Los Angeles Utopias: Escape to L.A.

Los Angeles Utopias: Escape to L.A.

Amy Pederson Converse

Coined by Sir Thomas More in 1516, the term Utopia comes from the Greek ‘ou’ (not) and ‘topos’ (place). Often mistakenly translated as ‘good place,’ utopia actually means ‘no place,’ or ‘nowhere.’ More alternately employed a Latin synonym, Nusquama (nusquam = nowhere), and called his island’s inhabitants Achorians (people without a country). Some utopias reform the world, some transform the self, but most are territories of the imaginary. Los Angeles is a specific instance of this type of formation, and the constellation of neighborhoods that make up the city form different kinds of dreamlands.

Reimagining contested neighborhoods in L.A. as potential utopias can create radical blueprints for oppressed residents to construct communities in wealthy cultural centers. Gentrification has pushed them to the margins in every sense, and the avant-garde colonizers of this transformation have often been artists. The ‘artwashing’ of these neighborhoods has enacted forms of racial and social repression and imposed conditions of homelessness, exile, and alienation on less privileged citizens. Within a potential Utopic inversion, the parts of the city that are being newly colonized by the wealthy elite can be remade as collective living environments offering equality, justice, and a form of radical democracy for all stakeholders that call them home. 

The influence of early historical narratives on the discovery and conquest of the Americas on More’s fiction remains a problematic debate, but certainly the logic of colonialism rested on the misguided conception of the New World as the primitive and exotic no-place of the European imagination. These misrecognitions are at the very foundations of American history: on his third voyage in 1498, Columbus recounted his enormous disappointment at the ugliness of the mermaids that surrounded their ships; this was unsurprising since he was actually observing an aggregation of manatees. As Latin American art curator Mari Carmen Ramírez surmised about this incident, “the dynamics of such an interplay between fantasy and ignorance, reality and disappointment, is the kernel of the notion of the ‘The Americas’ understood as an echo of Europe’s search for its own otherness.”[1]

Founded in the 17th century, Los Angeles reflects the shadow history and ethnic third root of Latin America produced by the introduction of hundreds of thousands of African slaves in the 14th and 15th centuries.[2] In terms of chronology, popular social histories of L.A. usually telescope the city’s history into a narrow period bounded by the Watts Riots of 1965 and the Los Angeles riots of 1992, but leave aside the 1781 Spanish foundation and the American conquest of 1848, the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, and everything else from the early 1990s leading up to the present. In terms of geography, urban studies narratives of Los Angeles beginning with Reyner Banham have only clearly described certain dimensions of the city, fixed as they were on the connections between Malibu and Beverly Hills, Downtown and the Valley.[3] But these older cognitive mappings leave out large swathes of place and time; other axes stretch from Mexico to Boyle Heights, Central America to MacArthur Park, Union Station to Skid Row, and the port of San Pedro to the sweatshops downtown.

Historian Norman Klein proposed Los Angeles as a place “that was imagined long before it was built,” but the city is a multiplicity of both real and imagined territories.[4] Different representations in cinema and art reveal and conceal different aspects of the metropolis, and Los Angeles as a setting for Hollywood films is often heavily coded with history and meaning. This is particularly rich territory when science fiction films set in Los Angeles are analyzed through the lens of historical inquiry. L.A. sci-fi does not have the authoritative narrative offered by voice overs, nor happy endings. Instead, these movies depict dissipated dreamworlds grown from the political and cinematic imaginations of their creators. Things fall apart, and old models lose their power, but from these ruins new models promising happiness to the urban masses emerge. This fragmentation becomes a constructive principle for a quarantined utopian fantasy, but it also holds the potential to break these bonds and enter productively into the real world. Science fiction as a literary and cinematic genre is typically directed towards the future, but the information it hides is almost always about the past. Considered simultaneously, the doubled direction of this genre can tell us much about the present.

In his 1991 essay “Building Blade Runner,” Klein proposed the titular 1982 film as a cinematic paradigm for the future of cities in general and Los Angeles in particular.[5] Showcasing destroyed neighborhoods, non-white immigrants, and post-apocalyptic images of the decline of American civilization, for Klein, Blade Runner represented “…a return to a fanciful version of the urban ghetto, back to cluttered industrial imagery, away from the simplified urban grid.”[6] The bottom layer of the film’s movieland pastiche is the ‘New York street’ on the Warner Brothers Burbank lot, while the top layers are a mix of Tokyo and Los Angeles, all held in suspension by a damp atmosphere of rain and smoke. The rain in Blade Runner is ubiquitous, becoming “…the mark of the devil, in this case a devil of man’s own making, the smog finally destroying the desert climate itself.”[7]

But the Noir dystopia predicted by Blade Runner was ultimately a prophecy that went unfulfilled; the collapse of the Japanese economy in 1991 and subsequent ‘lost decades’ destroyed the notion that the west coast of North America would be swallowed up by the Asian Pacific Rim. Moreover, the city has become parched by drought instead of drenched by rain, and is converting to desert instead of melting into a tropical swamp. Most readings of the Blade Runner future present extremely conservative narratives, but another radical potential interpretation also exists in which the future of Los Angeles is examined not as a Noir scenario, but as a Western instead, offering an escape to Los Angeles rather an escape from the city.

In 1981 and 1996, the director John Carpenter produced a pair of science fiction films, Escape from New York and Escape from L.A. Both feature Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken, a former soldier turned criminal who is tasked with escaping from megalopolises that have been transformed into federal penal colonies. In terms of cinema history, both Escape films can be considered updates to the classic gunslinger films of the mid-century period, particularly the so-called Spaghetti Westerns popular in the 1960s.

In the first film, deliberate connections are drawn to this genre through the casting of Lee Van Cleef as the villain Hauk.[8] Russell claimed a distinct identity for Snake as an ambiguous anti-hero embodying a hybrid of both Van Cleef and Clint Eastwood.[9] Set in 1997, the island of Manhattan has become a maximum-security jail. Surrounded by a 50-foot fence and aquatic mines, the city is ringed by law enforcement, but unpoliced inside. In this future America, coastal elites have been disenfranchised and isolated from the mainstream of national politics and society, and power has been transferred entirely to an autocratic ultra-rightwing ruling party.

Narratively nearly identical to the original, the sequel Escape From L.A. was written in 1987, but its eventual production almost a decade later was driven by the events of the 1992 riots and the 1994 Northridge earthquake. In the film, an earthquake has struck L.A. in the year 2000, causing skyscrapers to crumble, freeways to collapse, Union Station to explode, a tsunami to devastate the Santa Monica pier, and the city itself to become an island. After the wreckage, the constitution is amended and the newly elected Republican President takes a lifetime term of office.

John Olsen, Untitled (Film Still), 2018, oil on gessoed board (http://johnmcguireolsen.com/)

The island of Los Angeles is declared separate from the United States and becomes a deportation point for all people found undesirable or unfit to live in the new moral America. The police force has been militarized into an army encamped along the shoreline, and any escape is impossible. From the southeast hills of Orange County to the northwest shores of Malibu, a Great Wall is built, presented on a map that includes only the municipalities of Long Beach, Hollywood, Los Angeles, Malibu, and Anaheim. This cartogram provides a survey of the limits of white Los Angeles and, like Banham and his ecological axes mapping the same territory, the filmmakers articulate a myopic and limited geographical focus on the palest parts of the city.

The radically anarchic denizens of this new L.A. demand the surrender of the government and the denunciation of their theocracy of lies and terror. With the rallying cry “the days of Empire are finished,” the demands are that all borders must be opened, and all wrongfully accused people must be allowed to return to their homeland. The goal of this revolution is to return North America to minorities and indigenous peoples, and to unite all ‘third world’ countries. Although Escape from L.A. is considered to be a cinematic mediocrity, conceptually this manifesto for freedom, justice, and solidarity presents an intriguing model for transforming current conditions in the real Los Angeles of the present. A quarantined utopia is a powerful dream space, promising radical democracy and freedom: a kind of pirate utopia.

John Olsen, Untitled (Film Still), 2018, oil on gessoed board (http://johnmcguireolsen.com/)

In 1991, Peter Lamborn Wilson, under the pen name of Hakim Bey, published T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism, a compelling but extremely problematic manifesto for a hippie/punk anarchistic utopic urban space he called the Temporary Autonomous Zone.[10] In this text, Wilson outlined a variety of potentialities and possibilities for the T.A.Z., but perhaps the most compelling example is the pirate utopia as a specific frontier experience, a secret island society capable of existing outside of the capitalist nation-state political system, while still maintaining a form of political agency for international negotiation and economic power advancement. Drawing on archival research, Wilson argued that the North African corsairs and renegadoes of the 17th and 18th centuries created an “information network” that spanned the globe, as well as remote, fortified island communities representing “a society without law.”[11][12] These renegades were not simply thieves, “they were ‘social bandits,’ although their base communities were not traditional peasant societies but ‘utopias’ created almost ex nihilo in terra incognita, enclaves of total liberty occupying empty spaces on the map.”[13]

Ten years later, Wilson further elaborated on these ideas in a full-length book titled Pirate Utopias: Moorish Corsairs & European Renegadoes.[14] In Wilson’s view, these pirate enclaves were early forms of independent proto-anarchist societies that operated beyond the reach of government and embraced unrestricted freedoms. Spatially and psychically nomadic, these pirates created a fluid and autonomous culture that privileged “interracial harmony, class solidarity, freedom from government, adventure, and possible glory.”[15] Unfortunately this radical equality seems to have almost exclusively extended to men, and Wilson downplays the role of rape and sexual violence in corsair culture, even offering the horrifying rationalization that being a sex slave in Algeria is better than being a free woman in Ireland because of the superior weather in North Africa.[16]

These buccaneer communities, like the population of Escape’s city-prisons, were a multi-racial group of exiles, composed of converted hostages, freed slaves, escapees from society and its institutions, and indigenous peoples, albeit with different forms of rule. Questions of freedom and bondage are also paramount in Carpenter’s films; all prisoners seek liberty, but we are never shown the United States to which they are trying to escape. Perhaps this is because the morally pure America the island serves to disinfect is an invisible fiction, the no-place described in the origins of the Utopic concept, or perhaps because this new fascist America is the real prison. Certainly our current era, in which basic constitutional rights are being eroded on a daily basis and social and administrative institutions dismantled wholesale, offers little other than punishment, confinement, disenfranchisement, and expulsion to those citizens who do not have the good fortune to be male, white, straight, Christian, and Republican.

Plissken’s submersible comes ashore near the Cahuenga Pass, and he makes his way into the Hollywood Hills. Underwater, the submersible passes by the wreckage of the Santa Monica Freeway and Universal Studios, and the ruins of a drowned and destroyed Hollywood-land. In the underwater city, waves curl and crest over vast expanses of broken freeways devoid of traffic.[17] Paintings emerge from Carpenter’s apocalyptic aquatic landscapes, one framing an oblong green sign for the 101 freeway towards downtown L.A. swims into view, a ubiquitous marker mapping the past, but now a signpost to no place and nowhere. Carpenter’s streetscapes are effects generated from hand-made images, with pale green light bathing a destroyed Capitol Records building and the debris and discarded remnants of Hollywood Boulevard, which was a trash heap for the city of Los Angeles anyway. In this destroyed dreamscape, the city becomes both figure and ground, both a corpse and a cemetery.[18][19]

All ruins result from disasters, either natural or human-made, and they trace the dynamics of destruction or disintegration. Ruins serve as cartographies of human misery and failure, but they are also the fragments from which lost worlds can be retrieved from the past or created entirely.[20] We complete ruins in the imaginary territory of fantasy and projection, allowing them to function simultaneously as image and reality. Ruins represent a kind of entropic future in which all things will fall apart; they offer a double direction and a return of the repressed, referencing a time to come as well as falling backwards into the past; a clue to solve history, and a platform on which to build the future.[21]

Susan Buck-Morss, writing on Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, describes the out-of-date ruins of the recent past as residues of a dreamworld. These dialectical images of the modern city produce a kind of utopian antipode, mapping a place that is both heaven and hell, fantasy and horror, a dreamworld and a catastrophe. But, Buck-Morss promises, these discarded dream fragments can be reanimated and reconstituted through a conscious reexamination committed to social justice that allows for the representation of disenfranchised peoples and hidden economies.[22] The same operation could be productively applied to Los Angeles neighborhoods on the frontlines of the battle against gentrification, particularly Boyle Heights.

The deus ex machina of Escape from L.A. hinges on a Doomsday weapon activated by Plissken that sends out a micro-targeted massive electric pulse shutting down every known power source, including transportation, technology, power, and infrastructure. The ruins of L.A. will soon become the ruins of the world, with a resetting of society and history of apocalyptic proportions and anarchic potential.

The question to consider is whether the kind of radical autonomy offered by Carpenter’s model is a romantic fantasy or a kernel of an idea for social revolution. Applied to a contemporary setting, the pirate utopia is perhaps an impossible dream. Technologies of surveillance and networks of connection might make this kind of liberty and independence unattainable, or, Wilson hypothesized, “in the future the same technology freed from all political control could make possible an entire world of autonomous zones.”[23] In a sense, the thought experiment of the pirate utopia can serve as a model for examining radical ways in which to create communities in wealthy cultural centers where the cost of living and repressive economic models of racial and geographical isolation, coupled with gentrification, have pushed citizens out – in New York and Los Angeles, but also in San Francisco, Chicago, Baltimore, San Diego, and a host of other international cities such as Berlin, Moscow, Vancouver, Jakarta, Rio de Janeiro, and many others. Socially and economically disenfranchised individuals are on display in the movie prisons of New York and L.A., but they are left off of the maps of the majority of social histories of these real places despite the fact that these groups are the most frequent victims of displacement through development and gentrification.

Although nostalgic, romantic, and utopian in nature, a proposition for a free enclave based on a unity of disunity is a powerful paradigm to consider. If Los Angeles were to become an autonomous colony of voluntary prisoners, instead of the dystopian failure we see in these cinema dreamworlds, we could reimagine it as a pirate republic in order to bring about an ultimate endgame of anti-gentrification reclamation and radical democracy for these marginalized communities. This conceptual model involves an inversion in which the jail becomes a fortress and the epidemic becomes the cure.

In 1972, Rem Koolhaas, along with Elia and Zoe Zenghelis, and Madelon Vriesendorp, produced his Architectural Association thesis titled Exodus, or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture. Inspired by a reimagining of the Berlin Wall, Koolhaas’s proposal described a future London as a city divided into two parts, one Good and one Bad. Migration between the two halves unevenly favored the good part of town, so a solution was devised. In his prologue, Koolhaas stated:

After all the attempts to interrupt this undesirable migration had failed, the authorities of the bad part made desperate and savage use of architecture: they built a wall around the good part of the city, making it completely inaccessible to their subjects. 

The Wall was a masterpiece.

Originally no more than some pathetic strings of barbed wire abruptly dropped on the imaginary line of the border, its psychological and symbolic effects were infinitely more powerful than its physical appearance. The Good Half, now glimpsed only over the forbidding obstacle from an agonizing distance, became even more irresistible. Those trapped, left behind in the gloomy Bad Half, became obsessed with vain plans for escape. Hopelessness reigned supreme on the wrong side of the Wall.[24]

But the possibility of a mirror image of this dystopian nightmare was also proposed; division, isolation, inequality, aggression, and destruction could be the ingredients of a new possibility, a new life. “The inhabitants of this Architecture,” Koolhaas claimed, “…would become its Voluntary Prisoners, ecstatic in the freedom of their architectural confines.”[25] Neither authoritarian nor hysterical, this new architecture was intended to be the “hedonistic science of designing collective facilities which fully accommodate individual desires,” promising a kind of freedom through bondage as well as a cure for masochism and self-hatred.[26]

The walls of Koolhaas’s segregated London enclose a rectangular slice of the city, protecting this region’s integrity and preventing any contamination by the world outside. Soon, Koolhaas predicted, inmates would begin to beg for admission and their numbers would swell into a deluge of immigration, the Exodus of London, with the old town becoming ruins. In his epilogue, Koolhaas writes; “Like the castaways on the raft of the Medusa, the last surviving realists, hanging on the parachute of hope are dropping on the rescue ship: THE CITY which, at the end of cannibalism, will appear on the horizon.”[27]

The Medusa’s castaways, famously the subject of Théodore Géricault’s history painting of 1818-19, were a collection of some 151 men evacuated onto a makeshift raft after a naval frigate was run aground off the coast of Mauritania due to an unqualified and incompetent captain who was given his command for political reasons. Abandoned by their superiors, the men were washed overboard, killed in armed combat, and eaten by each other when supplies ran low. After thirteen days at sea, only fifteen men had survived. Shipwreck narratives are often a kind of dystopic construct, and while the Medusa represents the worst possible outcomes of cannibalism and murder, happier stories of survival also exist, both in fiction, like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and in reality, like the HMS Bounty mutineers who founded a community on Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific in 1790 that remains in place today.

The shipwreck can also be used as an allegory for examining specific communities and neighborhoods in contemporary Los Angeles. The city is a collection of atomized neighborhoods that lend themselves to this analogy since the shipwreck is the smallest kind of island and also potentially a tiny pirate utopia.[28] The shipwreck is a maritime ruin, but also holds a utopian promise. The smallest unit of pirate society is the ship itself, and, according to Wilson, “pirate ships were true republics, each ship (or fleet) an independent floating democracy.”[29] The articles of every vessel served as both a constitution and the rule of Law, and ensured a purely communistic approach to wealth distribution, and an anarchistic view towards the permission of maximum personal liberties. This commitment to radical equality and maximum human rights could be used as a template for Los Angelenos who find themselves on the battlefield to save their communities and neighborhoods from becoming shipwrecks and to avoid becoming castaways themselves. A radical reconstitution of governance, citizenship, and property rights could allow those facing the scourge of artwashing and gentrification to stay in their homes, and to prevent neighborhoods or even entire cities from becoming de facto ghost towns full of absentee owners and devoid of actual residents.[30]

Koolhaas was wrong about the Berlin Wall, but he was right about London, which has become a city of the super rich in which working class neighborhoods are being evacuated to make way for the wealthy elite. In Los Angeles, this type of colonization has already decimated Silver Lake, Echo Park, and the Oakwood neighborhood of Venice Beach, among others. The frontlines against gentrification can now be found in the eastern Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights.[31] In all of these places, minority communities were created by racist housing covenants, carving out islands from the Plains of Id, Banham’s “endless flat city” stretching south from the Hollywood Hills towards the ports, encompassing South Central and East Los Angeles. This “Anywheresville/Nowheresville,” as he called it, was territory unwanted by more affluent and privileged populations until the present.[32]

The rapid growth of asset poverty in Los Angeles has disproportionately affected Black and Latinx communities in the present and the recent past. In a 2017 article titled “Los Angeles is Quickly Becoming a Place Exclusively for the Rich and White,” Jacob Woocher provides some stark examples: the Black population of LA county has declined from 13% to 8% since the 1980s, and Hollywood alone has seen the displacement of 13,000 Latinx residents since 2000 to make way for redevelopment.[33][34] Many of these exiled residents move to Lancaster and Palmdale in the high desert of Antelope Valley, which entails a commute of at least 90 minutes each way for jobs in L.A. County.[35][36]

But perhaps the most stunning evidence in Woocher’s text of a new geography of segregation and exclusion is a map that traces the mounting encroachment on the neighborhoods historically populated by Black and Latinx communities: Echo Park, Silver Lake, Downtown, and Boyle Heights, but also South Central, Crenshaw and Inglewood. It is largely impossible to live in Los Angeles and not be aware of our current housing crisis, “but what is less well understood is how this crisis is devastating specific communities of color across L.A., and changing the spatial apartheid of the region.”[37] These colonizations are happening rapidly and on multiple fronts both geographically and socioeconomically. Displacement occurs on many simultaneous levels.

Of Boyle Heights’ 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.[38] According to Newsweek, “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.”[39] Desperate to prevent their neighborhood from becoming the next Silver Lake, Echo Park, or even Chavez Ravine, radical community activist organizations such as Ovarian Psycos, Defend Boyle Heights, Serve the People Los Angeles, Union de Vecinos, and Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement operate within a context of urgency. Many of their demands are extremely basic; a laundromat, a homeless shelter, affordable housing for people who make less than $20,000 a year, maybe get some parks, and some gardens,” according to Union de Vecinos executive director Leonardo Vilchis.[40]

Among the targets of neighborhood fear and hostility are the white-owned art galleries that have spread across the river from the Arts District downtown. This tendency is encapsulated in the term ‘artwashing,’ with the galleries seen as a way for corporate interests to colonize the neighborhood under the guise of supporting the arts.[41] On February 12, 2017, a meeting organized by the newly created Artists’ Political Action Network was interrupted by protestors and a picket line. Formed in the wake of the Trump inauguration, APAN intended to organize a community response to xenophobia, racism, and economic injustice, as well as to address “increasingly alarming executive actions, policy proposals, and the culture of fear, hatred, and exclusion” and “to affirm that art is not neutral.”[42] In an editorial published in Hyperallergic two days later titled “How to Draw a (Picket) Line,” Nizan Shaked took issue not with APAN’s goals but with their chosen location, 356 Mission, a gallery and community art space operated by artist Laura Owens, New York gallerist Gavin Brown, and bookstore owner Wendy Yao and located along the new gallery row in Boyle Heights, which has been a touchstone for the battle against gentrification that has gripped this neighborhood for the last several years.

But in 356 Mission, activists and allies may have chosen a harmless target. Intended as a non-collecting exhibition space and a location for performances, community workshops, and fundraisers, the building housed a number of different business concerns before Owens found it abandoned in 2012 and rented it at market rates. 356 Mission owned no property, claimed to have no relationships with developers, and did not have material financial investments in Boyle Heights; none of the performances or exhibitions resulted in commissions or profits, and all employees other than the founders were paid a fair wage and offered healthcare. Because their goal was to sustain and expand programming, regularly occurring operational deficits were covered by the founders.[43] However, although it was conceived as a social possibility for creative community in an underserved neighborhood, Owens’s project was identified by activists as an enemy instead of an ally.[44] 

In November 2017, the VIP opening of Owens’s mid-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum was disrupted by a coalition of protestors from New York and Los Angeles (including members of Defend Boyle Heights and Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement) who accused the artist and her gallerist of being at the forefront of art-washing in Boyle Heights (Brown is also accused of doing the same thing in Harlem and New York’s Chinatown). In their words, “Laura Owens and Gavin Brown, the same hip artists, wealthy investors, and blue-chip gallerists are developing their enterprises on both coasts, many of them directly in Boyle Heights and in other working-class POC neighborhoods.”[45]

Barraged by anonymous insults online, and even death threats, Owens expressed her dismay at this breakdown in negotiations, and ultimately announced the closure of 356 Mission in March 2018. This departure was preceded by a wave of closures of other Boyle Heights galleries, including PSSST, Chimento Contemporary, Museum as Retail Space, and UTA Artist Space.[46][47]

But the housing crisis has not abated and the threat of gentrification remains ominous because galleries are a symptom, not the cause of this condition. Owens has rightly pointed out that “neighborhoods such as Highland Park, Glassell Park, Echo Park and Silver Lake have all recently gentrified without similar art scenes,” and it is worth examining why Boyle Heights is a special case in large part due to urban infrastructure.[48]

The historic downtown of Los Angeles is framed by a diamond of freeways, with the 110 and 101 forming the top and the 5 and the 10 forming the bottom. Looking at a map of this territory and drawing lines south from its epicenter, the eye travels from the financial and business districts to the wholesale and light manufacturing concerns that doubled as Skid Row, into what became in more recent times the Arts District further south and east.[49]

Historically, Boyle Heights was separate from this cluster of concerns, being east of the 101, south of the 110 and bifurcated by both the 5 and 710 freeways. But when the Gold Line Metro Eastside Extension entered service in 2009, it connected the San Gabriel Valley to East L.A. through the central hub of Union Station.[50] The Gold Line opened up the city to residents of Boyle Heights in many ways, allowing a neighborhood that was historically underserved by public transit and often populated by people who couldn’t afford to own cars a way to access school and employment in other locations. But the Gold Line also opened up the neighborhood for Los Angelenos from outside its borders, providing access not to jobs or education, but reliable and efficient transportation to low cost housing, particularly for those who wanted to buy homes in Southern California’s overheated real estate market.

Compounding and exacerbating the effect of the Metro has been the anticipation of the long planned reconstruction of the Sixth Street Viaduct. Spanning the 101 freeway and connecting the Arts District to Boyle Heights, the bridge, called the “Ribbon of Light,” was pushed back another two years in July 2019 and will now officially reopen in 2022. Developers and city planners claim that the viaduct will see the establishment of green space below and pedestrian, cyclist, and automotive thoroughfares above.[51] However, as is typical of the conflicts between the territories joined by this structure, the distribution of this bounty appears to be unequal. In May 2019, city officials announced that the only work of art planned for the new park, a large-scale Glenn Kaino sculpture of hands making the “L.A. fingers,” would be located on the Arts District side of the bridge, and in fact would not even be visible from the Boyle Heights side.[52] Geographical hand gestures have a long tradition in the city of Los Angeles, but this one was introduced to the mainstream through a 1995 photograph by artist Estevan Oriole and it has always been associated with East L.A. and Latinx culture.

In the decades between 1934 and 1968, the Federal Housing Administration enacted a series of racist and discriminatory policies that made it almost impossible for many residents of color to obtain mortgages in specific areas. During this time period, redlining, an overt practice of denying mortgages based upon race and ethnicity played a significant role in the legalization and institutionalization of racism and segregation indexed through color-coded maps.[53] It is no surprise that overlaying a redlining map of Los Angeles on top of a map of recent gentrification would cause an almost complete overlap. But as critic Travis Diehl has noted, when activists do not differentiate corporate galleries from community serving non-profits or grassroots organizations, a kind of absolutism takes place that is the mirror image of redlining.[54]

The radical anti-gentrification activist community in Boyle Heights is, like many utopias, an all-or-nothing endeavor that reveals the cracks and fissures in the societies and systems that produce them. However, redlining exclusionary measures could potentially be replicated as a means of resistance, one that is explicitly anti-gentrification but potentially welcoming to artists willing to abide by a new covenant for shared living. New color-coded maps could be created for contested neighborhoods with exclusive legislation for ownership and control of growth and change given over to stakeholders instead of speculative developers. Closing borders to any newcomers is a form of absolutist restriction that echoes the negative implications of redlined divisions of the past. Solutions could include artists and activists working together with the shared goals of community control and autonomy to create points of entry for ‘voluntary prisoners’ of the type proposed by Koolhaas in 1971.

In Los Angeles, a model for community control over development and commercial and residential growth already exists in the form of Neighborhood Councils, but these bodies are often politically manipulated to serve the interests of wealthy residents, business-owners, and property developers.[55] Within these contested communities, new community councils could be created with representation and voting based on a points system, awarded on the basis of such criteria as years of residence, working and/or attending school within the neighborhood, and socio-economic status.

Neighborhood community housing authorities could also be put in place to regulate and restrict the buying, selling, development of property in certain cooperative areas. An example of this model is the Irvine Campus Housing Authority created by the University of California, Irvine with the goal of providing affordable housing to the UCI community.[56] Housing in the University Hills development is community controlled and sub-leased to residents, with the maximum resale price under this system restricted to the sum of the initial purchase adjusted for inflation plus the appraised value of capital improvements. The purpose of these resale price limitations is to preclude these homes from serving as speculative investment vehicles, and this could serve as a foundation for the institution of similar real estate controls that would quell the housing crisis and combat gentrification in besieged neighborhoods such as Boyle Heights.

The North African pirate communities in the 18th and 19th centuries provide a valuable historical framework for an alternative and autonomous model of social transformation, unlike the Maoist political model favored by many Boyle Heights activists. After all, Mao’s Cultural Revolution resulted in the repression of artistic activity in China for decades. The idea of the pirate utopia promises the seizure and equitable redistribution of property and capital, radical equality in terms of individual rights, the ability to achieve sovereignty in negotiations with governments of nations/states, and absolute democracy in terms of leadership and social relations. The idea also offers an alternate to the dystopia predicted by Ridley Scott and John Carpenter; but also Edward Soja and Mike Davis; Raymond Chandler, Thomas Pynchon, and James Ellroy. Instead of apocalypse, the ruins of L.A. can serve as the laboratory for a foundation of a new Utopia, a place of salvation and redemption instead of doom.

Dr. Amy Pederson Converse is a Professor of Art History at Woodbury University and an independent curator of contemporary art. Her research interests include animal sovereignty, radical democracy, and Superman.

Images: paintings by artist John Olsen based on screenshots from the film Escape from L.A. 


[1] Mari Carmen Ramírez, “A Highly Topical Utopia: Some Outstanding Features of the Avant-Garde in Latin America,” in Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America, eds. Mari Carmen Ramírez and Hector Olea, (Yale: Yale University Press, 2004), 2.

[2] Of the forty-four original founding pobladores, only two were white Europeans while twenty-six had some degree of African ancestry, eleven were indigenous, and the remaining five were mestizos. a majority of 26 were identified as having African ancestry, (Jarrette Fellows, Jr., “Black Mexico: Colonial Los Angeles,” Compton Herald, December 26, 2017, https://comptonherald.org/black-mexico-colonizing-los-angeles/).

[3] In his 1971 book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, Reyner Banham describes four territories of limited scope: Surfurbia, comprising the beach communities; Foothills, stretching from the Palisades to the San Gabriel Valley; the Plains of Id, a vast undifferentiated tract of land spilling from the Hollywood Hills south to the ports; and Autopia, the network of freeways suturing everything together.

[4] Norman M. Klein, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory (London: Verso, 1997), 27.

[5] Norman M. Klein, “Building Blade Runner,” Social Text, no. 28 (1991): 147.

[6] Ibid, 147.

[7] Ibid, 149.

[8] One of the great movie villains who achieved stardom in 1966’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly starring Clint Eastwood and directed by Sergio Leone, Lee Van Cleef is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills, where his memorial inscription reads “Best of the Bad.”

[9] Ed Naha, “Escape from New York,” Future Life, no. 30 (November 1981): 44. In this interview, Russell claims; “He isn’t a hero but he’s not a villain, either. Something happened to Snake when he was fighting World War III in Siberia. Whatever it was must have been ugly. So ugly that it turned him into a near automaton” (49).

[10] T.A.Z. is problematic for a number of reasons, but largely because of Bey’s unethical, immoral, and illegal stance in support of “man-boy love,” which could be credibly termed a pro-pedophilia advocacy. The anarchist philosopher Robert P. Helms has led a public campaign, mainly on the Internet, against Wilson/Bey in which he accuses him of being a “public pedophile intellectual of international reputation,” (Leaving Out the Ugly Part—On Hakim Bey, Research for Anarchism e-mail list, August 8, 2004, https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/robert-p-helms-leaving-out-the-ugly-part-on-hakim-bey). Helms has stated that “the pedophile writings of Hakim Bey indicate a general deceit in his philosophy, and are evidence that his concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone is inspired by opportunism, not by good will. He presents arguments for human freedom while actually wishing to create situations where he is free to put his deranged sexuality into practice” (Ibid). Wilson/Bey’s defenders have argued that Helms’s claims are unfounded and unfair. Critics such as Simon Sellars have suggested that the Helms campaign against Wilson is a form of institutionalized homophobia, but this seems an unlikely reading given that Wilson has been a vocal and long term supporter of the North American Man/Boy Love Association.

[11] The first decades of the 1600s saw numerous corsair raids on places as far away as Iceland, Ireland, and Newfoundland.

[12] Hakim Bey, T.A.Z. The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism (Pittsburgh, PA: Autonomedia, 1985), 86.

[13] Ibid, 106-107.

[14] Peter Lamborn Wilson, Pirate Utopias: Moorish Corsairs and European Renegadoes (Pittsburgh, PA: Autonomedia, 1995).

[15] Ibid, 191.

[16] Ibid, 133-134.

[17] The empty freeway as a sculpture or an aesthetic landscape has strong antecedents in contemporary art history. In an interview in Artforum from 1966, Tony Smith recounted an illicit nocturnal ride on the then-unfinished New Jersey Turnpike in the early 1950s: “It was a dark night and there were no lights or shoulder markers, lines, railings or anything at all except the dark pavement moving through the landscape of the flats, rimmed by hills in the distance, but punctuated by stacks, towers, fumes and colored lights. This drive was a revealing experience. The road and much of the landscape was artificial, and yet it couldn’t be called a work of art. […] It seemed that there had been a reality there which had not had any expression in art.” Samuel J. Wagstaff Jr., “Talking with Tony Smith: ‘I view art as something vast,’” Artforum 5, no. 4 (December 1966): 19.

[18] In Roland Barthes’ 1977 book A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, the body subjected to the lover’s gaze is dissected until it becomes a corpse.

[19] Ruins by their very nature have an ambiguous relationship with modernism, and through their condition, to quote Vidler, the city becomes “…no more or less than a cemetery of its own past.” Anthony Vidler, “Air War and Architecture,” eds. Julia Hell & Andreas Schonle, Ruins of Modernity (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2009), 34.

[20] Fragments are multiplications of permutations that possess both negative and positive possibilities, or, as architectural historian Robin Middleton has theorized, they are “…remnants of achievements and a plenitude that is irrevocably lost, or as elements of a restorative power that can provide symbolic and poetic meaning to newly constituted wholes.” Robin Middleton, “Soane’s Spaces and the Matter of Fragmentation,’ eds. Margaret Richardson & Mary Anne Stevens, John Soane, Architect: Master of Space and Light (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1999), 35.

[21] Anthony Vidler, “Architecture Dismembered,” in The Architectural Uncanny (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), 69-84.

[22] Susan Buck-Morss, “The City as Dreamworld and Catastrophe, October, Vol. 73 (Summer 1995), 3-26.

[23] Wilson, Pirate Utopias, 92.

[24] Exodus or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture was Koolhaas’s entry for Casabella’s 1972 competition “The City as Meaningful Environment”

and also his final project at the Architectural Association in London. Rem Koolhaas, Elia Zenghelis, Madelon Vriesendorp, and Zoe Zenghelis, “Exodus, or the voluntary prisoners of architecture” in Jeffrey Kipnis, ed. Perfect Acts of Architecture (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2001), 15-33.

[25] Ibid, 18.

[26] Ibid, 18.

[27] Koolhaas, “Epilogue,” n.p.

[28] Other cinematic examples set in different iterations of Los Angeles serve to illustrate these possibilities. In Charles Burnett’s 1977 film Killer of Sheep, the director tells a series of small stories strung together against the backdrop of south central Los Angeles, which serves as an island republic of poverty, geography and race remote from the binary tropes of sunshine and noir often featured in modern filmic representations of the city. The twin barriers of poverty and race hold Stan and his family in a bubble world, frozen in time and place, unable to advance socially or economically because of the many institutional barriers that have been in place for the entirety of their lives, and also the history of this country, this state, and this city. Director Allison Anders’s 1993 film Mi Vida Loca is another small story about a small place, telling the stories of girl gang members in Echo Park in the early 1990s, another island of low-income families experiencing geographical and economic isolation. Anders’s Echo Park dreamworld is an island of women, since the men in this community come and go, or as veterana homegirl Giggles says, “by the time our boys are 21, they’re either in prison or disabled or dead. It’s fucked up, but that’s the way it is. We’re left alone to raise our kids. We got to think about the future.” The futures of the women left behind are also limited by early motherhood, and a lack of employment and educational opportunities, but they endure and do not dream of escape despite their literal isolation within the borders of gang territories in north east Los Angeles, and the figurative isolation of their gender. The film closes with Sad Girl espousing a wish and a prayer that, “by the time my daughter grows up, Echo Park will belong to her.” But the final scene of the film takes place in front of El Batey market, which closed in 2014 after 48 years in business in order for the landlord to clear the space and offer it for a retail lease at $6000 a month. Born in 1992, Sad Girl’s daughter would be 25 today and it is unlikely that she would still live in the neighborhood of her birth.

[29] Bey, T.A.Z., 191.

[30] Many of the houses in the most desirable neighborhoods of Vancouver, my childhood home, have been purchased over the last decade by foreign investors who have no intention of living in them. This has created an uncanny effect of street after street of brand new homes that are dark and uninhabited.

[31] Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement, “More On Gentrification: History of Gentrification, Cultural Capital, Galleries & Artists/Criticism of Cultural Industries, Solidarity & Resistance Across Los Angeles/Recent Press on Gentrifying Art Spaces in Los Angeles,” accessed January 22, 2019, http://alianzacontraartwashing.org/en/gentrification/

[32] Reyner Banham, “Ecology III: The Plains of Id” in Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 161-177.

[33] Jacob Woocher, “Los Angeles is quickly becoming a place exclusively for the rich and white,” Knock L.A., November 7, 2017, https://knock-la.com/los-angeles-is-quickly-becoming-a-place-exclusively-for-the-white-and-rich-c585953e0614

[34] Saba Waheed, Tamara Haywood, Lola Smallwood-Cuevas, Psalm Brown, Reyna Orellana, “2017 Report: Ready to Work, Uprooting Inequity: Black Workers in Los Angeles County,” UCLA Labor Center, accessed January 22, 2019, https://www.labor.ucla.edu/publication/ready-to-work-uprooting-inequity-black-workers-in-los-angeles-county/

[35] Kim Stringfellow, “The Shifting Demographics of Antelope Valley—And Development’s Consequences,” KCET Artbound, December 12, 2017, https://www.kcet.org/shows/artbound/the-shifting-demographics-of-antelope-valley-and-developments-consequences

[36] Patrick Range McDonald, “Hollywood’s Urban Cleansing,” L.A. Weekly, January 3, 2013, http://www.laweekly.com/news/hollywoods-urban-cleansing-2612554

[37] Woocher, Ibid.

[38] Alexander Nazaryan, “The ‘Artwashing’ of America: The Battle for the Soul of Los Angeles,” Newsweek, May 21, 2017, http://www.newsweek.com/2017/06/02/los-angeles-gentrification-california-developers-art-galleries-la-art-scene-608558.html

[39] Ibid.

[40] Saul Gonzalez, “In This LA Neighborhood, Protest Art is a Verb,” National Public Radio, June 27, 2017, http://www.npr.org/2017/06/27/534443389/in-this-la-neighborhood-protest-art-is-a-verb

[41] Rory Carroll, “’Hope everyone pukes on your artisanal treats’: fighting gentrification , LA-style,” The Guardian, April 19, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/apr/19/los-angeles-la-gentrification-resistance-boyle-heights

[42] Nizan Shaked, “How to Draw a (Picket) Line: Activists Protest Event at Boyle Heights Gallery,” Hyperallergic, February 14, 2017,  https://hyperallergic.com/358652/how-to-draw-a-picket-line-activists-protest-event-at-boyle-heights-gallery/

[43] Laura Owens, “356 Mission,” November 2017,  http://356mission.tumblr.com/post/167491143840/para-espa%C3%B1ol-haga-clic-aqu%C3%AD-356-mission-rd

[44] In the artist’s recounting, “their single and inflexible demand is that we hand over the keys of the space to them and end 356. It is also very important to them that I ‘leave graciously’ by signing a document saying I agree with all their ideas and I have learned from them.” Peter Schjeldahl, “The Radical Paintings of Laura Owens,” The New Yorker, October 30, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/10/30/the-radical-paintings-of-laura-owens

[45] Benjamin Sutton, “Anti-Gentrification Activists Protest Laura Owens Exhibition at the Whitney Museum,” Hyperallergic, November 10, 2017, https://hyperallergic.com/411134/anti-gentrification-activists-protest-laura-owens-exhibition-at-the-whitney-museum/

[46] Abe Ahn, “More Galleries are Leaving the Contested Los Angeles Neighborhood of Boyle Heights,” Hyperallergic, May 4, 2018, https://hyperallergic.com/440967/mars-chimento-uta-artist-space-leaving-boyle-heights/

[47] In terms of ‘artwashing,’ UTA could be considered the worst offender given its attempts to create a similar management and representation system for art that it has long operated as a Hollywood talent agency. Jordan Riefe, “UTA Artist Space Protested by Anti-Gentrification Groups,” The Hollywood Reporter, November 16, 2016, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/rambling-reporter/uta-artist-space-comes-under-continued-protests-by-community-groups-946192 But protests did not cause this space’s closure, rather its relocation to Beverly Hills. This is a much more appropriate location for the gallery’s intended audience who would likely be hard pressed to drive to East L.A., and doubly so considering that the Board of Directors of MOCA until recently chose to hold their board meetings in Beverly Hills as well. See Christopher Knight, “MOCA has lacked an effective director for 20 years. It’s time for a change,” Los Angeles Times, May 26, 2018, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-cm-moca-director-20180526-story.html

[48] Owens, Ibid.

[49] Nathan Masters, “How Los Angeles Got a ‘Downtown,’” KCET, January 9, 2015, https://www.kcet.org/shows/lost-la/how-los-angeles-got-a-downtown

[50] Originally opened in 2003, the Gold Line initially operated between Union Station downtown and Sierra Madre Villa in Pasadena. Later, the Gold Line Foothill extension expanded the route north to Azusa in 2016.

[51] Bianca Barragan, “Taking a look at the under-construction Sixth Street Bridge,” Curbed Los Angeles, March 16, 2018, https://la.curbed.com/2018/3/16/17129192/la-sixth-street-bridge-construction-101-freeway

[52] Bianca Barragan, “Arts District to get Sixth Street bridge’s first public art piece: a sculpture of the ‘LA’fingers,” Curbed Los Angeles, May 23, 2019, https://la.curbed.com/2019/5/23/18635737/sixth-street-bridge-la-hands-sculpture

[53] Green areas are “hot spots”; they are not yet fully built up. Blue areas, as a rule, are completely developed. Yellow areas are characterized by age, obsolescence, and change of style; expiring restrictions or lack of them; infiltration of a lower grade population; the presence of influences which increase sales resistance such as inadequate transportation, insufficient utilities, perhaps heavy tax burdens, poor maintenance of homes, etc. Red areas represent those neighborhoods in which the things that are now taking place in the Yellow neighborhoods, have already happened. They are characterized by detrimental influences in a pronounced degree, undesirable population or infiltration of it. Low percentage of home ownership, very poor maintenance and often vandalism prevail. Unstable incomes of the people and difficult collections are usually prevalent. Testbed for Redlining of California’s Exclusionary Spaces, University of Maryland, accessed January 22, 2019, http://salt.umd.edu/T-RACES/colormap.html

[54] Travis Diehl, “An Ultra-red Line,” X-TRA, October 12, 2017, http://x-traonline.org/online/travis-diehl-op-ed-an-ultra-red-line/

[55] “Neighborhood Councils,” Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, City of Los Angeles, last modified 2017, http://empowerla.org/councils/

[56] “Home Resale Requirements and Resale Restrictions,” Irvine Campus Housing Authority, http://icha.uci.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/HOME-RESALE-REQUIREMENTS-AND-RESALE-RESTRICTIONS.pdf https://icha.uci.edu/find-housing/for-sale-housing/