Nancy From Eastside Clover, Lincoln Heights (Queer History)

Nancy Valverde (1932 – present) is a barber, as well as a notable lesbian and gender-nonconformist. She was repeatedly charged and incarcerated in Lincoln Heights Jail  for “masquerading.” Her story is one of challenging bias and injustice; and eventually winning. Her life has been the subject of much interest by queer historians in recent years, and through their documentation she has become well-known as a butch lesbian icon. Though to many on the Los Angeles eastside, she is simply known as “Nancy from Eastside Clover.”

Today I want us to take a look at the life and celebrate the life of a very special queer hero from the barrio.

 

The Early Life of Nancy Valverde

Nancy was born in the southern New Mexico town of Deming, and when she was 9 years old her father brought her to Lincoln Heights, East Los Angeles.

When asked about her childhood and school age years, she would talk about the awkwardness of having all the girls chattering about the cute boys and asking for her fawning input, but that she just ended up feeling alienated and like an outsider. And of the reactions she got from people for being different.

Though her formal education was  really short. She didn’t really have much schooling except for grammar school. As she had gone to work in the fields with her family by the time she was 11 years old, seasonally picking Apricots in Santa Paula and cotton in Tulare County up near Bakersfield.

And by 13 years old, she was already working in a local neighborhood restaurant in Lincoln Heights, helping the matron of the kitchen. When the restaurant was sold by the man who owned the building, it was sold to Mexican Americans who started a bakery there. Nancy would continue on working for them for the next fear years, delivering pastries all over Los Angeles. Though keep in mind, this was years before she had a driver’s license. Driving her baked loaves and pan dulce up to the once thriving Mexican enclave of Chavez Ravine, where Dodger Stadium sits today. Where later in life she would also witness a woman being dragged from her home, as it was demolished and she was left homeless.

A lot of the experience of discrimination begin as a Mexican American, feeling like a second-class citizen. Which quite naturally resulted in producing in her a certain sense of rebellion. Though nothing seemed to be more of a rebel statement at the time than her gender non-conformity, wearing pants and short hair. She began to realize she was different at the age of 15, all the while thinking of herself as growing into being comfortable in her own skin.

Nancy’s Arrest for Gender Nonconformity, the Crime of “Masquerading.”

In 1948, Nancy Valverde was just 17 years old when she was arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department. She was charged with the crime of masquerading, an old law on the books which prohibited men and women from wearing gender-nonconforming clothing. The authorities pointed to her short hair and the zipper fly of her pants as evidence, which got her sentence to three months in jail. And criminal charge that got her kicked out of her mother’s house.

And that was just the beginning of her persecution by the Los Angeles Police Department over several years. She often ended up in the lock-up for lesbian women known as the Daddy Tank at Lincoln Heights Jail.

Lincoln Heights jail had mostly become notorious for its “Drunk Tank” when it opened in 1930. And then through the next couple decades still, drunks would be locked up for 30 to 90 days, then released – often to inevitable destitution on skid row – and then picked-up against and it starting all over again.

In the same manner they had a gay men’s section of the jail called the “Fruit Tank,” as well. People would be held for some time, released and then before long picked-up again by harassing police.

Nancy would be dragged in to jail repeatedly. And be placed in the lesbian lock-up.

Sometimes she was even held in the jail without being officially booked, so at times her friends could not find her for days and sometimes weeks.

Nancy insists that the hostility shown to her was because the authorities were against lesbians. Though she makes the point of addressing that as well when talking of her incarceration:

“I was a juvenile. I wasn’t supposed to be there with those older women. Of course, I didn’t mind it,” she says, laughing. “I didn’t even know the word ‘lesbian.’ The first time I heard it was in jail.”

All the while Nancy contended that the clothes she wore was a matter of comfort, while working to financially support herself. The jail would seem to have a revolving door for Nancy, a cycle she tried hard to break out of.

In 1951 she visited the Los Angeles County Law Library in hopes of finding some legal defense. In her research she was able to find rulings from 1950 that stated that women wearing men’s clothing was not actually a crime in Los Angeles. She informed her lawyer and was able to use this in her defense. And so eventually the police stopped arresting her.

Even though the LAPD stopped incarcerating her, the harassment didn’t stop. The beat policemen were known to have made a habit of knocking loudly with their nightstick on the window of her Brooklyn Ave barber shop, to intimidate her and scare away customers.

Though Nancy worked many jobs to make ends meet, her main occupation was as a barber. Though it is important to note that like many of the situations in her life, getting her barbers license was also came with challenges. She found herself being unable to be admitted to barber school because her lack of education. Though eventually she was able to overcome this when a man came up to her and informed her that she could proceed to getting her barbers license if she could pass a basic IQ test. Which she did, and was issued her barbering license. However, like much of her life, she was treated unequally by the other barbers who were all male. And was paid less than the other barbers, because she was a woman.

On top of all this, she also the target of harassment from inside the community, from the cholos and gang members who also went after her for being a lesbian. Even though she was well liked and accepted in the local bars by those who got to know her, long before there were any gays bars around here she would frequent the local watering holes, and be acknowledged just as “Nancy from Eastside Clover,” simply as their friend from the barrio.

Career, Family Life and Retirement

She also worked in the eastside as a bartender, as well as doing odd jobs and home repair work around town. Not to just support herself, but also a family.

In 2013 she spoke about this time in her life to Advocate Magazine, in a segment titled, “9 Tales of Young Love and Old Memories: Nine residents of Gay and Lesbian Elder Housing share stories of love from the past and present.” It was recounted:

One day, she ran into a woman named Mary Sanchez, whom she had met before at a bar with mutual friends. By chance, Sanchez was moving her belongings out of her apartment, and Valverde offered to assist her.

“The next day, my back was shot,” Valverde says. “Destiny. I believe in that — the invisible forces.”

Valverde stayed in bed while Sanchez, who was pregnant at the time, cared for her. She told Valverde about the troubles she had been having with her boyfriend. By the time Valverde’s health improved, Sanchez had ended the relationship, prompting Valverde to offer to help support her and her unborn child.

“I said, ‘I’m not lazy, I work,'” she remembers telling Sanchez. “And she looked at me really sad, as if she’d heard that line before.”

Already two weeks behind on the rent (a total that, at the time, amounted to $14), Sanchez managed to convince her landlord to let her become the building’s manager. They were able to stay together in the apartment.

Valverde and Sanchez became a couple and sustained their relationship for 25 years. However, they broke up after Sanchez’s child grew to become an adult suffering from drug addiction, causing a rift between the pair.

“I couldn’t see myself putting up with an addict for the rest of my life,” says Valverde, sadly. “And I walked out. I miss her every day of my life.”

Throughout her lifetime, Valverde helped raise four children of women she loved. She raised one child, Salvatore, for six years, before his birth mother, who initially rejected the baby, returned to take him away.

“They said lesbians could not raise kids,” Valverde says.

But 10 years ago, Salvatore tracked down Valverde, and the two reunited. Valverde keeps a picture of him and his wife in her apartment, along with a photograph that the pair took together when he found her as an adult.

After a long career as a barber and laborer, she retired to assisted living. And is now a resident of the 104-unit Triangle Square senior housing facility in Hollywood, created by the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center.

“This is the best place that I’ve lived in,” Valverde says of Triangle Square. “People know what you’re about.”

Which is really something special. After a long life of struggling for her sense of place up against so many societal prejudices which stood against her. Since her childhood she had to work hard to get by, she had to contend with the rejection of family, and then even had to contend with the gangs that also terrorized her for being a lesbian. Now she has a safe place in this world.

The Legacy of Nancy Valverde

After she moved to Triangle Square she was found by lesbian historians, journals and playwrights. And based on their documentation of her life story in recent years she has become regarded as a Mexican American butch icon by those who admire her.

She inspired Raquel Gutiérrez of the Butchlalis de Panochtitlan, who wrote The Barber of East L.A. based on her life.

The life of Nancy Valverde is also documented and featured in the documentaries On These Shoulders We Stand and Nancy from East Side Clover; and in the books Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians, Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries, and Lavender Los Angeles.

Nancy Valverde has a tremendous life story. Her life experience is one that is both reflective of a terrible history of homophobia and gender politics in the 20th century. And the experience that she suffered through was something that was not uncommon in other big cities, but it was more complicated here due to the conditions and culture of Los Angeles at the time.

Now let us keep in mind that Nancy is not transgender, she is a butch lesbian. She was not trying to pass as a man, meaning she was not trying to “masqerade.” She even had people testify in her defense that they knew she was a woman and that she was certainly not trying to fool anyone either. That is just who she was and who they knew her to be.

Most white, queer and transgender scholars state that her attire would hardly be noticed today. And note that even at that time it might have likely gone unnoticed in many other big cities. However, it must be stated that Los Angeles was especially intolerant in respect to gender non-conformity and any attire that broke with white cultural norms; all this coming to a head during this height of World War II.

In addition to that Los Angeles, unlike some other cities, would eventually target both male and female cross dressers. This was something of a particular obsession for mayor Fletcher Bowron, who was mayor of Los Angeles from 1938 to 1953. He was known to have a specific abhorrence for women in pants. In 1942 he declared to the city council that he loathed “to see masculine women much more than feminine traits in men.”

Now keep in mind that is all going on during the middle of World War II, as women are going to work in local industrial jobs as the men went off to war, as they work their asses off in the factories to help support the war effort. Nonetheless he looked at these women in their practical work attire as a desecration of gender and womanliness.

While Bowron was alarmed that he could not prevent this of women in defense factories, he contended with his council members that this needed to be stood against and banned in City Hall. In that year of 1942, the city council was urged by him to pass a regulation that prevented women employees from wearing pants at City Hall.

In 1950 legal precedent began to offer some level of defense, that wasn’t present before the war. However, in the post-war years and going into the 1950s, still this era came with increasing examples of harsh treatment as women refused to return to the traditional gender roles they had emerged from.

And certainly, as a Mexican American Nancy Valverde also suffered even more persecution. In an era in which there was increased targeting of Latinos, who had also stretched their legs in society during these years and then ultimately refused to be pushed back into their subjugated roles again as well. And who were likewise often seen as challenging all that with their attire as well.

We will discuss this more in the future as we further explore the history of the repeated criminalization of minorities and non-conformists at the Lincoln Heights Jail, in upcoming blog entries. Stay tuned!

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 previous 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:

Resolving Conflict and Preventing Racial Violence, in the Classic Eastside

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…..

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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?

The Cruising Culture of East Los Angeles

The last Cruise Sunday of Whittier Blvd, from the Sixth Street Bridge

Classic Cars going over classic Sixth Street Bridge by Zero Renton PrefectOn Sunday, December 27, 2015 the Sixth Street Bridge attracted every local car cruiser, classic car enthusiast and lowrider for one last showy ride.

For as long as any of us remember the viaduct has been the local focal point of the car clubs, and has also served as the starting point for cruising in our area. From all around car enthusiasts have been drawn to race in the riverbed, show off their cars in the expansive underside of the bridge, and finally ascending it to cruise eastward into the evening.

The cruising culture is one of the finest manifestations of working-class subcultures. One which has long been maintained by successive generations of local Mexican American, working-class, young people and car club veteranos.

Today they were all out in force. As we approached the Sixth Street Bridge the traffic approaching from the east over the various viaducts was intense. Followed by every car making their way to the parade, starting at Santa Fe Road which runs directly under the bridge and in front of the river access tunnel.

And as each car arrives in procession, for a moment each car has it’s moment to shine as it briefly makes its pause. Before taking to the riverbed for a ride, or rolling in for parking under the bridge for exhibition.

This day the parade route is more packed than I’ve seen it in years. As each car comes around, the scene is buzzing as the crowd admire and cameras click. Each spectator trying to visually and capture a memory of this teeming stream of chrome, curves and also classic streamline bodies. Some faithful restorations, others kustom modifications, and still others yet with bold lowrider customizations.

This day the underbelly of the bridge is packed with cars; lined up and basking in the golden rays of a Sunday afternoon. The cars of yesteryear properly vested in the atmosphere of the bridge’s deco-streamline modernist setting.

We spend a while mingling with the crowd. As the scene turns into the site of car-side parties. With everyone sharing details about their car builds, and ladies proudly showing off their own flawless pachuca style and others their rockabilly flair.

For a while we just take in the scene and the vivid nature of the site. Pensively considering the history of the car culture which is synonymous with this spot.

This has long been the chosen site for the start of the East LA cruising strip, which begins precisely above us at the point of the slight curve of the classic bridge marks the transition from downtown’s 6th Street to the eastsider’s main drag of Whittier Blvd.

But how long has the East Los Angeles cruising subculture existed here? What is the significance of car cruising movement? And more specifically, what role does this play in the local working-class community and the Latino youth culture of East Los Angeles?

The birth of the local youth car club culture

It is not possible to overstate that the city of Los Angeles has been uniquely shaped and its character defined by its reputation for having a car culture; to many this means that there is a pervasive sense of car dependency among Angelinos. The modern city we know today was very much shaped by the car.

However, it is also equally important to note that the car also uniquely influenced cultural expression itself. Especially the youth culture of the city, which with the aid of the car gave birth to various subcultures with distinct forms of self-expression here.

Though to explain why the car culture became ubiquitous to this area, it should first be stated that this specific side of town had developed a car enthusiast spirit quite early on.

The car enthusiast energy of the area stretches all the back the beginning of the 20th century.

Ford Motor Factory; opened 1912; production started 1913.

Ford Motor Factory in Los Angeles; built at Santa Fe and 7th Street in 1912; production started 1913. It is currently being gentrified.

It all began when Ford Motor Company establishing their first Los Angeles plant at 7th St. and Santa Fe in 1912, from there pushing hundreds of cars off the production lines daily in order to feed the need for commuting speed across an increasingly sprawling city.

The early car owners often brought these cars to the edges of the city to show off these new machines. Drawing crowds of people for spectacles of motor enabled brawn. To witness races between cars and horses, hill climbs and early speed trial races held by the early car owners at the seams of the city.

Though initially car ownership was something which was primarily held by the affluent.

However, that all began to change in the 1920’s – when the Ford Model-T gave way to the Ford A-Model roadsters – the technology of car making would greatly improve in bringing production cost down. Making it possible for a broader section of middle-class people to afford these newer cars.

So by the mid-1920s there were tons of used cars being tossed aside, which thereby enabled car ownership for eager young people who were more than willing to snap them up and fix them up for themselves. And other’s who were willing to strip them down for something even more exciting yet.

When young people eventually got their hands on cars, they were also naturally drawn to the outskirts of residential Los Angeles to try it out themselves. But their exhibitions were purely for the trill of the car. Often removing the fenders and stripping the vehicles down to lessen their weight, to further push the limits of their vehicles for a thrilling ride.

In our area these anxious young people and their autos often converged around the Los Angeles River and the surrounding train yards off Santa Fe Road (which was the west coast railroad terminus in those days; before Union Station); which has always been known as a dicey playground for locals kids and loitering spot for young people with nowhere else to congregate.

However, the old auto spectacles would soon give way to a more defined form of car exhibition.

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In the early days from the 1930s through the 1950s car clubs were encouraged and sponsored by civic leaders; as a way of steering people away from youth delinquency. However, in the 1960s sociologists began to attack this group form of re-socialization as building cohesion among urban youth they perceived as gangsters.

In the late-1920s the first car clubs in Los Angeles were born. And by the 1930s the youth club culture was something which was already being accepted by civic leaders, who began to support the transformation of these car clubs into officially sanctioned associations; all in the aims of steering young people away from the dangers of street-racing and youth delinquency.

And thus were born the early cruising clubs. Most people don’t appreciate that the car culture, which would give birth to the hot rod and the roadster car craze, dates all the way back to these early days.

While all this vibrancy surrounding the car culture would lay the groundwork for the popularization of the hot rod and the car club’s acceptance into mainstream culture, it would remain as a small subculture, being challenged by the rise of World War II.

The active growth of the modern car enthusiast culture is believed to have been curtailed during the war, on account of the limitations of resources and materials during wartime. And also more critically by the military deployment of the young men who embodied this cultural phenomenon.

However, these wartime setbacks would translate into gains for the movement after the end of World War II. As many of these returning men came back from war with advanced technical skill which would advance their automotive works.

As described by historical scholars regarding this presumed lull:

“The cessation of hot rodding during World War II promoted an apprentice culture in which hot rod enthusiasts from the prewar period tutored new teenaged participants. While ‘old timers’ provided the technical knowledge to sustain the development of the culture, teenagers became the mass participants who encouraged its growth and continuing evolution.”

To this day the car culture is something which still very much benefits from the direct apprenticeship of old timers, and the energy of the youth.

How the car culture challenged racial boundaries

The rise of the personal automobile in Los Angles for youth also coincided with the rise of widespread racial segregation which began in the late 1920s.

Racially restrictive covenants in housing became common after 1926 following the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Corrigan v. Buckley, which validated their use. And then in 1934 discrimination in home loans began. Pushing minority communities to live on the edges of the city, and relegating them to the crumbling communities being left behind by the white middle-class.

Here in Los Angeles these minority designated “red lined” areas became the neighborhoods east of the Los Angeles River and South of Adams Blvd; this applied to all types of minorities including Jews, Latinos, Blacks and Asians.

Most often white historians talk about how the car enabled segregation in Los Angeles at this time, and it certainly did. However, it needs to be understood that the car is also what enabled youth to challenge those boundaries.

It is for this very reason the cruisers were often seen as a direct challenge to the Jim Crow system which was being more tightly woven into the social fabric of the city at that time. With their cars and clubs, these youth were exerting their freedom over these societal barriers and the urban geography of segregation.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that youth of East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights quickly became enthusiasts and were often at the forefront of this cruising culture.

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1940s Mexican-American Pachucos in their Zoot Suits

One of the biggest influences upon these working-class youth of our community at the time was the energetic jazz nightlife found in the areas around Central Ave., in historic South Central. This area was then at the forefront of a jazz renaissance since the late-1920s. With many jukejoints in the blocks around the Dubar Hotel. And also huge jazz venues like the Lincoln Theater, which was in those days considered the “West Coast Apollo.”

This vibrancy of South Central Los Angeles attracted various minority groups, including the white minorities and working-class. And it was there that most of our locals became familiar with both the sound and style of jazz. As Filipinos, Latinos and Jews, along with their African-Americans friends developed a unique form of cross-over jitterbug style of their own: the Zoot Suit.

I’m told by old timers that for the Zoot Suiters from the eastside there was almost no greater joy than throwing on their “drapes” and riding on over in glorious procession together to Central Ave. And that tall feeling of walking into the clubs in all their glory for a night of dancing.

However, on account of the circumstances and traumas of history, the only Zoot Suiters people seem to remember today are the pachucos. It is upon these Mexican-American working-class youth that the growing paranoia of youth delinquency and the racial disdain of their era would be directed against.

As cited by historian Bob Frost:

“Mexicans in L.A., writes historian James D. Hart, got low wages, were crowded into barrios (ghetto neighborhoods), and were generally scorned by whites. Young people were stigmatized as pachucos (juvenile hoodlums). The “pachuco generation” was a term used by historian Carey McWilliams to describe these American-born [Mexican-American] kids who reached maturity in the early 1940s.

“The parents of the pachuco generation, McWilliams writes, generally stayed close to home, seldom venturing from East L.A. into the downtown sector. By contrast, the new generation was “by no means so docile and tractable as their parents” and was lured to the “downtown shopping districts, to the beaches, and, above all, to the glamour of Hollywood.” They made their journeys by car, and they liked to drive in style. Police harassed them but cruising continued – a bold assertion of freedom in the land of the free. They were “laying a claim,” writes scholar Ben Chappell – “this is my city, my street, as much as anyone else’s.””

Naturally what these young people with their first taste of American success wanted to spend their hard-earned money on was their clothes, cars and the nightlife. Their obsession with American boogie-woogie and it’s lifestyle not only came with ire from the larger white society, who felt this was an affront to social decorum and distastefully encouraged mixed-raced dancing.

The scorn also came from their own families. As described by historian Eduardo Pagan:

“These kids spoke to each other in English. And it was an English that was punctuated by jazz phrases: ‘cool,’ ‘hip’, ‘on time.’ …They didn’t speak Spanish,” describes historian Eduardo Pagan. As young Mexican Americans stepped out in their zoot suits, their parents saw their children disappearing into a different world, and they feared their kids would become ill-mannered “pachucos” — a word they used to mean “punks.””

On this side of history, what is hard for people to understand is that the pachucos and zoot suiters, that they were not hyper-ethnic hipsters. What they were was an emerging group of ethnic young people who lunged at the style and pace of American life.

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Young people being stopped by the authorities; looks like they’re on the classic Sixth Street Viaduct just east of the Arches; looking west. towards downtown.

And had this been understood, and these young pachucos not been vilified, othered and racialized they would have continued to fully assimilate into American culture. Instead they were violently persecuted and criminalized, by a public which felt these pachucos didn’t understand their place in society.

And this really came to a head amidst World War II. At that time many Mexican manual laborers – the braceros – started coming to United States to fill wartime jobs left vacant as American men went off to war. The population of Mexicans increasing significantly during this time.

Also with the interment of the Japanese of Little Tokyo, the neighborhood there would begin to swell with African-Americans and Mexicans; and would at this time come to hold the title of “Bronzeville.” The nightlife would thus move more closely downtown, and naturally brought these young people into direct and uneasy contact with downtown society.

In addition, these complications of wartime also exposed them to hostility from US servicemen who had flooded into the area during wartime. And the attacks of newly arriving mid-westerners who were often unfamiliar with and intolerant of ethnic minorities.

Servicemen of the day were regularly incensed by the appearance of the lack of support in uniform by Mexicans during WWII, all the while accusing Mexicans of making out well financially in industrial jobs they were called up to fill as the war raged.

It only took the rumor of a “gang” stabbing and petty crimes to set in motion a brutal wave of violence against these young Latinos. (see “Fighting over the American Standard of Living, 1943-1945: Zoot Suit Riots, Wildcar Strikes, and the Supremacy of the Soldier.”)

This precipitated into the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943. Which was not any one event, but a series of riots throughout the city directed against this youth subculture, especially the Mexican-American Zoots.

Servicemen undressed and beat their victims. Defrocking these youth of their infamous baggy dress suits in public and tearing them to shreds as a protest to the supposed appearance of excess and opportunism during the lean times of war. An orgy of violence against those they perceived as draft-dodging and disloyal, which spilled into all the minority communities of Los Angeles. [Note: At the time there where actually as many as half-a-million Hispanics serving in the armed forces, making up almost 5% of the US armed forces. Which adds insult to injury.]

Though during this time many cars were mostly parked because of gas rationing limitations, servicemen would still drive up from as far as San Diego by the carload in order to beat the hell out of Zoot Suiters in Los Angeles. All with the instigation of the media, and the tactic approval and even repeated assistance of the police.

In the aftermath of the riots which raged for a week, many Latino young were arrested and thrown into the criminal system.

And in the panic of what the county saw not as mob beatings but instead as race riots, the Los Angeles civic leaders called in East Coast sociologists to help them address this crisis they saw on their hands. Quickly, these sociologists came to define our youth clubs as “gangs,” and by extension their members “gangsters.” Projecting on to our local youth their mobster problems of Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, etc. And through criminal institutionalization, made this a self-fulfilling prophecy; Mexicans Americans forming their own mafia only later, while incarcerated.

Even though during the span of WWII was considered a lull for the advancement of the car culture, the events of this period had a dramatic effect on how it emerged post-war. The public and law enforcement would for decades be gripped with fear of new riots. And in the shadow of looming fear of dark-skinned people imminently rising up in vengeance, which never really happened.

Nonetheless, because of these traumatic events the civic leaders and law enforcement would become further obsessed with youth delinquency, gang violence, and protecting youth from intermingling with adults. And were now more than ever intent on keeping youth clubs in their own neighborhoods.

And this is how the perception of our cruising Latino youth as rolling gangsters came to be; both an insult, and a historical blunder.

The Rise of Modern Car Cruising

After the end of World War II and the Korean war, many people returned from war to pick-up their car enthusiasm again. Aside from the technical skill which many gained during their wartime service, these veterans also come home with the benefit of the GI Bill. Which gave them the ability to buy new cars, and the money to invest into their cars.

Whittier Blvd cruisers stopped by cops in East LA ; 1950s

Cruisers stopped by cops on Whittier Blvd for sobriety check, in East LA; 1950s

However, in the years after the war the older pre-war car parts became much more expensive to produce. And new cars became much more costly as well, as the hot rods would begin to make their way toward mainstream consumerization.

In these post-war years the civic leaders once again began promoting car clubs; again to promote safety and deter from youth delinquency. And with the commercialization of show cars and hot rods, this also provided commercial sponsorship. While this granted legitimacy to mainstream middle-class car enthusiasts with the newest and best cars, this also began to further cause a disparaging of the working-class car culture.

The respectable white, suburban car clubs with the benefit of community approval and commercial sponsorship; these car driven social clubs, they rose up as uppity socials. While the same manifestation by the unsanctioned working-class car clubs, these hepcats in their rebuilt “bombs” were labeled greasers.

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The car clubs of Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, were born as a racially diverse, working class movement. As it remained for several decades to come. Mikado Car club at the parking lot of the Evergreen Hostel, circa 1960. Japanese-American hep cats and their classic cars.

It is essential for us to remember though, that the eastside car culture persisted as something that was mixed race for years to come. And the reason is because the transformation of the eastside from an ethnically mixed working-class community to a nearly entirely Latino enclave was gradual. And for years to come the promotion of the eastside cruising culture would be a multicultural manifestation of the local working class.

The hands-on nature of the eastside car culture would be maintained from the post-war years and for decades to come by white, Latino and even Japanese hepcats.

And the place of meeting, it became the now paved Los Angeles Riverbed; one of the few places in the area teens could race their cars, as well as have car exhibitions. And the path for cruising, it directed itself over the bridge and down Whittier Blvd towards East Los Angeles; with the procession itself becoming a mobile way for people to both party and mingle their way into the nightlife.

Drag Racers caught by Police on LA Riverbed

March 6, 1955: Police check licenses on hopped-up cars driven by teenagers drag racing on a paved section of the Los Angeles River bottom. Four squad cars converged on the racers. Photo taken at 6th Street Bridge. (Los Angeles Times, 1955)

The Emergence of the Lowrider

In time the car culture of Mexican-Americans would begin to distinctly emerge with its own character and style. And ultimately manifest some playful touches, culminating in the form of the lowrider.

Consider this for a second. When most communities talk about their car clubs, it usually involves racing. And this was most often the case in white, middle-class communities. And even more so in the suburbs and outlying communities. Though it should be noted, racing did occur on Whittier Blvd itself; though only in the more affluent suburban cities of Whittier and La Habra, where it was often was given a blind eye.

However, here in the working-class and more ethnic urban sides of town, speed was a privilege we couldn’t enjoy; with serious racing being too costly of a pursuit, and illegal street racing far less tolerated by our local authorities.

20151227_150103Therefore here in East Los Angeles our style emerged not based on the thrill of speed, but on the stunning effect of rolling bajito y suavecito – low and slow. The cars themselves became the full show.

And in order to accentuate this sense of parading, cars were often modified. This started as early as the 1940s. First, as people started adding frame skirts to cover back wheels, and even beaver backs to cars in order to exaggerate that land yacht effect. Rounding off the edges of their cars with sleek and wide curves.

And then in the 1950s people took it one step further and started altering their suspension, lowering their blocks, cutting their coils, and tweaking z-frames. Lowering cars also became much easier later on with the development of x-shaped frames in 1958.

In time this lowrider style, and all its flamboyance would be carried over to the more modern car and influence even more futuristic vehicles as well.

The lowrider quickly became the ubiquitous symbol of the Mexican-American car culture. Intended to be showy, and even seductive. Together these cars creating an armada of chrome vessels, leaving a party atmosphere in their wake. Carrying car loads of cruising guys and girls, mingling from vehicle to vehicle in a carnival of traffic.

And this of course troubled the authorities and the public; worried about the traffic and questioning the safety of these vehicles.

In response to this concern, in 1958 Section 24008 of the California Vehicle Code was enacted; which limited the types of lowering modifications one could make to their car. Including the requirement that no part of the vehicle be lower than the bottom of the wheel rims. Which in a single, clean strike of legislation seemed to outlaw the lowrider.

However, this would not be the end of this style. Indeed it only gave the lowrider image a new rebel mystique.

And it also lead to the most amazing evolution of these vehicles yet; with the addition of hydraulics.

In this early days this was achieved with adding aircraft hydraulics to one’s ride (which the x-style frames were ideal for). So that with the flip of a switch one could raise their car, in order to clear an obstacle or even avoid ticketing from cop rolling up at your side. And then with another flip, return back to a lowered cruising posture.

The addition of hydraulics would of course eventually inspire the hopping which is also a dramatic part of this form of street exhibitionism.

Today the most distinguishing characteristic of many of the lowriders of East Los Angeles would be their flashy Latino style.

Many of these more bold, modern and lush touches – the layered paint jobs, and airbrushed designs; the crushed velvet interiors – would emerge with the rise of the Chicano civil rights era starting in 1968. Lowriders became a major player in the image of the Chicano movement at that time; it was then that the lowrider would rise-up as symbol of the agency of Latino culture itself. And therefore also subject to further racial and class oriented scorn.

For these reasons, despite the style and the fancy touches given to these working-class rides, they would continue to be branded as rickety and dangerous jalopies. And a reoccurring object of scorn by the establishment.

The Attempts to Ban Cruising in East LA

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Cruising East LA in the 1970s Photo By: Gusmano Cesaretti

Though the cruising of Whittier Blvd has be a staple of the car culture for as long as anyone can remember, it has come with its ups and down.

In Los Angeles there were also several other popular cruising strips as well. Among them being the Hollywood Sunset Strip, Firestone Blvd in Downey (near the Harvey’s Broiler), Tweedy Blvd in South Gate, and also Van Nuys Blvd in the San Fernando Valley.

Generally cruising had to have a social destination. And this often meant the cruising oriented heading towards popular hangouts and night spots.

Cruising Whittier Blvd in the 1970s

Cruising Whittier Blvd in the 1970s

Over the years the procession of cars here on Whittier Blvd. had headed ever more eastward. Eventually making its way into the commercial center and down the shopping corridor of East LA; near the more affluent area of old Belvedere. This didn’t sit well with the still mostly white store owners and the more middle-class residents. Lowriders and their cruising became seen as a more dangerous public nuance.

Though the hight of the cruising phenomenon of Whittier Blvd was in the 1970s. The car clubs membership would wax and wane, sometimes consolidating and other times restructuring; car clubs activity had highs and lows through this decade.

The biggest challenge came in the late 1970s, when Whittier Blvd was closed to cruising.

cruisingwhittierblvd1979bwBy that time the demographic of the area and almost entirely become Latino. And it becoming a destination for more and more Latino clubs. However, it also was well known to attract gangs as well. And the blvd often became a place of not just a party atmosphere, but also a volatile center which attracted many conflicting gang and crews.

Starting on Friday, March 23, 1979 in response to the violence, vehicular cruising was banned entirely. And here in East Los Angeles, Whittier Blvd was blockaded starting at Eastern Ave. With the intention of protecting the boulevard’s shopping district of East Los Angeles.

The events of that ban and the mess left in its wake are described by lowrider historians this way:

“Whittier Boulevard was again closed in the late 1970s because law enforcement continued to make the claim that gang activity were directly related to cruising on East Los Angeles’s [sic] main street.

“The closing of Whittier Boulevard is the late 1970s brought adversarial tensions between lowriders and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to their highest point . Roberto Rodriguez, who was then a reporter for Lowrider magazine, recounts how he was almost killed by sheriff’s deputies on Whittier Boulevard on March 23rd 1979. He had been taking photographs of the cruising on the avenue and had been witnessed and attempted to photograph what he describes at the beating of an innocent and defenseless individual by the Special Enforcement Bureau of the Los AngelesLowrider Banned March 1979 County Sheriff’s Department. He does not deny that there had been “troublemakers” on the avenue for most of the 1970s, but he claims law enforcement’s crackdown on lowriders gave sheriffs free rein to consider all Mexican -Americans on the avenue suspect. Rodriguez was attacked by deputies, had his camera and film confiscated, sustained serious head injuries requiring several days of hospitalization, and faced criminal charges for attacking the very deputies who had injured him. He later brought a criminal suit against the Sheriff’s Department to clear his name; he won his criminal trial won more than seven years later. Rodriguez describes the night of violent confrontation: “As a result of the incident, 538 people were arrested, countless individuals were beaten and harassed, the Boulevard was shut down, and by the end of the weekend, Whittier Boulevard in East LA resembled a war zone.”

However, despite the reality of there being negative elements which did come along with this cruising phenomenon, it would be wrong for us to only focus upon that, and dismiss the other truth that the car club culture also still continued to presented itself as an alternative to gang membership as well. As it had since the days of the early car clubs.

As noted by historian Bob Frost:

“The 1979 film “Boulevard Nights,” set on Whittier Boulevard, draws an explicit connection between lowriders and violent gang life – a controversial topic in the lowriding community. Although lowriders have indeed been used by gang members over the years, and gunshots have rung out at more than one lowrider gathering, the cars are largely a family affair, say some observers. According to James Sterngold, writing in the New York Times in 2000, mainstream lowrider clubs actively seek to wean Chicano youths from the lure of gangs.”

However, this reality is still sadly overlooked. And the history of car clubs as socially positive groups became almost completely obscured and forgotten at this time.

The ban on cruising would be maintained throughout the 1980s and for the next decade. And the war zone and police state atmosphere of Whittier Blvd of those days is something that even I personally remember to this day.

And so I can say with certainty that the cruising culture didn’t stop just because of a few road blocks. Actually in the end this motivated the cruisers to just go around the barricaded intersections, often making their way into the residential neighborhoods from East LA to Pico Rivera.

As a kid I vividly remember the excitement of all the flashy cars, and also the drama of the police spectacles. My family often getting caught into the caravans of traffic by chance. And other times by my watching the cars as they diverted through the residential neighborhoods my family members lived in, shinny cars being pursued by flashing helicopter search lights. Leaving me with my face pressed up against glass windows, thrilled by it all.

And a few times, I even joined my older uncles and cousins cruising!

First night of the Cruising Ban; Whittier Blvd, East Los Angeles, March 23rd, 1979.

First night of the Cruising Ban; Whittier Blvd, East Los Angeles, March 23rd, 1979.

Eventually by the mid-1980s the Sheriff’s Department would move their barricade more to the east; eventually barricading traffic where Whittier Blvd met Rosemead Blvd in Pico Rivera. Diverting cars north, towards an inevitable destination at Legg Lake Park by day and away from heading towards the suburban core of the City of Whittier. And by night, preventing the mass of cruisers from gathering at the Tommy’s Burger and Mario’s Tacos parking lots in Pico Rivera (again, due to gang violence).

So by the 1990s if you actually made it as far as Durfee Road, you were considered boss!

Eventually cruising was banned again in 1992 under the guise of anti-loitering laws, which were drafted by their sponsors with the city’s anti-gang ordinances in mind.

From the late-1980s through the early-1990s the cruising culture would be maintained in East LA by a few die-hards. Though the old car cruising clubs would continue to shrink, with many lowriders instead focusing their energies towards show cars and classic car competitions.

As noted again by the lowrider historians:

“One of the few positive indicators of continued interest in lowriding was the success of the large car shows. These shows served to shift the emphasis for lowrider clubs and owners away from cruising and toward the production of award-winning show vehicles. Another positive sign for lowriding in general was the integration of the African American and Chicano cruising scene on Crenshaw Boulevard.”

Which once again shows how the car clubs and working-class car culture ultimately found a way to once again challenge racial boundaries and make new connections across the city; as they had since their earliest days.

The Current Legacy of Eastside Cruising

Though the street presence of the car culture seemed to decline for many years, the popularity of the working class car culture has proliferated. So much so that by the turn of the turn of the 21st century it had moved from being a subculture, into being a celebrated form of expression by the popular culture.

20151227_145841Today if you walk up to any major newsstand you will find various classic car, hot rod and lowrider magazines. Filled with amazing oral histories of the car club veterans who helped propel these movements forward.

The working class car culture is something which today is a much respected form of urban expression. Even though it still holds a certain type of outlaw repute by those who remain inappreciative.

However, I ask people to look around at the car club events of today and take notice of the diversity of people who attend.

And more importantly, notice that the now senior-aged leaders of the original clubs have now become respected veterans of this local heritage. And they most often speak as honored sources of technological, historical and cultural wealth.

And also take notice of how the car culture continues to find new energy in the youth. Who continue to revision this urban expression for themselves. Youth who have continued seeking out the apprenticeship of the car club veterans; fathers, grandfathers, uncles, and elder friends.

In the past two decades, the cultural trends of our area have also helped spark a revival in the kustom car movement. Which has brought new life and passion for the car clubs. Both as an expression of the reemerging Chicano street culture, and also the all-American rockabilly subculture which is common to many working class eastsiders.

20151227_151811Though I believe the biggest sign of the sustained vitality of the local car culture has been the meet-ups and car cruise nights which still center around the Los Angeles viaducts. The cruising from this spot has never really gone away.

In fact, this passed February the local car clubs teamed-up to revive the old Whittier Blvd cruising route. Starting from underneath the soon to be demolished Sixth Street Bridge and again heading towards East Los Angeles. These meet-ups have attracted the older guys and their classic cars, to enjoy a final ride to recapture their glory days. And the younger people as well, who just want to try to capture some treasured memories for themselves.

The question still hangs on the minds of people: Can the local working class car culture of the area survive the wave of change which is coming to the eastside? And will the demolition of the Sixth Street Bridge place in jeopardy this age old tradition; by not just by displacing and diverting the cruise route, but also blocking access for riverbed drives for years to come.

20151227_151205In light of the plans for the new Art’s District amphitheater planned for the underside of the new Sixth Street Bridge at the entrance to the riverbed at Santa Fe (in addition to the push for revitalization of the Los Angeles River), there is much doubt as to whether our car clubs will have anyplace to return to here once the redevelopment project is completed.

With all of this nostalgia and uncertainty hanging thick in the air, people have continued to come out in droves for these final days. And I suspect in increasing numbers right up until the very end.

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Jewish-Latino Relations: Rooted in a Shared Immigrant, Working-class Experience

A brief history of how Jewish immigrants lent their acquired experience in organizing to more recent Latino immigrants.

“Under the direction of Israel Feinberg, the Los Angeles ILGWU membership rose from 30 to 2,000 between 1930 and 1935, making it one of the larger unions in Southern California. Part of the growth resulted from the 1933 strike by Latina dressmakers. By 1938 the ILGWU’s Spanish-speaking branch had a float in the city’s annual Labor Day parade, and Latinas were active within the union.” – Kenneth Burt

(Revised November 2015)

Jewish-Latino relations in the US are built upon a legacy of recognizing a shared immigrant and working-class experience. We have a long history of being natural allies in promoting social advances. And it all began with organized labor.

At the start of the 20th century an influx of impoverished Eastern European Jewish immigrants provided this country with a desperate and eager labor force. Many of these new immigrants going into the garment and dress-making industry. However, the working conditions in this era of the industrial revolution were terrible and even deadly. Women laborers such as these were among those who organized as early as 1900 in New York City, founding the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). Often holding meetings in Yiddish.

With immigrants venturing west and industry taking off in the booming years of Los Angeles, ILGWU became established here in 1910.

However, by the 1930s the largest growing group of new union members were Spanish-speaking Latinos. Saby Nehama a Sephardic Jew, a Jewish person of Spanish descent – first organized efforts among Spanish speakers on the east coast. And then whole Spanish-speaking branches were soon established in several major cities. [see “Memories and Migrations: Mapping Boricua and Chicana Histories,” p. 130]

In Los Angeles, the work of organizing would be most fearlessly taken up by Russian Jewish immigrant and political anarchist Rose Pesotta [See: Jewish Women’s Archive: Encyclopedia; also see Wikipedia.] As stated in this account published by the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 324:

“On September 15, 1933, a young, New York labor organizer by the name of Rose Pesotta landed in Los Angeles. Pesotta once worked in Southern California where she had been discharged from a garment factory and blacklisted for union activity. Now Pesotta was returning at the request of garment workers to organize their industry. Within one month a new International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) local was formed and the garment industry found itself in the middle of a bitter strike with Rose Pesotta leading the charge.

“In 1933, the Los Angeles garment industry employed nearly 7,500 workers, half of which were scattered in an estimated 200 small sweatshops in the downtown garment district. Latinas comprised nearly 75 percent of those workers, with the rest consisting of Italians, Russians and Americans. Nearly half of the female dressmakers made less than $5 a week, which stood as a clear violation of the $16 a week California minimum wage for female workers and National Industrial Recovery Act’s (NRA) Dress Code, which set standards in the industry. Workers who attempted to organize were routinely fired and blacklisted by the employers. The local leadership of the ILGWU, consisting of mostly white men, had no interest in organizing female dressmakers, feeling that most either leave the industry to raise their families or shouldn’t be working in the first place.

“But Rose Pesotta refused to buy into that dismissive attitude. With the ILGWU International’s approval, she began laying the foundation for a new local (Local 96). She reached out to the Latina community through a bilingual radio program and a weekly paper called, The Organizer.

This work of organizing would not just be expanded into other cities, it would also result in cross-cultivation in other forms of civil rights organizing. As historian Kenneth Burt wrote:

In sections of the Bronx, in the West Side section of St. Paul, Minnesota, and in the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles, Spanish-speaking Latinos replaced Yiddish-speaking Jews as the newest immigrant group.

“Organized labor often served as a bridge between these working-class, ethnic communities. Unions also provided a political voice for the emerging Latino community.

The International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) served this function on the Eastside of Los Angeles. The ILGWU engaged directly in civic life. It also helped establish and worked through a variety of Latino and Jewish and organizations, as well as broad-based civil rights coalitions.

The groups in the ILGWU’s sphere of influence included the Jewish Labor Committee and the Mexican American-oriented Community Service Organization (CSO). Early CSO leaders included Maria Duran and Hope Mendoza from the ILGWU.

Directly and indirectly the ILGWU played a key role in the election of Edward Roybal to the Los Angeles City Council in 1949, and to the adoption of fair employment and fair housing laws in California in the late 1950s and early 1960s.”

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, 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. [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 CSOs efforts culminated in the election of Edward Roybal, the first Latino to serve on the Los Angeles City Council.”

cc_ross_cover_130318_mnRoyball 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 Roybal 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’s, and the rise UFW as an outgrowth of CSO. See “Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa.”]

While today American Jews might not be the face of the working-class anymore, many Jewish community leaders have made it an activist goal to fight for workers rights and better immigration reform for Latinos. Maintaining a legacy of support for these and other progressive causes, due to the similar collective memory Jews have of their grandparents and great-grandparents being exploited as poor immigrants.

For more information, I highly recommend Kenneth Burt’s unpublished paper, Garment Workers as Bridge Builders: Immigrant Radicalism and the Search for Economic Justice.”

For further information regarding the UFW and Jewish activism, see a wonderful piece by Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz: The Forgotten Story of Cesar Chavez and the Jews.” (HuffPost)

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The Inequity of the New Sixth Street Bridge Plan

A community organizer’s account of the debut for the new Sixth Street Bridge Project – October 6th, 2014

The Classic Sixth Street ViaductBefore I went to the city planning meeting that day, I just had to take one more wide look of this Sixth Street Viaduct. Watching her from the distance of the Seventh Street Bridge, I somberly took in full view of the crumbling Sixth Street Bridge there in the middle of it all. I needed to see the activity and the interconnectivity she provides for this community, just to keep the subject in perspective.

The viaducts of the Los Angeles river are an integral part the city, more than many people realize at first. These structures here were created not just to traverse the river, but also to serve as essential corridors for our local freeways. And also for providing passage for all our local commercial and passenger trains; the Amtrak and Metrolink trains, being among them.

My personal favorite of them is the Sixth Street Viaduct. Almost everyone in the city commutes over, under and through this structure on a regular basis. And so it has been for as long as any of us remember, that we find our goings and comings from the city greeted by the glory of this bridge and her arches.

And this bridge has also become the primary hang-out for my friends and I over the years. A part of our city infrastructure we feel most connected to. Most often taking our spot at the observation point on the north end of the pedestrian walkway. From here we have always watched and reflected upon this great city. It is almost hard for us to imagine the city landscape without her.

The historic Sixth Street Viaduct which has graced the city skyline since 1932 has been scheduled for demotion and replacement. As for many years there have been concerns about the structural integrity of the bridge.

Broken Sixth Street Bridge BeamsIndeed, history tells us that within the first 20 years of the bridge being built the concrete of the structure began to suffer terrible damage. The consequences of badly mixed concrete in the construction, utilizing a poor choice of sand aggregate in the mixture. The grains of sand and the concrete-mix having a fatal reaction when repeatedly exposed to water over time, causing the mixture to produce a corrosive gel, as the sand grains swell with moisture. The concrete eventually becoming brittle enough to crack, separate and fall away. A condition called alkali-silica reaction, or “concrete cancer” by the engineers.

The bridge is literally crumbling and melting away. This is a serious crisis, for certain.

But I’ll tell you the truth: I have never seen anything as broken and damaged as the politics which surrounds the entire rebuilding project for the Sixth Street Viaduct. This has been what I have found most alarming here.

Let us consider the project, and all its implications. We are talking about a reconstruction project which when originally proposed it was estimated to cost at around $140-million dollars, which has since morphed and ballooned into over $440-million; a project which is consuming 2/3rds of the entire infrastructure development budget of the City of Los Angeles. And yet for all the money committed, this bridge project remains the most egregious symbol of inequity in the current city redevelopment.

Here we are at the start of another building project here which is wrong from the beginning. With the current failures of this project reflecting the deafness of both the civic and neighborhood council leaders. This all clearly demonstrating the complete failure on the part of our local leaders across the board to advocate for the needs our disadvantaged community which is most effected by this project; the neighborhood of Boyle Heights.

So here I gathered my thoughts here for a few moments. And then finally walked my way from the viaduct and over to the local magnet school which was hosting the community forum for the Sixth Street Viaduct Replacement Project. A much-anticipated update from the city and the contractors, regarding the demolition and rebuilding.

And as I walk up to the entrance I run into the Los Angeles City Council member for this district, Jose Huizar. We pass with barely a pleasantry, greeting and parting abruptly.

Actually I think the same can be said for his appearance at this meeting in general. His very presence at the community forum was short and abrupt. Excusing himself for another hearing after a few short words, and conveniently not having to be present to answer for any of the community concerns regarding the project.

As the community members began to pile in to a room mostly filled with suits and contractors, we also joined them; my local companions and I. This was not our first time at the rodeo, but even we were shocked by the fruitlessness of this forum.

Huizar came with his usual attempt at charm and carefully expressed sympathy over the loss of this iconic bridge, though in the end all he did was do political nodding and offered little of substance. He had a few nice things to say which I appreciated, about developing the art of the space and reusing materials from the historic bridge. The latter of which I believe is the most sincere.

What I found troubling was one of his last and briefest points to address, regarding the redevelopment of the underside of the bridge. In which he credits his office with securing $1-million for the construction of a “soccer park” on the cleared land underneath the bridge.

As he mentioned this my eyes were drawn to the diagrams and maps, to take notice how the businesses in the Boyle Heights Flats are effected. Only to notice many cleared away in the new renderings. I know the area very well. And every single business which they are replacing with just grass there in their diagrams.

In reality, they are not adding much more than white lines and adding two words to the remaining open field, and it thus becomes a “soccer park.”

Now how is that a community organizer like myself, in a Latino community, is opposed to this? My opposition is to a clearly mindless form of ethnic pandering here. And my scorn is for the cheap and token redevelopment feature aimed to pacify Latino objection to a highly unpopular redevelopment project. A typical move which is not just cynical, but also inequitable.

What completely amazed me was that just a year before at similar public briefing and forum hosted by Huizar’s office the city had warmed us all over with emphasizing that the bridge was to be transformed into a destination on both banks, with active artistic and cultural components. Stating that this all needed to be equitable and integral to the space, so as not to feel like an afterthought.

[Citation: See video of the December 11, 2013 meeting; citing Felicia Filer, Department of Cultural Affair. My favorite part is this, “There are so many different areas on the project in which public art happen. Where art can happen and future art programming. We wanted to look at the project holistically and cohesively, so that wherever opportunities are they tie together, so that it feels like a plan and not an afterthought.” Felicia Filer, Department of Cultural Affairs. I would say we are all in agreement with her, which is why it is shocking they have in the end planned nothing significant in terms of integrated programmable artistic and cultural space on the eastern side of the bridge.].

However, now what we had being presented to us was far less than carefully balanced. A revelation that would further be compounded as the city planners and engineers unveiled the model and animations for the new Sixth Street Viaduct. Complete with an amphitheater and an “arts park” to be constructed on the now gentrified Art District side of the bridge, on the western bank of the Los Angeles River.

While as for their plans for under the much larger Boyle Heights span, so far all they had to show for was an afterthought of a soccer field feature being represented by a piece of green construction paper under their model of the eastern span of the bridge; in the struggling minority community on the other end.

Very much an afterthought and point of disregard, as revealed by the words of Huizar himself: “We recently also awarded, through some of the advocacy of my office, a million dollars for a soccer field on the bottom of the Art’s District side, right?” To the solicited correction of his staff, he snapped back, “… Boyle Heights side. Right. Boyle Heights side.”

The viaduct of today is just about 2/3 of a mile long; 3500′ of bridge, with 400′ of twin double steel arches spanning over the river where the bridge slightly curves southwest as it extends towards downtown LA. The painted bluish-gray arches standing 40′ high, are the most beloved accent of the bridge.

The old bridge was designed at the height of the Art Deco era. The design shows both Art Deco and streamline Moderne themes, the first bridge of it’s kind. Indeed each of the bridges have a unique theme to them. Some of them neo-Classical like the First Street Bridge, and others are Gothic Revival like the nearby Fourth Street Bridge. All of them made to play off of and accentuate each other.

This motif has great historical significance to us locals, in providing functional and yet comfortingly classic atmosphere to our area. For these reasons, the Sixth Street Viaduct is designated as Historic-Cultural Monument #905 by the California Register of Historical Resources.

The bridge of the future is tremendously different. As the civil engineers spoke, we all stared eagerly at the scale model which took up the whole auditorium. This new design being a great departure from the current architectural theme of the area, and also from the previous design plans. Almost nothing of the original bridge and charms were retained, except for an embellished stream of integrated arches designed to span nearly the full length of the bridge.

20141006_180624-PANOThere is no doubt that the new bridge design is bold and breathtaking. However, it is more stupefying when we see that they have diminished the historical integrity of the surrounding area in ways which appears to push a wave of sweeping redevelopment and character changes upon this area.

Considering all the other options for the rebuild, this most certainly is the best design. Early on in the design planning for the new viaduct, reproductions of the bridge were considered. Reproductions of the old bridge without any arches, a lackluster redesign which would have done no justice to the original Sixth Street Bridge. This bridge design as least incorporates an homage to the original arches. Which is quite meritorious.

And the bridge also does comes with some impressive features. The new Sixth Street Viaduct is designed to have protected bike lanes and paths. As well as a safer pedestrian walkways, secured by dividers. And circling bicycle ramps which promise easy acceptability.

As the presentation continues, we hear of how the “Ribbon of Light” theme for the bridge will incorporate embedded LED lighting. State of the art lights which can be changed in color in order to enhance the bridge, thematically or according to artistic tone. Mood light streaming along the face of the bridge and walkways. An admittedly expensive, but beautifying feature integrated into the bridge.

Most impressive though are the integrated artistic and cultural space planned for much smaller, western span of the bridge; on the Arts District Side. The amphitheater which will meet up against the entrance to the service tunnel of the Los Angeles River. Re-envisioning the almost urban cathedral nature of the underside of the bridge there as a programmable space. With an arts park which also planned for the adjacent areas.

These type of features are not by accident. Indeed early on in the process of the redesign the now gentrified Los Angeles Art’s District had demanded a percentage – I believe at one point they wanted as much as 4% of the redevelopment money – in order to apply to artistic redevelopment of their area. In the end, some effective advocacy for their community resulted in the incorporation of these grand features, the amphitheater and arts park.

The Green Construction Paper signifies the after-thought soccer field feature

The green construction paper signifies the after-thought soccer field feature.

What I find starkly contrasting is that for all of this light and programmable space being planned here, the only thing that this massive model has presented for the Boyle Heights side of bridge – for the 2500-feet which makes up over 2/3rds of the length of the bridge – is a piece of green construction paper on the underside of the bridge just west of Anderson St. An ad-hoc representation of their trite afterthought of a soccer field. This green piece of paper being just as barren and honest as the reality of that plan, just an empty green space left on the dark underside of their bridge.

For the first time I really felt the full effect of the dissonance which the community members around me also felt in the face all this. Even I began to feel the tension.

The civic planners have made great use of space in their designs for artistic expression in the gentrified side of town. And it makes great concessions to the newly arriving yuppies who need to feel that their own contrived being is in itself artisanal, who see their very privileged lives as performance art.

But what about for the genuinely culture rich Boyle Heights? What for the side which has a well established historical tradition of folk and applied arts? The east side – which has great historical significance for it’s rich ethnic and cultural character – what did we get for tangible programmable arts space? Gornisht mit gornishtun montón de nada… a lot of nothing.

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