Boyle Heights, the land of freeways

Xavi Moreno in East LA Interchange © 2015 Chris Chew, Bluewater Media
Xavi Moreno in East LA Interchange © 2015 Chris Chew, Bluewater Media

If you drive around the East Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights, you’re bound to pass under or next to a freeway interchange.

It’s where the 5, 10, 60 and 101 freeways all intersect. An estimated 2.4 million vehicles pass through every day. And yet few L.A. residents know the story of what the neighborhood was like before it was sliced up by roads, and how working-class, immigrant Boyle Heights evolved from multiethnic to predominantly Mexican and Central American.

The pride that lifelong residents of Boyle Heights feel for their neighborhood is apparent in “East LA Interchange,” a new documentary directed by Betsy Kalin. The film is screening soon in multiple local film festivals — it will be the opening-night film at the New Urbanism Film Festival on Oct. 8 at ACME Comedy Theatre on La Brea Avenue and the closing-night film at the Highland Park Independent Film Festival on Oct. 10 at Highland Theatre on Figueroa Street.

The documentary tells the story of how Boyle Heights survived not only the construction of the largest and busiest freeway interchange in North America, but also a history of housing discrimination, crime and gang violence. (CNN anchor Anderson Cooper once introduced a segment called “Gangs of Hollenbeck” with these ominous words: “We’re going to take you to a neighborhood where stray bullets claim innocent lives, where witnesses are afraid to talk to police and where just standing on the wrong sidewalk can get you killed.”)

Kalin interviewed longtime residents of Boyle Heights, local activists and academics to get another side of the story. Boyle Heights has a rich history of political and social activism, and has been nicknamed a “laboratory for democracy.” Mexicans, Jews, Irish, Italians, Japanese and African-Americans lived side by side for decades. Many settled there at the beginning of the 20th century, as war and famine pushed people from around the world to seek refuge in America.

“Boyle Heights was one place in which generally they were all welcome,” George J. Sanchez, a professor of American studies and ethnicity and history at USC, says in the film. “It was unique in Los Angeles because everyone could live there, and at some point, everyone did live there.”

Don Hodes at the Breed Street Shul in East LA Interchange © 2015 Eric Waterman, Bluewater Media
Don Hodes at the Breed Street Shul in East LA Interchange © 2015 Eric Waterman, Bluewater Media

The multicultural enclave became known as the Ellis Island of the West Coast. One reason Boyle Heights became home to so many ethnic minorities had to do with the city’s policy of redlining minorities. Certain minority groups were restricted to poorer neighborhoods, such as Boyle Heights, and banks denied them loans when they tried to buy homes in other parts of town.

The social fabric of the neighborhood was ripped apart when Japanese-American residents of Boyle Heights were rounded up and sent away to internment camps during World War II. At Roosevelt High School, for example, one-third of the student body of 1942 was Japanese American.

“I was in Belvedere Junior High School then,” Leo Frumkin, who was born in 1928 and raised in Boyle Heights, recounts in the film. “And one day, our friends were gone.”

In the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, Boyle Heights was home to the largest Jewish population on the West Coast. When those housing restrictions began to ease following World War II, Jews largely moved toward West L.A. and the San Fernando Valley, while their Latino neighbors stayed behind.

“The racially restrictive housing covenants started to loosen up, and Jews who were once not allowed to live in different areas were now considered kind of white and were allowed to move into different neighborhoods,” Kalin said in an interview.

Jews also left Boyle Heights because soldiers returning from the war could get cheaper mortgages in the newly built suburbs — and many of those housing developers were Jewish.

“So they’re advertising in all the Jewish newspapers that these are not just open to Jews. These are being built by Jews, for Jews,” Sanchez said.

“I was eager to get out and on my way,” Harriet Rochlin, an author and Western Jewish historian, says in the film. “Boyle Heights was comparable to Watts today. It was a denigrated, mixed-immigrant, working-class neighborhood. Whether it actually was or not, that was the reputation it had. And I felt the effects of that.”

Rochlin recalls a boyfriend’s mother who didn’t like her son going to Boyle Heights, a guidance counselor who tried to steer her away from top colleges and a boss who didn’t want a “Boyle Heights girl” working his cash register.

Brooklyn Ave/Cesar Chavez Ave © 2015 Eric Waterman, Bluewater Media
Brooklyn Ave/Cesar Chavez Ave © 2015 Eric Waterman, Bluewater Media

The Jews who did stay in Boyle Heights lent their support to elect Mexican-American politician Edward Roybal to City Council in 1949, where he advocated for subsidized, low-cost public housing and other issues important to minority groups. In 1962, he was elected to Congress, where he served for 30 years.

Boyle Heights also became known as a refuge for leftist thinkers in the 1950s. As the San Fernando Valley became dominated by McCarthyism, anti-communism and suburban conformity, Boyle Heights became a hotbed for communists, socialists and anarchists. It also was a center of the burgeoning Chicano rights movement and the site of the 1968 East L.A. student walkouts over education funding.

In the 1940s, as many Jews began to leave the neighborhood, city planners eyed Boyle Heights as a location to build interchanges to connect the new system of freeways. The area lacked a strong political and economic voice, and the campaign to defeat the freeways proved fruitless, despite substantial community efforts to save the neighborhood.

“It was a low-income, working-class neighborhood without any major representation or pull in City Hall, and the neighborhood just couldn’t fight as well as other neighborhoods,” Kalin said. “So it was economically feasible for California planners to put the freeway there and displace, you know, 15,000 people.”

Two thousand homes were destroyed as Boyle Heights was sliced apart. In 1960, city planners built the 5 Freeway right through Hollenbeck Park, despite opposition from Roybal. Joe Kovner, publisher of the Eastside Sun newspaper and member of the Eastside Jewish Community Center board, also led efforts to block the freeways. As one subject in the documentary recounted, city planners joked that the intersecting freeways were so complex, they nicknamed it “the spaghetti bowl.”

All the traffic congestion has led to environmental and health consequences. The rate of respiratory illnesses is much higher in Boyle Heights. For students at Second Street School, which sits in the shadow of the East L.A. Interchange, “nose bleeding and coughing up, you know, stuff, was kind of an everyday occurrence,” said Diana Del Pozo-Mora, executive director of Mothers of East L.A. (MELA). In 2011, MELA received a $1 million grant to install air-filtration systems at seven East L.A. schools.

Boyle Heights continues to face new challenges and opportunities. Gentrification is raising rent prices, pushing out long-time low-income residents. A proposed light-rail line that would take passengers from East L.A. to South El Monte or Whittier is moving forward, despite opposition from those who see in it echos of the freeway construction plan. Groups such as Homeboy Industries have successfully rehabilitated thousands of former gang members. A long-dormant Breed Street Shul reopened in 2011 and now serves as a meeting place for various communities.

“Look at what’s happening now to Boyle Heights,” Chicana playwright Josefina López says in the film. “The story is not over.”

“East LA Interchange” will be shown at the New Urbanism Film Festival on Oct. 8 at ACME Comedy Theatre and at the Highland Park Independent Film Festival on Oct. 10 at Highland Theatre. For more information, visit www.bluewatermedia.org/

This article was made possible with support from Cal Humanities, a nonprofit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. It first appeared in The Jewish Journal.