Artbound: Promise, Pitfalls and the Boyle Heights Arts District

This blog post originally appeared on KCET's Artbound as part an ongoing partnership with Arts for LA. It is reposted with permission.

Immediately east of Downtown L.A., arts and transportation are heralding the renaissance of Boyle Heights, one of Los Angeles' first suburbs. With a long history as a community for Jewish, Japanese, Russian, and Mexican immigrants, Boyle Heights finds itself wearing homegrown arts and culture on its sleeve for all to experience, with vibrant arts adorning the walls, nourishing late night appetites, and electrifying dance floors.

The overwhelmingly Hispanic (94 percent), low income ($33,000 median income), and young (median age of 25), the neighborhood emerged as an active and recognized visual, performing, literary and culinary arts hub spurred in part by the arrival of the Metro Gold Line in 2009. A once-insular neighborhood brimming with arts became a more open and connected neighborhood brimming with arts, increasing variety and accessibility. At the same time, the arrival of the Metro has begun gentrification. What has made Boyle Heights more accessible can ultimately end what has always made Boyle Heights great: its status as an immigrant gateway. According to some community activists, Metro construction resulted in a net loss of low-income housing, the displacement of 250 families and corporate-driven development that will push out local merchants. Gentrification in Boyle Heights could destroy its character, dilute its unique arts scene and disconnect it from its immigrant history.

Eastside Gold Line and Los Angeles skyline | Photo: Julie And Steve/Flickr/Creative Commons License

As a Boyle Heights native, I experienced the familiar immigrant story that defined generations of community members: Parents arrive searching for opportunity, settle in a place that is affordable and has some semblance of home, children grow up working poor and with a hybrid culture valuing American-ness over the old country. And if all works out, children get the family closer to achieving the American dream. Boyle Heights has often served as the first stop to the American dream for generations; now I believe it could also serve as the final destination. To achieve this, development must preserve the culture, identity and makeup of the neighborhood while making it attractive for middle-class families to take root. We need to figure out a way to end the brain drain that occurs in low-income neighborhoods while at the same not pushing out those very residents that define its character. What I want to see is a mixed neighborhood, in terms of income, education, immigrant status and culture. I came back with an advanced degree and a family of my own; ready to contribute to achieving the common vision of the nonprofits, community members, coalitions, public officials, and artists. Arts and transit give us the opportunity to shape the future of an inclusive, vibrant and healthy Boyle Heights serving all residents.

Boyle Heights received $1.6 billion in recent years for public improvement projects along the emerging Arts District corridor, which include the Gold Line eastside extension, the new Hollenbeck Police Station, improvements to Benjamin Franklin Library, and the Mendez Learning Center High School.

Boyle Heights school mural | Photo: jondoeforty1/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The East Side Access Project, a joint project of Metro and L.A. Council District 14, will bring additional improvements along the corridor. The project will use $12 million in allocated Measure R funds, and other funding sources to improve pedestrian and bicycle access around the Gold Line stations serving Boyle Heights. According to the project webpage, improvements are meant to provide "both a healthier environment for the communities as well as an energized atmosphere for businesses." The project plan calls for renovated sidewalks and landscapes, along with new public art, lighting, signage, benches, and bike lanes.

Four Metro light rail stops service the nascent Boyle Heights Arts District located along the First Street corridor. This area has been the focal point of the renaissance, bringing needed physical improvements and community activities rooted in the neighborhood's history as an immigrant gateway.

Mariachi Plaza. | Photo: SGV FILMWORKS /Flickr/Creative Commons License

The fledgling Boyle Heights Arts District consists of the beautiful new Casa 0101 Theatre, the relocated Self-Help Graphics (a community visual arts center), the revitalized Mariachi Plaza (now with a metro stop and band stand), the recently unveiled Boyle Hotel, Corazon del Pueblo (a community art and education space), the Libros Schmibros lending library, Primera Taza coffee shop, the community papers Brooklyn and Boyle and Boyle Heights Beat, a couple of art galleries, almost a dozen restaurants, a handful of bars offering live music, and will soon boast the Boyle Heights City Hall.

Boyle Heights has improved dramatically since I was a kid. Growing up about a mile away from the now emerging arts district, teenage version of me -- an un-athletic, socially inept, faux-punker -felt very disconnected from my neighborhood. Aside from my guitar lessons at the L.A. Music and Art School in East Los Angeles and the occasional backyard gig, I felt there was nothing else for me: as an American teenager I was more inclined to go see a Nirvana concert rather than a mariachi or banda gig happening in my neighborhood. At the time I had no idea of the other great art occurring around me; it was too underground, too avant-garde or too removed from my interests. I had to leave to watch most gigs, catch a play, take in new art, or to just hang out in a community setting to people watch. I left Boyle Heights after high school and came back occasionally to visit my favorite eats (Tacos Estrella & La Parilla). Not until my son was born and my wife and I were looking for a cheap two-bedroom near my job in downtown did we venture back. The neighborhood was noticeably different. The coming Gold Line's construction sites were like bandages waiting to reveal my neighborhood's facelift.

The Gold Line brought Boyle Heights into the fold of L.A. County's expanding light rail network, connecting us directly to Downtown L.A and Pasadena. Just as importantly, the Gold Line gave us the renovated Mariachi Plaza, which serves as our center, our zocalo, our famers' market, our art walk, our speakers' corner, our public performance space (Jack White made an impromptu appearance last month) and, it meant easy access to arts reflecting the tastes of most community members. A new neighborhood pride abounds. The young artists, activists, and professionals I know all want to be part of shaping a new positive future for Boyle Heights. We sport shirts with the neighborhood sign emblazoned on it, we take in the acts at Mariachi Plaza on Friday nights, we take in neighborhood plays and art, we jog around the running path along Evergreen cemetery (in the First Street corridor). We go to a lot of community meetings, we advocate for our community, we drum in the park, and, most importantly, we raise our kids here. We have buy-in and a vested interest in the health of our neighborhood. There is a great vision for Boyle Heights. I see the arts district as part of the engine for that vision.

Boyle Heights Hotel with downtown | Photo: Courtesy of Abe Flores.
Boyle Heights Hotel with downtown | Photo: Courtesy of Abe Flores.
 Libros Schmibros lending library in Mariachi Plaza | Photo: Courtesy of Abe Flores.
Libros Schmibros lending library in Mariachi Plaza | Photo: Courtesy of Abe Flores.

The Arts District and other revitalization holds much promise but does have pitfalls. Gentrification looms large in many of the conversations I have with community members. A new Walgreens came up on the site of a community supermarket. There were talks of a CVS also coming in, and of other developers razing some low-income housing for new apartments in South Boyle Heights. Families lost homes, and businesses were cleared to make way for the Metro. New development can also displace residents by pushing rents up as demand for housing by middle-class individuals goes up. A new arts district can alienate current residents by not reflecting their interests, culture, or reality, subtly saying to some community members, "This is not for you and you are not welcomed." An arts district can cause dissonance and factional fighting within a community where competing visions and egos vie for supremacy. These pitfalls have occurred on a small scale in Boyle Heights, but we are still early in the game. Knowing the potential ill effects should continue to guide the process for a promising arts district.

A coalition of community-based organizations and activists, including the East LA Community Corporation that serves Boyle Heights, recently held a march under the banner "Take Back L.A. -- Stop the Corporatization of our neighborhoods: Working class residents & transit riders demand Metro promote community-controlled development & transit expansion for the 99 percent." Their demands include the community control of all MTA lands, the right of return for displaced residents, and to stop "transit racism" by defeating Measure J. I completely agree with their first demand. "Metro" property is community property because metro is a public agency. The property cleared to make way for the light rail needs to be developed in a transparent manner that benefits the community and reflects needs. Thus, an advisory committee made up of residents is crucial. As for the right of return for displaced residents -- meaning that those displaced by metro development will get first choice in any housing that is developed --fair housing laws require housing be made available to all who are qualified, but the demand merits further discussion and possible compromise. The defeat of Measure J, I oppose. I support increased development of light rail and agree with the position my organization, Arts for L.A., has taken. Transit has not destroyed Boyle Heights; rather it has provided improvements and opportunities. Measure J, will appear on L.A. County resident's November ballot. Measure J will accelerate Metro's light rail expansion under Measure R, a half-cent sales tax approved by L.A. County voters in 2008. Rather than reaching completion in thirty years, the new and better-linked lines would be completed in only ten years. The "jumpstart" would be funded by a 30-year extension of the existing half-cent sales tax funding Metro's project.

Rally Against Metro | Photo: Courtesy of Abe Flores.
Rally Against Metro | Photo: Courtesy of Abe Flores.
Rally Against Metro  | Photo: Courtesy of Abe Flores.
Rally Against Metro | Photo: Courtesy of Abe Flores.

The arts and transit have already brought great physical outcomes to the neighborhood; community leaders such as Councilman Huizar and his office have engaged community stakeholders in the process and developing the plans and vision. The arts district can further beautify and animate the neighborhood by acting as an incubator of local arts and helping connect the arts with opportunities for future community development. The arts spur economic development by attracting new tourists, patrons, and small businesses. Finally, the arts and transit improve the health of the community by promoting social capital, giving us opportunities to meet our neighbors, providing at-risk youth positive outlets like mural painting workshops, easing walk ability and the use of bicycles, creating new gathering spaces, increasing neighborhood pride, and attracting young professionals who have left to come back and serve the neighborhood.

I have very high hopes for the future of my neighborhood. With continued community involvement, cooperation, and the arts, my son will know a Boyle Heights that provides the opportunities and promise that we envision. This will happen as long as all development is an organic, community focused process that does not impose itself and seeks to benefit not only future but also current residents.


Frost-Kumpf, Hilary. Cultural Districts: The Arts as a Strategy for Revitalizing Our Cities. Washington DC: American for the Arts, 1998.

Sanchez, George J. "Our Heritage, Our Boyle Heights." Boyle Heights. Los Angeles: Boyle Heights Chamber of Commerce, 2011.

Zamudio, Maria. "The First Street Corridor." Boyle Heights. Los Angeles: Boyle Heights Chamber of Commerce, 2011.