Los Angeles has recently been the site of two notable cases of guerrilla urbanism. In one, street vendors formed advocacy groups and a coalition with allies that lobbied city council and overturned a citywide ban on their activity. In another, several Boyle Heights community organizations deployed confrontational tactics to close art events, galleries, and coffee shops to counter gentrification and displacement. This article compares these two cases to find the key role that urban aesthetics and design play in rewriting the dominant spatial order under contemporary conditions of immigrant urbanism. We propose that property outlaw theory from property rights law literature helps us understand the potentially productive role of guerrilla urbanism and its implications for urban design practice. Additionally, spatial and temporal parochialism, and defining the boundaries of what constitutes “the community” are important factors in the efficacy of guerrilla urbanism practice. These cases’ insights can help equip designers to more mindfully practice urban design, knowing the important role that aesthetics play in a larger property rights regime reconstruction project.
Correction to: URBAN DESIGN International (2019) 24:159–170 https://doi.org/10.1057/s41289-019-00086-6
This article was erroneously published in Volume 24, Issue 3 (2019) https://link.springer.com/article/10.1057/s41289-019-00086-6.
The article is now included in the special issue “Guerrilla Urbanism”.
Los Angeles offers us two current and widely publicized guerrilla urbanism cases with instructive differences. In the first case, several different community-based groups deployed confrontational tactics to combat the gentrification purportedly caused by artists and art spaces in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Boyle Heights. Their actions include approaching and demanding “gentrifier” pedestrians to leave the neighborhood, vandalism and picket lines of new businesses that ultimately shuttered an art gallery, and militaristic slogans and symbology such as forming a contemporary “Red Guard defense force” (Red Guards-Los Angeles 2015). These unusually agonistic strategies have gained international media attention and provoked debates about how best to deal with gentrification and displacement.
The second case involves perhaps the most common form of guerrilla urbanism in the USA: street vending. Vending has remained a guerrilla activity in Los Angeles which was the only major city in the nation that maintained an outright ban of vending despite its prevalence. However, unlike the Boyle Heights case, these guerrillas periodically attempted to engage traditional political institutions and formed political organizing alliances with other groups and non profit advocacy organizations. While for decades they were unsuccessful, in an unexpected and rapid turn of events, Los Angeles’ city council introduced and passed a proposal to decriminalize street vending in 2017, largely in response to the Trump administration’s threats to expand the deportation of undocumented immigrants. These vendors have since grown more bold in redefining norms for commercial use of public space, as businesses have expanded onto more roads and sidewalk spaces with food trucks, seating and dining areas, pushcarts, pop-up spreads of wares, and temporary installations of cooking and lighting infrastructure.
Comparing these two cases provides an opportunity to develop our understanding of the potentials and limits of using guerrilla urbanism strategies to redraw the spatial order of our cities (Hou 2010), as distinct from the DIY urbanism that provides entertaining, “pop-up” diversions (Finn 2014) or coping strategies within the dominant order (Kinder 2014). We define guerrilla urbanism as urban spatial actions used by independent groups of actors to challenge the dominant spatial orders established in official urban policies and plans. They are guerrillas in that their agitations occur in an ad hoc manner rather than as part of a larger political institution. Urban guerrillas perform what de Certeau described as “tactics” in their everyday lived experience of the city because the existing spatial order does not meet their needs or desires (1984).
What this article brings to the guerrilla urbanism literature is the property outlaw perspective, that the primary societal project at hand is a process of reconstructing property rights. We identify these two cases as distinct from other forms of guerrilla urbanism which do not attempt to redraw property rights (graffiti and tagging, for example), and the common infractions of the already propertied (e.g., illegal garage conversions found in many single family homes). Not coincidentally, both of our cases bring attention to the global project of re-constructing property rights resulting from the current conditions of immigration and urbanization. With increasingly dense urban living conditions, urbanites of widely varying economic and political standing are coming into regular conflict over how public and private spaces in our cities should be used. Besides the legal and regulatory codes that outline urban space, urban design practice makes them manifest by shaping the built environment. It is against this backdrop that the guerrillas counter with their bodily occupation and resistance of an institutional and designed landscape that does not include them. Our property system confers rights to space based on Lockean notions of labor. In the social contract of property rights, those who make the most productive use of space (proxied by those who can pay the most in a real estate market) gain entitlements as well as a negotiated set of obligations to society for giving them the rights. However, early legal literature did not address the political question of how to integrate the spatial needs of various members of society with unequal economic power (Ellickson 1996; Frug 1996; Garnett 2009).
This is where Peñalver and Katyal’s concept of “property outlaws” in the legal literature is useful for situating our two cases of guerrilla urbanism. We discuss this more in the next section, but essentially they argue that the actions of property outlaws like our urban guerrillas are a productive part of evolving a more just and therefore legitimate legal order. The property outlaw sees their activity as morally justified and socially acceptable, even if it technically violates the law—as was the case in Los Angeles where street vendors were, quite literally, “property outlaws” who defied the legally acceptable use of public property for decades despite widespread social acceptance of street vending practices.
However, the legal property rights literature does not address the important cultural and symbolic value of a place’s aesthetics. In addition to instrumental concerns about rents, legislation, and regulation, these guerrilla urbanism cases bring to the fore the ways that the urban space battle is also an urban design battle. Urban designers now find themselves in the center of this conflict as architectural investments are implicated as a gentrifying force by some, whereas others decry designs with more inclusive programming and spatial planning as “Third World” degradation and a threat to property values, as we describe later on. Greater knowledge of guerrilla urbanism’s potentials can help inform urban designers and planners about their own contribution to the social process of reconceptualizing our urban design paradigms. Therefore, this article also aims to extend the literature by discussing the aesthetics of property rights.
What can a group of people who do not own property do if they want to contest a property rights regime? What kind of strategy is the most effective in reforming the rules about our urban spatial orders, especially for people who are marginalized such as immigrants? Our two cases demonstrate contrasting strategies, providing insight about the types and efficacy of guerrilla urbanism which responds to these questions. We build out these cases through a variety of original and secondary sources, including interviews, a survey (which was contested, presenting unexpected insights), direct observations, the public record, and media accounts. These cases raise several important questions for the literature. First: How can urban guerrillas claim urban territory? In both cases, the challengers deploy their bodily presence and occupation of urban space not by squatting but through episodic uses, albeit with different tactics. Second: Given the multiplicity of community groups present in urban neighborhoods, what is the most effective organizing strategy for change? While the most recent street vendor decriminalization campaign was marked by a unified coalition of groups, the Boyle Heights case has been characterized by an array of groups with different strategies. Third: How might these “property outlaw” actions productively reform our urban space governance institutions? Must change agents remain guerrilla fighters operating outside of formal institutions, or otherwise be “sellouts”?
Background literature on power, place, and design
Critical urban theorists and geographers have discussed the intertwined relationship between the production of urban space and power (Castells 1977; Harvey 1989; LeFebvre 1992; Weber 2002). We see this relationship as critical for understanding guerrilla urbanism as a practice that challenges the spatial order enforced by governing institutions. Grounding theories of space, other scholars have focused on how culture and design are manifest in the built environment which work to produce and reinforce power relationships (Irazábal 2008; Loukaitou-Sideris and Banerjee 1998; Vale 2008). More recently, with rapid urbanization and increasing densities in cities, immigrant neighborhoods with low economic powerFootnote 1 have faced displacement that is both material through real estate gentrification and symbolic through cultural gentrification (Donovan 2008; Zukin 1982, 1987; Zuk et al. 2015).
The connection between aesthetics, space, and power take a particular racialized meaning in the context of the USA. George Lipsitz coined the concept “white spatial imaginary” which is “based on exclusivity and augmented exchange value, functions as a central mechanism for skewing opportunities and life chances in the United States along racial lines” (2007, p. 13). Both of our guerrilla urbanism cases involve this entwined dynamic of race, power, space, and aesthetics. As the real estate prices have been rising dramatically in Los Angeles the last ten years, property developers have been moving into neighborhoods such as Boyle Heights marketing their projects as offering a newly desirable lifestyle of biking, art galleries, and cafes. As poet and Oakland public arts administrator Roberto Bedoya elaborates, this racialized aesthetic is “an antiseptic ethos that effectively deemed being poor and of color as civic imperfections to be expunged” (2014, p. 1). This race and class based aesthetic battle and its perceived impact on property values undergirds many municipal policies and actions of public space (Blomley 2009; Blumenberg and Ehrenfeucht 2008; Frug 1996; Garnett 2009).
Street vending is a longstanding target in the battle to clean and control urban space (Kettles 2004; Loukaitou-Sideris and Ehrenfeucht 2009; Morales 1997). In fact, the white spatial imaginary has become transnational as economically ascendant global cities seek to become “world class cities” and clear street vendors and the poor off sidewalks (Bhowmik 2005; Bostic et al. 2016; Bromley 2000; Brown et al. 2009; Kim 2015). While public spaces like the sidewalk should theoretically be open access, abutting property owners assume greater entitlement because of their proximity. A common dynamic is for brick and mortar businesses to decry the unfair competition posed by vendors who do not have to pay rent or taxes. They also argue that the unsightliness of vending repels their customers and lowers their property values.
Another related body of research has shown the economic importance of the arts and cultural sectors’ significant multiplier and employment contributions to the economy, which had previously been overshadowed by attention to traditional economic sectors such as manufacturing and services (Currid 2007, 2010; Florida 2002). This arts as economic development literature in urban studies coincided with a robust debate within the arts world about “creative placemaking.” The potential of arts and artists to revitalize economically depressed urban areas and fill vacant lots generated enthusiastic interest from arts funders to help justify their “investment” (Markusen and Gadwa 2010). However, the placemaking concept has come under critique on several grounds. One is that the arts do not lend themselves well to typical program evaluation techniques of cost–benefit analysis and must stretch what counts as “arts and culture” to calculate a sizable impact to the GDP (Gadwa 2013a, b; Markusen 2013).
The more condemning critique has linked creative placemaking and the arts more broadly as triggering gentrification and displacement itself (Grodach et al. 2014). Indeed, this problematic link has been noted from the outset, with artists themselves identified as the first to be displaced once their role in sparking neighborhood change is complete (Chapple et al. 2010). This process has unfolded time and again as formerly “undesirable” neighborhoods become increasingly valuable in the postindustrial era, exemplified in redevelopment projects such as 5 Pointz in New York City (Heathcott 2015). Bedoya has popularized the term “placekeeping” to critique and counter creative placemaking policies that can destroy existing communities (2013). One open question is whether this relationship between artists and the real estate market can lead to an outcome other than displacement (Gadwa 2013a). If so, it is unclear how to take an alternative path, one where the arts lead to economic revitalization that benefits existing residents and promotes an “authentic” evolution of its cultural production (Jackson 2012; Zukin 2009).
For example, two of the most lauded placemaking art projects in the USA, each figure-headed by a prominent Black American artist in their home neighborhood, have been widely held up as pioneers and exemplars of community-owned revitalization that values its heritage in creative and unique ways. Project Row Houses in Houston, and Rebuild Foundation in Chicago have been savvy in using property ownership, grassroots organizing, and artistic creativity to program hybrid uses and revalue cultural forms discarded by the market economy. Programs often combine economic development, affordable housing and service programs, but notably with a local, African-American identity and aesthetic in its spaces and programming, producing places that neither the market nor government would have produced. However, some have criticized even these exemplars for “selling out” to an elite, global art world and being too amenable to real estate developers and funders outside of the community (Belanger and Cohen 2017). This critique of “artwashing” and for not taking a more radical position against the private real estate market precludes the possibility of an “ethical redevelopment” or inclusive placemaking model.
A more radical approach is to deploy guerrilla tactics. In our two cases, we examine a particular form of guerrilla urbanism: “bottom-up,” physical, and often temporary actions taken by independent groups in order to defy the capitalist spatial order, fighting for a place in the city based on some other legitimacy besides the highest ability to pay for real estate (Hou 2010). While the particular political philosophies espoused can differ, the term “guerrilla” implies a small band fighting against large institutions which in both of our cases are property rights systems. We emphasize our definition of guerrilla urbanism which aims to produce structural change through de Certeauean “tactics” by lived necessity, in contrast to other forms of ameliorative or entertaining urbanisms such as tactical urbanism, DIY urbanism, or urban acupuncture and typically involves low-cost and temporary design interventions.
A focus on how to change property relations is a promising research agenda that we view as under-theorized in the urban design and planning literature. Despite promising new research into community land trusts and other such alternative property rights regimes, urban planning and design literature still typically frame property rights as a relatively fixed constellation of liabilities and entitlements that are important for producing a stable and efficient economy (Demsetz 1967; Jacobs and Paulsen 2009; Kayden 2000; Krueckeberg 1995). While some legal planning scholarship has also compared the rich variety of actual property systems around the globe and throughout history (Alterman 2009; Cronon 1983) which indicate their malleability, the question of how property regimes might be changed and improved remains under-theorized (Kim 2011).
We propose that legal scholars Peñalver and Katyal’s theory of “property outlaws” is helpful in filling this gap and, in particular, elucidating the potential productive role of guerrilla urbanism (2010). Using the examples of the civil rights movement, squatters, and media piracy, they argue that “the apparent stability and order provided by property law owes much to the destabilizing role of the lawbreaker in occasionally forcing needed reform and in generating a series of important legal shifts along the way” (11). For example, much of the now widely accepted legal theory of “adverse possession” came to be enshrined in law during a contentious period in US history when such “property outlaws” were actively settling and using western lands despite the legal title being held by absentee speculative land owners from the East Coast. Peñalver and Katyal are careful to emphasize that they are not proposing heading down the slippery slope of anarchy and disrespect for the law. Rather, allowances for civil disobedience to challenge and improve the law ultimately strengthens the legitimacy of property rights regimes.
This article utilizes the property outlaw theory frame to draw lessons about the role and efficacy of guerrilla urbanism in the fight for a more inclusive city: are these cases’ actions, which used markedly different spatial and organizing tactics, effectively challenging the legitimacy of the current spatial order? As David Harvey has argued, private property rights regimes from Shanghai to Mumbai have failed to provide a full “right to the city” and that these regimes must expand into a public, democratic sphere (2008).
Case 1: street vendor decriminalization in Los Angeles
On February 15, 2017, the Los Angeles City Council voted to decriminalize street vending and to forgive past citations. This vote came after decades of failed efforts at organizing, planning, hearings, and lobbying by various groups in Los Angeles, including members of the City Council and their staff, activists, non profit organizations, and vendors themselves. Despite Los Angeles’ current reputation as a liberal, immigrant-friendly city, it remained the only major city in the USA where vending was a criminal misdemeanor. In the past, the group that most actively worked to keep the ban were business improvement districts (BIDs) and some neighborhood councils. While, in practice, street vending regularly existed in many places throughout the city, vendors faced uneven law enforcement and were allowed no recourse if their carts or wares were destroyed.
A previous attempt at legalization that had made some progress was a 1994 policy that prescribed official city vending carts, fixed spots in official vending zones, rigid regulations on operations, and a $3,000 vending license. Ultimately, most vendors did not participate in this program and it was abandoned. One of the lessons learned from this failed experiment was that vending’s spatiality required more flexibility than static sidewalk locations or one-size-fits-all cart designs and regulations. For designers, this poses an interesting challenge to develop non-Euclidean approaches to spatial planning, one that allows for more flexible designs for public space which take into account not only space, but also time (Kim 2012). Current vending practices can also inform the debates around creative placemaking. As policy analyst Mark Vallianatos observed, “Vending is actually more successful than most intentional placemaking practices in actually getting people outside, and creating a sense of place, a sense of culture,” (Taylor-Hochberg 2017).
In 2015 and 2016, street vending legalization campaigns saw new life with a large alliance of organizations lobbying city hall, yet the city council decided to put the issue on hold indefinitely and “study” it more. However, after the 2016 US presidential election, the city displayed an incredibly rapid policy reversal. Even more remarkably, during the swift and crowded public hearings that were held, stakeholders now voiced overwhelming support, including from groups that had been against legalization such as BIDs and neighborhood organizations.
How did this reversal come about? In particular, why did the BIDs change their public position after years of opposition? Had the years of activist campaigns and the alliances formed for lobbying worn away at the opposition? Or as some hypothesized, since LA’s ethnic demographics changed earlier than most of the nation’s other cities, had there been a widespread shift in public sentiment around the politics of immigrants? Again and again in the public comment period of the city council hearings in December 2016, people testified that they supported the decriminalization because they did not want to see anyone deported. There seemed to be a consensus that LA’s largely immigrant vendors were legitimate members of the city. Could the guerrilla urbanism practice, the daily and visible taking of space and becoming a fixture of our urban landscape, have normalized their presence and legitimated their right to the city?
To investigate these questions, we conducted in-depth interviews of representatives from eight BIDs and to determine what had led to the evolution of their public positions. We also conducted interviews with the senior staff members of three different city council members and the office of the chief legislative analyst to gain a better understanding about what had happened behind the scenes at city hall. We tallied and reviewed hundreds of speaker cards of those who gave public testimony, and reviewed letters that are in the public record that were written to the city council members by the public about this issue, including from business owners.
While there were exceptional individual businesses who identified their personal support for decriminalization, most businesses and all business coalitions such as Chambers of Commerce and BIDs that we interviewed voiced frustration that the sudden policy reversal became politically unstoppable because of the local reaction to the national presidential election. One interviewee explained that until Trump, “the stakes were not as high. No one had been talking about sending people out of the country. Once things were put into those terms, the community came out and said NO.” While originally they had sought greater vendor clearance enforcement, the BIDs reluctantly resorted to re-grouping to focus on the details of the new regulations. In particular, they seek either an “opt-out” option or an “opt-in” policy in which vending permits would be issued only with the permission of adjacent property owners and to limit the maximum number of vendors per block which would effectively make the right unpracticable.
This unexpected finding from our interviews suggests that changing demographics and increasingly liberal attitudes have not transformed the business interests’ traditional positions toward street vending in Los Angeles at all. Indeed, most BIDs took pains to explain that they see the issue of immigration as separate from street vending, despite the fact that the vast majority of vendors are immigrants. Many of their business members, they argued, are also immigrants and struggling to succeed as small businesses—an important insight which complicates easy binaries of vendor-immigrant and brick-and-mortar-non-immigrant. They may be sympathetic to other immigrants but do not view vending as a fair solution. Many also expressed concerns about aesthetics. Interviewees said that they do not “want to look like a Third World country,” or that they “Don’t like the scruffy downtown look, while Sherman Oaks tries to be a nice, tidy, clean suburban area.” A BID in predominantly Latino and African-American South LA was careful to clarify that they “want to have a certain ambience,” but are not trying to gentrify. Many had communicated their opposition directly to their city council members but ultimately viewed them as opportunistic politicians who had sold them out.
Given the steadfast opposition by BIDs, our question then became how the city council members could go against their vehement opposition unlike in the decades before. Assuming they conduct a political calculus, what would they gain in exchange for making this vocal, moneyed, and organized constituency unhappy? Did the growing coalition of vending activists contribute to their reversal?
While we found that there were a confluence of contributing factors, one theme that emerges in our interviews is the importance of personal relationships in re-shaping political views. One city council member, who had previously been a police officer and originally did not support legalizing vending, eventually changed his views considerably over time through frank discussions with staff and advocates. One of his senior policy staff members who was instrumental in writing the new policy had himself become motivated about the issue after witnessing a traumatic encounter between a vendor and police. He and another staff member whose mother was a vendor debated the issue with their boss. Over a five year period that included the most recent street vendor campaign, the council member shifted to becoming a supporter, eventually communicating to the leader of the BIDs behind closed doors that the political tide was turning and that decriminalization was eventually going to happen. Meanwhile, the business interest leader most vociferously opposed to legalizing vending happened to retire shortly before the reversal. Even before the presidential election, the policy directors of two city council members worked together to draft a letter proposing decriminalization. Because of this preparatory work, when the election happened, they could move quickly.
However, interviewees were also frank that this change was also a political career opportunity. Advisors knew that “the council would be tripping over themselves to make a statement against Donald Trump.” One of the street vendor organizers recounted that while they were glad about the ultimate decriminalization, after the decades of organizing “it kind of sucks that it took something like Trump to move this forward and mostly because it became a political opportunity for council members.” Our key informant interviewees had differing opinions about whether the previous decades of political organizing and lobbying alone would have been enough to achieve the current outcome. Still, it was probably a necessary if insufficient condition to have a base of organizers who would show up in large numbers to support the reversal in addition to the widespread public indignation at Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric.
And so, upon further reflection, one could argue that a cultural sea change had occurred over the years in Los Angeles that laid the foundation for this reversal. Several BID representatives, who were opposed to vending legalization, declared in our interviews that they had “nothing against the taco vendor.” This figure has become a fixture in the LA public imagination through the regular, visible occupation of public space, breaking municipal codes while embodying the capitalist ideal of entrepreneurialism. An example of Peñalver and Katyal’s property outlaw, the vendors break laws and occupy property, in this case public property, not to undermine authority but, rather, because they view their activity as legitimate labor that fulfills the underlying principles of property law. Their bodily challenge borne by necessity raises fundamental questions about how our public space paradigms need to adjust given the facts of immigration and the micro-economies for which our real estate markets will not make space. This property outlaw fights for inclusion rather than the dismantling of the system and has produced significant public debate that is ultimately resulting in the redistribution of property entitlements. However, in this case, the extraordinary situation of a polarizing new president targeting this sympathetic figure is what provided the political window of opportunity for the redistribution. Still, the devil will be in the details as at the time of this writing, no final regulatory ordinance has been passed, leaving street vending in a partial limbo as those who swallowed their distaste for decriminalization become more antagonistic to the process.
Case 2: gentrification and the arts in Boyle Heights
Boyle Heights is a neighborhood in eastern Los Angeles which is currently almost entirely Latino and has historically been a home for new immigrants. It is also currently the locus for a diverse array of community organizations. Some of these organizations have been around for decades, emerging out of the 1970s Chicano movement, and others after the 1992 LA Uprising. Other organizations have been formed recently in response to gentrification and skyrocketing housing costs. It should be emphasized that many of these groups share members and have many shared interests.
But, a handful of these groups have been receiving international media attention for their tactics, including Defend Boyle Heights, Serve the People, Ovarian Psycos, and the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD). Their actions largely consist of public demonstrations and statements, deploying militant slogans such as “Fuck White Art” and “Red Guard” identities and symbols, and manifesto-like statements that are released to the press and posted online (Red Guard-LA 2015). While this is not the first use of such protest actions against perceived gentrifying forces (see, for example, Mele 2000), it is notable that these groups have focused particular attention on the role of arts and culture establishments in the gentrification process and have organized protests at art galleries and hipster shops, encouraging residents to physically drive out these “intruders.” Those confronted have included a high-priced mobile opera in a public park of mostly white patrons, a diverse group of college students taking a walk to commemorate the 6th Street Bridge closure, and a real estate agent’s bike tour of the neighborhood for potential home buyers. Guerrilla actions have included protests, picket lines, broken windows, flyers, and feces thrown onto buildings (Mejia and Saldivar 2017).
These actions have received media attention from not only local news and arts publications, but also international outlets such as Newsweek and The Guardian, demonstrating the tactics’ efficacy in bringing more attention to the issue of gentrification. However, tensions have mounted in the neighborhood as these urban guerrillas have also criticized older local community development and empowerment organizations for “selling out” by being willing to meet with real estate businesses and government. They have also shut down lines of communication with those who collaborate with some of these groups (Huante and Miranda 2019). The older groups, for their part, have publicly emphasized that the guerrillas might serve a useful purpose in pushing the issue of gentrification harder. There have also been counter-protestors appearing at the coffee shop to support the new business and the formation of a group named Defend Boyle Heights From Defend Boyle Heights. Boyle Heights’ LA city council representative José Huizar, who the organizations have criticized as “on the side of big business,” also issued a statement decrying their tactics (Huizar 2017; Defend Boyle Heights 2017).
In contrast to the previous case, this case is characterized by divergent strategies and organizations. To better identify productive outcomes and to contextualize community representation, we interviewed several people affiliated with both the older organizations and the newer more vocal organizations and conducted a face-to-face survey with several hundred residents of the neighborhood, which itself was met with some resistance as we discuss in a later section.
According to key informant interviews, the origins of the current push against arts gentrification began when existing anti-gentrification organizations became inflamed by a dramatic and well-publicized trend of large East Coast galleries moving west and “settling” in Boyle Heights, with tone-deaf media coverage that depicted the neighborhood as “devoid of life” and “dangerous” (Chaplin 2016; Ryzik 2015). Within this context, a gallery named PSSST opened with a publicly expressed desire to provide space to queer and marginalized communities, integrating a social agenda into its mission as a non profit organization. Nevertheless, PSSST too was seen as an interloper whose stated social agenda may have made it even more a target, with activists accusing it of being in cahoots with developers and of “pinkwashing.”
However, the hundreds of Boyle Heights residents that we surveyed conceived of gentrification differently. The arts were hardly mentioned. Rather, many focused on a specific place, Mariachi Plaza, and their desire to preserve its cultural character, which echoes a similar desire expressed in public meetings during the process of developing the Boyle Heights community plan. This iconic public space has been a gathering place of mariachi musicians available for hire since the 1930s. After LA Metro, the local transit agency, opened a train station at the plaza in 2009 and with its proximity to the newly desirable downtown Los Angeles, developers began to propose replacing the library, café, murals, and ice cream shop with parking garages, condos, and offices, alarming residents.
Their response points to the importance of place, rather than just space, countering purely economic strategies and bolstering Bedoya’s argument that the opposition to gentrification is as much about cultural symbolism as rental prices. In fact, residents are not opposed to change and expressed a desire for more businesses that would provide more options for food, as well as education and services. Rather, the issue is that new development ought to address the needs of local households (ELACC 2015).
Meanwhile, the guerrilla’s embrace of the Red Guards name might be ironically apt as they attacked the older generation of Chicano activist organizations as not being revolutionary enough. Mirroring critiques of Project Row Houses and Rebuild Foundation, the criticism that progressive creatives are “selling out” seems to be a common theme. Some have been starting to push back on the “purity politics” of these more radical groups that create division against potential allies and who are rigid about which tactics are the best (Lee 2017; Shotwell 2016). But, more than a lack of civility, the differences may be real and significant as some invoke the Cultural Revolution with nostalgia while others with dread. Many of these “purists” desire to supplant the capitalist logic of cities, whereas others try to advocate for more spaces of inclusion within it.
This echoes the longstanding debates about the productivity of revolutionary utopian ideals versus incremental non-reformist reforms (Fainstein 2010; Fraser and Honneth 2003; Harvey 2000) that Fraser argues might still be transformative while “leaving intact the deep structure of capitalist property rights” in the immediate term. Reforms could be subversive through “policies with a double face: on the one hand, they engage people’s identities and satisfy some of their needs as interpreted within existing frameworks of recognition and distribution; on the other hand, they set in motion a trajectory of change in which more radical reforms become practicable over time” (78–79).
The Boyle Heights urban guerrillas argue that if they can run arts and culture-related businesses and developers out of the neighborhood, they might stem the neighborhood’s new mainstream cultural cache, preventing gentrification’s displacement. However, while they have effectively produced the closure of a handful of galleries, new development continues to extend into Boyle Heights, as the large-scale 6th Street Bridge is under construction, connecting the gentrified Arts District to Boyle Heights with a Highline-esque parkway, and as large-scale housing and retail projects are being undertaken on land owned by LA Metro. Assessing the productivity of their guerrilla tactics may require more time but for the moment, one of the most evident results has been a more intense public discussion about gentrification.
Three conclusions regarding guerrilla urbanism
These two cases of guerrilla urbanism emanate from the exigencies of immigrant urbanism that are currently fomenting changes in contemporary spatial regulation, planning paradigms, and property rights in cities around the globe. Unless our spatial order adapts, guerrilla urbanism will proliferate to provoke change. While these two cases share a narrative of guerrillas fighting against the dominant spatial order, their comparison is instructive because they demonstrate differing tactics. The street vending case involves independent vendors who formed alliances in a conventionally organized, city-wide political campaign to gain property rights for themselves. Meanwhile, the Boyle Heights case involves several guerrilla groups who independently used confrontational direct actions and international media attention to disrupt the usual property entitlements allocated to others—purported “outsiders” with greater economic power. In considering the efficacy of such tactics, these cases provide insights across three registers: scale and time, the notion of “community,” and most importantly, through differing understandings of property rights.
Spatial and temporal efficacy in guerrilla urbanism
One theme that we found important in comparing our two cases is that of scale and time. The street vendor decriminalization campaign was a city-wide campaign organizing many groups directed toward one goal that unified them, whereas the Boyle Heights groups are focused on defending a neighborhood against real estate market forces and cultural change. Stemming the machinations of the real estate market is a hydra-headed challenge that not only Boyle Heights but many Los Angeles neighborhoods, including wealthy ones, have been reacting to as real estate market capital increases pressure to redevelop neighborhoods. Parochialism has emerged as a defensive reaction which aims to at least protect the everyday elements closest to home: family life, foundations of cultural identity, and one’s immediate habitat.
This parochial view stems from the understandably urgent need for self-preservation and protection of a neighborhood that residents have invested in over decades and in a region with few affordable rental housing options. Displacement by new development is especially egregious given the history of low-income communities being unfairly saddled with the region’s more undesirable land uses while also receiving less of its share of public investment. But the current strategies seem to miss the fundamental structural causes. A larger scale view would implicate our systems of property rights, which has limited affordable housing supply partly because of community backlash to new development as well as outdated zoning and building codes and weak enforcement of tenants’ rights, amid urban population growth and rising income inequality. Focusing on shutting art galleries and coffee shops has brought more attention and discussion and potentially could be catalytic in the process of institutional change, perhaps a confrontational version of Fraser’s “non-reformist reforms.” But they do not address these root causes and it is difficult to see how they can successfully stem displacement caused by the regional real estate market. Planning literature has often advocated for a regional view because benefits and harms spill over and across localities: housing markets, pollution, and congestion, for example, do not respect neighborhood boundaries. As of yet, these groups have brought more attention to the issues but have not built a larger movement for institutional change.
In addition to spatial parochialism, there is also the underdiscussed issue of time and the future. Here we introduce the concept of temporal parochialism, or the bounding of one’s attention to current urgencies at the expense of longer-term time spans. Los Angeles is a dynamic and rapidly growing city. While some of the new residents are well-heeled, many are also struggling immigrants and refugees. Furthermore, the largest source of population growth in Los Angeles stems from natural growth by existing residents through having and raising children. Given these intra-regional dynamics, neighborhoods must grapple with urban growth and change. In the case study’s time frame, the Boyle Heights guerrilla groups have understandably taken defensive positions with a focus on stopping change. The guerrillas’ lack of an articulated vision for the future of Boyle Heights, however, leaves open important questions. If we accept that change is inevitable, the focus should be about what change should look like if it were on a community’s own terms. What future do they want to build for the next generation?
On the other hand, the street vendor decriminalization campaign was a city-wide, campaign rather than focused on the vendors of particular neighborhoods, though vendors are often concentrated in particular areas. Parochial attitudes were set aside in this instance for a larger cause, namely stopping the arrest and deportation of street vendors who may be undocumented. It is notable that while some still view vendors as unfair business competition, they were nevertheless also seen as legitimate residents of the city who deserve the ability to reside without fear. In both spatial and temporal dimensions, parochialism was overcome on this issue. Through our interviews and review of testimonials in the public record, we found that the vendor was no longer viewed as a guerrilla but over time has become normalized as a legitimate member of the Los Angeles polity, even without US citizen status. And yet time will tell if the decriminalization victory is substantial in altering spatial rights to actual places in the city. For example, new constitutional rights to vending in other countries have been rendered impotent through everyday municipal governance which continues to privilege private property interests (Roever 2016; Lamarca 2011). But, this case raises an interesting question: does success at changing institutions mean that triumphant guerrillas eventually are no longer guerrillas?
“The community”: drawing boundaries in a changing city
A repeated theme that surfaces in both case studies is the often ambiguous notion of who is in and represents “the community,” a fraught term that has long been explored in the literature (Hillery 1955; Willis 1977; Delanty 2003; Anderson 1983; Calhoun 1980; Sandercock 1998; Young 2000). In the case of street vendors, the activists operated with an expansive notion of community, forming a broad alliance with its own political logic. In conventional organizing, one source of political capital for grassroots groups is the numbers of active members who will show up to city council meetings and to public protests, and so the various groups were inclusive in forming alliances to have the largest numbers possible. Many vendor groups, community groups, advocacy organizations, and allied professionals joined forces in the latest incarnations of the street vendor campaign. While the large numbers alone were insufficient in previous campaigns to legalize vending, it was a necessary political precondition when the recent political opportunity arose for councilmembers to resist Trump’s immigration policies. This alliance was easier to amass because the campaign community was rights based rather than neighborhood-based, so territories between vendors or neighborhoods were not an issue. Furthermore, there was no need for one group to claim to better represent the interests of vendors when the goal was decriminalization.
In contrast, the more radical groups in Boyle Heights were precisely formed to critique these conventional forms of political organizing because they were seen as a charade not leading to meaningful change for local neighborhoods. While the various Boyle Heights groups are unified in wanting to combat gentrification, their objectives and strategies differ with the more radical groups calling for a dismantling of the capitalist system while more traditional community development organizations focusing on providing immediate material needs such as housing, health, education, business development, and the like. Similarly, while the traditional organizations work within the political system and collaborate with others including city officials, developers, and property owners, the more radical groups take a hardline stance and ostracize any who interact with these “outsiders” as “sell-outs” who will ultimately gentrify the neighborhood.
Representing and advocating for community interests is at the heart of the Boyle Heights case. With more than 16 community-based organizations operating in this small area, to explore these dynamics, we had originally organized a survey conducted through local community health workers in 2017 and had collected responses from 349 community residents. But, as a sign of how sensitive this neighborhood is to these issues about community representation, we were asked to shelve the study as our community partners began to be criticized by a few of the radical groups. In general, the community groups have sought to carefully keep peace in the neighborhood between groups. And so out of deference to our partners, we are not reporting details of the survey apart from general findings which are corroborated by other materials which are already published (see ELACC 2015).
We can note that many of the residents we surveyed responded that many of the older groups represented their interests. It is not surprising that people would be familiar with organizations that have been around longer. Conversely, the radical groups are newer and tend to be associated with younger residents. Given that these groups are newer, they are also still evolving their position regarding alliances. One group, the Ovarian Psycos, explains this ambivalence on their website: “In the past, we have collaborated with groups such as Corazon del Pueblo, Serve the People, Defend Boyle Heights and many more as well as organized around truly grassroots issues in our communities in Los Angeles. Through these collaborations both good and bad, it has solidified for us that building alliances is necessary and building outside of state sanctioned federal funding non profit industrial complex is mandatory. We are unapologetic members of the coalition Defend Boyle Height” (sic, Ovarian Psycos 2018).
Property outlaws reviewed: the aesthetics of guerrilla urbanism in the process of social change
A final observation is that both of these cases of guerrilla urbanism involve actions that challenge our property rights institutions. Peñalver and Katyal explain that “lawbreakers” play an important role: the lunch counter sit-ins of the US civil rights movement involved trespassing and loss of business for the establishments targeted. Their tactics were decried by their opposition as well as by some fellow civil rights activists as unlawful and repugnant, but over time they effectively caused society to reconsider its first principles and reform Jim Crow laws and the range of liberties, liabilities, and entitlements the law confers (2010). In another example, they describe the transformation of attitudes regarding frontier squatters in the 1800s from outlaw to rightful claimant of real estate, enshrining these activities into law.
Similar to Peñalver and Katyal’s examples, street vendors occupy public areas such as sidewalks and parks, vending their wares despite the technical illegality of such action, because of the economic necessity to make a living as well as the perceived legitimacy to use public space in this manner. In the case of Boyle Heights, the urban guerrillas’ confrontational tactics obstructing people’s movement in public space and the operations of private business challenge the privileged mobility and entitlements of those financially capitalized to use and change the neighborhood. Both instances involve a form of lawbreaking activity that questions current property rights regimes as enforced by both norm and law.
One key facet of this process that is under-examined in Peñalver and Katyal’s theory is that the lawbreakers often exhibit the new spatial order itself: racially integrated lunch counters, homestead settlements, or in our case, street vending. Besides legislative changes, the lawbreakers provide a visible glimpse of the new spatial order that will need to be adopted by the wider populace in terms of both social norms and aesthetic politics, institutionalizing the inclusion of the formerly marginalized into the public imagination of the city. In Los Angeles, our case documents a stunning transformation in mainstream public perception of the “taco vendor.” While a few decades earlier they were viewed as “Third World” criminals degrading our cities, as Lipsitz and Bedoya described, immigrant street vendors have now become a familiar urban fixture with many allies. More than tolerance or sympathy, immigrant vendors are now seen as cultural assets serving up some of the most delicious, “authentic,” affordable foods, contributing to a civic life that values multi-culturalism. While the foodie culture and food trucks have also contributed to this cultural turn, it is our societal perception of aesthetics that has changed rather than the vendors themselves. That is to say, a fundamental part of the struggle in re-writing spatial rights is about socio-political aesthetics of what is valued, desirable, and beautiful in the city. While the idea of the dirty, dangerous immigrant is a common and old one (Loukaitou-Sideris and Ehrenfeucht 2009), historically urban design has played a role in expunging their spatial practices and “civilizing” them into Lipsitz’ white spatial imaginary with public parks and civic architecture (Hall 1988; Crawford 2015). In this remarkable turn toward valuing immigrant urbanism, new kinds of urban design practice will need to emerge to support the rewriting of the spatial order.
Indeed, this is one sphere where the Boyle Heights guerrillas may be prescient: while the older community-based organizations have been concerned about the expensive developments in the neighborhood and housing displacement, several of the newer, more radical groups have especially targeted the arts and cultural consumption businesses which hold aesthetic sway. Partly this is because of their stated concern regarding the process of arts-based gentrification: artists move into cheaper rent neighborhoods, they spark cultural buzz, and ultimately there is gentrification and displacement. But, it is clearly not art in general they are against since many of the radical guerrilla groups’ members and leaders are artists themselves. Rather, their target has been on the cultural, symbolic gentrification of “white art” as much as economic gentrification.
The phenomenon of how the neighborhood is physically and visually changing cultures is also of concern to the residents that were surveyed. When asked what they would most like to not change in Boyle Heights, the top answers were not economic about rents but instead invoked ideas about a sense of place for “culture and tradition.” In particular, many mentioned the iconic Mariachi Plaza. This response points to the important role that architecture and urban design has to play in the attachment to place and cultural belonging. This also suggests that a design practice that understands and appreciates immigrant urbanism and tries to preserve and honor cultures in creative ways has an important role to play in either exacerbating tensions or solidifying an inclusive sense of place. But this does not mean stasis or nostalgia. Residents did want changes, such as more types of businesses, better transportation, and more public services. Since the urban guerrillas have not yet developed a fully articulated vision of a future Boyle Heights, questions remain: what should future change look like, and who is included in this future?
In sum, our cases examined two different kinds of guerrilla urbanism strategies that seek to bring attention to immigrant urbanism and start a social reconstruction of our property institutions. The street vendor decriminalization case reveals that decades of traditional political organizing and forming large alliances between local groups, advocates, and professionals, and lobbying government representatives was still not enough to catalyze formal legal adoption of street vending as a legitimate practice in the city. Instead, our investigation suggests that the vendor’s humanity and place in the city had become socially constructed during those decades which provided the basis for outraged resistance to the prospect of their being deported from the country. It is less clear whether the sympathetic “taco vendor” figure was reconstructed in the spatial imaginary more through the campaigns, cultural shifts, or through repeated everyday physical interactions. But, in the end, the guerrillas became neighbors.
In the case of Boyle Heights, there is less time with which to view the anti-gentrification guerrillas’ efforts as they have formed relatively recently. Still, in a short time and with small numbers, they have garnered international media attention for their controversial tactics and have caused deeper self-reflection amongst the many Boyle Heights community-based organizations and residents. They have not yet addressed the structural causes of gentrification nor developed a vision for the future and so it is unclear what the strategy will be after this initial spark nor what role the anti-establishment coalitions will play in the political framework. It will be instructive to track if this more divisive model of guerrilla urbanism leads to fundamental changes in property rights, while staying outside the mainstream institutions.
In both cases, we ultimately find that urban designers have an important role to play in, first, doing no harm to immigrant communities, but also in playing an active role in restructuring more just spatial orders and strengthening placekeeping. Rather than produce temporary DIY projects that ignore the issue of property rights, designers can engage with the existing grassroots urban guerrillas that already operate in cities around the world, leveraging their access to capital and expertise, and respecting and creatively responding to the new spatial orders that are being drawn on the ground. More knowledge about the social reconstruction process currently taking place in global cities like Los Angeles around rights to space will prepare designers as they are confronted by urban guerrillas about their designs and will enable them to explore their own potential role as an ally.
This is certainly true in the context of Boyle Heights where, as of 2016, the median household income was $33,421 and the rate of homeownership 23.7% (USC Price Center 2018).
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The authors would like to thank Wendy Chung and Luis Gutierrez for research assistance and key informant interviews, as well as the participants of the 2015 symposium, Contesting the Streets 2, who helped develop some of these concepts, particularly Saskia Sassen and Margaret Crawford. See http://slab.today/2015/09/contesting-the-streets-2/.
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Crisman, J.Ja., Kim, A. Correction to: Property outlaws in the Southland: The potential and limits of guerrilla urbanism in the cases of arts gentrification in Boyle Heights and street vending decriminalization in Los Angeles. Urban Des Int 25, 179–191 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41289-019-00104-7
- Public space
- Political organizing
- Property rights
- Social change