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Exploring the Hidden Gems of Boyle Heights and East L.A.

Posted By Susanna (Whitmore) Fránek, Cultural Anthropologist, Ethnologix, Wednesday, November 16, 2016
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Need some relief from the election outcome? Anyone remember Cheech and Chong from the 1970s?  Born in East LA?  Check it out, and if by chance you’re staying over the weekend after the conference, might I suggest you go east instead of west for something different?  

Exploring L.A.’s “real” Eastside — not Silver Lake or Echo Park — if not Boyle Heights and East L.A., just might resonate with some QRCA out-of-towners.  To get there, you can either walk from the hotel or take Uber to the Metro Gold Line at the Little Tokyo/Arts District station on Alameda. Go 2 stops to Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights.

Although the majority population in Boyle Heights and ELA is now Latino, the area (since its modern inception in the late 1880s) has been referred to as the Ellis Island of the West, reflecting diverse communities from Eastern Europe, from across the Pacific and Mexico, all of which settled in the area.  

For example, the black and Italian labor force built many of the great Queen Ann and Victorian mansions in Boyle Heights.

Russian Molokans, Serbians and Armenians fleeing the horrors of repression in their homelands made it their home, as did smaller pockets of Japanese and Chinese families that migrated over the river from Little Tokyo and Chinatown.

The acceleration of repression against Jews throughout Eastern Europe saw the development of the largest Jewish community in Los Angeles. By the late 1930s, Brooklyn Avenue, renamed César Chávez Avenue in 1994, was the main thoroughfare of Jewish L.A.  

During those same years, the instability during the Revolution in Mexico brought a significant concentration of Mexican migration to the U.S. Cheap housing, employment and a tolerant community attracted Mexicanos into the area; their cultural life, churches, schools, and clubs grew alongside the Jewish community. Jews and Mexicans lived side by side, studied, played sports and conducted business together; even left wing thinkers met and organized, which is perhaps part of the legacy of political activism that’s still alive and well today.

Today at Mariachi Plaza the refurbished historic Boyle hotel, built in 1898, is an important historical icon that’s part of the predominantly blue-collar, immigrant Mexican neighborhood, yet the area is now in full swing gentrification. The historic hotel is where mariachis have lived and jammed for over half a century; the plaza in front is where they still hang out waiting to be hired.  The rise of spaces such as Libros Schmibros, a lending library and bookstore also on the plaza, attest to the creation of new cultural spaces that have the potential to bring both East and Westside communities together. Yet, new development implies relocation for many families in the area; an ongoing debate is taking place about the future of the mariachis and other long-time residents.

Walking Brooklyn Avenue back in the day, you’d experience a vibrant cultural life and a commerce community of bustling storefront businesses where more Yiddish was spoken than English. After WWII, the community migrated west to the Fairfax district and into the San Fernando Valley, but the Jewish legacy in Boyle Heights and East L.A. is still present today.

The Breed Street Shul, a beacon of Jewish heritage, is just a mile walk up César Chávez, then a right on Breed Street. While the front building is currently under renovation, its back building is now a cross-cultural community center that connects historical and modern day Boyle Heights. Creative mixed use of the space includes Day of the Dead festivities and Passover services, for either Quinceañeras or Bar Mitzvahs. In today’s political environment, these examples of cultural coexistence are sorely needed. 

To go deeper, one just needs to explore the handful of cemeteries that dot the Eastside landscape to get a sense for the demographic transitions that have taken place over the past century, and that attest to the natural flow of ethnically diverse residents from other parts of town that migrated in and out of the area.

There are the Serbian and Chinese cemeteries, the large Evergreen and Calvary cemeteries. One of the first mortuaries was founded and is still run by a French Basque family.

There are two Jewish cemeteries: At Home of Peace, noted rabbis, along with Curly and Shemp Howard of the Three Stooges, and Warner Bros. co-founder Jack Warner, are laid to rest. Then there’s Mount Zion, in need of dire repair. The great Yiddish writer Lamed Shapiro, who wrote stories about the horrendous pograms in Eastern Europe, died a pauper in L.A., and was buried there.

That’s a lot to take in, so here are some suggestions for lunch:

La Serenata Garibaldi, across the street from Mariachi plaza.

Or you can try some traditional Mexican birria (goat stew) at Birriería Dedonboni just up the street from Mariachi plaza.

Guisados is over on César Chávez Ave. not far from the Breed Street Shul.

Let me know if you’d like some company exploring these prized treasures. I’m also game to play tour guide!

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Jeff Walkowski, QualCore.com Inc says...
Posted Friday, November 18, 2016
Very interesting. Thanks, Susanna! I hope to make time to explore where you suggested.
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