Images courtesy of the Arts Council for Long Beach.
With Pow! Wow! Long Beach starting this Sunday and the Cambodia Town Mural Project (CTMP) still underway, an Open Conversations event about cultural assets, with a focus on the creation of murals, was held at Iguana Kelley’s on June 29. Hosted on a mostly monthly basis by the Arts Council for Long Beach, these events give the community a chance to speak up, and a chance for the arts council to listen and respond.
The artists involved with the CTMP introduced themselves and explained the meaning behind each of their murals. Topics discussed following the CTMP presentation included defining what a cultural asset is to the Long Beach community, gentrification, and figuring out ways to use the arts to empower and embolden instead of displace residents.
Local artist Sayon Syprasoeuth used his mural at United Cambodian Community (UCC) for the CTMP as an example of what a cultural asset can be, based on his varying interactions with the community and ensuring their participation in the artwork. The five community meetings he held beforehand created the inclusiveness required to define the mural as a cultural asset, as something that is directly related to the community and how they use that specific space, he explained.
“[...]A mural in our neighborhood can be a cultural asset if its of worth and value to the community,” Cynthia Lujan, Education and Community programs manager for the Arts Council, said.
Other pertinent examples of cultural assets given during the session included a diverse community, the artists themselves, architecture, restaurants, gardens, signature events, small businesses, cultural traditions and specifically the Homeland Cultural Center, as well as barbershops, particularly in North Long Beach. One attendee defined a cultural asset as something that “adds to the community, attracts people and brings everybody together and moves them up together.”
Following the conversation defining cultural assets, Griselda Suarez, the Arts Council’s executive director, opened the floor to a dialogue about “what gentrification is in relation to arts and culture” in an effort to connect the community to what the city’s Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) can do to ensure open and honest practices when it comes to development, gentrification and other recent worries coming from Long Beach residents.
Tasha Hunter, president of the Board of Directors for the Arts Council and managing director of the Uptown Business District, spoke of her role as both the head of a BID and her leadership position involving local arts initiatives. Balancing what’s beneficial to the businesses of Uptown Long Beach and its residents, as well as artists living and working citywide without causing displacement often involves walking a very fine line, she implied.
“[...]With me in this role involved in the arts it’s very important for me to be able to give the people exactly what it is they’ve been wanting for so many years, but at the same time, why do these big developments want to come into our area?” Hunter said. “Because of the culture, because of the community, because of the people, and I stand strong and firm on the fact that once these big developments come in, I want the people to be able to remain and stay.”
As more outside developers invest in Long Beach, described by one attendee as a city “ripe for building,” some residents are questioning how to maintain the community’s identity, as new business or property owners from other cities don’t necessarily prioritize preserving local culture. CTMP artist and Long Beach native Ricardo Vilchis brought up an issue where out-of-town investors had an artist change a mural to suit their interests, despite the community’s feelings.
“Everyone in the community were totally behind [the mural],” Vilchis said. “They felt it appealed to what is going on in the whole Broadway, Atlantic, downtown area. Now, these investors, they weren’t happy with it because it wasn’t to the direction they wanted this community to go to. It was just strange that you have outside interests deciding what we like. To me, that’s when this ‘G’ word [gentrification] starts causing a problem.”
“The next step for us is to buy into the community,” said Christine Nakamura in response, who described herself as a sixth-generation Californian who owns a warehouse in Long Beach. “If a community wants to maintain its identity, you need to stop renting. You need to buy the community.”
Nakamura suggested creating a cooperative of partners for those unable to afford buying on their own. If you can’t buy, she continued, “come up with a play other than, ‘stay out,’ because somebody else is going to come up with the money. Long Beach is coming on the map as a good place to be. The money’s going to come in. If you want to maintain your identity, you need to be the first ones to buy those areas.”
Amongst grumbles that not everyone has discretionary funds to buy property another attendee, liz gonzalez, took the mic to suggest reaching out to those who are buying, whether they’re familiar with Long Beach or not.
“One of the things that would be great is when you see a business coming in to reach out to them as a community, not to get mad that the company hasn’t reached out to the community,” she said. “We need to work with them or at least try to work with them before they even finish building or open up, to see what we can do. I mean co-ops are great but we don’t all have the money to do co-ops.”
Dean of the College of the Arts at Cal State Long Beach, Cyrus Parker, who also sits on the Economic Development Commission, said the commission has been talking about concern for displacing residents and that “a lot of people in our city, including the mayor, care about all of this and I think the arts are probably a bridge and a key to a lot of this.”
Suarez, a Long Beach transplant who moved from East LA, who “now goes back home and sees [East LA] is a completely different city,” voiced she can see the little markers signifying Long Beach’s change as the area becomes more well known as a desirable place to live and invest in. Suarez defined gentrification as arguably the opposite of a cultural asset, specifically a space or place choosing not to involve those who live nearby.
“A cafe with wifi is not gentrification, a cafe with wifi that targets a community that doesn’t live in the community is gentrification,” Suarez said. “There’s a difference. And so how do we then bring these programs and this support in many different languages—up to 69 languages in some parts of our city—so that these communities can do that kind of work. And it’s within… it’s Latino, it’s Asian American, it’s Asian Pacific Islander, it’s black, it’s all these communities.”
She asked how can organizations and programs, such as the Economic Development Commission, ensure that they’re supporting those who want to open and run businesses that don’t necessarily have the capital to invest in their dreams? How can, for example, the Arts Council and the various BIDs throughout the city come together with their communities to create strategies different from the typical model “develop and bring people in” and to be able to present them to Long Beach City Council and put them into action?
Suarez said looking forward and based on the past six months of Open Conversations, what it’s coming down to is “we need a coalition of community stakeholders like you and artists that are willing to come together and have these conversations, create strategies that we can bring forth to our city council and bring forth to our mayor.”
Editor's note: this story was updated 7/18/17 with the name of attendee Christine Nakamura, who is quoted in the story and previously unidentified.