Gentrification and the Aesthetics of Displacement

Gentrification and the Aesthetics of Displacement

By Anastasia Baginski and Chris Malcolm

“Sears Tower Rendering,” included in Carmen González, “Most Boyle Heights development out of reach for current residents,” Boyle Heights Beat, December 18, 2018.

The Sears Tower Development in South-East Boyle Heights overhauls the long-standing Art Deco landmark, re-dubbing it the Mail Order District, and exemplifying the problematic of gentrification. The project proposals offered by developer East River Group are just as you might expect. [1] There will be over a thousand lofts, 80,000 square feet of shopping and dining, 200,000 square feet of “creative offices,” and a rooftop pool. A coffee shop, simply called “The Station,” will be on the ground floor, and “The Workspace” is the term for a set of “creative offices.”[2] As Mike Davis has argued, “the middle class has finally come downtown but only to bring suburbia with them. The hipsters think they’re living in the real thing, but this is purely faux urbanism, a residential mall.”[3] In the terms of the East River Group’s enthusiastic brochure, “Offering the space for modern urban enthusiasts to collectively unite… The Mail Order District represents a new American Dream, reignited by a team of progressive creatives.”[4]

However, the labor that has produced the neighborhood-as-commodity that Boyle Heights would become through changes like those proposed at the adjacent Sears Tower site is not just the labor of the developers, or the labor of the middlemen who turn the buildings over, or of the property manager. As the digitized image of the new tenants poolside at Sears Tower shows, the new inhabitants who look out onto Boyle Heights will also be consuming the displacement of the neighborhood’s residents. While many new housing development projects in and around Boyle Heights have failed to meet the needs of low-income community members, they have at the same time appeared to offer a kind of “cultural adjacency,” [5] a feeling of being “linked to the spirit of a place without having to actually rub elbows with the locals.” Promoting local cuisine and public art, landlords and planners alike repackage forms of cultural life unique to Boyle Heights, while disrupting the community “ecosystem” [6] and destroying the conditions which have permitted this cultural life to thrive.

It is perhaps not hard to see that gentrification functions aesthetically, commodifying architectural styles and fashion, as well as racial and ethnic identity. It does so, for example, through the sharp-lined building facade, the third-wave coffee shop, the hipster, the wood-paneled fence, and the availability of a multi-ethnic food culture. People experience aesthetic identification with these forms, the proximity of a mezcaleria, and ramen shop, for example, to their fenced off property, as a proxy for upward mobility and the absence of racial conflict. In the context of Boyle Heights, this aestheticizing process has been particularly acute and helps to explain why the neighborhood has been the site of such intense speculation, both economic and representational. What is also commodified in Boyle Heights is, paradoxically, the very fact that the neighborhood has survived. As a participant in a 2016 community forum put it: “People said we were the worst shit. Why now do you want to come here? Why not before when it was horrible, why now? Now it’s beautiful, built by Latinos.”[7] In Boyle Heights, gentrification works on, and with, labor which has already occurred: the reproduction of social life that the neighborhood itself has long generated. What this means is that gentrification in Boyle Heights functions through the commodification of racial difference as it has been established by segregation and discriminatory housing policies.[8] If we understand gentrification only economically, as the capitalization by developers of and on comparatively low property values, or as the suburban middle class moving back into the city, then we miss the way that gentrification’s commodifying processes modify physical urban environments to present ongoing political and racial conflicts as matters of taste.

Property values in Boyle Heights have been low because of its distance from the West Side, and they have been historically maintained through racial segregation and redlining, as well as the neighborhood’s proximity to historical sites of racially-charged social resistance, to gang violence, to freeways and factories, to small locally owned businesses, street vending, and daily environmental injustices. These are some of the same things which now make Boyle Heights attractive: proximity to Downtown, a small business economy, empty warehouses, lots of restaurants, community-produced murals and urban density. As a result, when developers and new residents target Boyle Heights they are also rearticulating the neighborhood’s history of struggle and survival as a form of labor that can now produce commodity-effects. It is no coincidence that art galleries—sites where aesthetic sensibility is literally for sale—have drawn the ire of local community organizers.[9] At the same time, what this pattern of aestheticization shows, as histories of resistance are abstracted from their conditions of production and rendered aesthetic, is that developers and new residents not only understand that the activity of gentrification is appropriative, but also continue to justify their participation in that appropriation. In other words, gentrification is the consumption of displacement, and displacement is the mark of territorial acquisition. The end goal of gentrification is to displace those communities, while at the same time extracting aesthetic value from previous cultural forms embedded in resistance and oppression. From the perspective of gentrification, displacement is an index for the absence of racial antagonism and the mark, therefore, of territorial acquisition.

But why is Boyle Heights the site of such intense speculation, planning and media attention? We will suggest that the publicized contestation over the terms of belonging, movement, and rights to location-based community in the East Los Angeles neighborhood show that gentrification is a struggle over a process which attempts to naturalize development as an inevitable operation, and an historically and politically disinterested one. That is, gentrification is seen by many actors in this landscape as a process which undoubtedly “improves” the neighborhood rather than, as in the eyes of many long-standing residents, destroying it. Boyle Heights has served as a site and symbol of Chicanx and Mexican-American community resistance to racist and exclusionary educational and housing policies. And yet, gentrification creates a concept of urban space in which political tensions, historical or contemporary, have been, or are on their way to being, resolved. In this context, it is important to keep in mind, as Erin McElroy and Alex Werth argue that, “Northern analytics such as “gentrification” often fail to account for the ongoing histories of racial violence that underwrite contemporary urban transformations, including in Northern cities.”[10] This includes the displacement of the Tongva peoples from what is now Boyle Heights. Through a reading of a series of L.A. City plans, including the L.A. Metro Guide for Development for Mariachi Plaza, we show that gentrification is not simply a consequence of contemporary speculative capital but also an ongoing form of extractive settler-colonial capitalism. Such an approach necessitates an understanding of the colonial character of the discursive frame through which gentrification operates. For instance, when the Guide describes Boyle Heights as underutilized and in need of improvement, and suggests that improvement can occur through common sense narratives which suppose that an accessible neighborhood is better than an inaccessible one, or that some investment is preferable to none at all, it is rehearsing common tropes of a social order founded on settler-colonialism. Settler-colonial discourse has long relied on establishing a notion of using land “properly.” “Contemporary struggles over property in urban areas,” argues Brenna Bhandar in Colonial Lives of Property: Law, Land, and Racial Regimes of Ownership, “often revolve around the concept of use.” [11] Indeed, within a settler-colonial order the ability to use land, the capacity to improve it, and a faculty for value are racial capacities open only to white, or forcibly assimilated populations. [12] As we see in the example of Boyle Heights, longstanding racial formations continue into the present as rationalizations for dispossession and displacement.

Next, we discuss certain discursive parallels between capitalist urban planning, exemplified by the Guide, and the Starz’ television show Vida. Here we demonstrate how structural tensions surrounding gentrification in Boyle Heights come to be internalized within the individual narrative trajectories of the show’s characters. Most of these characters understand gentrification as a conflict over staying or leaving, or at best, for those with capital, selling or investing. From such a perspective, resisting gentrification without acceding to the economic logic of capitalism can only be seen as anachronistic; as a failure to move on. However, the moral of Vida is that if you insist on the difference that capital creates between brown bodies then you forego the solidarity offered by queer and ethnic identification. Vida suggests that solidarity is possible, but only if one disavows class-based differences. One implication of such an argument is that the possibility of Chicanx and/or Latinx identity is then premised on the absence of a class critique. As we focus on below, however, this allows class-based hierarchies, such as those between the show’s characters Marisol and Emma, to reassert themselves (Marisol, who works for Emma, is admonished by Emma for her involvement in anti-gentrification activism.) Part of what the action and argumentation of anti-gentrification organizing groups and thinkers in Boyle Heights have achieved, on the other hand, is the re-assertion of a class critique as part of a critical problematization of forms of intersecting identification and overlapping systems of power.[14]

Using the City

The L.A. Metro Guide for Development of Mariachi Plaza attempts to conceive of how, within existing regulatory and policy frameworks, Boyle Heights can be developed. With this simple gesture, that is, by viewing Boyle Heights as a site for development, the document rehearses the varied discourses of gentrification as if they were naturally occurring and therefore politically neutral. “With great views of the Downtown L.A. skyline,” the Guide states, “and a centralized location to Downtown and the Arts District, Boyle Heights has experienced an increased amount of visibility and attention in recent years.”[15] The reason for this attention, in the Guide’s view, is both economic (proximity to Downtown and the Arts District) and cultural. In this subsection, entitled “The Context and Value of Boyle Heights,” historical context and value are inseparable. However, it is clear that the context which makes a place available for speculation has something to do with the history of the community which has lived there. This is important to grasp, because when the Guide relies upon the categories of improvement, development, and use—key terms in the discourse of gentrification—it is not merely designating economic shifts but cultural and aesthetic ones too. The aim of the discourse of gentrification is to attempt to reinterpret what counts as change, on both social and individual levels, and what that ought to look like. It also classifies cosmetic changes, in the facades of buildings and the paving of public space, as social progress, leading to the tautology that change is what looks like change. The assumption among planners and large community stakeholders is that “improvement” of the urban landscape can easily move into notions of self-improvement and, additionally, set the parameters for what it means to lead a life which accrues value, as the promise of the Sears’ Tower developments styled reinvention of the “American Dream” suggests. Setting aside the question of who has been best served by the “American Dream” thus far, who must one have become in order to live this reinvented version?

In the context of California city planning a Guide like the one suggesting best practices for Mariachi Plaza development serves to broker developers’ interests in terms of community needs within a landscape that is, ostensibly, devoid of racial and political tension.[16] By articulating community demand in terms of accessibility, improvement, and sustainability the Guide develops a discrete set of terms in which development projects, like the proposed Chavez Gardens apartment block, which includes a grocery store, might be considered to be desirable by the local community. However, when the Guide refers to the outcomes of community consultation what is bracketed from discussion is that the inevitability of development, and the community’s consent, has already been assumed.

The Guide describes its processes of community consultation in the form of two “charrettes,” two focus groups, and the solicitation of online feedback. It should be noted that the feedback solicited for the Guide exceeds L.A. Metro’s previous attempts to garner minimal, if any, community support for proposed changes to Mariachi Plaza. [17] The Guide makes frequent note of the “Yes” responses offered by participants to a series of potential changes to the local environment. To collect these responses, the planning document explains, “we provided green dots for ‘yes’ and ‘red’ dots for no that the stakeholders placed on a chart with various choices such as ‘affordable housing’, ‘market rate housing’, ‘grocery store’, etc.” In a 2016 blog post Sahra Sulaiman makes note of community responses to this kind of charrette format, which was being used to gather feedback about one of the sites covered by the scope of the Guide. “Being asked to put dots next to a particular poster board, argued several people, was akin to asking the community to rubber stamp the city’s suggestions to make it look like genuine dialogue had taken place. And they weren’t going to stand for it.” [18] The L.A. Metro has at the point of this article’s publication entered into an Exclusive Negotiation Agreement with the East L.A. Community Development Corporation, who completed their own community feedback-gathering sessions prior to developing their proposal. This proposal, including the proposed Lucha Reyes apartments, beat out the Cesar Chavez Foundation’s proposal for the site, offering 30 apartments set aside for those making 30% of Area Median Income and 28 for those making 50% AMI.[19] The 400 apartments slated to be built in this corridor, however, represent a minute fraction of the apartments to be built in the area, the total number of which includes those in the Mail Order District, the former Sears Tower Site, referred to by the Guide as the “Sears Opportunity Site.” [20]

What motivates the Guide are not simply community concerns, or economic concerns (how to increase investment, or house-prices), but a wider discursive reorganization of what counts as the proper use of an urban environment. This reorganization is not unique to the Mariachi Plaza plan, but, we want to suggest, is assumed and implicit in all moments of gentrification. As such, gentrification does not simply involve the transfer of ownership to new inhabitants, but, rather, the notion that whatever is in view can be rearranged into a more productive form. The assumption is that the existing community is defined by an underlying failure or absence that the development process can supplement, remedy or improve in a benign manner.

According to the Guide’s “Vision for Development,” Boyle Heights is “characterized by a vibrant working class neighborhood, [with] a long-standing multi-ethnic immigrant and Mexican-American heritage.” But this working-class, multi-ethnic character is only of value to the extent that such characteristics present “opportunities for growth.”[21] In planning documents like these, the language of environmental sustainability and accessibility, often the best expression of idealistic elements of the plan, suggests pre-existing inefficiencies and inaccessibility. The neighborhood is deemed to be too closed-off, unattractive and unwelcoming, a problem which would be solved by “transit nodes,” “commercial corridors,” and “complete streets.” [22] It is through these categories and these assumptions that developers and city planners discursively invoke the practices of gentrification, such that Boyle Heights is understood to be an underused neighborhood. The perception of Boyle Heights as “underutilized” implies that the neighborhood can be improved by being instrumentalized or by being made more economically “productive”. The model for improvement, more often than not, is produced through ideas of environmental sustainability. These ideas rely upon the assumption that “environmentally-friendly” changes like “xeriscaping,” “thermoplastic patterning” in street paving, and the inclusion of “photovoltaic panels” increase the utilization of places and make them more habitable for everyone, regardless of who is displaced in the process and who will actually “enjoy” these often radically altered environments. The site rendering, pictured below, of what a post-development scene might look like, clearly illustrates this set of de-politicizing assumptions.

Rendering of re-developed Mariachi Plaza from Los Angeles Metro Transit Authority Planning and Programming Committee, “Attachment C – Conceptual Site Plan and Renderings Mariachi,” Board of Directors Reports/Items, October 23, 2017.

The plaza is open and well-lit; there are young non-white families, as well as a white couple with a bike. Moreover, the style of the facades of the storefronts and the buildings in the background are recognizable as within a genre of what a place is supposed to look like after “improvement.” In the Metro plan, the guidelines for “Design and Style” are as follows: “There is no one design style, however, the design needs to be ‘of its time’–that is, contemporary in nature.”[23] What we are interested both in what is left out of the image, as well as the image’s projection of what the built environment looks like after an area has been developed or improved. While responsive to community concerns that development might overshadow the Plaza, the proposed apartment buildings raise the profile of the structures behind Mariachi Plaza to five stories. While affordable studio units are meant to help provide housing for mariachis who would otherwise be displaced, in interviews mariachis have admitted finding earmarked “affordable” units in ELACC’s renovated Boyle Hotel building nearby too expensive.[24] If the components of the redeveloped built environment which advertise non-discriminatory accessibility, especially for long-term community members, are not actually accessible, then it becomes clear that gentrification relies upon a perspectival accomplishment and not, or not merely, a material one. Gentrification succeeds not simply when a neighborhood is changed, but when existing spaces and infrastructure can be seen only as having been underutilized or inappropriate and, in that case, on their way to improvement.

The rhetoric of development, use and improvement is racializing here, because of the way in which Chicanx and Latinx identity is historically associated with Boyle Heights—that is, as in the past and no longer present, or persisting in a quaint contemporaneity. The original redesign and naming of Mariachi Plaza were designed to increase accessibility of the space for residents and “elevate” the presence of Mexican culture in Boyle Heights. [25] One well-known historical example of Chicanx community organizing central to the Chicano Civil Rights movement and the history of the neighborhood is that of the 1970 anti-war protest known as the Chicano Moratorium.[26] The phrase, “of its time,” mentioned above and in the Guide, sets both spatial and visual parameters that render what was previously there anachronistic. The Guide qualifies the “of its time” by clarifying that design style must also be “of its place.” In the case of Mariachi Plaza the visual symbol “of its place” takes the form of figures of mariachis, off to the side, who serve a decorative function. While this is an improvement over earlier proposals,[27] where, one might ask, are the people or social groupings in the image who provide the conditions for the mariachis’ employment? The four musicians standing on a raised platform in the shadows signify the “pre-improvement” Boyle Heights, carried into the present as a calcified symbol, abstracted away from the material, historical, and social specificity of Boyle Heights. The appearance of cultural activity as decorative or as having no relation to daily life is a sign of racialization.[28] In the Conceptual Site Rendering, social relations are atomized. While universal access is promised to all future consumers, existing residents are not visually and rhetorically represented as proper users/beneficiaries of gentrification’s modified and standardized urban space. In a newly “accessible” and “sustainable” scene, long-time residents are rendered unsustainable and even environmentally harmful, and existing uses of the built environment are deemed inefficient. Pre-existing local culture is thereby reconfigured as holding merely decorative value, which in turn is appropriated and marketed by developers.

In the terms of the Guide, the “complete streets” version of the social world—which includes aestheticized plazas with bicycle parking and pedestrian-, bike-, transit-, and car-accessible streets—the resolution of all social and political tensions is imagined to be a fait accompli. In the visual and verbal rhetoric of the Guide, changes to existing physical environments are considered minor improvements which everyone can get behind. This logic also endlessly undermines recent history—even the facade of the restaurant Un Solo Sol, which opened in 2011, must be changed in the Site Plan renderings. Take for instance the Guide’s recommendation of “fabric buildings,” buildings which would be added in the development process but are imagined to have minor aesthetic effects. The Guide states, “Fabric buildings are generally compatible with the surrounding built environment and do not stand out as a uniquely styled ‘iconic’ structure would. A fabric building enhances the built environment without significantly changing it.”[29] The Guide paradoxically imagines future development as producing predominantly aesthetic changes, and minor ones at that, merely enhancing what is already there or underway, while also marking the existing built environment and the community it supports as in need of reconfiguration. What this shows is that within the terms of gentrification there are no pre-existing sufficiencies, nor does anything within the current environment possesses intrinsic value. Instead, everything—including areas of a neighborhood which would not undergo large-scale change—ought to be subject to “enhancement,” which “adds value.”[30] What we have been suggesting is that this drive does not merely refer to the built environment, but to its inhabitants as well. As such, the discursive parameters of gentrification operate to produce a neighborhood and, in the argument which we develop below, a normative self. Boyle Heights must be subject to improvement, the Guide suggests, without which its inhabitants cannot claim a contemporary or modern self-identity, a place in the redeveloped city of the “new American Dream.”

Gentrification’s Paradigms for Social Life

The tension between the idea of a rooted or particular identity, and the possibility of changing that identity—enhancing it, or improving it—without losing it entirely, underpins Tanya Saracho’s show Vida on the Starz network. Before discussing the show in detail, it is useful to keep in mind that Vida inadvertently projects the dichotomy set in place by gentrification: between stasis, on the one hand, and movement, on the other. In this section we will show that the ideas of improvement which are attached to the built landscape extend to certain notions of self-identity. That these notions have aesthetic characteristics is to argue that they necessarily function through commodification, which is also to say, through the experience of ownership and exchange. Self-betterment, like neighborhood improvement, also implies the very idea of rehabilitation which the discourse of gentrification relies upon, namely that Boyle Heights and its inhabitants ultimately require transformation.

Vida stages adherence to what we are calling aesthetic categories—improvement, development, and use—as a matter of taste, biography, and personal choice. The two sisters who return to East L.A., do so as property owners, to manage the family bar after the death of their mother, the titular Vida (short for Vidalia). Emma, played by Mishel Prada, and Lyn, played by Melissa Barrera, are surprised by the anti-gentrification sentiment and resulting social tensions brewing in their community. The businesslike older sister, Emma, knows enough about current market values in her childhood neighborhood of Boyle Heights, to know that she should be able to sell the bar’s building for a profit. When this proves impossible, because of predatory loans her mother had been offered by a local developer (who grew up in the neighborhood and seems to be physically aroused by the prospect of displacing his former neighbors), Emma begins negotiations with another buyer who might be able to at least eliminate the debt that she and her sister Lyn have inherited. Nelson, the character with a hard-on for displacement, tries to draw a parallel between his situation and Emma’s, suggesting that they both wanted to do better for themselves in the neoliberal urban environment, and so necessarily changed the nature of their ties to the community. The vindication of Emma’s character relies on her ability to rescue a personal connection for herself with the community of Boyle Heights and to reject the predatory opportunism and instrumentalization that Nelson represents.

Emma’s reasons for leaving the neighborhood are not, or not just, in fact, as opposed to what Nelson suggests, about personal choice and upward mobility. Emma does demonstrate a particular form of class consciousness. In a later episode, when she is sitting in a holding cell with Marisol, the show’s activist character, played by Chelsea Rendon, Emma’s seeming ignorance about existing social and political tensions in the city is revealed as dismissive condescension. “I know your type,” she tells Marisol, calling the younger woman a “phony” and forcefully implying that Marisol, who works two jobs to help support her diabetic father, should get an education to learn her place and connect with her cultural heritage.

Characters Emma and Marisol spend several hours in a holding cell after a landlord calls the police during a heated exchange between the two women in Season 1 of Vida, Episode 5.

The role that education plays as something Emma can deploy to protect herself from social tension and distance herself from her former community members, is developed throughout the show. In an earlier episode, at a local Birria restaurant, she makes fun of her sister for not being able to order food in perfect university Spanish, at the same time accusing her mother and, by extension, her mother’s widow of being pocha (a Chicano/a who speaks Americanized Spanish). But Emma’s self-hatred functions on multiple levels, not only because she is condescending towards other characters who may not share her belief that a university education is the end-goal or resolution of their diasporic positioning. She is also a queer woman who has experienced the violence of displacement because of her queerness and at the hands of her mother. Emma, we learn halfway through the first season, was sent away to live with her grandmother in Texas, not once, but multiple times, because of her sexual and romantic desire for female friends. As a result of this violence Emma is not just dismissive, but behaves aggressively and vindictively towards Eddy, played by Ser Anzoategui, the woman her mother married later in life, making Vidalia a hypocrite in Emma’s eyes. Through Seasons 1 and 2, Emma will use Eddy’s lack of legal right to the bar, or capital to invest in it, in order to protect herself against any possible solidarity with Eddy.

Emma’s narrative has the effect of re-framing the show’s momentum for her redeemed connection with the community not as a question of class solidarity or a rejection of neoliberal individualism, but as a healing of queer trauma. The narrative of queer community and the assertion of queer family ties (instead of, say, any mobilization of nostalgia for the childhood family home) means that Emma and Lyn can’t be understood as, or as just, “gente-fiers.”[30] And yet, all of Emma’s more capitalistic and colonial tendencies get subsumed by the trauma narrative—such that her calling out Eddy for “running the bar into the ground”—is ambiguous, motivated not necessarily by internalized homophobia and apparent classism but perhaps by Emma’s own personal history of abandonment. The viewer might speculate, for example, that Emma’s disappointment about the financial state of the bar is a result of hurt and shame that she was not able to be there, while Eddy, the queer woman loved by her mother, was.

Vida posits the important existence of relationships and ties outside of capitalist relations of production, reproduction, and exchange through moments of affective resolution or reconciliation. In the holding cell, Marisol’s antagonism towards Emma eases when she admits that Emma’s little sister Lyn has not just been single-handedly destroying her older brother Johnny’s relationship with his “pregnant fiancée” (to use Emma’s terms), but that Johnny has also been taking advantage of Lyn. Marisol’s own recent experience of being taken advantage of by an older male “Vigilantes” member might incline her towards this moment of female solidarity. Like Nelson, Johnny is depicted as having fallen prey to capitalist fantasies—in his final moments with Lyn in the first season, he fantasizes about a house and a family, maybe on the West Side, which Lyn points out would have to be acquired at the expense of his father’s health, whom he supports by paying rent, driving him to regular dialysis appointments and running his body shop.

There are few complex male characters in the show, which is understandable for a show centered around the lives of queer women, but Johnny (and the lack of alternatives) is also a symptom of the contradiction between societal expectations and standards of masculine sovereignty, on the one hand, and the ties of family and sociality, on the other. For example, as Lyn points out to Johnny, his dream of a home and kids on the West Side, the mark of societal success for the “male provider” can only be sustained at the cost of the support Johnny provides to his family and his community in the form of his business, a body-shop.[31] Social ascendence within the capitalist heteropatriarchal order, the show suggests, must be achieved through the disavowal of community ties either on the Nelson model or on the disingenuous/toxically masculine Johnny model. As a result, both imply that movement, and the possibility of making other choices, must function through a capitalist logic. The alternative that the show articulates through Emma is depicted as a moral achievement made possible by the merging of Emma’s personal history with a community history of queer survival. For both of the sisters, an understanding of their position as new property owners in a place where they have not lived for many years is an intellectual achievement. As characters, and without an already assumed queer and class solidarity with Eddy or the bar’s patrons, Emma and Lyn exemplify the rhetoric of learning and self-improvement. Emma learns about the role that Vida’s bar has played for the local lesbian and queer community, in part from Cruz, a former friend turned lover who recognizes it not just as a place to purchase drinks, but as a communal gathering space without the threat of violence that exists elsewhere. Emma also learns this history from Eddy and Eddy’s friends, although Emma refuses to understand the implications of what Eddy has expressed until she finally subjects the older woman to a violent displacement similar to that which she experienced as a child. This lands Eddy in the hospital following an assault by a male patron of another bar where she takes her friends to avoid Emma’s hostility.

The problem which is staged in Vida of staying versus leaving reframes the structural effects of gentrification and displacement—of not being able to stay and not wanting to leave—as one of personal choice. Whether through a moral and intellectual achievement, or a Lyn-esque decision to spiritually honor one’s roots rather than explicitly exploit them through commodification—the question at the end of both seasons is not how to survive gentrification but, rather, whether to stay or to leave, on the one hand, as well as where and how to invest, on the other. Emma and Lyn’s decision to stay is understood as a decision to invest earned and inherited capital, time and energy. The opposition that Marisol’s character might seem to offer to this narrative of choice is, in the world of the show, politically incoherent. Marisol and the “Vigilantes,” a made-for-TV composite of community resistance groups in East Los Angeles, map and rename space by imposing racial signifiers where development would remove or whiten them, spraying “Chipsters” on the inherited bar, “Fuck White Art” on a local gallery, dumping white paint on a mural of light-skinned Latinx consumers painted on Vida’s bar in exchange for the sisters’ needed cash, and accusing the white female landlord of a house Emma attempts to rent for herself of “columbusing.” The “Vigilantes” offer a flattened and commodified version of the “material and ideological opposition” that has been offered by organizations like Defend Boyle Heights, Boyle Heights Against Artwashing and Displacement and the Ovarian Psyco-Cycles Brigade.[32] The Vigilantes members’ overt signaling of racial tensions (“chipsters” functions like the Anglo term “race traitor”) in their actions has the effect of making them seem as if they simply react to changes taking place in the neighborhood’s sumptuary code rather than acting from a coherent political position and program.[33] The effect of conceiving of the activist characters through reactive positions, and as hung up on ideas of racial identity which the main characters view as immature and ignorant, is to (re-)position them as obstacles to processes and forms of “progress” that are figured as inevitable. The reactive positions of those characters is paradoxically reinforced by Emma and Lyn’s decision to stay, a flexibility, we might read as not only afforded to those with financial power (such as the sisters’ ownership of the bar) but to those who have left and have now decided to return. It is because Emma and Lyn’s decisions are motivated by exchange value and ideas of inevitable progress that they register as making the most sense within the ideological context of the show. The flexibility that Emma and Lyn seem to have, which allows them to choose to invest in the bar, is thrown into relief when their decision now seems to match up with Eddy’s. For Eddy, however, selling the bar was never an option. Emma and Lyn at no point consider other options that might de-center their own capacities for choice, such as gifting their shares in the bar to Eddy. Throughout Season 2, Eddy’s desires for how the bar ought to operate are continually dismissed because her forms of investment are not seen as valuable.

Emma and Lyn survey Vida’s bar in the penultimate scene of Vida’s season 1 finale.

What Marisol does, however, is name and locate places and people within a social and historical geography. The interactions between Emma, Lyn, and Marisol’s characters stage an antagonism between two very different forms of inhabiting and understanding the place where one lives. Although Emma and Lyn come around to seeing that the best thing they can do with the building they have inherited is to help it better serve the role it has played—providing affordable housing to tenants with different immigration statuses or degrees of family support and a place for young queer community members—they have to first pass through the journeys of self-reflection and understanding staged by the show’s narrative. The understanding at the conclusion of Season 1, following Emma and Marisol’s brief moment of solidarity after the police are called on both of them by the white female “columbusing” landlord, and after Emma bails the other woman out, is that there will be a truce between the sisters (previously referred to by Marisol as “whitetinas”) and the Vigilantes. The relationship between Eddy and Emma, on the other hand, is positioned as bearing the weight of social and economic shifts—something which was bound to produce enough tension for a second season. Eddy promises Marisol not to turn the bar into one of “those places” and yet Emma commits herself to improving the space and making it economically “sustainable.” In this sense the material critiques of gentrification outside the show, and the role that artists in Boyle Heights, including queer Latinx artists, play in facilitating it, are resolved in the show’s representation of the ideology of personal and moral development.

What Vida shows is that the subject who gains knowledge through the kind of learning that Emma experiences, gains that knowledge only by parrying violence or displacing its effects onto others (affectively, Emma spends two seasons being by turns aggressive, uncommunicative and defensive). The kind of homophobic violence that Eddy has to endure at the bar where she goes to escape Emma, and the kind of violence that Eddy feels as the bar is changed, are direct effects of Emma’s personal development. Throughout the show the violent effects that befall others are figured as the price to pay for this journey.  Repeating the external discourse of gentrification as a conflict over underutilization and improvement, but on an internal level, Vida naturalizes in psychological and narrative terms what the good subject of gentrification looks like. According to Emma, Eddy misinterprets the changes to the bar as damaging, as Emma sees it Eddy does not understand that the bar needs to make money. But Emma fails to recognize Eddy’s assumption, that gentrification is damaging for social life in general.

Emma, and by the end of Season 2 Lyn and new bartender Nico, realize that queer and Latinx identity can be deployed for the purpose of making the bar money. Eddy’s error, according to the logic, is not to see her identity as marketable. But Eddy isn’t interested in representing what she knows about herself or her community to anyone other than her community. If the show were to operate from Eddy’s perspective it would more clearly demonstrate that gentrification works when representation and marketization intersect and that this intersection often constitutes a loss. In this sense, Eddy seems to understand Emma and Lyn’s approach as a worst-case scenario for the bar—worse than it disappearing. What appears as Eddy’s lack of awareness, ambition, or legal decision-making status to Emma and Lyn could be better understood as her prioritization of community- and location-based ties at all costs. She also shares with Marisol a strong sense of what can be expected of a homophobic and capitalist culture, one which she is already negotiating all the time by relying on and building community networks for support and care against its grain—resources which don’t factor into Emma’s balanced books. Emma and Lyn could read this as a successful form of inhabiting space and life and community—the strongest form of politics in the show—but when they do not, reading it rather as inertia, they insist instead on gentrifying Eddy, literally fixing her up and contracting the work of caring for her to Marisol.

Emma and Lyn help Eddy up the stairs after she returns home from the hospital in Season 2, Episode 1.

Arguments suggesting that gentrification will inevitably occur, and that stage the negotiation of its effects in terms of investment and morality, as we argued above, naturalize the sense that development is unavoidable in places with lower housing values. The only question is when, how and on whose terms. Lower property values cannot be maintained as such, this perspective suggests, and people in Emma’s situation with a certain kind of common sense will realize that what they or their family are sitting on has an exchange value that not only outweighs any other form of value it might have, but structures other options, including interpersonal relations that might otherwise be political, in terms of exchange value. The exchange value can be foregone, the show implies, but only to the extent that it may be eventually capitalized on or reinvested, as Emma and Lyn’s supposed sacrifice of their own individual mobility suggests. The other side of such arguments, which naturalize the form of value—in this case property value—suggests that migration, displacement and social change are effectively caused by naturally occurring value differentials. But property values are no more naturally occurring than the patriarchal heteronormative family unit or its homonationalist inversion – the “it gets better” model of achieving liberal LGBT subjectivity through property ownership and citizenship.[34] As the legacies of urban redlining demonstrate, the low property values of an area that can come to offer developers the highest profit margins, are a result of decades of marginalization and discrimination. The discourse of gentrification, on the other hand, promotes the idea that this profit margin is the result of discernment, location, and good investment, rather than an effect of how urban geography has been shaped by processes of racialization.

By choosing to stage Vida around the question of the bar’s continuation, the show rehearses the underlying principles of publications like the planning Guide which position progress towards a “sustainable” future as inevitable and desirable. While the Guide and the social scenarios constructed for the characters of Vida accept this inevitability, local histories of community resistance are represented, at best, as aestheticized props for developmental narratives and, at worst, as obstacles to the resolution of long-standing historical and structural tensions. City planners often borrow from environmental discourses the imagination of sustainable and habitable environments for everyone, in which racial tension can only be absent or on a trajectory toward resolution in a postracial and sustainable society. However, in our examples, the discourse of gentrification mobilizes the political history of Boyle Heights and rearticulates it as a decorative feature of the contemporary neighborhood in its repackaged form. Political tensions between Marisol and Lyn, or Emma and Eddy appear as conflicts over style, imagination and who has the most convincing concept of what change might look like. What activists in Boyle Heights have consistently pointed out, however, is that aesthetic work can oftentimes be the most effective form of displacement. What the Guide and Vida share is an assertion that there are no pre-existing sufficiencies. City planners and developers rely upon the assumption that everyone agrees that some form of change is required. It is important to recognize the role that such processes of naturalization take, in particular the way in which they aestheticize longstanding racial formations and struggles against them. Otherwise the passage of time between community resistance and its commodification will already be assumed to have taken place, a notion which renders gentrification inevitable and, finally, irresistible.

Anastasia Baginski grew up in Floral Park, in Santa Ana, California. She is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at UC Irvine. Her dissertation is titled Alta and Baja: Fantasies of Region and Gender in Literature of the Californias.

Chris Malcolm grew up in Battersea, London. He is Assistant Professor of Environmental Humanities at Maine College of Art. He completed his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from UC Irvine in 2017. His current book project is titled, Ecological Concessions: Environmental Violence and the Management of Damage.


[1] Sears MOD. See, Accessed on October 5, 2019.

[2] Carmen González, “Most Boyle Heights development out of reach for current residents,” Boyle Heights Beat (December 18, 2018), Accessed on December 27, 2018.

[3] Mike Davis, “A Boom Interview: Mike Davis in Conversation with Jennifer Wolch and Dana Cuff,” Boom California (December 29, 2016), Accessed on December 27, 2018.

[4] Sears MOD. The SearsMOD Art Book. page 9. Accessed on October 5, 2019.

[5] Sahra Sulaiman (Sulaiman 2018), “Boyle Heights Tenants, Mariachis Celebrate Victory over Exorbitant Rent Hikes,” Streetsblog LA (February 16, 2018), Accessed on October 7, 2019.

[6] Sahra Sulaiman, “Rent Stabilization and the Integrity of Vulnerable Ecosystems: Some Last Thoughts on Prop 10,” Streetsblog LA, (November 6, 2018), Accessed on October 7, 2019.

[7] Matt Stromberg, “Anti-Gentrification Coalition Calls for Galleries to Leave LA’s Boyle Heights,” Hyperallergic (July 28, 2016), Accessed on December 27, 2018.

[8] Ian Haney-López, Racism on Trial: The Fight for Chicano Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), pp.69-70.

[9] Local community resistance to gentrifying development and its effects has been mounted by organizations including the O.V.A.S., BHAAAD, Unión de Vecinos, the LA Tenants Union, Defend Boyle Heights, and Serve the People Los Angeles, among others, although the actions and agendas of these different organizations have often diverged from one another.

[10] E. McElroy and A. Werth, “Deracinated Dispossessions: On the Foreclosures of “Gentrification” in Oakland, CA,” Antipode, vol. 51 no. 3 (2019), pp. 882.

[11] Brenna Bhandar, Colonial Lives of Property: Law, Land, and Racial Regimes of Ownership (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), pp.33.

[12] Cole Harris, Making Native Space: Colonialism, Resistance, and Reserves in British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada: UBC Press, 2003).

[13] McElroy and Werth reference the work of Paula Chakravartty and Denise Ferreira da Silva to show that, “race is the sine qua non of rightlessness and dispossession in the spatial politics of US cities—including, we would add, those forms commonly categorized as ‘gentrification’.” Ibid., pp. 883.

[14] At the time of this article’s publication, the form of “critical problematization” with which we express solidarity here, has been applied to the actions of Defend Boyle Heights itself by other activists and organizers who see DBH’s adoption of a Maoist framework as an “offensive” and violent misunderstanding of how different forms of power intersect. See

[15] Los Angeles Metro Transit Authority (LACMTA), Guide for Development: Mariachi Plaza, 2017, p.9. Accessed on December 27, 2018.

[16] In their article about the role Community Development Corporations have played in Detroit, Allison Laskey and Walter Nicholls characterize the positioning of Community Development Corporations (like the East L.A. Community Corporation) “as the planning establishment’s ‘relays’ in have-not communities. Governance depends upon aligning political aims and expert strategies and then ‘establishing relays between the calculations of authorities and the aspirations of free citizens.'” Allison B. Laskey & Walter Nicholls, “Jumping Off the Ladder,” Journal of the American Planning Association, DOI: 10.1080/01944363.2019.1618729 (2019).

[17] Sahra Sulaiman (2014), “Dupont-Walker, Community Press Metro on Surprising Changes Slated for Mariachi Plaza, Demand More Outreach,” Streetsblog LA, (November 7, 2014), Accessed on October 7, 2019.

[18] Sahra Sulaiman, “City and Residents Debate Fate of Lot at 1st and Boyle,” (February 3, 2016), Accessed on October 9, 2019.

[19] Last year the Area Median Income was determined as $69,300. Information accessible through,

For comparison of the two plans see, Sahra Sulaiman, “Metro Board to Consider Developers for Mariachi Plaza and Cesar Chavez/Fickett Joint Development Sites,” (January 12, 2018),, and, Los Angeles Metro Transit Authority (LACMTA2), Mariachi Plaza Joint Development Project, 2018. Accessed on October 11, 2019.

[20] Los Angeles Metro Transit Authority (LACMTA), p.19.

[21] Ibid., p.9.

[22] Ibid., p.7.

[23] Ibid., p.31.

[24] As Sahra Sulaiman argues, “meanwhile, mariachis living at the newly rebranded “Mariachi Crossing” at 1815 E. 2nd Street continue to fight exorbitant rent increases imposed by new owner Frank “B.J.” Turner that threaten to price them out of the building he named after them. Mariachis living in boarding-style situations so they can be close to Mariachi Plaza have been threatened with eviction. Still others have been priced out by gradual rent increases over time as the market has heated up. And others found themselves priced out a few years back, when the Boyle Hotel (where many had boarded in rather awful conditions) was converted to affordable housing and too many couldn’t afford the new rent.” Sahra Sulaiman, “Boyle Heights Community Plan Aims to Guard Atainst Displacement, Still Lacks Teeth,” (October 27, 2017), Accessed on October 10, 2019.

[25] Sulaiman (2018), “When the corner became a hub for less reputable and more dangerous endeavors in the 1980s, the presence of the mariachis helped to keep the space accessible to residents and kept local businesses like the donut shop they used as their de facto headquarters afloat. So much so that the transformation of the traffic triangle into a bona fide plaza in 1994 – imperfect a process as it may have been – was predicated on the idea that elevating the mariachis would also elevate and heal the community.”

[26] See Elson Trinidad, “August 1970–Chicano Moratorium Protests in East L.A.; Journalist Rubén Salazar Killed,” KCET: What does Chicana/o Mean Today?,  (September 16, 2014), Accessed on September 2, 2019.

[27] For descriptions of earlier proposals, see Sulaiman (2014), and for an archived piece see, Mary Anne Perez, Also see: “Renovation Stuck in Red Tape: Subway Project Stalls Plans for Mariachi Plaze, Site of Festival Today,” (November 20, 1994),

[28] Visually and rhetorically, the Guide rehearses what Denise Ferreira da Silva calls “the modern text’s scientific imaging of The World as an ordered whole composed of separate parts relating through the mediation of constant units of measurement and/or a limiting violent force . . . this imaging renders sociality as being contingent upon the inhabiting of the same (juridical, spatial, or temporal) parts.” See, Denise Ferreira da Silva, “On Difference without Separability.” Incerteza Viva: 32ª Bienal de São Paulo, exhibition catalogue, edited by Jochen Volz and Júlia Rebouças (São Paulo: Fundação Bienal de São Paulo, 2016), pp. 57-65, Accessed on December 27, 2018.

[29] Los Angeles Metro Transit Authority (LACMTA), p.22.

[30] Ibid., p.22.

[31] Taking Tanya Saracho’s own admissions into account, the show’s thematic focus on “chipsters” (a cross between the terms “chicano” and “hipsters”) and “gente-fication” (a play on the terms “gentrification” and “gente,” which in Eddy’s version of fictionalized East L.A. is taken to mean brown folks from the neighborhood and also signify a level of trust, therefore implying community betrayal in the hyphenated version) was developed at the suggestion of Starz network executives, while the queer narratives represent Saracho’s desire to make the show function as a “reflection” of herself and her community. See Diosa y Mala, “Capitulo 044: Loquitas go to Hollywood,” Locatora Radio, podcast audio, 2018,

[32] In a different context, Sayak Valencia argues that the ideological centrality of the idea of “the masculine subject” as “sole economic provider” in a culture of hyper-consumption can cause psychological and interpersonal violence when “current economic conditions” and “precarious access to jobs” generate an “inability to fulfill this demand made on men.” See Valencia, Gore Capitalism (South Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e), 2018), p.294.

[33] The phrase “material and ideological opposition” as applied to Defend Boyle Heights comes from Cal State Los Angeles student Dalesy Casasola in a presentation about the gentrification and displacement of Central American communities in the MacArthur Park area at the “Migratory Poetics” conference at UC Irvine on December 6th, 2018. Casasola’s presentation drew attention to the fact that the displacement of Central American immigrant communities has a long history and yet has received less attention than the displacement of historically Mexican-American/Chicanx communities.

[34] Describing the case of Trayvon Martin, historian Barbara J. Fields and independent scholar Karen E. Fields use the term “sumptuary code” to describe how unspoken assumptions about whose “skin color” or “social status” belongs in certain spaces and neighborhoods function as “an equation of other people’s ‘race,’” determining who registers as an anomaly and may, as a result, be subjected to violence. See Jason Farbman, “How Race is Conjured: An interview with Barbara J. Fields and Karen E. Fields,” Jacobin Magazine, (June 29, 2015).

[35] The show portrays a transition in capital and its internalizations as a generational shift. Eddy and her friends represent an older understanding of LGBT and queer family, which seems to require safe spaces to thrive. The younger generation that Emma and Nico represent, assumes a cultural acceptance and therefore doesn’t consider, for example, why Vidalia and Eddy might not have been legally married in any terms other than of irresponsibility. This dismissal implies the ideological naturalization of certain forms of legally recognized identity as the most legitimate ones. Jasbir Puar’s term “homonationalism” has what Tavia Nyong’o calls “heuristic value” for identifying who counts in the “U.S. formation of the homonational subject of rights discourses” and whom these discourses constitutively exclude. See Jasbir Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), pp.xiv, xxxiii.