Located just a few miles east of downtown and just across the river from the arts district, Boyle Heights is a district of Los Angeles where 90 per cent of the population of 100,000 is Hispanic.
In recent years, the district has gained a reputation for being home to the best Mexican restaurants and street food in town. A visit to El Mercadito, the central market on 1st Street, feels like Mexico proper. The breadth of items for purchase is overwhelming with colourful stalls selling everything from cowboy boots and hats to first communion dresses and me vale madre potion – an herbal concoction believed to calm the nerves. And that’s not to mention the food: churros, mole, tamales, palanquetas (nut bars) and bunuelos (fritters covered in sugar and syrup) are just a few of the essential “must trys”. The dueling mariachi bands entertaining clients in the upstairs restaurants are the icing on the pastel.
The charm of El Mercadito – and Boyle Heights in general – is that it isn’t touristy, unlike Olvera Street in the downtown district, long the preferred destination for travellers seeking a taste of Mexican life in LA.
However, Boyle Heights is changing. With the influx of coffee shops and art galleries in recent years, local activists are resolutely fighting against new developments in fear of what they might foreshadow: a wave of gentrification and the threat of displacement. The locals have termed the process “art-washing”.
In May of last year a non-profit art gallery called PSSST was preparing to open in the neighbourhood. Instead, on what should’ve been opening day, the gallery faced a crowd of protesters gathered in front of the building, beating drums, waving posters and chanting slogans such as “We don’t need galleries, we need higher salaries!”
This would not be the last protest in the district against the ‘hipster hangouts’ popping up. Recently, PSSST announced its shuttering. In a statement on its website they reasoned: “Our young non-profit struggled to survive against constant attacks… our staff and artists were routinely trolled online and in person.”
The anti-gentrifiers have been criticised for using confrontational tactics to push their case forward – personally singling out people for public condemnation and physically chasing unwelcome visitors out of the neighbourhood.
The Eastside has long been a centre of Los Angeles’ protest movements, whether it was residents marching against the Vietnam War in the 1970s to more recently demonstrating for immigrant rights.
main image: Streets of Boyle Heights, image by jondoeforty1, Flickr creative commons