In This LA Neighborhood, Protest Art Is A Verb About a third of Boyle Heights' 90,000 residents live below the poverty line. But lower rents have attracted art galleries to the area, and that is drawing the ire of residents and activists.
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In This LA Neighborhood, Protest Art Is A Verb

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In This LA Neighborhood, Protest Art Is A Verb

In This LA Neighborhood, Protest Art Is A Verb

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And now to a story not far from here. In Los Angeles last week, protesters were chanting outside this cafe that's called Weird Wave Coffee Brewers.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Hey, hey, ho, ho, Weird Cafe has got to go. Hey, hey.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Weird Cafe has got to go. That was the chant by the small but serious band of protesters. They don't want people buying coffee at this cafe because they worry that new business of this kind will make a working-class Latino neighborhood less affordable.

GREENE: They are worried about gentrification. And that is the topic of news stories this summer from the NPR Cities Project.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I was a part of the community.

LEONARDO VILCHIS: You need to move out.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Supporting gentrifying establishments.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Thank God we found a beautiful home.

EVA CHIMENTO: I may not afford the rent.

GREENE: And we should say coffee shops are not the only target in LA's Boyle Heights neighborhood. Art galleries are also a major point of conflict. Here is Saul Gonzalez from member station KCRW.

SAUL GONZALEZ, BYLINE: I'm walking down Anderson Street in Boyle Heights, and it all looks pretty gritty and industrial - old brick warehouses, small workshops. But step inside some of these old soot-stained buildings and you're in a very different world.

CHIMENTO: Nine paintings total in the exhibition, which is called "Until The End Of The World." And his paintings are done with oil and alkyd. Alkyd is what gives it the shine.

GONZALEZ: Eva Chimento is the owner of Chimento Contemporary. It's one of about a dozen high-end art galleries that have opened on Anderson Street in recent years, mostly in vacant industrial spaces. Like Chimento, many of the gallery owners moved to Boyle Heights, which is just across the Los Angeles river from downtown LA, to escape high rents and overhead in other parts of the city.

CHIMENTO: I opened my gallery with $1,500 in my checking account. And I think I spent $1,000 on beer and pizza for opening night.

GONZALEZ: Chimento admits before her gallery's opening night she was pretty clueless about this part of Boyle Heights.

CHIMENTO: You know, like when you cross a state line, how there's empty fields that are just like no man's land? That's where I thought I was.

GONZALEZ: You didn't think people were claiming this as my neighborhood?

CHIMENTO: Not at all.

GONZALEZ: But Chimento's no man's land is this man's home.

VILCHIS: It's a very tight community. Everybody knows everybody.

GONZALEZ: Leonardo Vilchis is a Boyle Heights resident and neighborhood activist. We meet a block east of Chimento's gallery, where Boyle Heights residential neighborhoods begin. Vilchis's organization, Union de Vecinos, wants the galleries out of Boyle Heights. With a third of its 90,000 residents living below the poverty line, Vilchis says the neighborhood has more important needs.

VILCHIS: A laundromat, a homeless shelter, affordable housing for people who make less than $20,000 a year. You put a gallery with paintings things that costs tens of thousands of dollars, and the audience that comes to this place, it starts looking for other kinds of amenities, right? They look for the coffee shop, for the place to hang out. All of those things increase the cost and the value of the local neighborhood.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Hey, hey, ho, ho, these gentrifiers have got to go. Hey, hey.

GONZALEZ: Boyle Heights is a community with a long history of protests that dates back to the Chicano civil rights movement of the 1960s. And some of that same energy is now being used against coffee shops and art galleries alike. Tactics range from marches and protests to threatening messages. One group posted fliers showing a human skull in gun sights and the words, Boyle Heights is not safe for hipster trash.

And the LAPD is conducting a hate crime investigation after the graffiti tagging of a gallery door last year with the words, F white art. Vilchis uses tough talk himself and says he's not interested in talking to gallery owners who say they want to be good neighbors.

VILCHIS: What you need to do with cancer is, you know, to do surgery on it, right? You need to start killing the cells that are creating the cancer. So to say, OK, I'm a cancer cell, but I want to be good doesn't change the fact that you're a cancer cell. You need to move out.

GONZALEZ: And how are the gallery owners reacting to the protests? I went to find out at one exhibition opening.

MIHAI NICODIM: The only thing they want is for me to get out the [expletive] out of here. I cannot agree with that. I mean, this is not how you solve the conversation.

GONZALEZ: Mihai Nicodim opened his Boyle Heights gallery in 2015, but he's a longtime figure in the LA art scene.

NICODIM: No, I'm not going anywhere. I mean, I've been here in downtown area for the last 25 years. I'm not going to go away because somebody tells me to just go, you know. I'm home.

GONZALEZ: Gallery opponents, though, recently scored their first victory. Citing persistent harassment and trolling, one art space in Boyle Heights closed earlier this year. Back at Chimento Contemporary, owner Eva Chimento is already thinking about her long-term future here.

CHIMENTO: Well, when my lease is up, I may be moving, too (laughter).

GONZALEZ: But she says it doesn't have much to do with community protests because...

CHIMENTO: I may not afford the rent.

GONZALEZ: And indeed, one real estate analyst tells me that rents and property values are trending up in this neighborhood. On Anderson Street in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, I'm Saul Gonzalez for NPR's Cities Project.

(SOUNDBITE OF OBFUSC'S SONG "LANGUAGE OF MEMORY")

GREENE: And we should say that story came to us thanks to a collaboration between KCRW and WNYC Studios and their podcast "There Goes The Neighborhood."

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