Dec 26, 2011

You Will Be Gentrified, In Good Fun


The idea that some good could come from making designers active builders and developers may be overstated. Yes, it could allow them to profit more fully from their own work and make it possible to realize their own ideas without waiting to win competitions or being hired by a developer. But designer and USC real-estate development professor Liz Falletta, in her “How It Took Me Two-and-a Half Years to Draw Three Lines,” demonstrates what harm can be done by unchaining designers from the drafting table. Falletta’s self-initiated redevelopment project displaces four low-income tenants in El Sereno by converting their apartments into condos.


Falletta presented the development at Machine Project, an alternative event and educational space in Echo Park, as the first event of Boundary Pageant, a monthly series of talks organized by Rosten Woo. Cofounder, with Newark urban designer Damon Rich, of New York’s Center for Urban Pedagogy, which produces educational programs for underserved communities about how the urban environment is shaped, Woo relocated to Los Angeles two years ago and is teaching graphic design at CalArts in the spring and consulting with ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute), the company that invented GIS, to redesign its mapping software interface, along with other work for non-profits and advocacy groups. The Boundary Pageant series, a collaborative research and publication project exploring the political boundaries that shape how people live in Los Angeles, is his first self-organized public program in the city. 

In an unusually aggressive demonstration of the outrages committed against people of lesser means on behalf of the college-educated urban elite, Falletta cooked up a scheme to profiteer from a loophole created by a new zoning ordinance in Los Angeles. The Small Lots Subdivision Ordinance is a discretionary statute that allows new property lines to be drawn within small lots, with the intention of creating greater residential density and housing affordability. Falletta picked a small rental cluster inhabited by a group of unsuspecting low-income tenants in El Sereno. Her aim was to convert the four rental units into single-family homes for a specially entitled class of creative types.

Through sheer chutzpah and a few slightly dishonest acts that she openly describes in her presentation--and that, in fairness, are probably typical of any real-estate development--Falletta bought the property and converted what were perfectly good if under-maintained affordable units into redesigned $250,000 to $300,000 condos for members of her own class. As Falletta describes the process, she talks about buying out the lease of a poor old lady who was paying $500 a month for her apartment for $14,000 ("the going rate," she says) along with the three other tenants. In order to sidestep a requirement to build a separate sewer system, which would have swallowed up her profits, a friend of a friend in the buildings department made a special call on her behalf and got the department of sanitation to waive it.

Falletta describes how a poor neighboring resident without a car traveled all the way across the city by public transit to testify in a hearing, fearing the project would cause undue construction noise. Falletta describes how she patronizingly allayed her concerns at the hearing, and after the project is rubber-stamped through the public approval process, drives the poor defeated woman home.

While Falletta pretends to have blundered her way through this process, joking about her naiveté and stupidity at various phases of the approvals, Falletta teaches students at USC how to engage in such villainous but completely normal acts of exploitation. Ostensibly a well-intentioned liberal-minded person typical of her class of unthinking educated urban elites, she goes so far as to half-jokingly rationalize the project by saying she did it because she has to support her lifestyle of refusing to have a full-time job.

The premise of "How It Took Me Two-and-a Half Years to Draw Three Lines" is that it took an extraordinarily long time to get a few property lines drawn, and the process reveals the cumbersome and unnaturally complex character of gaining approvals for buildings. But as much as this talk revealed the underlying urban processes at work in the formation of urban housing typologies, it boldly revealed the arrogance and self-importance of our new class of liberal ruling elites as they tyrannically rove through the city occupying neighborhoods and taking over space.

Falletta isn’t content to be an individual agent of gentrification—a word unusually justified in this case by her self-conscious intention to create a happy mini-community of bourgeois designer-artist-professional types. In El Sereno, she goes out of her way to spread the inequality. She argues in favor of increased density, but in the end, her project simply replaced four affordable rentals with four upscale apartments—estimated after taxes to cost more than $2,000 a month.

A generous interpretation of the talk, which was coded as a “performance,” is that it was Brechtian theater in the manner of The Threepenny Opera, and the audience was meant to revolt against the truth of this representation of itself. Several attendees, even in this seemingly complaisantly hip, horizontal LA audience —which, by contrast to New York, freely spoke back and forth with Falletta without the need to cosy up to power or establish their political bona fides—recognized the monstrous nature of her project and repeatedly demanded to know, in the kindest way, without getting a satisfactory response, what was the point of doing this?


  1. Excellent post, disturbing subject. Disturbing. Amazing that Ms. Falleta is blithe to her actions.

  2. My new hero. Out with the old and in with new!

  3. Falletta picked a small rental cluster inhabited by a group of unsuspecting low-income tenants in El Sereno. Her aim was to convert the four rental units into single-family homes for a specially entitled class of creative types.

    She did drive the old poor defeated woman home.
    What more do people expect.
    Should Falleta have taken a bit more effort to study, research how design and offer the poor
    a more suitable, environmentally, green housing at a cheaper or same rent?
    Guess not. That would take to much effort to do something good.