Resolving Conflict and Preventing Racial Violence, in the Classic Eastside

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How the Jewish and Latino Communities Resolved Conflict in Post-War Boyle Heights (1940s-1950s)

How can we revolve conflict and prevent violence in our changing eastside communities? What can we learn from history regarding this? What should the community keep in mind as we see the demographics changing here once again? What should we consider as we see an uneasy integration taking place here?

fredross_CSO-voter-registration-1948

Voter registration, during the historic 1948 voter drive in which 15,000 new voters from the barrios were registered by the efforts of the Community Service Organization (CSO). This is what really provided the democratic muscle to help Edward Roybal, our first Mexican-American local representative, get elected to the LA City Council. The CSO received its essential funding and mentoring in organizing from Saul Alinsky, and his Industrial Areas Foundation, under the guidance of his local representative Fred Ross Sr. (see photo,far left). As well as financial support directly from the local Jewish Community Relations Committee (CRC), today known as the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

The reality is that this type of turbulent change, it has happened all before. Community change being met with racial conflicts and classist fears, this has all come around before.

However, it’s important to remember that the people of this community have a profound history of forging inter-community partnerships to conquer prejudice and racial tension.

This was especially true in the late-1940s through the mid-1950s, in the partnerships between the shrinking Jewish community of the area and the growing Mexican American community of Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles.

Recently when discussing notable history of the area I had talked with people a lot about the cooperation of Jews and the minority community in the fight against the Nazi fascism during the 1930s and through the 1940s. Of the Jewish and non-sectarian organizations which they founded to fight fascism, and how many went on to be essential backers of minority empowered organizations in the fight against Jim Crow. [see “The Anti-Nazi Parade, Boyle Heights 1938: How Our Multi-Ethnic Community Responded to the Jewish Refugee Crisis.”]

During the years leading up to and then through World War II many Jewish people and minorities had a lot in common still, because the nature of prejudice and the persistence of segregation in that age. In those days their partnerships were essential and seemed quite natural.

Though I believe that history clearly shows us that the partnerships between Jews and Latinos becomes most interesting in the post-war years. Though sadly, most people write off the history of the Jewish eastside after the war. During a time when such partnerships could be considered counterintuitive to many.

The reality is that telling the story of inter-community relations becomes much more complicated after the war, so many just avoid it at all cost. As Jews and Latinos begin to have less in common with each other, which does result in increased friction. Frictions which were not uncommon before the war, and the specter of which fearfully hung over the Jewish community with even greater concern following the war.

In the decade following the wartime riots, the general population was genuinely afraid of a resurgence of riots. And the larger population even fearful of Mexican residents taking vengeance on them, expecting an eminent explosion of Mexican rage in the form of riots.

So what did the Jewish leaders of the area do post-war to fight racial conflict and prevent violence in the changing community? How did they overcome the issues of having to deal with the communal bitterness felt by the growing racial minority groups regarding housing and job market inequity? How did Jews react with even being perceived as exploiters and absentee landlords controlling these older neighborhoods?

The fact is scape-goating of Jews in the eastside has existed as far back as any of us remember. And it is something that the Jewish community out of necessity realized they had to address more assertively when they found themselves in the role of being the smaller minority here after the war.

We need to more honestly tell the story of the communal challenges of that era. Instead of avoiding the hard truths which culminate at this point in history. We need to recognize the reality that even in the “good old days” of the historic interracial community of Boyle Heights of yesteryear which many are prone to idealize today, even then the established community of Jews of the area had to put a great deal of work and invest a lot of money into dispelling racism, classism, antisemitism and preventing misdirected violence.

The reality is that inter-cultural and inter-faith respect of classic Boyle Heights was not just a given. Living next to people of other races and cultures, it did not necessarily integrate people to one another, nor effortlessly create mixing and understanding.

Again, it took real effort and true intention to accomplish this sense of community cohesion with a diverse population of residents here. Which begs me to ask: So why is it that today people expect it to just happen all by itself? Why is the current establishment of our community federations really doing nothing to support direct inter-community cooperation and inter-racial socialization? How is that today they do not see fit to really contribute anything to mitigate a long history of tensions which are revisiting us here?

I dare say that my fellow community, cultural, religious and interfaith leaders of today really need to learn some pages from our local history. And reflect on how to help our community of today resolve the currently rising tensions, in tried and true ways.

I ask us to consider these selected pages of history here:


“RESOLVING CONFLICT, PREVENTING VIOLENCE”

from Bridges of Reform: Interracial Civil Rights Activism in Twentieth-Century

By Shana Bernstein

The Zoot Suit Riots’ legacy factored prominently into postwar calculations about the value of cooperating across community divides, especially as the mounting housing crunch and employment discrimination escalated racial tensions in minority areas. As tensions threatened Angelenos’ safety, they stirred Jews’ and Mexicans’ — along with the rest of Los Angeles’ fears that violence would once again erupt in their city. The American Council on Race Relations’ 1945 study titled The Problem of Violence: Observations on Race Conflict in Los Angeles: explained: “There was general apprehension on the part of many who had seen the evidences of friction increasing and apparently cumulating, who had lived through the ‘zoot-suit’ riots.” These people, the study reported, “feared that post-war Los Angeles with its restricted employment opportunities for Negroes and Mexicans, its wretchedly inadequate housing facilities and its greatly increased population would become a battle ground on which Americans battled each other.” The threat of violence forced Angelenos to realize that wartime attempts to improve race relations in the city had fallen short.

Sometimes the tensions and competition for resources did result in violence, both between whites and minorities and among minority groups. Much of the violence was perpetrated against minorities, especially African and Mexican Americans, by whites….

[pg. 151-152; continuing selection with, pg. 154-156.]

These were the living conditions of the Mexican families, living in the settlements of FIckett Hollow, Boyle Heights. (1950)

These were the terrible living conditions of the Mexican families, living in the settlements of Fickett Hollow, Boyle Heights. (1950)

East Los Angeles Jewish and Mexican community, among whom relations were particularly strained as the two groups’ financial, social, and geographic distance increased, viewed potential violence as an especially salient issue. As Jews in Los Angeles, as elsewhere, confronted housing restrictions and employment discrimination, they, unlike Mexican Americans, also made economic strides, became increasingly integrated, and gradually moved toward the more affluent west side. The Mexican origin population, on the other hand, was “Southern California’s largest and, in many ways, most disadvantaged minority,” according to a 1949 report by Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation. The group’s poverty, lack of networks to other communities, low voter turnout, and high percentage of non-citizens, according, to reports like these, impeded attempts at securing financial backing to pressure politicians to improve their conditions. A 1946 investigation of racial minorities’ conditions by the ACRR concluded that the Mexican-American community was in even more dire straits other than poor Los Angeles minorities.

Increasingly different class status distanced Jewish and Mexican Americans from one another. In the schools, the ACRR’s report The Problem of Violence observed, “The great barrier to the acceptance of Mexican children by Jewish children is the middle-class bias of the Jewish parents expressed in excessive concern over dirt and disease.” Divergent police actions towards the two groups also, it explained, served to “contribute to the increase of community tensions between middle-class Jews and lower-class Mexicans. The “class bias” was intertwined with a racial bias, too, as Jewish Americans were becoming increasingly integrated into American society and accepted as white, while Mexicans increasingly faced categorization as brown “others.”

Mexican-Americans saw their Jewish neighbors moving to nicer neighborhoods while their own conditions stagnated or deteriorated, breeding “frustration and bitterness.” Alinsky’s Industrial Area’s Foundation reported, “These, in tern, found expression in intergroup hostility and scape-goating with particular reference on the Eastside to the adjacent Jewish community.” Jews who moved west frequently kept east side businesses and retail properties, which sometimes provoked charges of exploitation from their former neighbors. Associating Jews with exploitation stemmed in some cases from anti-Semitic assumptions, since many non-Jews also became absentee landlords.

This growing divide between two communities that seemingly had little in common after the war counter intuitively helps explain their interest in collaboration. Because Mexican Americans’ daily struggle for survival left little money to fund organizations such as the CSO, they sought support from other Los Angeles ethnic communities, including Jews. The Jewish community’s motives for assisting a group increasingly distant from its own population seem less apparent. CRC [the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish community; the predecessor to the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles] leaders, discussing the Mexican, American community, justified support for the CSO by explaining that it “deflects the hostility which exists in that community against the Jews, to constructive social issues of benefit to the Mexican-American and the Jew alike.” The CSO could “by its very existence, prevent race riots such as have happened before in this city.” CRC leaders claimed it already had “no doubt prevented serious repercussions which might have otherwise happened on the East Side.” CRC executive director Herzberg countered a member’s protest that the CRC should stop funding the CSO, since it was not “closely related enough to the activities of the Jewish community,” by explaining that its “prophylactic value” was “a relatively cheap investment” for the Jewish community. Herzberg’s comment that the CSO would help prevent “gang fights and similar anti-social acts” also reveals underlying assumptions about Mexican Americans’ violent potential. Fears of violence also shaped Jewish community interest in the African-American community. The CRC reported Jewish concern about the implications of demographic transformations in the Watts neighborhood, specifically the increasing African-American and Mexican-American populations. Mounting unemployment created a situation of “increasing problems of social relations” that “could be explosive as far as the Jewish community is concerned.” Many of the retail stores on the main street of Watts were owned and run by Jews, it reported, explaining that the year before, “a vigorous anti-Semitic campaign” arose as unemployed residents demonstrated their frustration about limited job opportunities. The report also identified mounting tensions between the African-American and Mexican-American communities in the neighborhood. In response to such tensions, the CRC expressed to the director of planning of the City Planning Commission that it was “deeply concerned about some of the conditions of living in the Watts area of our city.”

A colony on Fickett St. showing a number of bungalows built in a canyon in Boyle Heights. This was one of the poorest barrios in the neighborhood.

A colony on Fickett St. showing a number of bungalows built in a canyon in Boyle Heights. This was one of the poorest barrios, which impoverished Mexicans were relegated to; out of sight and concern to even people of good conscience.

Amidst these complex attitudes, which reflect some degree of prejudice and misunderstanding of each other, both Mexican-American and Jewish-American communities viewed bridge-building projects as critical for their mutual survival. The CSO particularly hoped to secure Jews’ participation since, as Ross explained, “this is the other large group on the East Side and Jewish-Mexican American relations have left a good deal to be desired for some time.” Ross attempted to obtain Jewish community support by emphasizing to the CRC how the CSO’S work improved “deplorable” East Los Angeles neighborhood conditions that “had been reflected in a history of hostility between Spanish speaking colonies and the Jewish Community surrounding the Jewish Community surrounding Temple Street.” The CSO reported in 1949 that two years of efforts had redirected the “scape-goating” of nearby “disadvantaged groups” (specifically the “adjacent” Jews) and had “pav[ed the way] for cooperation with other groups particularly with those in the Jewish Community.”

In short, memories of World War II-era violence and fears of its recurrence helped inspire postwar collaboration. In cases like the CSO, such fears even resulted in important new postwar civil rights initiatives which continued the earlier thrust of reform and demonstrate the continuity between 1935 and World War II era collaboration and its later Cold War incarnation.


In a previous post I actually went into great detail about the CSO, when talking about the connection between the early garment worker’s movement of the 1930s-1940s, and the rise of the CSO in 1940s-1950s, and the continuity of these social justice aims which eventually gave rise to the United Farm Workers in the 1950s-1960s.

However, I think it is import to revisit some of this important chapter in history:

The Importance of the Community Service Organization (CSO)

The historic influence of the Community Service Organization (CSO) in Latino civil rights and politics cannot be overstated.

Founded in 1947 in the Los Angeles eastside, CSO was envisioned by Fred Ross Sr., while inspired and funded greatly by Saul Alinsky. As well as later receiving essential financial backing from allied Jewish organizations – most notably the Community Relations Committee (CRC) – a Jewish organization founded originally in the early 1930s as an anti-fascist organization; dedicated to fighting antisemitism, pro-Nazi outreach and organized racism. [it would later become know as the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; also see, “Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles. Community Relations Committee (1933-), Special Collections & Archives”]

The Community Service Organization (CSO) was uniquely created to be a “Mexican NAACP.” Ross and Alinsky took notice that Mexicans were by far the largest and yet most ill-treated minority. Mexicans still being the only minority group to not be widely organized. And also standing alone in having no political power or decision-making, with less than 10% of Latino citizens being registered to vote. [see “The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights.”]

In the words of Scott Washburn of CSO:

“In 1947, in direct response to rampant police abuse, a lack of educational opportunities, widespread discrimination in government services, a strong culture of bigotry that allowed even people of good conscience to turn a blind eye to the suffering of their neighbors, and ultimately, to the Zoot Suit Riots and Bloody Christmas, the Community Service Organization was founded by Antonio Rios, Edward Roybal, and Fred Ross, Sr. Quickly, the CSO became a training ground for the first generation of Latino leaders, including Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Gilbert Padilla. Recognizing the need for a unified Latino voice and for some semblance of political representation, the CSO initially concentrated on organizing voter registration drives in Latino communities all across California. In 1949, the CSO’s efforts culminated in the election of Edward Roybal, the first Latino to serve on the Los Angeles City Council.”

Elect Roybal, LA CIty CouncilRoyball would ride a wave of crucial Yiddish speaking political support in Boyle Heights, backing his ascent to City Hall and further still. The future Congressman Edward Royball would later take his social causes to the halls of the US Congress with him as well.

Fred Ross would continue to expand CSO at the behest of Alinsky, helping establish their presence first in Oxnard and later in San Jose. Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, trained by CSO in Alinsky style protest, would then take the cause directly into the local fields; thus founding the United Farm Workers, which is widely considered the most influential and visible Latino organization to date. The UFW is the primary historical and still active model for Latino activism to this day.

[Learn more about the discipleship of Cesar Chavez under the tutelage of Saul Alinsky, and the rise UFW as an outgrowth of CSO. See “Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa.”]

Again, historian Shana Bernstein notes:

“While the CSO is represented as a Mexican-American activist group in much Chicano scholarship, it was an interracial endeavor from its very beginning and its membership was diverse well into the 1950s. The grassroots CSO drew its main support from a combination of older Mexican-American activist groups who had participated in the 1930s-era movement and newer ones who emerged out of the war as veterans. It also received significant support from other Angelenos, most importantly Jewish Americans. Its early organizers encouraged multiracial membership. “Although they great majority of CSO members are Mexican-Americans, we have gradually had members of other groups come in,” Ross Reported of its 1948 meetings. “At the last meeting, for instance, we had 15 reps from the adjacent Jewish community, 4 Negros and around 18 so called ‘Protestant Anglos’” In 1949 Ross reported to the CRC that “Orientals, Negroes, Jews and Christians” compose the approximately 12 percent of membership that was not Spanish-speaking. In the early to mid-1950s, the organization’s chairman Tony Rios reported that 15 percent of its more than 3,500 members (approximately 3,000 from three L.A. County branches and 500 from San Jose) were “from the Negro, Jewish, and the so-called Anglo-American communities.”

Community Service Organization meeting in 1955. Photo: www.fredrosssr.com.

Community Service Organization (CSO) meeting in 1955. Photo: http://www.fredrosssr.com.

The contributions in civil rights organizing which began here in Boyle Heights with inter-racial cooperation in establishing the CSO, it would bear fruit even beyond this community. Inspiring the pursuit of even larger gains of empowerment of working-class Mexican-Americans. Though it was a multi-ethnic endeavor. And their achievements of this era, they were attributed to their inter-community cooperation.

 Interracial Programming of the Eastside Jewish Community Centers

While Bernstein and I tend to often focus on the labor and political organizing history of this area, it is very important to note the more well known cultural and social activities which contributed to better race relations and for strengthening community cohesion.

The eastside Jewish Community Centers most notably provided programming for all of the community; it was open to Jewish and non-Jewish people alike. Indeed as much as 15% of the members of the Soto-Michigan Jewish Community Center were not Jewish, as well as about 3% membership of the more Orthodox Zionist-based Menorah Center in City Terrace. While these centers offered programming for the members of the local Jewish community, they also sought to meet the needs of all their neighbors as well.

“Students arrive for after-school activities at the Eastside Jewish Community Center on Soto Street, c. 195-. Formerly the Soto-Michigan Jewish Community Center… sponsored integrated sporting leagues as well as programs designed to introduce cross-cultural understanding, In the 1950s, center director Joseph Esquith was removed because his policy of keeping the facilities available to anyone, regardless of politics, was considered subversive. (Los Angeles Daily News Photographic Archive, Department for Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA)”

“Students arrive for after-school activities at the Eastside Jewish Community Center on Soto Street, c. 1950. Formerly the Soto-Michigan Jewish Community Center, the Eastside Jewish Community Center sponsored integrated sporting leagues as well as programs designed to introduce cross-cultural understanding. In the 1950s, center director Joseph Esquith was removed because his policy of keeping the facilities available to anyone, regardless of politics, was considered subversive. (Los Angeles Daily News Photographic Archive, Department for Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA)”

Though these numbers might seem modest, this did make a major impact in forging the community’s sense of interracial fellowship; offering after-school programs, sports and swimming. In an atmosphere free from the racial segregation which was common in most other neighborhoods and at many public facilities.

After the war, and after the steep decline of the Jewish population of the area in the decade to follow, these Jewish community centers began to refocus their efforts to further bring the causes of the current non-Jewish residents into their walls. And also giving space to socially progressive causes of the area’s working-class immigrants.

As we will further explore, this progressive stance eventually came with major consequence and persecution for the remaining Jewish community leaders here on the eastside. During the McCarthy era Red Scare which was feverishly consumed with the weeding out of communists. In a political atmosphere where promoting socialism, internationalism and labor progressivism made many people targets for being labeled communists enemies of the state.

Inevitably,  it was their open door policy to people of all backgrounds and political persuasions which would in the end doom these Jewish community centers later on in the 1950s.

To be continued…..

Related articles:

How Hillary Clinton Helped Save the Breed Street Shul

Hillary Has Been Good For Boyle Heights

hillaryboyleheights

In December of 1998 Hillary Clinton came to Boyle Heights to designate the Breed Street Shul as a historical landmark. She earned a lot of dedicated followers that day, who have supported her own rise in politics since the beginning. Especially among us preservationists who remember her coming through for us.  (Photo by Al Seib, Los Angeles Times collection via Getty Images.)

When considering a political candidate, it’s always best to choose someone who has done good by your community. And when selecting a person to represent you, it’s always best to choose the person who understands the issues of your community. And above all, its essential to choose someone who can take these issues to the halls of power and produce results.

And for me and many eastsiders, that all points towards a vote for Hillary for President.

Let me tell a story today, to bring this home for us.

In December of 1998 First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton came to visit Boyle Heights to recognize one of the most important historical landmarks on the eastside, the Breed Street Shul – also known as Congregation Talmud Torah. It was her first stop in Los Angeles, on a tour that would take her to several historic landmarks throughout the city.

Hillary Clinton was touring the country as honorary chair of the White House’s “Save American’s Treasures” campaign, established by Executive Order 13072 in February 1998 by President Bill Clinton. This federal initiative was created to enable the preservation of historical buildings, art and published works. A public-private partnership between the U.S. National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation

This came at a time when many important historical sites and cultural treasures of our county were falling into neglect and disrepair.

On December 11, 1998 the Los Angeles Times reported, “First Lady Visits Historic Synagogue, Movie House Preservation: Trip to L.A. promotes White House drive to save key landmarks.The article went on to say:

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton visited a historic synagogue in Boyle Heights on Thursday and an ornate downtown movie house to promote a White House initiative dedicated to preserving historic American sites….

On Thursday afternoon, Clinton stood in front of the dilapidated synagogue and addressed more than 500 people who gathered outside.

This shul and the work we are doing together to preserve it for future generations is an important statement,” she said. “We believe that there must be continuity between generations.”

Boyle Heights, Clinton said, always has been a community for immigrants.

“Boyle Heights immigrants today can think back to those immigrants 60 to 70 years ago who did not speak English–they spoke Yiddish,” she said. “In honoring this particular building, we honor the past.”

…Built in 1923, the synagogue was an integral part of the flourishing Jewish community from the 1920s to the 1950s, when Boyle Heights was home to about 90,000 Jews, then the largest Jewish population west of Chicago.

As the Jewish community moved to other areas, so did the synagogue’s worshipers. By the late 1970s, the congregation wasn’t able to gather a minyan of 10 men to pray.

The congregation ceased services in 1993, when the last rabbi of the Congregation of Talmud Torah wanted to raze the building and sell the property. Last July the City Council voted to buy the synagogue and turn it over to the Jewish Historical Society.

The shul has great personal significance to several City Council members. Councilman Hal Bernson’s Bar Mitzvah was held there, and Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg’s aunt, uncle and cousins were members of the congregation. Councilman Mike Feuer’s mother grew up a few blocks away.

After Clinton spoke at the synagogue, she addressed a crowd at the Los Angeles Theater, which is one of the magnificent historic theaters in the city…

This event was a turning point in the historical preservation of the Breed Street Shul. And this day would be regarded as one of the historical highlights of our community, that Hillary Clinton came to our neighborhood for this very special cause.

If you have been to the Breed Street Shul over the years, you will probably remember that there have often been pictures of Hillary Clinton posted which commemorate this event. In remembrance of how she came through for this community, in helping save one of our most precious Boyle Heights landmarks.

For this reason many people who value the restoration of this site have voiced their enthusiastic support for Hillary Clinton throughout these twenty-years. And some of us have also been some of the most ardent supporters of Hilliary for President in this current election, on account of her legacy of support for the historical and cultural integrity of our neighborhood.

I am proud to count myself as one of those: Go Hillary!

Over the years I have heard of this historical event by several people who remember her visit and met with the first lady on that day. Jewish historians have told me that they came away impressed with how much Hillary knew about the Jewish community and Yiddish organizing history of Boyle Heights when she came. And also Richard Alatorre, he once related in conversation how surprised he was of the in-depth knowledge she had of the Mexican-American social issues and of the organizing history of the area.

Well… not any of this should come as a surprise to us if we really consider it.

Indeed, Hillary Clinton has been literally demonized by conservatives for decades for her interest and critical study of the work of one of the most influential community organizers to ever effect Boyle Heights; Saul Alinksy, of the Industrial Areas Foundation. Whom she studied for a year in community organizing and wrote a critical analysis of his work for her university graduate thesis, with his direct help.

Though because most people don’t know history, many have probably only ever heard of this guy from conspiracy theorist nuts, who scandalize this. However, her inside view of his work is one of her greatest merits.

Alinksky had inspired and funded the creation of the CSO, which helped elect Edward Roybal. Alinsky was also the primary mentor of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.

That’s how she would have known so much about the specifics of the social issues and history of organizing in the area, both Jewish and Latino; from Alinksy’s work.

Related articles:

“Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto” Documentary

A film celebrating the Jewish history of Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles

meetmeatbrooklynandsotofilmIn 1996 director Ellie Kahn premiered a wonderful documentary called “Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto,” about the old Jewish community of Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles. It is still one of the most well-known and most loved documentaries about the history of the neighborhood.

This documentary was released at a unique turning point in history. As a community which once was a vibrant home and business district for tens of thousands of Jews, dwindled down to only a handful of Jewish people remaining. It also came at a unique time when good old Brooklyn Ave was giving way to Cesar E. Chavez Ave, bearing witness to the transition of the area into a noteworthy Spanish-speaking neighborhood.

This documentary was created for the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, the parent organization for the Breed Street Shul Project. Which had begun to restore the grand and beloved synagogue just a few years before.

This film weaves in so many gorgeous old pictures as it tells the story of the neighborhood. Showing glimpses of some of these notable sites as they once looked in the old days. It gives us a good view into the social aspects of the neighborhood. And presents us with wonderful testimony of an active community, rich in Yiddish culture and leftist organizing, as recounted by former residents.

What I love so much about this film is the personal stories from people who grew up in the area. I think it is one of the most heart-warming documentaries you will find.

Back in 1996 when the film was first released, it was shown on PBS. The Los Angeles Times reported it as the center piece of a 90-minute KCET special with Huell Howser in October of that year. The special featured a brief chat with Kahn and “ends with his own walking tour of a vastly different Boyle Heights than the one memorialized by her.” (Los Angeles Times)

This documentary by Kahn was released on VHS, and became an instant favorite in the area. Being passed down from person to person in the neighborhood, until the tape has worn out. I have even shown worn out copies of it a few times at back-yard screenings in the neighborhood.

It has never been released before in DVD to my knowledge. So people have been anxious to see this film for many years now.

Recently I was amazed to see that some Boyle Heights residents were sharing a digitized copy of this film on social media, uploaded into several parts due to it’s length. Though this might not be an authorized copy, I think that given the fact that after 20-years this has not been re-released in a digital format, we can turn a blind eye in charity!

Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto 1 from Milly Hock on Vimeo.

First Clip:

  • The Early History of Boyle Heights
  • And the rise of the Jewish community until the 1920s
  • The establishment of the Jewish communal institutions

Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto 2 from Milly Hock on Vimeo.

Second Clip:

  • The establishment of the Jewish communal institutions (cont.)
  • The 1930s and the Great Depression, Jewish social responses
  • The Synagogues of the Eastside, and the Breed Street Shul
  • The intrusion of the Hebrew Christian Synagogue
  • The Jewish Community Centers
  • The secular Yiddishist cultural centers

Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto 3 from Milly Hock on Vimeo.

Third Clip:

  • The Yiddishist community culture of the Eastside
  • The Yiddish socialists and labor organizing
  • The Jewish businesses of Boyle Heights

Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto 4 from Milly Hock on Vimeo.

Fourth Clip:

  • The Jewish businesses of Boyle Heights (cont.)
  • The Jewish underworld, gangsters, bootlegging

Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto 5 from Milly Hock on Vimeo.

Fifth Clip:

  • The Jewish underworld, gangsters, bootlegging (cont.)
  • The social life of the neighborhood
  • The social clubs and gangs

Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto 6 from Milly Hock on Vimeo.

Sixth Clip:

  • The social clubs and gangs (cont.)
  • The multiculturalism of the neighborhood
  • The rise of Nazism and World War II

Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto 7 from Milly Hock on Vimeo.

Seventh Clip:

  • The exodus from Boyle Heights
  • The transition of the neighborhood
  • The need for the restoration of the Breed Street Shul

Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto 8 from Milly Hock on Vimeo.

Eighth Clip:

  • The living legacy of Jewish Boyle Heights during the 1990s

Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto 9 from Milly Hock on Vimeo.

Ninth Clip:

  • Parting words from former residents
  • Credits

Social topic for further discussion:

It is not infrequent that Latino residents of Boyle Heights have related to me that they have sometimes felt that historians of other ethnicities have sometimes been overly nostalgic and have tended to avoid the harsher realities of life here. And sidesteps the coarse racial issues which were historically present and which still linger in Boyle Heights.

The above cited Los Angeles Times article by Howard Rosenberg noted: “Kahn says that a couple of former residents she contacted worried about the film’s nostalgia softening reality. But the ethnically mixed Boyle Heights depicted here is not one of constant harmony, even though we do hear stories of connections made between diverse cultures.”

Sounds of the Jewish High Holy Days in Classic Boyle Heights

Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt once sang at the Breed Street Shul for the High Holy Days

Breed Street Shul sanctuary, Boyle Heights

Breed Street Shul sanctuary, Boyle Heights

Just imagine the sounds of the Breed Street Shul of Boyle Heights during her heights of glory in the 1920s. For the High Holy Days the congregation would hire famous liturgical cantors. Sparing no expense to get the best talent. Notably, the greatly celebrated Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt once came to lead High Holidays.

This is what it would have sounded like this very night in the old Breed Street Shul some 90-years ago, but being an orthodox congregation performed without an organ accompaniment. This is his haunting and solemn Kol Nidrei, for the evening of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement):

In the old days the neighborhood of Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, was home to dozens of synagogues. There were over thirty Jewish congregation of various sizes, varying from home congregations and shteible minyans, to great synagogues. I am told that on high holy days the young people would often wander from shul to shul, in order to see their friends and slip in to experience the sounds of each choir.

Though the most grand of the shuls and the one which really drew the crowds was the queen of the shuls, the Breed Street Shul – also known as Congregation Talmud Torah.

In the well-known documentary about Jewish Boyle Heights called “Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto,” when they begin to introduce the story of the Breed Street Shul they start with this interesting anecdote:

Manny Zellman: “During the great depression that shul, which was the largest synagogue west of Chicago, drew people from all over. And when they would hire a cantor they would hire the best. The most famous cantor in the United States was a man by the name of Rosenblatt, they would pay that man for 3 days $5,000 dollars. That’s what most people worked two years to make.”

Now, I only know of Cantor Rosenblatt leading High Holy Days once at the historic Breed Street Shul. However, this is impressive enough to boast all on its own!

Cantor Josef “Yossele” Rosenblatt (May 9, 1882 – June 19, 1933) came to America from the Ukraine and was regarded to be among the greatest cantors of all time. He is well-recognized as the most influential chazzan of the Golden Age of classical cantoral music.

Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, Sings a Synagogue Service. Recorded and pressed by RCA.

Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, Sings a Synagogue Service. Recorded and pressed by RCA.

One of the most interesting things about listening to his liturgical music is his metered style and emotional delivery. His use of krekhts, or emotional sobs and breaks in his voice intended to deliver the emotion of the song. He would inspire generations of cantors and liturgical soloists.

There are many recordings of Rosenblatt. He and the other cantors of this golden age of cantoral music would be made famous across Europe and America through the wide distribution of their recorded albums.

Also, it is important to note that the latter part of his life coincided with the rise of talking films. He would even be featured in the 1927 film “The Jazz Singer,” the first talkie. Which is still the ultimate kol nidrei related movie.

Cantor Rosenblatt wrote over one hundred and eighty compositions, some of which had been originally recorded on vinyl and then digitized in recent years. And several of these great pieces have even been rearranged with instrumental accompaniment for new compilations in recent years. As a historian and also as a liturgist, these recordings are both comforting and a bit crazy-making at the same time.

It’s comforting that we have many recordings by which to sample his talent at the heights of his career.

However, it’s also crazy-making to hear his rich voice running in with organs in old records made for RCA distribution. And to hear his singing run over by elaborate piano accompaniment added to newly remastered versions of the original recordings, by musicians who naively believe that they are restoring and “fixing” these recordings,  which essentially mutilates these pieces. This is really not the way they were truly intended to sound… and so we need to overcome some of that mental distraction, in order to really feel these melodies the same way an actual congregation would have.

In the orthodox tradition, these songs were generally performed without instruments; which are consider muktzeh (forbidden to tend to on Shabbat and Holy Days) according to traditional Jewish law. These songs would have been performed by choirs to carry the melody and to fill out the sound, and not have relied on instruments.

In keeping with orthodox Jewish tradition, you will notice the Breed Street Shul does not have an organ. We know for certain that the services here were performed acapella, and if accompanied it would have been with an all men’s or boy’s ensemble.

I am told by my good friend Don Hodes who grew up here in the 1930s, that his father was a talented singer who sang for High Holy Days. And he tells me that the holiday services were led by a special performing chazzan (cantor), the shul’s own chazzan, and three young men singing from the bima.


Historical topics we will continue to explore:

the-jazz-singerIt is widely believed that the Kol Nidre scene from “The Jazz Singer” (1927) was filmed at the Breed Street Shul. Though many claim that the talkie starring Al Jolson was filmed at the Breed Street Shul, this is a total bubbameister. It’s often repeated both as a Jewish myth and as a Latino urban legend. However, it should be noted that in the 1980 version of “The Jazz Singer” with Neil Diamond the Kol Nidre scene was filmed in the sanctuary of the Breed Street Shul.

The Breed Street Shul had a big role in the establishment of the Orthodox Jewish community of Los Angeles. Prior to this shul there were many congregations which identified as orthodox by default. However most of these early congregations were quite modern in their actual practice; some having musical organs and most allowing mixed-gender seating to allow families to sit together. The early Jewish settlers of Los Angeles were mostly German and Polish Jews – Central European Jews – who at first shirked at calling themselves reform and instead thought of themselves as innovating orthodox Judaism.

Though this would not do for the newly arriving Eastern European Jews coming from places like Russia and Lithuania who swelled into this neighborhood. As well as those coming in from Romania and Hungary, they didn’t know from these things. They were not familiar with these reforms, and wanted to keep the traditions of the old country which they had brought with them.

Breed Street Shul, Los AngelesThe Breed Street Shul was therefore very orthodox in practice. This synagogue was built with a women’s balcony (ezrat nashim), an area where ladies would be seated separately to not distract the attention of men during prayer. Though several other local shuls built second story galleries, some of them were not actually used for gender separation in the end. In the case of the Breed Street Shul it was certainly used as a women’s gallery.

In this building we would have heard the room entirely filled with the voices of davening from men on the sanctuary floor below, with the sound of the ladies faintly coming from the balcony above.

Related articles:

Storytelling in Boyle Heights: Places Have Memories

Telling stories of the barrio in the shadow of the broken Sixth Street Bridge

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Shmuel with the broken arches of the Sixth Street Bridge.

For the past few months the demotion of the Sixth Street Bridge has been pushing its ways through the Boyle Heights Flats. Knocking its way through an area mostly filled with industrial and wholesale produce warehouses, just adjacent to a residential neighborhood and low-income housing projects.

A couple of weeks before we came out to see the aftermath of that part of the viaduct demolition, finding before us an eerie bridge to nowhere. With the connecting eastern spans of the bridge already removed, and only the glory of the arches hanging high against the skyline. [See the video, “Sixth Street Bridge: The bridge to nowhere.”]

Since then the easternmost arches of the classic Sixth Street Viaduct were removed, and I have been stuck considering these vital questions:

How are we going to be able to continue to tell our important local narrative when so many places are being demolished and changed all around us? What is the real cost to our local storytelling when we see have our historical landmarks demolished?

Today we are coming to witness what it all looks like from up close. And to try to recapture some memories for ourselves and posterity.

See the full length video here:

This day we choose to come in from the direction of Fourth Street, and enter by the train track inlets located there at Mission Road. Making our way towards the direction of the Sixth Street Bridge, which could be seen just beyond the rows of boxcars and tankers on the commercial trains tracks that line the eastern bank of the Los Angeles River.

In terms of the storytelling of this area, this really is the most authentic way to make our way down towards the riverbed. For people who come from the Flats and from the more dense parts of Boyle Heights north of here, this is the path remembered most for taking for when venturing over the train tracks. This is the past most often taken by old school locals from the barrio who linger around the riverbed. Making our way to the hole in the fence which leads to the riverbed below.

Since the earliest days these areas have always attracted the local kids like magnets. Especially the area around the train yards. The train yards have been here since the beginning.

Actually in the first booming years of Los Angeles, this was even more active with train activity than today. Just on the other bank of the river there was the main train terminus for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, located at La Grande Station just over on Santa Fe Road. Which required vast areas of train yards, yards where traffic often slowed down in the evenings and to a hault on the weekends.

Quickly this surrounding area became a youth hub, for kids who had nowhere else to go. And not just for local kids. The train yards also became the home of the hobo boxcar kids that were coming west during the Great Depression.

This area even early on became the destination for car clubs; a real life version of Thunder Road from the movie “Grease” (1978), which was filmed in the riverbed below. For both racing and cruising, the vast empty areas around the viaducts would become a rallying point.

For many reasons this area became associated with the youth subcultures.

Now I have to stress this. So much a part of the local narrative is this place and our relationship to it that it is enshrined in our local art and writing, and also on film.

You will see the Sixth Street Bridge memorialized in notorious barrio themed films and cult classics.

“Blood In, Blood Out.” (1993) In this infamous shot you can see our old hangout right between their heads, the best observation point on the Sixth Street Bridge.

In “Blood in. Blood Out.” (1993), the dramatic ending of that film brings the story and the characters back to this bridge to fully evoke a sense of youth-like nostalgia. And in doing so this film captures some of the most impressive views of this bridge as the camera rises from the riverbed and takes flight over the viaduct at the very end of the film.

These bridges here also play a central role in the finest family film about the neighborhood of Boyle Heights, “My Family. Mi Familia.” (1995) The film opens with gorgeous shots of the Sixth Street Bridge. Bridges which Paco, the narrator, says remind him of his family. In that narrative the bridges always existed. And they tell the story of parents who have always crossed over these bridges in the early mornings in order to fulfill the needs of the city on the westside of the river, and then stream back at the end of the day to the eastside. In that film it repeatedly recalled our relationship with the bridges as part of the life cycle of the neighborhood. It also regards them as launch points into the world. Though it also regards them as boundaries, in that people from the westside seemed to never cross into the eastside. [We will soon explore this movie more deeply, I promise!]

The reality is that historically these bridges have served dual purposes in our lives, edifices which have united and divided us. These bridges which have connected us with the bustling city center, these same structure have long since mentally marked the lines of segregation. And this is not by accident that these bridges come with this complex psychology.

In the Jim Crow era it was clear that a Mexican American’s place downtown was as the help, but not for recreation and pleasure. While the older generation tended to abide by this apartheid, it was the youth who would challenge these boundaries and dare to take claim to the city that they felt was just as much their as everyone else; which came with backlash, as witnessed during the notorious beat-downs of the so-called Zoot Suit Riots.

Since then legal segregation has ended, yet the racial and economic divide here has only grown.

Therefore for generations of youth, our coming here has been a challenge to the boundaries of the racial and class divide which has defined this area for almost a century.

So it should come as no surprise that my friends and I come to congregate here. To both feel free in our own domain, but also to challenge and push the boundaries of the ethnic enclave from which we come. [Learn about my friends and our long occupation of the bridge: “The Spot Called ‘Nowhere’ on the Sixth Street Bridge.”]

Though now as these landmarks are having holes ripped through them, its hard not to feel like they are demolishing part of our story.

Exploring Childhood Memories of the Sixth Street Bridge

For those of us who have grown up on the eastside, we have always had this complicated relationship with the bridges. I have so many memories. Some of them good and some of them bad, but they are all part of my life story.

As a child going over the Sixth Street Bridge into the westside came with a great sense of trepidation, for us to be crossing over into a world that was unknown to me and often seemed more hostile towards us Mexican Americans. And then passing back to the eastside – either going over the bridge or driving through her expanse stretching over the freeways of the East LA Interchange – I always felt this great sense of relief. As soon as we crossed I could exhale: I was home!

The first time I started going to the westside regularly was when my sister started chemo therapy for childhood leukemia back in 1984; she was four years old and I was seven years old. My sister was getting treatment at Children’s Hospital in Hollywood. This really amplified my anxiety, I didn’t like going westside.

Though as we came over the Sixth Street Bridge on our return I would get all excited and have my face plastered to the window. I was just enchanted with the area surrounding the viaduct. My mom would warn me to stay away from there, but you know as soon as I was old enough I started hanging out there myself.

Many years have passed since then, still that sense of relief that would wash over me while passing back to the eastside by way the Sixth Street Viaduct, that would remain until the very end.

What are your childhood memories of this place?

Related  articles:

The Shattered Sixth Street Bridge

Sitting on one of the broken stumps of the art deco pillars that once graced the eastern end of the classic Sixth Street Bridge.

Sitting on one of the broken stumps of the art deco pillars that once graced the eastern end of the classic Sixth Street Bridge.

At the eastern entrance of the classic Sixth Street Bridge there used to be two huge monoliths standing mightily like sentries at the gates of the city, at the point where the expanse of the bridge began its extension from the bluffs of Boyle Heights and jetting towards downtown Los Angeles.

These two matching pillars which stood there, they were part of ornamental walkways built into the structure. They were key elements of the art deco-streamline modernist style of the bridge. Wrapping around the sides of both of these pillars were long abandoned stairways which once lead to the both industrial and residential areas on the eastern bank of the river known as the Boyle Heights Flats.

shmustairsfreewayEventually these public stairways would be closed when the first primitive highway routes pushed through here decades ago.

And eventually these artistic features of the bridge would come to sit in the middle of the East Los Angeles Interchange, an intertwining network of freeways which would be built through our neighborhood two generations ago.

Which means they were visible to bridge traffic, and also to the freeway traffic which ran past and through the bridge. For us eastside kids these monoliths had always greeted our comings and goings. I have always looked out with great anticipation for these landmarks to welcome me home as we passed.

So I’m very pained to see them gone.

During the first two days of the demolition of the original Sixth Street Bridge it would be these areas of the viaduct that would meet it’s final fate. The part of the bridge which jetted over the freeways would be completely demolished. And it was these artistic elements at the head of the bridge which would be smashed to pieces during those first days. Leaving an almost apocalyptic landscape just to the side of these freeways.

In the evenings I often find myself making my way towards this spot. Staring out towards the horizon during sunset. Captivated by the beauty of the downtown skyline, as it rises over a foreground of broken concrete and terrible destruction.

In the evening I often see local young people and photographers coming out here too. To witness the demolition zone. And even to stand on the last remaining stumps of the art deco monoliths.

And as I sit on my piece of broken bridge in the midst of all this, watching people frolic, I can’t help but be reminded of similar stories I often heard from my elders from their youth. Of when the freeways came demolishing their way through the neighborhood of Boyle Heights, when they were kids in the late-1940s and through the early-1950s. And I remember their memories they have shared about demolition zones and the roads which were closed to traffic, and of how they often became vast playgrounds for many local kids. Coming out to play make-believe on top of the sleeping tractors, and to run and play tag in what would eventually become the middle of the freeways.

Like I said, I have often heard these stories from my elders. Though I never thought I would experience anything quite like it in my days.

See the video of this experience here:


Pictures from the demolition site:

Los Angeles Cruise Nights, Anniversary Event

On February 20, 2016  Los Angeles Cruise Night and many local working class car enthusiasts gathered for a one year anniversary of their revival of the classic cruising route of East Los Angeles.

LA Cruise Night Anniversary Event 2016Even though the Sixth Street Bridge has been recently closed to traffic, that has not stopped the local classic car cruisers and car clubs from basking in her glorious backdrop.

There was a great turnout. A lot of classic car enthusiasts and their families coming out on this day to get some good pictures and video of this cruising phenomenon in its most authentic environs, before the glorious bridge is demolished.

The local working-class car culture has always been tied to this area. Racing in the Los Angeles riverbed below the bridge, and the cruising of Whittier Blvd which begins upon the bridge above.

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“Build your dreams: Working class cultura.” Banner hanging over the tunnel under the Sixth Street Bridge that leads to the Los Angeles River bed.

Today the riverbed entrance tunnel built into the viaduct is festively dressed with a banner above it saying: “Build your dreams: Working class cultura.”

As I have discussed before, the car culture of East Los Angeles is the best of both worlds for us local Mexican Americans. It comes with all the elements of the All-American classic and kustom car culture, which has multi-cultural roots here in this area. While also embodying unique expressions Mexican American agency. [See “The Cruising Culture of East Los Angeles.”]

The thrill of unsanctioned car cruising and riverbed racing has long been associated with this area. And the bridge itself has been recognized as the starting point for the classic land yachts, as they began traveling their way eastward for an evening of cruising on the Whittier Blvd strip of East Los Angeles.

Over several decades car cruising and would be repeatedly banned throughout the city; most notably during the hight of the car cruising phenomenon in the 1970s. Then again in the early 1990s, when increased pressure from law enforcement would seem to finally end the classic cruising route here in East Los Angeles.

And for years, the classic car cruising of the area would be mostly be kept alive in the memories for those of us who experienced it during the hight of the phenomenon, and by a few die hards and their car clubs.

Then a few years ago the classic car clubs would start to come together again to revive a few of the classic cruising routes around the southland. The first of them being the Van Nuys Blvd strip in the San Fernando Valley back in 2010, among others.

Then last February in 2015, the eastside car clubs teamed-up to revive the old Whittier Blvd cruising route here. Drawing out a mixture of car club veterans reliving the good old days, and youngsters eager to make some of their own classic memories here before this place is demolished.

And thus was born the Los Angeles Cruise Nights weekend meet-ups one year ago this day. Regularly meeting in the vacant underbelly of the Sixth Street Bridge at Santa Fe Road, while it still remains.

Now do I think that the cruising culture is going to persist here on this side of Boyle Heights even after this symbolic landmark for this movement is smashed apart?

Absolutely.

In fact as the area surrounding the Sixth Street Bridge has become closed off to traffic more often, the Los Angles Cruise Nights has already started meeting-up at another popular car club destination just up the river and adjacent to another classic viaduct. Meeting alternatively in the familiar El Pato parking lot and train yard, at 1st Street and Meyers Road.

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The classic car culture of the area is a family affair, for people who pass this down as their heritage.

And all this gives me hope, knowing that the classic car culture is as resilient as our working-class people who embody this as a lifestyle and pass it down as their heritage.

Though a lot of people are still anxious and have a lot of questions that will haunt us until we get some answers. Will we be able to return here when the new bridge is built and the riverfront is redeveloped? Will the riverbed tunnel remain and be accessible to the classic cars? Will this working class car culture which has celebrated this place for generations be welcome back?