Smoke Screen: The Sellout tile art

Smoke Screen: The Sellout

Jose Huizar grew up in Boyle Heights – a working-class Latinx neighborhood in L.A. Eventually, he became their councilperson. And, for the most part, people trusted Huizar... until the day the FBI raided his home and offices, looking for evidence of corruption. The Feds would go on to say that Huizar led a criminal enterprise based in city hall. He stands accused of taking bribes from luxury developers as his constituents were displaced from their homes. This season of Smoke Screen is a collaboration with grassroots media organization L.A. TACO. In this 9-part investigative series, journalist and host Mariah Castañeda investigates how Huizar got the power to do what he did, and how the community that raised him paid the price.


Articles from L.A. Taco

"Six Organizations to Volunteer at and Support if You Are Against Gentrification and Displacement in Los Angeles"
"Longtime Highland Park Residents Remain Skeptical of York Park's Safety After More than 800 Gallons of Fuel Leaked into the Soil It Was Built Over in the 80s and 90s"
"Friends with Benefits: Emails Show How Jose Huizar Used His Power to Help Developers Beat the System"
"Counting Cash at Dinner: The L.A. Taco Guide to the Restaurants Jose Huizar Dined at While Allegedly Collecting Bribes"
"To Understand Which L.A. Neighborhoods Have the Most 'Power,' You Have to Understand Redistricting. Here’s a Primer"
"From A Dream To A Nightmare: How One Mechanic From El Sereno Took On A Taskforce Of Cops, The D.A. and a Major Construction Project To Stake His Claim in The Neighborhood"
"She Grew Up Listening to Oldies in Huntington Park with Her Father, Now She’s Writing Music for Our Podcast"
"How Chicano Batman’s Eduardo Arenas Got Inspired to Write His Anti-Gentrification Cumbia Rebajada Featured on 'The Sellout'"
"Introducing Our New Co-Produced Podcast on the City Council Member Who Sold Out the Community that Raised Him"

The Locations of The Sellout

Illustrated map of the Los Angeles neighborhoods of Downtown, Skid Row, Arts District, and Boyle Heights

800 Traction Ave.

Illustration of 800 Traction Ave

For decades, this large loft building in the Arts District that was once filled with Japanese-American artists like Nancy Uyemura, an artist who moved to the neighborhood in the 80’s. She and all of her neighbors were eventually evicted from the building.

Arts District

The neighborhood started as an industrial part of Skid Row, until artists started moving into lofts there in the 70’s and 80’s. As the years went on from the 80’s into the 90’s and 2000’s, the Arts District transformed, pushing further and further into Skid Row. The Arts District became, increasingly, a place defined by money, police, and private security. Huizar allegedly solicited bribes to help push through approval for a 35-story tower to be built here, at 520 Mateo Street.

Arturo's Building

Illustration of Arturo's building

Arturo is a mariachi musician. He lived in a building filled with other mariachi musicians, just a couple blocks from Mariachi Plaza. Most try to live within a couple blocks of the Plaza so they’re nearby if people want to hire them. A couple years ago, Arturo’s landlord tried to raise his and his neighbors’ rent by almost double. They went on rent strike, in what came to be known as the “mariachi rent strike.”

Boyle Heights

The working-class Latinx neighborhood where Huizar grew up. Mariachi Plaza, Wyvernwood, and Arturo’s building are all here. When some residents saw signs of gentrification in their future, they banded together to create a militant group to fight back, called Defend Boyle Heights. It’s just across the river from downtown.


Illustration of Jose Huizar performing on Broadway in LA

For many years, Broadway was the only part of downtown that was in Jose Huizar’s district, CD 14. He had a very specific vision for it – a plan he called Bringing Back Broadway. The idea was to make Broadway glitzy and glamorous. Huizar’s office held a yearly event called Night on Broadway, where there were street performers and shows in all the old theaters. But the street used to be a Latinx shopping district. Huizar’s vision for Broadway was an early warning sign of what his vision for all of downtown would be, once the districts were redrawn in 2012 and all of downtown became part of CD 14.

Carmel Partners Development

Illustration of the incomplete Carmel Partners Development

A planned 35-story tower in the Arts District of downtown LA that was embroiled in the FBI investigation of Huizar. The developer, Carmel Partners, would later pay $1.2 million to avoid prosecution by the Federal government.

City Hall

Illustration of the Los Angeles City Hall

The seat of municipal power in Los Angeles. This is where Huizar sat on the powerful Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) committee, which exerts enormous control over development decisions in Los Angeles.

Downtown Los Angeles

When Huizar took office, downtown LA wasn’t part of his district, CD14. It wasn’t until the 2012 redistricting that CD14 was redrawn to include downtown… which became Huizar’s crown jewel. But Huizar didn’t get downtown on his own. He got help from friends like Herb Wesson, who was president of the L.A. city council from 2011 to 2019.

Exide Plant

Illustration of the Exide Plant

A lead battery-recycling plant that was spewing lead dust into the air for decades, poisoning the area around it, which included Boyle Heights.
Many people got cancer and suffered other health issues that can be traced back to the lead dust. The plant is now – finally – closed.

Mariachi Plaza

Illustration of Mariachi Plaza

A historic plaza in Boyle Heights with a kiosko in the center that was reportedly brought over piece by piece from Jalisco, Mexico. The plaza is where mariachi musicians go every day to get work – people who want to hire a mariachi band will come find them there. 

Shenzhen New World Group Tower

Illustration of a model of Shenzhen New World Group Tower

Shenzhen New World Group is another developer who allegedly bribed Huizar. They are charged in the same RICO indictment as Huizar.

Shenzhen Hazens' Two Skyscrapers

Illustration of a handshake in front of an image of Shenzhen Hazens' two skyscrapers

Shenzhen Hazens had a plan to build two skyscrapers on Figueroa Street in downtown LA. The complex would contain the W Hotel, thousands of square feet of commercial space, and about 400 units of housing. Shenzhen Hazens was one of the developers allegedly bribing Huizar, and would later pay $1.05 million to avoid prosecution by the Federal government.

Skid Row

Dozens of blocks of downtown L.A. are occupied by a sprawling tent city where many unhoused people live. As fancy skyscrapers rise around the neighborhood, the boundaries of Skid Row have been condensed and its unhoused residents have faced increased harassment from law enforcement and their housed neighbors.

Soto Street Bridge

Illustration of Soto Street Bridge

An iconic bridge on the border of Lincoln Heights and El Sereno. Some people called it the “gateway” to El Sereno. Demolition began in 2014. During the demolition of this bridge and rebuild of the intersection, the city tried to buy a nearby mechanic’s land for less than he said it was worth. He refused, and he said that he was harassed for years after – construction workers jackhammering up cement right next to his cars, and even the local sheriffs coming to harass him about supposedly “stolen parts.”

Wyvernwood Garden Apartments

Illustration of the Wyvernwood Garden Apartments

A huge complex with affordable housing in Boyle Heights. Early on in Huizar’s time as city council member, staffer Alvin Parra says the owners of Wyvernwood came to him with a plan that would’ve turned Wyvernwood into more expensive housing, effectively displacing the thousands of people who lived there. Parra expected Huizar to say no to the developers in that meeting. But that’s not what happened, Parra says.

Meet the Host

Mariah Castañeda is an experienced Los Angeles reporter who focuses on southeast Los Angeles and the history of that community. She has covered environmental issues and local politics, and her work has been featured in L.A. Taco, The New York Times, Voice of OC, and Fusion.

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