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Around seventy activists attend a news conference to protest against the gentrification of Boyle Heights outside the Nicodim Gallery on November 5, 2016. Photo: LA Times

Arts Nonprofit in Boyle Heights Closes Due to “Constant Attacks” by Anti-Gentrification Groups

PSSST, a nonprofit space that opened only one year ago in the working-class Boyle Heights neighborhood of downtown Los Angeles, has closed its doors after being repeatedly targeted by anti-gentrification activists.

Cofounders Barnett Cohen, Pilar Gallego, and Jules Gimbrone said that their artists and staff members were being trolled online and harassed. In a joint statement, the cofounders said, “This persistent targeting, which was often highly personal in nature, was made all the more intolerable because the artists we engaged are queer, women, and/or people of color. We could no longer continue to put already vulnerable communities at further risk.” The gallery said it was facing “constant attacks.”

As a direct result of the community division over the growing presence of art galleries in Boyle Heights and the ongoing protests by anti-gentrification groups such as Defend Boyle Heights and Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement, the gallery’s fundraising efforts suffered.

“While our closure might be applauded by some, it is not a victory for civil discourse and coalition building at a time when both are in short supply. The ongoing representation of a divisive battle––nonprofit art spaces versus the residents of Boyle Heights––resulted in the mischaracterization of PSSST as being fundamentally in opposition with the varied intersectional communities we aimed to support. This made fundraising an impossibility. Without financial support, PSSST, a fledgling nonprofit, cannot survive,” said the gallery.

In response, Defend Boyle Heights and Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement issued a joint statement. An excerpt reads: “For the 296 families living in Pico Gardens, fighting against the privatization of their public housing and the thousands of Boyle Heights tenants that are struggling against harassment and rent increases, this is a victory. PSSST’s rightful departure confirms the importance of fighting against the ‘common sense’ notion that gentrification is supposedly inevitable.”

It further criticizes the galleries for not understanding the community’s plight: “PSSST arrogantly ignores the reality of the people who must build coalitions and local power to survive! As President Trump escalates deportations, as Border Patrol and ICE enforce the executive orders that violate the civil rights of Muslims and immigrants, and as city planners empower developers to artwash working-class communities across the nation, the most marginalized people must continue to build strong national coalitions in order to resist!”

Since PSSST only leased its five-thousand-square-foot space at 1329 East Third Street, the owner assumes control of the building. Cohen, Gallego, and Gimbrone said that they will not reopen the space and will go their separate ways. Meanwhile, the two anti-gentrification groups have promised “to not stop fighting until all galleries leave.”

Residents of Boyle Heights tried to hold community meetings with the gallery owners last fall to inform them about concerns over rent spikes and developers pushing out local residents—consequences many assume are from welcoming galleries into the neighborhood. The groups expressed frustration with the government for granting galleries such as PSSST a 501(C)3 when there aren’t any affordable grocery stores in the area.

While the majority of the anti-gentrification activists have chosen to peacefully protest galleries, in November 2016 several arts spaces were vandalized. Citing a graffitied curse aimed at “white art” that appeared on Nicodim Gallery’s security grille, police said they would investigate the incidents as possible hate crimes.

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