/// the hand of greed

by John Urquiza

“The Hand of Greed” also refers to the “Six Fingers of Gentrification” campaign that intertwines with the “YOU” series. The visual six-fingered hand serves as the outline of the violence of gentrification, while “YOU”, the type-based poster design (YOU 2017) provides the visceral lived experiences. After a year of so many mass displacements, the first iterations of the “YOU” narrative were developed in May of 2017, signaling a shift from the “Gentrified” series (gentrified!) of 2014. As a primer and almost surface view of the issue, the “Gentrified” series discussed the loss of cultural icons as the primary negative effect of gentrification. The six fingers presents a more broad understanding of the consequences of gentrification and illustrates the potent protest board’s message, “gentrification is a land grab disguised as revitalization”. The Hand of Greed offers not just a segue from abstract to literal, but also six paths to the source of trauma.

panel no. 1 from flour + water.

Those six points of tenants rights, homelessness, land use and planning, discrimination and criminalization of BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color), theft of culture and loss of businesses and the health consequences are an outline of the devastation ravaging the communities of Northeast Los Angeles as well as the battlefronts that organizers rally around. 

the destroyer of communities 

The Marmion Royal Tenants Union was formed in 2016 to fight the evictions of fifty-seven families from their Highland Park building. While marching to Councilmember Cedillo’s office, the families and activists demanded an end to “no-fault evictions”. 

While in 2015, more than two hundred people were subject to homeless sweeps in seventy-five encampments along the Arroyo Seco. After being swept multiple times many of the encampments have moved back into the Arroyo with an entirely new population.

Recognizing incidents like the Marmion and the Arroyo as commonplace, the state debated rent control a few years later. Some senators began launching campaigns for what they called land use reform, although many community members recognized these efforts as aiding developers. Eventually, one proposal made some sense, but now that it is enacted TOC or Transit Oriented Communities developments are devastating poor communities and communities of color. 

The fourth on our list has touched all of NELA. As USC expands its campus and attracts luxury hotels and student housing, local youth living in the housing projects fear with good reason an increased police presence. While in bedroom communities new residents form neighborhood watches that further persecute people of color and long time residents. 

Monitoring the Facebook feed of anti-gentrification groups, you can see how the businesses are disappearing and being replaced by newer creative economy businesses. While liberal, white populations acknowledge all these points and declare their support for Black Lives Matter, they simultaneously fail to see their role in the racism of gentrification as they are still benefiting from the exploitation. 

The last finger of the hand is often silent, invisible. The health effects of gentrification have not been fully understood in many discussions of the issue despite the connection between gentrification and higher mortality rates for the elderly and poor. Nor can the local government and planning boards comprehend how housing insecurity perpetuates the existing conditions of alcoholism, domestic abuse and poverty. The agitation prevents the healing of those traumas and is eventually passed on to the next generation.

(l) tenants from the marmion royal rent strike marching on councilman cedillo’s office, c.2016. // (m) the family that rented this house on avenue 57 was displaced and the land sold to a developer who built five luxury homes with car elevators, c.2016. // (r) jesse and his three sisters living in the arroyo seco after they lost their grandmother’s home to predatory lending, c.2015.

on the backs of others greatness

The symbolic hand of this series is an homage to early design and resistance movements. Its inspiration or DNA can be found in the Dadist, pre-World War Two publication AIZ, Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung translated the Workers’ Illustrated Newspaper. Graphic artist and Dadist John Heartfeld’s photo collages critiqued, if not challenged outright the growing power of fascism in pre-war Germany. In his poster illustration The Hand Has Five Fingers c.1928, he selected the final hand photo from hundreds taken at a political rally. Heartfeld used the symbol as a tool to communicate the power of the people, giving them license to act. “With these 5 Grab the Enemy!” 

john heartfeld, c.1928.

Local laws governing rent control and development illustrate the associations between fascism and land injustice. California is one of the most liberal states in the US, yet it only has about 18 cities with some form of rent control. The Rent Stabilization Ordinance in Los Angeles protects only 69% of the rental units. Developers and wealthy investors are allowed to run roughshod over communities. In and around Northeast Los Angeles we have historical examples such as the racist destruction of Sonoratown, a Mexican urban community of adobe structures during the start of the 20th Century that was razed for use as industrial yards, the three communities of Chavez Ravine known as La Loma, Bishop and Palo Verde that were erased and eventually replaced by the LA Dodgers, and around the same time of America’s urban renewal we saw the destruction of Bunker Hill: a Latino, Filipino, indigenous and LGBTQ neighborhood that is now Los Angeles’ financial district filled with art museums, an opera house and skyscrapers. 

The “Hand of Greed” refers not only to home flippers, multi-unit investors, carpet bagging real estate agents, luxury developers and landlords. It is a subtle non-threatening grasp demonstrating how this economic fascism has crept into the mainstream. Heartfeld’s visual strategy was to build up unity with his Five Fingers, Naguals’ foreboding message wants you to recognize and acknowledge the threat. The visual subtly reveals its intent, while the text holds the rationale and warns us of the low level sustained violence to follow. Today in NELA the threat has grown into three major development plans: The LA River Revitalization Plan, the CASP, Cornfield Arroyo Specific Plan and the USC Biotech Corridor (currently rebranded Life Sciences Campus Expansion) surrounding the southern borders of NELA.

history lesson

The violence Heartfeld faced was unimaginable, but it all started with hate, persecution and the same aggressions such as the seizing of land and businesses and the erasure of culture. Effective design relies on a core visual language based on the human experience. The symbolism Heartfeld created reached into the twenty-first century with a historical warning. Naguals uses the influence of the past to inform its creative output. In the poster “Drug War” c.2002 (walgreens), the helicopters are inspired and appropriated from painter Rupert Garcia’s 1989 poster “¡Fuera de Panama!” Garcia conjures the memory of the Vietnam War and reminds us of injustice and the right to sovereignty. Naguals applies it to the corporate invasions on the small town existence of Eagle Rock. You see Garcia look to the past again in another painting, “Striking Mexican Worker” 1979 “Obrero en Huelga, Ascesinado” (Worker on Strike, Murdered). He reaches back to a 1902 black and white photograph by Manuel Alvarez-Bravo covering a communist rally. Garcia uses Bravo’s imagery to speak to a very specific audience about the student uprising of Mexico City during that time. They are not only phrases in the visual language we recycle and reuse, but they serve to remind us how far away we are from justice and what we still need to do.

(l) rupert garcia, c.1979 // (r) manuel alvarez-bravo, c.1902.

Gentrification is expanding across the country and globe. It is the telltale sign of economic inequity. To meet the demands of fighting it effectively local organizers must also adapt. Naguals must adapt its message. The various Naguals campaigns Six Fingers, evolved to communicate with the diverse demographics in Northeast Los Angeles. In Lincoln Heights Spanish is spoken by 63% of the population. Chinatown is just next door and another 8% in Lincoln Heights speak Mandarin. Tagalog was required in the northernmost part of NELA in Eagle Rock whose residents are one third Filipino. While each community faces different waves and “gentrifiers”, the six fingers lays out a path to understanding threats as they emerge. 

most recent iterations of the six fingers of gentrification, naguals press c.2021.

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