By Mike Talavera
On Monday, Defend Our Hoodz – Defiende El Barrio – Austin (DOH) published a statement announcing a boycott against the Riverside Arts District, with a message to artists that “if you side with the developers, we will treat you no differently than we treat them, as unwelcome invaders.”
The arts district, conceived by local nonprofit Austin Creative Alliance and developer Presidium Group, offers preferential treatment and discounted rent to art galleries, music venues, and other cultural businesses affiliated with Presidium Group properties in the East Riverside area in southeast Austin.
According to the pitch for the district, Presidium Group envisions an art district spread out across its 200 acres of property in the Eastside area that will span over 1.5 million square feet with construction costs amounting to $322 million.
The DOH statement accuses the district of being an “artwashing scheme” that seeks to camouflage Presidium Group’s efforts to gentrify the area with the help of other developers. Presidium Group owns three of the four properties making up the Ballpark apartments and is one of the main forces behind the push to flip that complex into a luxury multi-use development.
“While the working-class creates art by and for the people,” the statement reads, “developers use art to cover up their plans for our destruction.”
Incendiary News conducted a short interview with a DOH spokesperson about the boycott, presented here in full:
IN: Thank you for making time to talk with us. My first question is how did this boycott come about?
DOH: We heard about the plans for a Riverside Arts District through one of our supporters. When we got more details, we talked to Ballpark tenants about their landlords’ plans to give artists cheap rent, [while also] attempting to evict them and raise their rents. We agreed unanimously that we should enforce a public boycott.
IN: DOH started in earnest by enforcing the boycott against F&F Real Estate Ventures, the landlords who made national news when they violently demolished the Jumpolin piñata store in 2016. What lessons have you learned from that experience that you will apply to enforcing this boycott? Are you borrowing anything from Defend Boyle Heights in Los Angeles?
DOH: We definitely see parallels with Defend Boyle Heights’ organizing. Art is the Trojan horse of gentrification. A string of art galleries will be followed by a Whole Foods, overpriced coffee, and cross fit studios. We hope to bring the same fighting spirit that our comrades in LA bring to the gentrifiers that threaten our hoods.
What we’ve learned from the boycott against F&F and Blue Cat Cafe is that a boycott means nothing without enforcement, militancy and strategy. The boycott was not originally called by us, but by a collection of groups such as the NAACP, La Raza Roundtable, PODER, Resistencia, and Equilibrio. The simple truth is that these organizations have not held a militant stance on this boycott, while we have.
In one month, Blue Cat Cafe will have been open for 3 years now. During those 3 years, we have united with ex-employees who feared and resented Rebecca Gray’s management style. We have supported the removal of neglected cats, and we have literally fought Nazis in the streets. Even though we have exposed the dirtiest stains of F&F and their “quirky,” racist tenant, Blue Cat Cafe, we are not done. We are committed to seeing Blue Cat Cafe shut down and we are going to bring this same commitment to the boycott against the Riverside Arts District.
Not only are we determined, we have an increased amount of potential supporters and allies in the Riverside area. Unlike Austin’s Eastside, Riverside is in an earlier stage of development and has more renters with a shared enemy – Ballpark’s developers. Not only can we unite the power of artists and creative individuals against our enemies, we are also working with tenants to improve their living conditions and fight for a working class Riverside.
IN: Do you think this strategy against gentrifying art can be applied in other cities or are there specific conditions that make it possible?
DOH: The possibility for challenging the gentrification strategy of artwashing exists in almost any major city (and probably smaller ones as well) but we don’t think it should be taken up just for the sake of doing it. Austin has had plenty of artwashing, but we have not had a focused campaign until now. The boycott of the Riverside Arts District is directly related to the fact that a developer that we are already organizing against is partnering with an opportunistic arts organization. In Boyle Heights, the boycott is also specifically focused on galleries within a specific area. For a boycott to be feasible and successful, it needs some parameters.
The businesses and organizations named by the boycott are the Austin Creative Alliance, Pump Project Arts Complex, and Come and Take It Theatre, and any other artists who associate with the district. Supporters can sign on to the boycott here.