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A freeway crosses a concretized river bed. This is an aerial view of the Los Angeles River as it meets the Rio Hondo.
Aerial View of the Los Angeles River at the confluence with the Rio Hondo in South Gate, California. | Gehry Partners, LLP

L.A. Residents Push for More Inclusion in Gehry-Designed Arts Center

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Note: The opinion expressed here is solely of the author and does not reflect the views of PBS SoCal, KCET or Link TV.

Editor's note: The article has been updated to further clarify statements regarding sources of funding, the Speaker's involvement in statewide rent protection and structures of decision making in the project.

Southeast L.A. is filled with [..] painters, illustrators, musicians, dancers, performers, filmmakers, event coordinators, curators and catalogers, architects, you name it. However, what we don't have? The financial resources to pay these artists. If the SELA Cultural Center wanted to hire local artists to program the space, they easily could.
Edlin Lopez, Southeast L.A. Artists Guild member and cofounder of Open Walls studio

What is the SELA Cultural Arts Center?

If it comes to fruition, the Southeast Los Angeles Cultural Arts Center will be located off Imperial Highway at the Lynwood/South Gate border, near the confluence of the Rio Hondo and the Los Angeles Rivers in South Gate. Its website claims that it will be "a multi-arts facility that weaves together world-class design and high-caliber programming from across Los Angeles County with the vibrant culture of the surrounding community." This project, designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry and his firm, will have to raise at least $150 million to reach its completion goal for 2024.

The Center is actually a complex, not a single building. In an email, architect and partner Sam Gehry said the project is "envisioned as a series of buildings of various size[s]."The environmental agency leading the project is the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy (the Conservancy), specifically Mark Stanley, its Executive Officer and his staff. The project is currently in its programming and tenant selection phase. Stanley wants to hear input from residents who are just learning about the Center to get as many additional artists, community members and especially young people involved in shaping it. Decisions regarding who will own the building are also on the agenda, though Stanley noted that the ideal scenario would be a county-owned park structure, like the Ford Amphitheater.

It all sounds like a great idea: couple the talent and drive of Southeast L.A.'s artist communities with the clear need for more green space and the opportunity to capture more rainwater to build a community asset, but residents are sounding the gentrification alarm. They're concerned that the Center will open the floodgates for additional development, including the Rio Hondo Confluence Area's multiple, park projects, some of which are also suggested in the LA River Master Plan and in its website, which residents fear will displace everyone these projects are for. The stakes are high for Southeast L.A. cities, already plagued with high COVID cases, climbing rents, overcrowding and some of the most polluted land in the country.

The SELA Arts Festival in July 2019 was held inside L.A. River bed. | L.A. County Public Works
The SELA Arts Festival in July 2019 was held inside the L.A. River bed. | L.A. County Public Works

This project is rubbing up against the exposed wound of rising housing costs and the lack of rent control ordinances. Displacement has already arrived. To fully understand the Center and its impacts, we must ask: how did this Center come to be? Who is sitting at the table deciding programming, vision, employment opportunities? What effect will an arts complex designed by a world-famous architect do to rents and cost of living?

How the Center Came To Be

While the Center is technically a project of the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, its roots are in the Lower L.A. River Revitalization Working Group, created through Assembly Bill 530 in 2015 sponsored by Anthony Rendon. It was meant to "revive the river through the development of a watershed-based, equitable, community-driven plan." A working group of over 40 partners, including the Conservancy, all of the Southeast city councils along the river and a handful of nonprofits like East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice (East Yard), Heal the Bay, Friends of the L.A. River, and several more. East Yard is the only organization with Southeast resident membership, residents who are active and well-versed in local and county environmental projects.

In an email, Speaker Anthony Rendon listed river development as his reason for creating AB530. "It flows through Southeast Los Angeles and many of the cities in my district. However, you have not seen the same level of development of that resource in the Southeast that you have seen in other places." In working-class communities, when politicians use the word "development" or "revitalization" what's implied is that something needs to be revived: resources, infrastructure, income streams. But any changes to economically-depressed areas can easily cause displacement, let alone a project tied to Frank Gehry.

From that working group emerged a public call to develop projects that could be done in the area. In 2019, the Gehry Partners proposal was formally selected. But the idea for a cultural Center was developed by Speaker Anthony Rendon in numerous, personal conversations with Frank Gehry. In March 2020, the Cultural Center was publicly presented as a project with support from state, county and established arts organizations that will seek $150 million worth of funding from the state and private donors. It recently established a foundation presumably to begin fundraising and according to Speaker Rendon's Instagram, he helped secure $45 million of it already in the 2021-22 state budget.

Eight years ago in 2013, Mayor Garcetti and River LA board members invited Frank Gehry to create a vision to revitalize the entire Los Angeles River for the L.A. River Master Plan. (River LA is a city government-initiated nonprofit that's not to be confused with Friends of the LA River, a nonpartisan environmental group). Environmental advocates and residents from across the County protested that private conversation, citing a conflict of interest in what felt like a backroom deal about public lands. The Gehry firm eventually did the work for free. This kicked off years of research by the Gehry Partners around the river's water and also ideal sites for projects. This is key to understanding the Center because this is how it got to the Southeast.

The Lower LA River Working Group created its own revitalization plan, which the LA River Master Plan (LARMP) later adopted. Much of the language you see in the Master Plan around community stabilization was adopted from the Lower LA River plan.

After months of reviewing documents and plans, the origins of the Center are tangled up with revenue-driven development projects: why else hire Frank Gehry if you just want more parks? Additionally, the Metro West Santa Ana Southeast LA expansion is looking at a completion date of 2028, just in time for the LA Olympics.

While preventing displacement is mentioned heavily in the LARMP, there are no actionable policies outlined in the document that would prevent displacement. It does acknowledge that developments like the ones they're proposing can attract gentrification, but its language and plans don't go far enough to protect families.

One group who has studied the LARMP and the Cultural Center is East Yard's membership — Southeast residents, youth and elders alike. They describe the Center and the project illustrations in the LA River Master Plan as "an advertisement for more development."

"It's two totally different projects with overlapping interests," said Jessica Prieto from East Yard. "The County keeps inserting itself into conversations about the Center too, even though it's not its project." Prieto is referring to the County's ongoing input on the Confluence project, a state project on County land. Her statement reveals just how unclear the decision making process continues to be, even for longtime stakeholders.

A map showing different planned park projects in South Gate, Lynwood and Downey areas.
The Rio Hondo Confluence Area Project (the RHCAP) is an LA County Dept. of Public Works project, but links directly to the state-led Center website. | Rio Hondo Confluence Area Project website

In a January LA Times article on the Center, a rendering of a platform park idea was prominently featured, drawn over the 710 Freeway.

In a joint statement, Friends of the LA River and many environmental groups from across L.A. County united in opposition to the updated master plan, in particular the platform park idea. The reasons include: 1) it's a bad idea to add more cement to an overly-concretized region; 2) the cost of building a platform park could instead go to "remediate lands, prepare for climate change, and stem the tide of displacement in river-adjacent communities" and 3) building major "park construction in low and extremely-low income communities poses a threat that current residents will be displaced by new projects." Their concerns are valid, especially when you consider that New York City's High Line caused adjacent housing values to increase by 35% and suffered from a "failure to consider existing residents," which "exacerbated eco-gentrification."

When I asked the Gehry Partners about opposition to platform parks, architect Tensho Takemori explained that, "If the community does not want them, they're not going to happen." He added, "Each project will have its own life and people will be able to shape them."

"Our members have rejected the idea [of platform parks]," said Prieto from East Yard, "so why is it still in the Master Plan?" The Master Plan recently closed its public comment period.

To add more layers of complexity, other major projects are detailed in the Rio Hondo Confluence Area project, including the LA River bike path that would connect SELA to Frogtown and a new Metro line, part of the West Santa Ana Corridor expansion into the Southeast, connecting downtown to Artesia, with at least one stop near the Center (see Metro graphic below). The City of South Gate calls these Metro stations "eco-stops" on their website. Projects like these in working-class neighborhoods frequently accompany huge waves of gentrification. For example, in Frogtown, the bike path drew in breweries and expensive live-work spaces, pushing out long-time residents of color. That wave feels like it's quickly moving down the river.

A map shows Lynwood and South Gate and plots out future projects like the SELA Cultural Center, Parque Dos Rios and Urban Orchard Project.
The County's Rio Hondo Confluence Area Project website shows future Metro line West Santa Ana branch in a broken orange line. | Rio Hondo Confluence Area Project website

Speaker Rendon, the County, and Southeast city councils could employ the same resources they've used to create and grow the Center project and also launch renters' rights information campaigns and implement additional and multiple rent stabilization options for the region. While the Speaker has previously helped implement rent stabilization under the Tenant Protection Act of 2019 (AB1482, Chiu), the income and material conditions of working-class communities of color in Southeast Los Angeles are largely unchanged. Their housing and income continue to be endangered especially in this pandemic. While that helps rent hikes statewide, if local and state stakeholders work together, that's one way to ensure the most vulnerable residents will be projected and they'll enjoy the amenities allegedly being designed for them. If not, residents will be pushed out like so many others before them, but this time, it'll be by people who residents mistakenly assumed had their best interests in mind.

The Bottomline: Renters' Rights Education and Protections Are Needed

Everyone I interviewed tells a slightly different story about what this Cultural Center means and what it will do. One thing we did agree on is the Southeast needed more green space, yesterday. But, the L.A. River Master Plan's and Rendon's declarations of preventing gentrification, cultural appropriation and displacement are not enough. In a statement his office shared, he pledged to "continue supporting whatever renters programs reach the Assembly floor for a vote." The Southeast needs County and local ordinances and policies to protect renters immediately. The Speaker, who lives in largely middle-class Lakewood, will not be authoring any legislation while he is Speaker.

"Renters have to hold councilors accountable with their vote," said Cudahy Vice-Mayor Alcantar. "We're all up for re-election next November."

Artists, Residents and Youth See a Coming Wave of Gentrification

"Many of our residents don't even know what is being planned, and there's a lot of misinformation taking place without much information being offered from the public agencies involved," said Edlin Lopez about the need for more community education about the Center. "[T]here needs to be a larger campaign and community meetings held once the pandemic allows for gatherings."

At a Communities for a Better Environment virtual meeting, we reviewed the arts and cultural loop on the Rio Hondo Confluence Area Project website which shows illustrations of the Center and other proposed parks projects — eleven in total. The massive scale greatly surprised staff and youth alike. Most of the people I talked to informally — family, neighbors, artists, lawyers, advocates, business owners — have no idea what is being proposed.

"Historically, there's a problem of buying out communities, forcing them to relocate, taking communities and gentrifying them in order to build these projects," said one student and SELA resident. She's referring to Chavez Ravine, Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, all places who've had their neighborhoods bulldozed — most of them working class people of color — in the name of development.

Locals gather around plans for a new arts center at an outdoor space
Local environmental group Communities for a Better Environment organizes and builds awareness around park equity in Maywood and Cudahy. | Communities for a Better Environment

Another student said, "Something that worries me about this project is that it's going to bring more police. A lot of our communities are immigrants and they have to live in fear of ICE." Residents in the area are mostly Latinx with new immigrants arriving all the time.

An organizer in the youth-led activist group called SELA Chisme said, "Of course we deserve more green space, but it feels like we are being coerced by beautiful things." A recent op-ed in the LA Times by Becky Nicolaides (a scholar of South Gate history) and Jon Christensen echoed similar fears around the green development proposals in the Master Plan.

How did Southeast Los Angeles go from the people whose children and homes were doused in jet fuel by Delta Airlines last January to a prime location for an arts complex already courting organizations like the LA Philharmonic, the Hammer Museum and the LACMA, according to the LA Times.

Except for places like the Latina Arts Foundation and Budding Artists, the majority of local artists do not work for or have established nonprofits. To put it plainly, our artists are homegrown. Some are young, many have not had professional experience in working with private firms or the state in a collaborative way. Given the scale of this project, there will be high-paying, high-profile arts administration positions, which many of our residents will likely not fill.

Since 2014, I've documented Southeast L.A. residents who've developed a thriving artist community. From the punk rock camp Chicas Rockeras to the first Art Walk on Atlantic Boulevard, artists built a platform for art that grew into a 5,000-person production with funders and government support, establishing a substantial platform on which this Center is also built.

Young people make art projects while seated  beside each other.
An art workshop at the 2018 SELA Arts Festival by the L.A. River. | Office of Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon

Lopez, artist and executive director of the SELA Artists Guild, described their group as "local artists who found it necessary to organize in order to be heard and have a seat at the decision-making tables with regard to arts in our community." In 2020, artists spoke with Gehry's team and requested artist studios, classrooms and state of the art digital classrooms so that they can work there, hold classes and nurture current and future artists, many of which the architects added to the site plans. However, Lopez identified an important gap in the communication: "All of the planning […] with regards to the infrastructure and construction has not been part of the community input process."

Artists and residents from SELA Chisme and from the Guild are recommending a horizontal decision-making structure that shares power with everyone, not just politicians and already established, wealthy arts nonprofits. Models like this are in place at nonprofits like Promesa Boyle Heights, a collaborative of parents, activists, educators, service providers and schools, working together to support young people and families. This year, as plans are being reviewed in the next year and a half for their environmental impacts, the Center's leadership has the opportunity to reshape their decision-making practices. Anything less will result in excluding the most vulnerable SELA residents.

Young people with wind instruments march down in a parade.
Lynwood High School students prepare to perform at the 2018 SELA Arts Festival by the L.A. River. | Office of Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon
A youth band with wind instruments stand on stage.
Lynwood High School students prepare to perform at the 2018 SELA Arts Festival by the L.A. River. | Office of Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon

In an interview, SELA Chisme activists recommended that the Center become an autonomous arts space, a place run by, organized by and filled with local residents, that isn't tied to corporate art projects. Models of autonomous arts spaces exist. At the Eastside Cafe in El Sereno, for example, a collective of arts and organizing groups literally own the space, create all of the free arts programming and actively organize to keep residents housed. The Center cannot be the only place where art and performance happens.

The Center now has the opportunity to fulfill its mission of helping cultivate the vitality of the surrounding cities. It can redistribute the resources it has to schools, community centers and to every city in the Southeast, not just South Gate. There needs to be many more arts spaces in the Southeast. Every neighborhood should have an arts center with writing, theater, dance, the visual and performing arts programming. Can the Center leverage its connections and resources to serve all local students?

The Center can include representation from youth and renters into its bylaws, thereby giving them decision making powers, not just mining people for input. It could also create a robust workforce pipeline like the Hub Cities internship program of the 1980s where young people worked for libraries and city government to ensure that young people from the Southeast had job training and experience. Without a pipeline, only folks from outside the community will be qualified enough to get the coveted arts jobs few SELA residents could easily get.

Displacement Already Arrived. So Have Tenants' Unions.

Displacement of renters is already happening in Bell. In response, tenants from two mobile home parks have organized themselves through the local, student-led group SELA Chisme. These mobile homes are two blocks or less from the L.A. River, prime real estate to be developed in light of the Center and the L.A. River Master Plan, which city councilors have known about for years. Elizabeth Alcantar, vice-mayor of Cudahy, explained that the councilors inherited the fiscal side of the mobile park issue from previous politicians. That may be true, but other viable options remain, such as selling the land to a community land trust to avoid mass displacement or selling the land to the tenants themselves.

Evictions happen every day across the Southeast. Rents increase at the landlords' will. The housing crisis in L.A. County has been impacting rental prices for years. Housing stock in Southeast L.A. is so limited, that even when there are open units, landlords can pick whoever they want. Some owners evict people by serving a 30-day notice to evict that they'll never follow through with in court, but that scares residents away. This happened to my family with their Mexican American landlord. He'd raised the rent periodically with little reason. We sought free legal advice and learned about the eviction process and our rights as tenants.

"Stay and fight," the lawyer told my younger brother. We managed to stay, but it took a lawyer, research, calls and the time of three college-educated people to make it happen. Our Southeast renter communities frequently don't have those kinds of resources or are intimidated by owners and don't fight back. If the most vulnerable people that need open space will be pushed out before they can enjoy it, who's the Center for?

According to the 2020 Census, between 50 and 77% of the region's population are renters. In Huntington Park, 77% are renters, according to a 2015-2019 census. Huntington Park resident Ramona Quezada and Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) filed a lawsuit against the city for its "longstanding failure to follow state laws that are designed to ensure adequate and affordable housing," according to legal filings I obtained and the Disability Rights California website.

CBE staff member Dilia Ortega recalled attending a city council meeting where a non-profit with a fully funded housing project for people with developmental disabilities was rejected. "The [Huntington Park] City Council said they wanted to see commercial development like a Quiznos open on that lot instead." The lot is still vacant.

Here is the good news: Cudahy managed to pass an eviction data collection ordinance, which requires landlords and owners to submit a copy of their eviction notice to the city within five days of serving it. Alcantar said this allows the city to reach out to people who have been served a notice of eviction and provide them with connections to legal resources. Tenants are forming a union in Cudahy too.

It's okay for people to be excited about nice things, but those nice things won't be for us if we are priced out of South Gate.
Veronica Hernandez, co-founder The People of South Gate

In Bell Gardens, the East Yard created an ad hoc committee with the city to explore rent control. Also in Bell Gardens, the Unión de Vecinas de Bell Gardens has formed and is currently recruiting both owners and tenants to pursue more equitable housing policies in the area with the most recent Census counted 78% of the residents as renters. The group is working with California Latinas for Reproductive Justice and are collecting signatures for a bilingual petition that you can find here.

In South Gate, current and former residents with education and urban planning backgrounds, Amanda Tapia and Veronica Hernandez, co-founded a collective, The People of South Gate last summer, aimed at demystifying the city council and police budget processes.

"It's okay for people to be excited about nice things, but those nice things won't be for us if we are priced out of South Gate," said Hernandez about the Cultural Center. I asked why they thought South Gate is taking so long to create an inclusive housing policy. As far as they know, Hernandez noted, "It's not like the city is doing extensive research or asking for community input." Tapia added, "It's easier to do nothing than to try and protect renters. I think they're afraid they will upset people who fund their campaigns."

It is unclear what incentives or assistance SELA city councils need to create and pass to protect renters. Organizations such as Housing Now is ready to provide templates for rent control ordinances immediately. Tenant unions and other nonprofits can team up with city councils like they do in Bell Gardens and create a regional rent stabilization board.

City councils have proven that they can come together around development: can they keep their word that they actually want their residents to stay and enjoy these new green and art spaces?

Voters will have the opportunity to ask these hard questions next year; most of these elected officials are up for reelection in 2022. Advocates recommend that all SELA residents keep track of what decisions politicians and business people are making (or avoiding) and speak with their votes.

Youth Program Coordinator at CBE Rossmery Zayas perhaps said it best: "My wish for SELA is keeping families together. Keeping our neighbors here and no more sad stories of displacement." Stay and fight.

Follow student -led SELA environmental work:

Youth for Environmental Justice

SELA Chisme

To share input, concerns, ideas for the Center, visit this link

Survey to identify community needs and programming for the Center check this link.

To read about concerns from environmental groups about the LA River Master Plan and its proposed projects, visit Friends of the Los Angeles River.

Sources

"What is Eco-rapid Transit?" Frequently Asked Questions, City of South Gate website,

The Rio Hondo Confluence Area Project (RHCAP) website, Department of Public Works, Los Angeles County

"LA River Revitalization: The Story of Master Plan Gone Awry," Host and Producer, Jessica Aldridge, with Liliana Griego, Katherine Pease, Jessica Prieto, EcoJustice Radio, KPFK, 184, April 2021

"Eco-gentrification and who benefits from urban green amenities: NYC's High Line," Katie Jo Black, Mallory Richards, Landscape and Urban Planning, Volume 204, 103900, December 2020

"City of Bell Moves Toward Eviction of Low-Income Tenants. Bell Starved Its Housing Authority of Funds, Then Used Revenue Shortfall To Rationalize Potential Sale," the Editor, Watch Our City News, Los Angeles, CA, December 22, 2020

"The Road to Climate Catastrophe Runs Through a City Called Commerce," Ben Ehrenreich, The Nation, March 26, 2019

"A Project to Revive Southeast L.A. by the River Draws a Line Between Development and Gentrification," Ruth Guerrero, LA TACO, 2018

"How Frank Gehry's LA River makeover will change the city and why he took the job," Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times, August 9, 2015

"Video: Frank Gehry Describes His Vision for the L.A. River," Danny Jensen, Arts & Entertainment, Laist, August 29, 2015

"10 years later, New York's High Line park brought big change — and gentrification," Karen Matthews, The Associated Press, Global News website, June 9, 2019

"Frank Gehry Draws Ire for Joining Los Angeles River Restoration Project," Adam Nagourney
New York Times, Sept. 23, 2015

"Southeast L.A. already faced many ills. Now it's the epicenter of coronavirus," Ben Poston et. al, Los Angeles Times, August 6, 2020

Speaker Anthony Rendon, District 63, website, "SELA Arts Festival at the L.A. River, Friday, July 20, 2018,"

"Former Cudahy mayor who led her city through a turbulent 2020 discusses her life and future plans as a politician," Brandon Richardson, February 9, 2021

"Frank Gehry's Bold Plan to Upgrade the LA River Seeks to Atone for Past and Justices," Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times, video, January 11, 2021

"The Right to Live: Southeast Los Angeles Life in Three Moments," Vickie Vértiz, City Rising, KCET, September 20, 2017

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