by Rae Hirschfeld-Smith / John Urquiza
The “YOU” campaign serves as a demonstration of how wheat pasting directly engages and implicates poster viewers in issues of injustice. The series addresses the culpability of viewers in processes of gentrification by creating discomfort for them and demanding they interrogate their own positionality. Throughout successive waves of gentrification, the drivers of gentrification or bad actors that the “YOU” series targets evolve. The first “YOU” campaign launched in 2017 and called attention to the role of home flippers, real estate agents, low-level investors and new white residents in fueling gentrification in a calm, stoic voice not associated with anti-gentrification rhetoric. The investor class was transforming many Los Angeles neighborhoods, including Highland Park, where speculation caused an explosion in rates of displacement and homelessness.
Around the same time, Occidental College initiated the purchase of the Oxy-York property on the corner of York Boulevard and Annandale Avenue, formerly home to a local liquor store. Northeast Los Angeles Alliance (NELAA) activists saw this incursion as a betrayal by the institution, which had partnered with Oxy’s Center for Community Based Learning (CCBL) to develop anti-gentrification programming such as tenant’s rights workshops aimed at preventing the displacement of community members. Naguals Press observed community and local organizations at a distance to understand the processes in motion, leading to the development of a second “YOU” campaign focused on Occidental’s role in gentrification. The controversy of Oxy’s purchase led to the development of The Working Group made up of faculty, students and community members who set out to create a set of working principles with the goal of minimizing Occidental’s role in the gentrification of surrounding neighborhoods.
Note: This effort might have been doomed from the start when during negotiations Occidental’s administrative staff purchased four lots on Toland Way, displacing four families (The Occidental). Only through the intervention of NELO Northeast Local of the Los Angeles Tenants Union was the fifth tenant saved and offered a unit under the new ownership. In the end, the working principles failed in the eyes of many faculty, students and the community. The administration and the land use planning committee of the trustees ultimately cut the two-year long effort and the approximately twenty-page document of working principles to a five-line directive. The fallout of their actions included the departure of several BIPOC staff and disappointment among graduating seniors involved in The Working Group.
Each “YOU” poster is grounded in personal stories of trauma experienced by community members. The poster below tells of how married couple Felipe and Rhonda (not their real names) were forced to live in a camper on Figueroa Street across from Sycamore Park. Felipe, a soft-spoken Chicano in his thirties, was born and raised in Highland Park and graduated from Franklin High School. Their belongings are strapped to the top of their camper and his work truck. He is a plumber making forty-five dollars an hour for a plumbing contracting company. He also does plumbing and handyman work on the weekends. The gentrification of Highland Park caused rent for Felipe and Rhonda’s one-bedroom apartment to rise to $1600, forcing them to live on the streets. The RV encampment they live in is a row of several, home to neighbors including a family in a large bus-sized recreation vehicle with a sedan in tow. A couple others are like his, a camper on the bed of a pickup truck. Felipe says he attended an Arroyo Seco Neighborhood Council meeting once. The meeting only served to bash homeless folks like himself, accusing them of being drug addicts. He expresses wanting to stay in the neighborhood of his childhood to raise his own family eventually. But it has become entirely unaffordable. Rhonda and Felipe struggle each week looking for housing they can afford. Every few days they gather with their neighbors to catch up on news and share stories. The campers have their own community that does not include us.
Felipe and Rhonda’s story is one among many that exemplify the continual cycle of exploitation that leads to housing insecurity, eviction and displacement. An unpublished displacement study conducted by Sin Turistas, the Northeast Los Angeles Alliance (NELAA) and Occidental Students United Against Gentrification (OSUAG) illustrates the breadth of the displacement crisis in Highland Park by reviewing property sales in a ten block area of the neighborhood (just a few blocks from Felipe and Rhonda’s RV encampment) over three years. The quest for profit drove many investors to evict tenants and raise rents, oftentimes illegally and without regard to rent control protections. The study concludes that 23% of the area’s population was displaced or an estimated 17,000 people were forced to move out of Highland Park.
Displacement caused the growth of the homeless population living in 75 encampments along the Arroyo Seco. In response, Councilman Cedillo and The Arroyo Seco Neighborhood Council devised a plan to push the homeless population out of Highland Park entirely. Cedillo ordered three summer homeless sweeps or “area cleanings” of the Arroyo, which eventually forced houseless neighbors into residential streets and, ironically, into Sycamore Park, right next to where the neighborhood council holds its meetings. Not long after setting up new encampments, folks living in Sycamore Park were harassed by the LAPD. The increased activity around the park brought scrutiny to the RV camp where Felipe and Rhonda lived. In his next move to further criminalize NELA’s homeless, Councilman Cedillo banned overnight parking and imposed size limitations on vehicles to prevent RVs from parking along Figueroa Street. Felipe, Rhonda and the others were forced to abandon their parking spaces. The persistent policing and criminalization of our unhoused neighbors continues with intensity, evidenced by the recent mass persecution and displacement of residents of the Echo Park homeless encampments.
The “YOU” campaign evolved again in 2019. In Northeast Los Angeles, the Naguals home territory, the hunger to consume new land spread beyond Highland Park to the last affordable neighborhood in the northeast, Lincoln Heights. In this third campaign, Naguals continues the “YOU” narrative to challenge the University of Southern California (USC) and their biotech (aka life sciences campus) expansion into Lincoln Heights. Echoing their earlier criticisms of Occidental College, Naguals points out how USC’s billion dollar investments in large swaths of land threaten to uproot the existing community. This set of posters once again critically examines the relationship between higher education institutions, land theft and gentrification.
As the USC campus continues to expand, parents of students and landlords are buying homes adjacent to campus to rent out to students. It is obvious when walking through the neighborhood the houses where USC staff or students are living. The areas outside the high-gated houses are packed with cars belonging to residents of dormitory style housing. The neighborhood’s customary chain-link fencing is replaced with a horizontal wood fence, while the address numbers are a brushed aluminum Futura typeface. The rest of the neighborhood’s homes were clapboard built between 1930s-40s and the student housing has been erased of any reference to time. They have been stuccoed with new windows and many modern amenities. Some include additions or second floors to accommodate as many bedrooms as they can to rent out. As the demand for private student housing increases, colleges relinquish control over housing to corporate investments who effectively lock working class families, immigrant families and the deep-rooted community members out of the local rental market.
The eight billion dollars in the biotech investment is not a lone USC venture. They are counting on the majority of investment from outside sources. Some of those early biotech investments include The Hatch facility that leases space for research. Others include the Hyatt Hotel on the USC campus, the Hilton Hotel on nearby Soto Street and a third two hundred room boutique hotel along the river. Local CDCs, Community Development Corporations such as Eastside LEADS and SAJE have partnered with SEIU 721 Local and others to resist USC’s expansion and apply pressure on them for community benefits. Known as the USC Forward Coalition, they argue these developments lead to indirect displacement when land values rise, forcing rent higher. The development of these luxury spaces in communities with high poverty rates also leads to an increase in police presence that poses a persistent threat of violence and hostility towards community youth.
The institutional threat to Lincoln Heights is greater than anything Highland Park has seen. The Lincoln Heights community faces another estimated six billion dollars of investment nearby along the LA river revitalisation and an untold amount from investment in an area known as the Cornfield Arroyo Specific Plan (CASP) where nine hundred acres of commercial and manufacturing parcels have been rezoned for housing adjacent to Chinatown on the west and almost reaching the USC campus on the southeast. Former Councilman Ed Reyes characterizes CASP as an entire “new city for all”. Since its adoption by the Los Angeles City Council, developers and Councilman Cedillo have tried to chip away at CASP’s affordable “housing restriction” or “low hanging goals”, depending if you see them through a developer’s eyes or an activist’s eyes. Despite CASP being adopted more than ten years ago, developers have avoided developing the area. They actively lobby to remove any affordable housing requirements. Meanwhile, the majority of new projects are developing on the borders of the CASP. The new gentrifier is not a person, but a collection of capital with networks of investors and seemingly unseen powers. The boosters for these projects include the Lincoln Heights Business Improvement District (BID), the neighborhood council and other local investors. “YOU” posters targeting them and the LA River Revitalization project, the USC Biotech Corridor and the CASP are finding their way to the electrical boxes and telephone poles of Lincoln Heights only to be taken down by the BID the next morning.
This recent iteration of “YOU” attempts to speak to the institution through its clan of constituents and the community around. Facing massive investments amounts, nameless entities and economic processes that seemingly have no masters, the individual “YOU” seeks to engage everyone, the social conscious of the community, those who can change the course of the economic forces through its institutions: USC, the Los Angeles City Planning Department that brought us CASP and the Mayor’s Office who has appointed the planning commission members deciding these projects. With the transformation of bad actors and capital, the design strategy of “YOU” eventually transformed into “MIRA” and “LOOK” in English during this period.
The design of “YOU” is exclusively type, which requires a deeper analysis to understand their visual significance. The choice of typeface itself serves as its own unique message. This slab serif font is from the Egyptian family of typefaces, typefaces commonly associated with collegiate institutions. The characters Y O and U act as the focal point in both content and visual, in advertising terms “the hook”. The successive decrease in size draws the reader into the visual. Working like an eye chart test, the reader struggles to read the next line. The test is a challenge both physically and mentally to trigger a conscious engagement with the narrative. Naguals again uses this visual strategy in 2021 on the RENO VAR and ABOLIR campaigns, both of which target policymakers, planning departments and the investors they hide behind. The art in the design is the reading rhythm created by line breaks and sizes. It leads to a lyrical visual in words of powerful experiences lived by so many community members.
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