Art and the Politics of Public Housing

By Jacqueline Leavitt

We believe in a grassroots movement that puts into question the essential relationships on which the system is based. The focal point of these cultural campaigns is the evolution of political conviction into artistic actions and vice versa. We will present cultural performances as political actions because everyone is artist and activist at the same time.
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To juxtapose art and public housing may seem contradictory. Aesthetic principles include symmetry, focal point, pattern, contrast, perspective, dimensionality, movement, rhythm, unity and proportion. Public housing in the United States is hardly considered to have an aesthetic of architecture—pleasing visual design elements, such as the color of building materials, texture, the ways in which sunlight and shadows create patterns, a sense of harmony, the volume, shape and articulation of space.

In other countries, most notably the Netherlands, some social housing is recognized as works of art and architecture. In Amsterdam, there is the architecture of Michel de Klerk (“the Ship” at Spaarddammenplantsoen, built in 1919) and in Vienna there is the Hundertwasser House (the building began in the early 1980s and in 1983 was turned over to the tenants). If thought is given at all to the relationship of art to public housing, it is in the form of classes for residents, the addition of decorative elements to facades, interior and exterior murals or the inclusion of sculpture on the grounds.

Let’s take another look at art and the politics of public housing by focusing on the former Pico Gardens, Aliso Village and Aliso Extension (aka Pico Aliso), three adjacent developments in the Boyle Heights community of Los Angeles.

Public Housing

Public housing in the United States is routinely demonized by the right, center and left as a hotbed of violence and deviant behavior. Its architecture is pronounced dull, uniform and repetitive. Despite the fact that two-thirds of public housing is low-rise, as it is in Los Angeles, where it is mainly two and three stories high, critics generalize and denounce the scale as inhumane. There are problems with public housing, but these arise from deferred maintenance, corruption and structural social and economic imbalances. For those of us who defend public housing as the only remaining permanent affordable housing program, the issues lie in the widening gap between income and rents, the lack of well-paying jobs with benefits and privatization.

The hostility toward public housing is disproportionate to the relatively few units that exist—1.3 million families totaling 3 million seniors, disabled and low-income families with children, living in about 13,000 developments across the country. Over its lifetime, the more than fifty-year-old program has been outnumbered by the younger Section 8 voucher program that houses 4.7 million. Under President William J. Clinton, the Democrats rolled back the functions of the state, accommodating a Republican-dominated Congress, some of whose members called for dismantling the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). One key program of that era was HOPE VI, hailed by supporters for its demolition of what was called “distressed” public housing and replacement with “mixed-income” housing. The national estimate is that about 100,000 low-income units have been or are in the process of being demolished. Resistance has occurred in various places. HOPE VI came to Pico Aliso in 1996 and the resistance efforts included performance art, a result of a collaboration between two groups, Union de Vecinos and Ultra-red.

The HOPE VI Program at Pico Aliso

In 1996, tenants and organizers at Pico Aliso, responding to eviction notices and the impending demolition of three contiguous developments, formed Union de Vecinos. Thirty-six families received flyers from the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA)—slipped under their doors at night—informing them that they had sixty days to relocate and that Section 8 would be available. Two organizers, Leonardo Vilchis and Elizabeth Blaney, who had been working with the community, met with the core group of families who received the eviction notices. One tenant leader said:

We went to various agencies in the community for support but were turned away. We decided to organize ourselves and refused to leave. We delayed the demolition for two years until we received written guarantees that we would stay in Pico Aliso. During this process we discovered that we needed an organization.

Relocation rights were won for some who stayed. The fight was successful in ensuring that activist public housing residents were not excluded from moving into desirable units that were slated for sale. The actions of Union de Vecinos at Pico Gardens led to delays that were sufficient to convince HACLA to shift its tactics and demolish Aliso Village in one stage. But resistance did not derail the housing authority; 577 units of existing public housing were replaced with 421 new units at Pico Gardens and Aliso Extension. Of those, only 280 were for public housing tenants and sixty were senior apartments. Of eighty-one detached courtyard homes, more than thirty were once slated for sale.

Notwithstanding the outcome, Union de Vecinos thrived, expanding its organizing to other public housing developments and the surrounding Boyle Heights neighborhood. The struggle of traditional organizing involves going door to door, identifying tenant leaders and those in need, rendering services for tenants, preparing residents for testifying at public hearings, passing out flyers, taking surveys and attending many meetings. The Union de Vecinos organizers prepared funding grants, and in 2001, enough funds were raised to pay the original two organizers and hire residents as staff members. By then, Union de Vecinos was collaborating with Ultra-red, an arts group. Ultimately, other artists joined the struggle.

Public Housing and Art: Installations and Soundscapes

Since 1994, Ultra-red has pursued a practice that on its web page is called a “dynamic exchange between art and political organizing, producing radio broadcasts, performances, recordings, installations and public space occupations” ( The core group includes: Dont Rhine (artist, AIDS activist) and Pablo Garcia (musician, organizer, Valley Family Technology Project). After working with them, Blaney and Vilchis joined Ultra-red and produced the videos used in the installations about HOPE VI. In 2004, the newly reorganized group defined Ultra-red as an aesthetic-political organization.

The initial impetus grew out of Rhine ‘s involvement in ACT-UP and the group’s work broadened to include national and international projects. The newly constituted group worked in Dublin, with the Ballymun Women’s Resource Center at the largest public housing estate in Ireland. Other partners have included Kanak Attak, a German-based immigration and anti-racist network that involves research, sound, film and exhibition in challenging the idea of “foreignness;” experimental sound composer Eddie Peel of Sony Mao and Needle; Berlin-based musician Elliot Perkins (aka Phonem); and American ambient/computer synthesis composer Terre Thaemiltz.

The focus of the two-year collaboration with Union de Vecinos was the politics of HOPE VI and the residents’ resistance to demolition and displacement. The overall themes address the impact of public policy on public housing residents and the ways in which language is used to rationalize demolition. For example, Pico Aliso is characterized in pejorative terms pre-demolition while it is extolled afterwards.

The four Ultra-red installations include: 1) erasure that addresses Los Angeles’ history of displacing low-income people; 2) Pico Aliso residents’ ideas about the use of the $50 million HOPE VI allocation and the existing living conditions; 3) differences between residents’ opinions and those of HACLA; and 4) demolition of Aliso Village. Each was multimedia—involving combinations of video, soundscape, photography and framed testimonies—and participatory, involving artists and residents.

“Structural Adjustments,” with Public Works Administration (Karina Combs, Cecilia Wendt and Valerie Tevere) and curated by the Arroyo Arts Collective, was the first video and photography installation mounted in February 1998. This focused on erasure and loss, highlighting the use of eminent domain in Chavez Ravine in 1957 and the displacement of a low-income largely Latino community on a promise to build 3,500 of 10,000 units of public housing citywide. Instead, the cleared land was turned over to the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team and the former homeowners and renters had to fend for themselves. The poignancy of the displacement at Chavez Ravine is that some people landed in Boyle Heights and some in public housing, including Pico Aliso, where they then faced another round of loss.

In this installation, residents from Pico Aliso read testimonies about life in public housing and responded to the question, “What would you do with the HOPE VI allocation of $50 million?” As people described their living conditions, the soundscape included dripping water from kitchen faucets. The second installation, also called “Structural Adjustments,” combined video projection with a live sound performance in a gallery in downtown LA’s artists’ loft district. In July 1999, “Concrete Projections” took place in a courtyard at Aliso Extension. Two videos were screened on opposite walls, simulating a dialogue between the housing authority and the community. Clips were drawn from countless videotape footage of meetings with the housing authority, public hearings, etc. A micro, or pirate, radio station, set up in one apartment overlooking the courtyard, provided a running narrative that drew from official documents, such as housing authority minutes. This soundscape provided the familiar community ringing of bells at the nearby church and the ting-a-ling of the ice cream truck.

The final installation occurred in April 2000. “Dislocating Housing” brought Ultra-red, Union de Vecinos and other artists together as part of a day-long “celebration” about the impending demolition of Aliso Village. This included residents spray painting goodbye messages inside their former homes, and outside, writing in large letters, “We like living here.” The installation borrowed used furniture from residents and recreated the living room of a public housing resident’s home; a television set played a video of life in Pico Aliso and the surrounding community, while the soundscape picked up on the jiggling sound of when spray paint cans are used. The irony was that three days before demolition, HACLA “erased” the messages just prior to bulldozing the buildings. Even in erasure, the “authority” wiped out any lingering signs of human identity and personification of the existing community.

In addition to the installations, in September 1998, Ultra-red, Union de Vecinos and Public Works Administration gave a reality bus tour that was part of the 6 th LA Freewaves Festival. The tour revisited the history of public housing in Los Angeles, including Chavez Ravine.

Everyone Is an Artist

Residents were involved in a number of ways, lending meaning to the idea that everyone is an artist. Over the three years in which artists recorded life at Pico Aliso and documented presentations by HACLA, residents were “there,” part of the documentation. During this time, the “artists” were omnipresent, wearing headsets, holding microphones, recording. Ten residents became more active and also took on artists’ tasks and equipment. The videos are a record and were replayed for residents as a way for them to reflect upon their lives in public housing. More residents were actively engaged in recording testimonies that were played or framed at the installations and which now hang in the Union de Vecinos office. At the Aliso Extension site, the installation was similar to “wraparound sound” emanating from the buildings, the people, the videos, residents selling food and a quinciañera celebrating the fifteenth birthday of one resident’s daughter. The Ultra-red performance blended into the dancing and socializing between artists, residents, birthday participants and supporters.

Ultra-red’s work with residents at Ballymun and documentation from Union de Vecinos revealed conditions that were similar yet different. The international collaborations included an exchange where two Pico Aliso resident leaders went to Dublin and a delegation from Ballymun came to LA. These exchanges help forge an international network and understanding of structural crisis and government intervention in housing.

Meanwhile, Union de Vecinos has also used the documentation in organizing tenants at Pueblo del Sol, the mixed-income housing that replaced the demolished Aliso Gardens. In 2004, the new management recognized the Union as the tenants’ representative and lifted threats of eviction to some renters.

From its initial focus, Union de Vecinos has expanded its organizing to the rest of Boyle Heights. Thirteen committees send representatives to an executive body and the strength of the organizing partially lies in the organization’s ability to mobilize approximately 800 to 1,000 people for events. Union de Vecinos is also poised to undertake broader organizing among the Latino community in another council district. Performance art has been integrated into the Union ‘s repertoire. In Boyle Heights, residents initiated two installations. One concerned cleaning up the alleys. The residents made lanterns out of soda bottles with candles, creating lighting that made visible the unsafe conditions, and erected tombstones to drive home the consequences of the lack of security. Subsequently, the alleys were cleaned and lighting was installed. In another action, residents placed carpeting on a busy street to slow traffic and were successful in getting the city’s attention, leading them to install speed bumps.

Building a Movement for Change

My purpose here was not to evaluate the role that art plays but to comment on the relationship between art and the politics of public housing. Ultra-red’s approach brought a new perspective to the thinking of the key organizers and in turn to the residents as well as to the artists. Additionally, other artists became active supporters. Artist and activist Dont Rhine believes that working with the Union transformed the way Ultra-red conceptualizes sound art and political art in general. The organizing philosophy of Union de Vecinos pre-Ultra-red lay in popular education, which uses a variety of methods, such as words, movement, sound and storytelling. Michael B. Schwartz writes that the objective of the popular education movement is liberatory, citing oppressive systems like education, but also of cultural memory wiping. To the extent that the HOPE VI demolition program intended to purposely wipe out the cultural memory of public housing residents, Ultra-red and Union de Vecinos were successful in reducing that possibility. The writings of Ultra-red, the testimonies of residents, the videos and CDs are all witness to and memory of a counter-interpretation of life in public housing. By itself, the installation art does not stop a specific housing policy but helps to build a movement for change.

Jackie Leavitt is a professor in the Urban Planning Department at UCLA and director of the Community Scholars Program.

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