Espacio 1839 Holding Strong In the Face of Change

Located on 1st Street in Boyle Heights, just a short walk from Mariachi Plaza, Espacio 1839 is open to serve the community. It’s a hybrid bookstore, art gallery, gift shop, and radio station and playfully describes itself as “The Voltron of retail and community radio.” The space is run as a collective consisting of four founding members Marco Amador, Nico Aviña – a lifetime resident of Boyle Heights, David W. Gomez, and Elisa Sol Garcia, who after knowing each other and their work as activists and artists in the community for years, pooled together their resources to create Espacio 1839. But most importantly the collective formed as a resistance to the quickening pace of gentrification that was threatening to displace years of Latino roots and culture in Boyle Heights, a lack of opportunities for local artists and musicians and a high level of military recruitment in the neighborhood.

The predominantly working class and Latino neighborhood has seen a rise in community centers and cultural fortification by activists and artists. The neighborhood, just over the 1st Street Bridge and east of downtown Los Angeles was overrun with drugs, gangs and crime throughout the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Although these problems still exist on a smaller scale, the neighborhood can boast an all time low in crime since the 60’s, following the general pattern for the city of Los Angeles. Community organizations such as Self Help Graphics, Corazon del Pueblo, Proyecto Pastoral and Homeboy Industries play an important role in mobilizing citizens to take ownership of their community and become invested in their youth.

Low test scores and poor graduation rates in the neighborhood drew the attention of many including the Department of Defense, which piloted the STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) program in Boyle Heights in order to foster students with an aptitude for these types of careers. In addition to a heavy military recruitment, scholastic challenges, and a perhaps invasive effort to recruit Latinos with seemingly few options into military careers, the group saw a rise in gentrification in Boyle Heights. The Wyvernwood redevelopment project caused a firestorm of contention between neighbors as developers saw to do away with this affordable housing complex that has existed in the neighborhood since 1939 and construct new condos. The plans promised affordable housing options but it wasn’t enough to convince current residents that this would remain their home. The Espacio collective decided to arm their barrio with an alternative and challenge those looking to “shush the poor people out”, as Amador describes it, by making Boyle Heights the home of their community center – a center which does not depend on any government grants or assistance but is funded solely by the four founders and is keeping the lights on by the sale of their goods.

In addition to keeping their eyes and ears on the social and political movements of their neighborhood, Espacio 1839 aims to celebrate local culture and encourages artists, authors and musicians to have a voice within it’s walls. In October the space celebrated one year of being in business. Their calendar is packed with group runs, book and poetry readings, live local music shows, art shows, and of course radio programs – ranging from heartbreak themed Heartbreak Radio to the political and socially charged Counterstrike, which can boast having Noam Chomsky as a recent guest. “It’s just the way I live my life. I don’t have balance if I don’t have projects within my community,” explains Amador.