Boiling Heights: Diverging Politics and Anti-Gentrification Activism in the Boyle Heights Neighborhood of Los Angeles
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Boiling Heights: Diverging Politics and Anti-Gentrification Activism in the Boyle Heights Neighborhood of Los Angeles

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Over the past three decades scholars across disciplines of urban planning, urban sociology, and geography have paid particular attention to gentrification in aspiring global cities, a phenomenon characterized by the convergence of neoliberalism along with shifting structural and cultural production and consumption in cities. Within the American context, gentrification is increasingly looked to by urban elites as a city-led development strategy to lure capital into targeted spaces, expanding speculative pressures outward from the urban core into inner lying neighborhoods. Many of these spaces include working-class immigrant enclaves and low-income black and brown neighborhoods that have historically borne the brunt of disinvestment and marginalization. Alongside research on gentrification, scholars have also increasingly studied the various types of activism and community engagement strategies that have emerged in response. For low-income neighborhoods of color specifically, both gentrification and the activism that it catalyzes builds upon the long-standing legacies of concentrated state violence and punitive urban policy, as well as civil rights and anti-displacement struggles that have sustained urban political movements. Gentrification complicates racial and ethnic politics, along with conceptualizations of community, change, and progress as it simultaneously appears to promise much needed investment, while exacerbating existing conditions of inequality and criminalization of poor immigrant and communities of color in the city.This dissertation examines this dialectical link between urban change and activism in the historically working-class Latinx immigrant neighborhood of Boyle Heights in Los Angeles. Like other working-class and poor black and brown neighborhoods across the United States, Boyle Heights is shaped by its history of segregation and its inexpensive housing for low-income foreign-and native-born residents of color. Today, the community is overwhelmingly made up of poor and working-class Latinx renters, first-time homeowners, mom-and-pop landlords, and small businesses making it extremely vulnerable to predatory speculation and economic shifts. I investigate the nature of gentrification and politics of neighborhood activism through the dueling anti-gentrification strategies among two Latinx-serving community-based organizations. While many neighborhood organizations and activists in Boyle Heights perceive gentrification as a threat, their strategies and political networks diverge sharply along radical and reformist political lines that cluster around the East Los Angeles Community Corporation (ELACC), a prominent, progressive nonprofit developer that has served the neighborhood since 1995, and Defend Boyle Heights (DBH), an autonomous grassroots organization that emerged in 2016 as the antithesis to nonprofit politics in the neighborhood. Both organizations and their allies have generated distinctly different understandings of gentrification and antagonistic strategies to fight it, both of which reveal two contrasting collective identities and processes of organizational legitimation. Guiding this research are the following questions: (1) How has gentrification affected existing inequalities and grievances in Boyle Heights? (2) What gives rise to the diverging collective strategies against gentrification among ELACC and DBH? And (3) how do the diverging strategies generate different collective identities and ways for articulating and asserting rights claims for Latinx communities in a gentrifying city? For this work, I utilized reflexive ethnographic methods through which I analyzed urban transformation in Boyle Heights while investigating the diverging ways in which ELACC and DBH were interpreting change and mobilizing to resist it. I draw from three data sources for this work: (1) twenty-eight months of direct participant observation within ELACC and DBH, (2) sixty-eight in-depth interviews across their organizational networks, and (3) archival materials including a database of 665 local newspaper articles on neighborhood change and activism in Boyle Heights and one of 846 DBH Facebook entries. Using this data, I engaged in two levels of analysis including the macro and meso contexts of Boyle Heights. The macro context investigates how urban change structures political relationships, resources, and action among community-based organizations. The meso focuses on the ways in which networks, resources, and strategy are used as vital forms of organizational capital in both institutional and grassroots political arenas that shape development and urban movements within and beyond the neighborhood. Taken together, this study allowed me to carry out a rich comparison of the organizational worlds of ELACC and DBH, while tracing the structural and cultural conditions that shape the ways in which gentrification and activism have unfolded over time in Boyle Heights. This dissertation contains three substantive chapters (Chapters 2-4). Chapter 2 engages with theories on cultural gentrification and the concept of marketable ethnicity to examine how Latinx culture is used to both facilitate and contest gentrification. I argue that Boyle Heights represents a case in which culture is used as an instrument by the city and neighborhood activists to struggle over space and place. As gentrification began to visibly materialize in the neighborhood in the early 2000s, local political elites and activists simultaneously mobilized themselves and the culture of the neighborhood to engage with neighborhood change. Local political elites attempted to capitalize on the influx of investment by wielding Latinx culture to repackage Boyle Heights as a space worthy of investment and integration into the modernization plans of Los Angeles. Community organizations and activists responded by debating the implications of gentrification and cultural representation of the neighborhood. While some opted to engage with institutional politics to insert themselves in the impending changes, others rejected redevelopment altogether arguing that it perpetuated displacement and racialization in the neighborhood. As gentrification escalated in the neighborhood, so did the political response from the community. However, those expressions and experiences that aligned most with the city’s vision for the neighborhood were uplifted in the planning process, while others were filtered out and alienated, effectively contributing to a battleground of activism with diverging organizational approaches to engage with neighborhood change. In this case, culture became the terrain and stake through which space and cultural representation were contested, forcing the community to debate the terms of belonging in a gentrifying Boyle Heights. From these ongoing debates emerged ELACC and DBH as two leading organizations in the neighborhood. Chapters 3 and 4 turn to ELACC and DBH respectively. Chapter 3 focuses on ELACC to examine the development of the organization’s inside-outside strategy to serve the low-income Latinx community of Boyle Heights and fight gentrification. Undergirded by ELACC’s mission to remedy historic inequality and bring greater equity to the Eastside, this double strategy was characterized by the organization’s attempts to engage in community development by integrating the contradictory fields of real estate development and grassroots community organizing. Tracing the development of ELACC and their strategy since its inception in 1995, I explain how the organization successfully garnered political legitimacy within the community along with municipal and philanthropic political arenas to shape public and private development slated for the neighborhood. This double strategy allowed them to grow as a developer and political organizing force, eventually becoming the premier Latinx-led nonprofit organization on the Eastside. However, I argue that ELACC’s decision to leverage its growth and legitimacy to expand its real estate activities while rescaling its organizing efforts to take on larger forces of gentrification beyond the neighborhood exacerbated the underlying antagonistic values and goals between real estate development and grassroots community organizing. I argue that over time, such underlying antagonisms undermined the organization’s legitimacy among the community and alienated them from serving the neighborhood. As gentrification progressed in the neighborhood and ELACC continued to grow, their strategy incited conflict within and outside of the organization. ELACC’ strategy helped polarize the debate among organizations and activists as some in the neighborhood aligned and worked more closely with them while others accused them of becoming a gentrifier and part of the establishment, making room for new anti-gentrification voices and strategies to emerge. Chapter 4 centers on the emergence of DBH, which viewed gentrification as a deliberate development strategy to erase working-class and poor people of color from cities. Using high-risk direct action, they sought to disrupt the material and cultural conditions of development to call attention to urban contradictions that destabilize and criminalize the lives of poor communities, while defending the neighborhood from the most immediate threats of displacement, such as landlord harassment and rent increases, police brutality, and immigration raids. I examine what they referred to as a revolutionary anti-gentrification strategy and their collective identity rooted in hood solidarity. DBH used hood solidarity to develop a dual sense of place of the hood as both a geographic and symbolic space. I argue that this dual sense of place allowed them to reclaim the meaning of the hood as a space that has been historically relegated to the margins while simultaneously localizing and broadening their efforts to build a movement against gentrification. It allowed them to focus on defending the most vulnerable community members in Boyle Heights, while deploying their anti-gentrification message to other activists and community organizations engaged in similar against gentrification and displacement struggles in neighborhoods across the United States. DBH deployed this message online and through direct action on the ground, solidifying their activist network in the neighborhood and expanding it across neighborhoods. Through hood solidarity, DBH proudly reclaimed and elevated the hood as a place and unifying marker of identity. They broke from the dominant institutional strategies of neighborhood defense in response to gentrification at the time, reframed the constitution of the community through struggle, and redefined the nature of gentrification in the neighborhood. This research provides a window into the ways in which community organizations in a historically working-class Latinx neighborhood respond to gentrification and how they fight to shape urban change. The case of Boyle Heights is particularly important as it reflects the debates and conflicts developing in neighborhoods across gentrifying cities on the fate of poor Latinx communities specifically and low-income communities of color more generally. ELACC, DBH, and their respective multi-scalar networks of like-minded allies engaged in efforts to reclaim the places and experiences of marginalized communities, like Boyle Heights, that are often left out or forgotten in the name of revitalization and progress. Both point to the ways in which the normative culture and practices in planning are implicated in perpetuating the unequal and punitive conditions that it often seeks to address, reminding us that cities and infrastructure are not neutral but build upon histories of suffering and struggle in space. However, different political positionings and collective identities between them has resulted in antagonistic understandings of gentrification, political strategy, and visions of the future for communities of color in the city. ELACC and DBH cease to be the organizations they were at the time of this study. Yet, the differences between them and the various political struggles outlined in this dissertation continue to reverberate and evolve in both institutional and grassroots political arenas in the neighborhood and in neighborhoods across the greater Los Angeles Metropolitan Region. Research on community engagement and urban movements across planning and urban studies often conceives of marginalized communities as politically homogeneous with adversarial relationships taking shape between insiders and outsiders on single issues in the built environment. The evolving role of community-based organizations serving such communities and the ways in which they struggle through and navigate the politics of urban change continues to be understudied. My research on gentrification and anti-gentrification activism contributes to these literatures by placing them in conversation with sociology, geography, and cultural studies to reckon with the conflicts and contradictions that exist within one neighborhood as urban transformation unfolds. I argue that within communities, structural inequality and political struggles can accumulate and build upon one another over time. As seen in the case of Boyle Heights, urban political struggles cut across issues that reflect the complexity of phenomenon like gentrification that exacerbate structural inequality, intensifying action as inequality and suffering grows sharper. The political fissures and conflicts that emerge can productively move debate forward as it creates spaces for new voices and understandings to emerge. Such struggles take place at multiple levels often among organizational actors with competing politics and visions of the future vying for resources and legitimacy. As seen through struggles within historical political movements, organizations, like ELACC, that opt to incorporate institutional politics have a much higher chance of gaining a seat at the decision-making table while being subjected to monumental structural pressures that can create political pressures internally while alienating them from advocating for the very communities they set out to serve. Others, like DBH, who reject institutional politics to incorporate a more forceful strategy, opt for a far less sustainable organizational path, but leave us with important insights on the values and experiences that give meaning to the lives of the most marginalized. Both organizational paths provide valuable analyses on structural inequality and lessons on organizational strategy, as well as how to serve the most vulnerable communities in cities more effectively.

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