Ms. Tracy A. Stone
How to Combat Gentrification (and Save an Arts Community)
Ms. Tracy A. Stone
We all know that the arts can be seen as superfluous, or non-essential, especially in times of crisis or economic hardship. This was certainly the case for the small, working-class community of Elysian Valley (aka Frogtown), a mixed-use neighborhood along the Los Angeles River in the center of the city. In the middle of the last decade, residents of the area (with a mixture of Latino and Asian ancestries) co-existed uneasily with a small group of artists and craftspeople who (sometimes illegally) occupied the former manufacturing buildings lining the river. The relationship between the two groups was non-existent at best, and full of suspicion at worst. Residents focused on “practical skills” and knowledge that would lead to jobs, uninterested in the arts as a worthwhile practice. Meanwhile, the local gang members covered artists’ warehouse/studio walls with graffiti. Artists and residents shared no common ground other than proximity.
Engaging the Community
In 2006, a small group of artists, architects, and craftspeople came together to create the first Frogtown Artwalk. The event was intended to bring together and to support the creative group of individuals operating “in the shadows” of the area. The initial Artwalk, held in November, was small, underlit, and sparsely attended—it attracted about 200 visitors to the neighborhood. Nevertheless, an arts community was born.
For the next eight years, the Frogtown Artwalk, now managed and funded by the Elysian Valley Arts Collective (EVAC), grew in size, artist participation, and attendance. Initially, skeptical residents chose to walk by the studios, rather than to enter. They watched strangers “invade” their neighborhood, and cast wary eyes on the art on display. In response, the EVAC implemented a number of strategies to reach out to the residential neighbors, inviting them to participate.
- Free Community Art Classes: In order to support working artists in the area, and to introduce them to the community, the EVAC implemented a continuing series of free classes open to local youth and taught by local artists.
- Juried Art Shows: As part of the Frogtown Artwalk, the EVAC created a juried art show for local youth ages 5-18, with submissions displayed during the event alongside the work of professional artists. The judging was done, again, by local artists, and an awards ceremony, with art supplies as prizes donated by neighboring businesses, was held just before the Artwalk.
- Documentary Films: The EVAC commissioned two documentary films about the history of Frogtown, featuring interviews with long-time residents and business owners. The films were screened for free outdoors during the Artwalk. As one resident recalls: “… and I remember, when the film went on, it was dead silent. And I heard someone say, ‘That’s my school! Oh my god, that’s the street I live on.’ And as the film went on, I could see how proud they were to see their neighborhood.”
These efforts paid off, as residents came to feel included in, rather than excluded from, an event that has transformed into a true community festival. Children who attended an early Artwalk ended up participating as artists with work on display during later events. The Artwalk is now a source of pride for a community that previously focused on their underserved status and lack of municipal attention.
In recent years, the neighborhood has experienced rapid transition, as the announcement of a billion-dollar investment by federal and state governments in the Los Angeles River revitalization hit the national news. Developers descended on the area, snapping up the warehouses and manufacturing buildings along the river. Rents went up, and artists were replaced at great numbers by service and commercial businesses serving the creative economy, which in Los Angeles translates largely to the entertainment industry.
In order to continue to support the artist community, the EVAC redoubled their efforts, and again implemented new strategies to keep the Frogtown Artwalk afloat.
- Temporary Storage PODS: The EVAC rented a series of temporary storage units and asked businesses to host them for the weekend in their parking lots. The PODS were assigned to artists based on their proposals for use. PODS became galleries, illuminated exhibits, and works of art for the night. This allowed artists who had lost their studio space to continue to promote and to sell their art directly to the public during the event.
- Pop-up Galleries: Local businesses were asked to host to an exhibit for the event, and the EVAC undertook to provide a space for any artist who requested one. The artists and businesses worked out the details of the display and lighting systems together. At the 2018 Frogtown Artwalk, more than 60 artists showed work in spaces ranging from a private garage to a brewery to an indoor soccer facility.
- Commissioned Artworks: In order to more directly support artists, the EVAC started to commission illuminated installations along the Los Angeles River path for the Artwalk. In 2018, one artist explained: “[The commission] provided an opportunity to create the largest installation we had ever completed, allowed us to develop our technology to implement our art in new ways, and helped us to build our portfolio in new and exciting ways.”
These tactics have helped the Elysian Valley Arts Collective to continue its mission of supporting artists, even as displacement has hit hard. In neighboring Boyle Heights, another working-class Latino community impacted by gentrification, residents turned on the artists and galleries in their midst, seeing them as interlopers driving change. In contrast, with a community united in support of the arts, the EVAC is able to use that support to mitigate gentrification through a signature event that brings joy to residents and monetary reward to artists. We see the Frogtown Artwalk and related events as demonstrating a potential road map for other communities confronting similar issues.