A recurring feature of many of these support efforts is the utilization of space—in addition to charity drives and fundraisers, these art organizations opened their doors and utilized their physical footprints to offer aid. Art, exclusivity, and real estate are often inextricably tied together, especially as they relate to gentrification. Like most major cities, Los Angeles is no stranger to the perils of “artwashing,” particularly the instrumentalization of art spaces as early gentrifiers. In 2016, the Boyle Heights neighborhood became a hotbed of anti-gentrification protests centered around a group of galleries that opened in the area. Protestors in Boyle Heights eventually succeeded in pushing those galleries to close or relocate. Inglewood faces its own gentrification battle in the form of the SoFi Stadium complex and associated developments. For CDM’s founders, a community-focused art space is not just a bulwark against pandemics and police brutality, but also against the sort of cultural erasure that gentrification—often foreshadowed by the arrival of art galleries—usually brings.
“I don’t want to say that art brings gentrification, because I don’t want to do that to art. What I do think is that white racism brings gentrification,” Cullors said. “It’s really unfortunate that there have been so many white artists and curators who descend upon Black and brown communities to bring art, with that being the first introduction of art to many of our communities. It’s deeply unfortunate because that is such a disservice to art. So we’re also trying to intervene into the white art world and the history of racism inside the art world.”
At a time when art institutions across the world are grappling with their complicity in upholding racist structures, the Dairy Mart founders’ rhetoric of openness and responsiveness resonates with efforts to move beyond the acknowledgment of that racism and forward into countering it. The same conversations that helped hone the space’s anti-racist, anti-gentrification focus also made it an effective center of support during this time of crisis—the issues are inextricably linked. Centering the needs of the community was a necessity before the pandemic and protests, and it will remain a necessity after.
“One of the things that emerged during our conversations was what a dairy mart means to a community, traditionally,” Dorriz said. “It’s sustenance, it gives; it’s the place where people go to get candy bars and Gatorade and pork rinds. So we wanted to understand how we could do something similar. Naming stadium-driven gentrification and displacement as the impending problem in the community allowed us to hold space and quorum and settle on this goal of ‘cultural retention’—asking how can we keep that retention within the community.”
The culture being retained is the history of a community, with all its attendant problems and responses to those problems. It’s an archive of people and place, one with the depth to educate newcomers, catalog old memories, and heal those in need.