ’68 comes into bloom. The whiskers and Ho Chi Minh goatee also suggest a conflict from that era. But the too-large jeans, scrunched together at the

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