Jews and the development of Los Angeles

Some of LA's iconic landmarks, and the stories of the people who helped build them, provide unique windows into the fascinating history of Jews in Los Angeles.

Some Los Angeles neighborhoods are defined by their dominant ethnic population, such as Koreatown, Chinatown, Thai Town and Little Armenia, though the demographic make-up of these areas have shifted over time. There are also neighborhoods with historically greater concentrations of Jews, like Pico-­Robertson, the Fairfax District and West Los Angeles.

In “Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic,” UCLA historian Karen S. Wilson writes, “The making of Los Angeles cannot be comprehended without understanding the ways in which Jews have contributed to this making.”

From downtown L.A.’s Civic Center to the hotels of Beverly Hills and the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley, the Jewish community has helped finance and build the Los Angeles of today. Some of the city’s most iconic buildings, museums, theaters and places of worship were designed and funded by Jews. In addition, Jews played pivotal roles in the city’s patterns of growth, including suburban sprawl and downtown revitalization.

Harris Newmark Co., Amstoy Block at Los Angeles.St.,1884
Harris Newmark Co., Amstoy Block at Los Angeles. St., 1884

Jews have had a long and complex relationship with the city of Los Angeles. Beginning in the mid­-19th century, Jewish settlers were among the first to establish retail and trade operations in the former Spanish colony. Frontier­-era Jews took positions among the economic and social elite as the earliest merchants, bankers, real estate developers, private utility company leaders, and builders of railroad and streetcar lines.

Around the turn of the century, a wave of anti­-Semitism and white upper-­class exclusionism pushed Jews to the margins. In “City of Quartz,” historian Mike Davis writes, “By the early 1900s, elite Jews, including the pioneer dynasties of the 1840s and 1850s, were being excluded from the corporate directorships, law firms, philanthropies and clubs that in many cases they had helped to establish.”

With the rise of Hollywood and efforts at coalition-­building with other minority groups, Jews regained prominent roles in the governance and cultural life of Los Angeles.

These iconic landmarks, and the stories of the people who helped build them, provide unique windows into the fascinating history of Jews in Los Angeles. Among them are Cedars­-Sinai Medical Center, a nationally­-leading medical research center that was established as the Kaspare Cohn Hospital in 1902; Breed Street Shul, a hub for Eastside Jewish life for decades, now undergoing a lengthy and costly renovation; and the development of the San Fernando Valley, which contributed to the city’s urban sprawl.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple
Wilshire Boulevard Temple

Los Angeles has the fourth largest Jewish population in the world, behind only Tel Aviv, New York City and Jerusalem. Jews account for about six percent of LA’s population.

Los Angeles is constantly reinventing itself. In “The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory,” Norman M. Klein details the cycles of demolition and rebuilding, and the “collective amnesia” of a city always looking forward, rarely backward. That has also enabled immigrant groups to make their mark on the city.

Neal Gabler, author “An Empire of their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood” quotes Jill Robinson, the daughter of a former head of MGM, who said, “Russian-Jewish immigrants came from the shtetls and ghettos out to Hollywood… In this magical place that had no relationship to any reality they had ever seen before in their lives, or that anyone else had ever seen, they decided to create their idea of an eastern aristocracy.”

Alongside those Jewish film moguls like Samuel Goldwyn, Carl Laemmle, Louis Mayer and Adolph Zukor, there were commercial developers like A.W. Ross who built the “Miracle Mile” on Wilshire Boulevard.

LA’s Jewish pioneers were German and Polish Jews who first arrived in LA in the 1840s and ’50s and immediately became part of the city’s leadership. They were bankers and merchants and didn’t feel social exclusion on account of their ethnicity. But they were a tight knit group with a few leading families.

Main Street Los Angeles, 1886. The store of Jewish pioneer Solomon Lazard.
Main Street Los Angeles, 1886. The store of Jewish pioneer Solomon Lazard.

One of these families was the Newmarks. Joseph Newmark became the lay Rabbi of LA and founded the Hebrew Benevolent Society, the city’s first charity. His son Harris Newmark was a founder of the Los Angeles Public Library. He also became a land owner with vast holdings stretching from what’s now Montebello in East LA to Santa Monica, as well as the Temple block in downtown where LA City Hall now stands.

There were also the developers of the San Fernando Valley, like Isaac Lankershim who was born into a pious Jewish family and later became a Baptist. Isaias Hellman was a prominent banker who helped found USC and several railroads. Hellman lent the money that allowed Harrison Gray Otis to buy the Los Angeles Times and Edward Doheny and Charles A. Canfield to drill for oil. Hellman also co-owned much of Boyle Heights.

Until 1920 there was no distinct Jewish neighborhood. Many lived around Temple Street and around Central Avenue, and there were smaller groups in the University and Westlake areas.

Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights
Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights

Around 1920 there was an economic boom, and Jews from New York and Chicago came west for the clean air and sunshine (the region was marketed as “Nature’s Great Sanatorium”). Many settled in Boyle Heights, which became known as the Ellis Island of LA. About 10,000 Jewish households lived there in the 1930s, a third of LA’s Jewish population and the highest concentration of Jews west of Chicago.

From the 1920s to around 1960, about 70,000 Jews resided in Boyle Heights. It was the most multicultural and diverse neighborhood in the city, with large numbers of Mexican, African-American, Japanese, Russian Molokans, Armenian, Italian and Irish residents. Forty different nationalities were represented in the neighborhood.

Many of the Jewish settlers in Boyle Heights spoke English, had resources and could buy homes. Unlike New York’s Lower East Side, the Jews of Boyle Heights were merchants and skilled craftsmen, and many lived in single-family homes and owned cars.

Yiddish-speaking Jews brought with them union organizing and radical activism. Jews began organizing the breadbakers, garment workers and carpenters of East LA. High school students protested Nazism, fascism, segregation and corporal punishment in schools.

A banquet at the Vladeck Center in the Boyle Heights section of East Los Angeles, c. 1950. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles WC/AR.
A banquet at the Vladeck Center in the Boyle Heights section of East Los Angeles, c. 1950.
Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles WC/AR.

Chicago-based community organizer Saul Alinsky provided the funds to help Edward Roybal create the Community Service Organization in 1947 to better the lives of Mexican-Americans. Roybal became LA’s first Latino city council member in 1949 and later served as U.S. Congressman for thirty years. The CSO went on to train Latino leaders like Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, among many others.

Jews left Boyle Heights in the 1950s for several reasons. Restrictive housing covenants began to lift, so Jews could move into what were formerly white-only neighborhoods. The G.I. bill gave returning service members loans to buy new homes, and the practice of redlining made getting a home loan in more difficult in Boyle Heights, which was considered too diverse and subversive. The anti-Communist scare of the 1950s severed many of the Jewish bonds, as the more radical groups were shunned by the Jewish establishment. In addition, the construction of the East LA Interchange displaced some 10,000 households in Boyle Heights and depressed property values.

Mexican and Central American families moved in as Jews and Japanese moved out. Boyle Heights is now 95 percent Latino. To mark this change, in 1994 Brooklyn Avenue was renamed Cesar Chavez Avenue.

San Fernando Valley housing tract c. 1949
San Fernando Valley housing tract c. 1949

Many Jews moved to West LA and the San Fernando Valley, as new developments built in the 1950s and ’60s were marketed to upwardly-mobile Jewish families. Among the Jews who became prominent real estate developers is S. Mark Taper founded Biltmore Homes and built suburban housing for returning soldiers in Long Beach, Norwalk, Compton and Lakewood. He also donated to LACMA, UCLA and the Los Angeles Music Center (hence the Mark Taper Forum is named after him).

Louis H. Boyar, one of the largest home builders in the U.S., built over 50,000 homes by the mid-1960s. Lawrence Weinberg built thousands of home in the San Fernando Valley, and also became the owner of an aircraft manufacturing plant. Isadore Familian, whose family business bought the Price Pfister Brass Manufacturing Company and became one of the largest manufacturers of bath and kitchen hardware in the world. Nathan Shapell, who developed the MGM ranch in Thousand Oaks, the residential community of Kite Hill in Laguna Niguel, the East Lake development in Yorba Linda, and Promenade Towers in Downtown LA. In the late 1980s, he developed Porter Ranch. Jewish developers Eli Broad and Donald Kaufman founded Kaufman and Broad in 1957 in Detroit, which became KB Homes, and built thousands of tract homes in the Valley.

Schindler House in West Hollywood
Schindler House in West Hollywood

Some of the most prominent Mid-Century Modern architects were Jewish, among them Austrian immigrants Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler. In Los Angeles, 56 of Rudolf M. Schindler’s buildings erected between 1921 and 1952 are still standing, but the home he built for himself is viewed as his masterpiece. The Jewish architect’s longtime West Hollywood residence served as “an experiment in communal living, a gathering place for avant­garde intellectuals and the cradle of Southern California’s modern architecture,” writes former Los Angeles Times art
critic Suzanne Muchnic. The open floor plan integrated interior and exterior space, creating a precedent for California architecture. In “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies,” Reyner Banham called it “perhaps the most unobtrusively enjoyable domestic habitat ever created in Los Angeles.”

Other prominent Jewish architects in Los Angeles has included Peter Laszlo (an architect and interior designer) and Victor Gruen (known as the inventor of the modern-day shopping mall). Raphael Soriano, who died in 1988, was a noted Mid-Century Modern architect who helped pioneer the use of modular, prefabricated steel and aluminium in residential and commercial projects. Other highly-decorated contemporary architects in Los Angeles include Eric Owen Moss and Frank Gehry (born Frank Goldberg).

Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry
Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry

As West LA and the San Fernando Valley became hubs of Jewish life, the Sepulveda Pass became an important artery connecting the two communities. Road construction began in the pass in the mid-1920s. In the late 1950s, plans were already underway to create today’s 405 freeway, which was completed in 1962. These roadways made possible significant development in the region.

The pass today is surrounded by numerous housing developments, a Catholic University, the most recent incarnation of J. Paul Getty’s Art Museum, and five important Jewish institutions: Leo Baeck Temple, American Jewish University (formerly University of Judaism), Milken Community High School, Stephen S. Wise Temple and Skirball Cultural Center.

“Today’s Jewish life is far less centralized. It’s much more dispersed into smaller groups, smaller organizations, smaller interest groups. But in the mid-20th century, creating large centralizing institutions was a fairly common practice throughout the country. It wasn’t unique to Los Angeles,” said Erik Greenberg, who studied the Sepulveda Pass as part of UCLA’s Mapping Jewish LA project.

Skirball Cultural Center in the Sepulveda Pass
Skirball Cultural Center in the Sepulveda Pass

The Skirball is a beautiful complex of gallery spaces, terraces, gardens and courtyards. But thirty years ago, it was literally a garbage dump. Safety officials warned of the risks of mud slides, forest fires and earthquakes. Architect Moshe Safdie saw something else in it.

“I thought it should be kind of an oasis. This is a city of freeways, nobody walks to this place, they drive to this place, as they do to most places in Los Angeles, and I thought it should be an oasis, it should be a place where you come to which is calm and serene and green, and a paradise garden, so that you escape the hustle-bustle of the city to be here,” Safdie said.

One of Hamid Omrani's "Persian Palaces" in Beverly Hills
One of Hamid Omrani’s “Persian Palaces” in Beverly Hills

The latest wave of developers and architects of Jewish descent making their mark on LA now include the Persian Jews of Beverly Hills, who arrived around the time of the 1979 Iranian revolution and built their own Tehrangeles, and replaced the original single-story bungalows with what have been called “Persian Palaces.” It’s been said the size of Friday Shabbat dinners made them want to build bigger houses. In the 1970s, members of the Mahboubi family began buying real estate on Rodeo Drive. Another group of brothers, the Yadegars, also arrived in Beverly Hills before the revolution. Real estate mogul Sam Nazarian has built nightclubs and restaurants, Hamid Omrani has built some 200 lavish homes for Persian families, and Ezat Delijani purchased and renovated four historic Broadway movie houses in downtown, including the Los Angeles, Palace, State and Tower.

Among the Israeli developers working in Los Angeles are Izek Shomof, a longtime entrepreneur and developer who first invested in downtown Los Angeles in the early ’90s. He is now working on the transformation of the historic Sears complex in Boyle Heights into 1,030 live/work units. Yuval Bar-Zemer has also contributed to the renaissance of the Arts District.

Grand Central Market
Grand Central Market

Architect Brenda Levin, who also has done original architectural work, has restored such landmarks as LA City Hall, Dodger Stadium, Wiltern Theater, Grand Central Market and Wilshire Boulevard Temple. And the late Ira Yellin restored downtown’s Grand Central Market, Bradbury Building, the Million Dollar Theater and the historic train terminal Union Station.

Among landscape architects, Mia Lehrer has been involved with projects throughout the city: First and Broadway Park, Ford Theater, Annenberg Community Beach House, the San Pedro Waterfront, outdoor gardens for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and Vista Hermosa Park.

There are certainly Jewish architects, developers and philanthropists that have been left off this list. For more on this topic, check out UCLA’s Mapping Jewish LA project, which has been building a digital database of the Jewish influence on Los Angeles. In addition, the Office of Historic Resources in the City of LA’s Department of City Planning has published a new citywide historic context statement on the history of Los Angeles’ Jewish community, which you can find here.

This article was made possible with support from California Humanities, a nonprofit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.