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:

The Shattered Sixth Street Bridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I’m very pained to see them gone.

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

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

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

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

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

See the video of this experience here:


Pictures from the demolition site:

Los Angeles Cruise Nights, Anniversary Event

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

The Demolition of the Sixth Street Bridge Began at Night

The end of an era comes to the eastside.

Looking through the first hole in deck of the classic Sixth Street Bridge.

Looking through the first hole in deck of the classic Sixth Street Bridge.

On the night of February 5, 2016 the demolition of the classic Sixth Street Bridge in Los Angeles began. And on that night I was there firsthand to capture this tragic point in our history.

Long had I been given notice to the people of Boyle Heights of its impending destruction, giving warnings as though the sky was falling for years. However, the realness of it all would not hit me until that night. As I looked through the dust and the sparks, to see great machines plunging holes and flooding light though the deck of the bridge; all over head as I witness this demolition of this most beloved landmark.

It was a night I will always remember and be haunted by.

See the full video below:

The Sixth Street Bridge has played a dual role here in our community; as a symbolic guardian to my native eastside, and also as a connecting point to launch our residents into society beyond the barriers of the barrio. They have served generations of ethnic minorities and working-class people of East Los Angeles, and therefore have played a profound role in our narratives.

And so much has this one bridge played a role in my own life story, that I have been compelled to be there each step of the way. As this beloved landmark met its demise.

Though a symbolic “groundbreaking” for the project had taken place a year prior, the project was already a year-and-a-half behind schedule on the demolition itself. And the demolition date was further pushed back and forth several times in the final weeks, before once again being delayed and then quickly rescheduled for that weekend.

The upcoming demolition of the Sixth Street Viaduct was the big news topic, and all anyone could talk about for a couple of weeks. When I arrived early in the afternoon, all the local new media was already set-up over the top of the freeway at the eastern end of the viaduct, near Whittier and Boyle.

As I was going about taking some final pictures and video of the still intact bridge throughout that area, I was asked to be interviewed by a TV reporter from ABC channel 7.

In recent years shut downs of major southland freeways such as the 405 or 101 had been popularly given names. Named like natural disasters such as hurricanes; names like Carmageddon and Jamzilla. This event would be preemptively titled by the city council as the “LA Slowjam.” Announced in what the media called a “dork-cool” video by Mayor Eric Garcetti, jamming with a band from Rosevelt High Schooli.

The Slowjam, a 48-hour period which would disrupt the traffic around the 101-Hollywood and the Santa Monica-10, forcing traffic to divert to the Golden State-5 and the 60-San Bernardino Freeways. Leaving traffic slow and the roads jammed all weekend long.

smileslowjamThe reporter asked me about this: “Have you heard what they are calling this one?”

“Oh yes, the Slowjam, it makes it sound like it’s a golden oldies weekend.” I say with amusement. Though I do make the point to then soberly interject, “You know, but really its kind of the end of the golden oldies for some of us on this side of town.”

Only hinting at the ominous nature of the drastic change taking place around here.

As I continued to linger into the evening capturing photographs and filming the viaduct, I struck up conversation with the demolition crew. They advised me of the general play-book and timetable for the demolition, helping me to plan out where to best capture it from.

It seemed that the best location would be from Clarence Street, just on the eastern edge of the freeway-interchange. I wanted to get a look at this area before it was ripped up. So in the final glow of the evening, I walked through there. Before making my way back to the neighborhood. [See the footage of this area before the demolition began: “Sixth Street Viaduct, before demolition began.”]

For the next few hours I was able to linger with my friends, who had long since taken up residence at the art installation of Boyle Henge at Boyle and Whitier Blvd. Near the top of the demolition site. We would exchange stories of the good old days and share a few beers there, before Zero and Illyria would head back home.

While I would make my way back to the bottom of the demolition site, joined by our friend Squared. And we would wait in vigil for the demolition to begin.

The 101/10 Freeway ramp at 4th Street and Pecan. The freeway was eerie and without any traffic, but that didn't stop people from playing there while it was shut down.

The 101/10 Freeway ramp at 4th Street and Pecan. The freeway was eerie and without any traffic, but that didn’t stop people from playing there while it was shut down.

And as we made our way back it was just astounding to see the freeways begin to close. As these massive highways begin to empty and grow silent. This was too amazing to pass up. Entering in through the Pecan Street freeway on-ramp, we would find ourselves running and playing tag on the freeway. It was almost surreal.

However, this cessation to traffic also meant that the demolition could now begin at any time. And all the demolition machines began to align themselves into place. So we began to rush back to the area of the bridge.

Arriving in the flats around through Pico Gardens – the housing projects up against this demolition and rebuild project – you could see the residents peeking out in annoyed curiosity. And understandably considering they would find themselves up against this construction project for the next four and a half years. Hearing it, breathing it.

I waved to them and said a little prayer for these families as I made my way by.

By this time Clarence had been shut down where the bridge spanned over it, making us take a familiar detour down and through my old stomping grounds on Anderson St.

Now this area already looked like a destruction site for some time. Months before the Jewish food and kosher wine distributors had been displaced from here. And now the site of what was once the Teva Foods, it had now become the base of operation for the demolition.

And this is where my footage of the demolition begins. At the gates of the demolition site.

When I arrived the demo crew was busily rushing about. And crews of classic car cruisers were lingering nearby the gate. The workers seemed surprised at the sight of nostalgic spectators, curiously waiting.

Waiting for damage. And we would certainly witness damage that night.

As it was explained to me by the demolition crew earlier, the demo needed to begin with knocking out the concrete sides and sidewalks. Then banging through the concrete decking of the bridge with machines from atop of the bridge. And then finally banging out the rest of the bridge from below. Breaking it down to the bare pillars.

As the crew started to lock the gate to begin their work, we started to make our way to the spot I had chosen to record. Making my way down Anderson to Jessie Street, to come around to Clarence Street.

And as we turned the corner, the real pounding of the demolition began. The first clouds of dust from the demolition began to kick into the air. And as the breaking sounds made by the demolition machines began to reverberate, channeled down the corridor of Jesse Street.

Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang.
Crumble. Shatter. Clatter. Bang. Bang. Bang.

And at that point I just couldn’t help but cry out in complete shock and amazement.

And I wasn’t the only person to be caught aghast in the terribly awesome sight of it all.

Even the police officers who were patrolling this night, stood in total awe. Looking up, transfixed at the sight of this calamity. For the longest time, standing completely still in the shifting light of the destruction. Several photographers would beautifully capture this moment of astonishment and wonderment.

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As I arrived at our chosen spot on Clarence Street – almost directly under the spans of the bridge being demolished this night – there were quite a few more people who had come out to witness and photograph this. Several local residents I recognized, trying to get a few good shots of it on film.

Even some of the workers from the wholesale produce facilities on the block, they began coming out to watch too.

And so for the longest time we all stood there just watching. Some standing there in complete silence.

As the night was drenched in flood lights and fierce sounds. Sounds of banging and clattering filled the air, causing the very air around me to vibrate and pulse with every blow of those great machines.As they pounded away at the concrete, and as they cut at the metal reinforcements revealed beneath it. Sending both dust and sparks into the air, which they battled with huge streams of water which kept sweeping over the sides of the now crumbling bridge.

And as the bridge began to break apart, I could see the first breaks of emotion on so many people’s faces. And their shock as we watched the machines knock over some of the remaining art deco light standards, sending them tumbling down with a metal clank and a pitiful crash.

At this point most people began to leave. They had enough of all this destruction.

Though we would remain with a handful of people for hours to come. The demolition had begun shortly after midnight. And it would take a few hours for them to break through the deck of the bridge.

And it would not be until they actually broke through the decks of the bridge that I would really begin to accept the reality of it all. When I could see the light shinning through the bottom of the old bridge. and those monstrous machines clawing through.

When I found myself right up against the very pillars of the doomed bridge, staring up and through the growing hole in the deck of the bridge. With concrete dust and sparks of metal flying in my face. Still as a couple of guys and I continued to inch as close as we could. Until we could no longer breathe from all the falling dust. Sending us retreating and gasping for air.

Now as bridge began to crumble, debris from the structure above began to fall severely towards the freeway below it. The surface of which had been covered with huge mounds of dirt in order to absorb the impact of the pieces of falling bridge. Saving the surface of the freeway itself from damage.

Once the upper deck of the bridge was throughly smashed apart, the demolition machines began to ascend the dirt mounds in order to demolish the bridge from the side.

At this time we began to make our way back the way which we had come.

Shmu at the demolition of the Sixth Street Bridge

Shmu at the first night of demolition of the Sixth Street Bridge.

Now once we swung around to Clarence and 6th Streets, we could see the machines smashing their way through the side of the bridge. Like mechanical titans, these massive machines relentlessly pounding a massive cavity through the concrete until everything around it gave way. Then screamingly cutting through and pulling apart the metal frame within.

We stood there for some time watching these teams of machines rip through the bridge, smashing from north to south. As the demolition swarmed directly over the East LA interchange.

We stayed there somberly watching until around 4:30am. Until the machines started to break all the way through the structure, bisecting the bridge. Then we would back our way out of the Flats the way we came.

Around that the time we were ending our nighttime vigil, Zero would be making his way to the bridge to witness the dramatic sight. In the pre-dawn hours before the city began to stir awake to the reality of the broken skyline. He would be interviewed by KNX 1070. Recounting his own memories of the Sixth Street Bridge and his difficulty to comprehend this destruction. His delusional sense of its permanence, meeting with the harsh reality of its demolition.

And so it was that we would leave the site of the demolition early Saturday morning. Covered in a layer of concrete dust and with pieces from the bridge in my hair. And emotionally shaken to my very core, I just couldn’t watch anymore.

The demolitions crews and their heavy machines would continue their demolition there another day still. Knocking down the entire spans of the bridge over the freeways. Then breaking apart the art deco themed entrance of the old bridge, smashing the pillar monoliths which stood there. And clearing the rubbish, to reopen traffic.

The “Slowjam” would end ahead of schedule, with traffic resuming on Sunday afternoon. Leaving a post-apocalyptic sight on the skyline and surrounding the East Los Angeles Interchange.

Though some time has passed since this event, it has taken a great deal of time for me to really emotionally work through it all. I just haven’t had enough words to describe the sights, sounds and the feelings which were dug-up that night.

And it has also been a near full-time task, keeping up with documenting the massive demolition project. And keeping record of the changes which are coming to the vicinity surrounding the demotion-rebuild of the Sixth Street Viaduct.

This was just the first blow.

Revisiting the Groundbreaking for the New Sixth Street Bridge

Memoirs from February 20, 2015; one year ago.

The story of how we protested the groundbreaking event

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“The New Bridge Sucks!!!” – With sign in hand, Jessie (Illyria Exene) Elliot came out to protest the groundbreaking.

When I arrived at the underside of the Sixth Street Bridge at Santa Fe Road a crowd was already arriving. And there in the expanse of the underside of the viaduct stood a John Deere machine for show, and row of golden ceremonial shovels.

This was the groundbreaking for the new Sixth Street Bridge Project. Though there was no real breaking of ground, just soil held by plastic sheeting for the officials to play with for show.

I had actually noticed this all start to come together the day before, when I found there was already a brand new excavator tractor to be found here; partially wrapped in black protective plastic, just sleeping like a beast.

This was the first vivid and tangible symbols of the destruction which was to come.

It actually took everything in me to resist the crazy impulse and uncharacteristic desire to deface this shiny little prop for the upcoming regalia.

Only two days before had it been announced that the city was planned a ceremonial groundbreaking and press conference. Which was announced only listed in the Los Angeles DT News website.

Though there was no real outreach to eastside residents to be part of this milestone event.

For this reason the event was filled with officials, developers and Art’s District businessmen. While from the Boyle Heights neighborhood there were just a few officials, and an assortment of high school kids also present for show. All of us lingering through the huge model of the bridge.

Just then I heard someone call out to me.

“You’re here! I was hoping to see some familiar faces from Boyle Heights.” It was our journalist friend Sahra Sulaiman, who I had met the year before at the unveiling of the new Sixth Street Bridge Project. [See the “The Inequity of the New Sixth Street Bridge Plan.”]

If there was one thing I have been good at, it has been keeping myself and my friends up to date on the news regarding the viaduct. Ever since I had learned about the reality of the upcoming demolition and reconstruction of the viaduct.

I had full intent of continuing to be there for every major step of this project. And at my side was my buddy Squared. Though knowing most of our neighbors had to work at that hour and how time impoverished our locals are, we were worried that we would be pretty much alone this day.

When just then the crowd of cheap blue suits seemed to part, like a shark was coming through, As Jessie came marching in, sporting a Mohawk and a protest sign saying, “The new bridge sucks!” Direct and to the point.

We embraced in the thick of the growing crowd. We actually hadn’t seen each other in some time because of a huge conflict in our circle a while back, but today we came together almost instinctively.

And so here we were waiting for the presentation and press conference, almost directly under the spot which we had occupied on the Sixth Street Bridge for years. In the cavernous underside of the bridge, where the curves of the bridge and the afternoon shadows came together to grace the light golden expanses. Just in view of the graceful steel arches, which had long been painted and repainted in a thick, faux blue resembling a copper patina.

Long had I swore that I would be present on this day to bark at some gutless bastards for selling out our community with this new bridge project.

And here in view off all of this which we were losing, the sense of righteous indignation rose as these smug developers patted themselves on the back.

This entire event was a farce. It wasn’t any sort of community event.

It was simply an opportunity for politicians like the city council members, to use a media covered event for self-promotion during an election season. And also get their name attached permanently to this project before the termed-out left office or i case those who were running might fail to get re-elected. Just a few steps away from the bridge model, Jose Huizars people had placed a table and were campaigning for him.

It was not long before the press conference was called to order. And well, we were pretty orderly… at first.

Until our city councilman Jose Huizar took to the podium.

At that moment Jessie turned around the protest sign. The other crudely mocking his inept leadership in this redevelopment, “No way José (Huizar).” With a mocking picture on it of one of the Olsen twins giving a raspberry. As Huizar looked up from the podium to take notice, he actually started to laugh and was momentarily distracted.

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As for me, while he spoke I responded to his trite remarks and platitudes. Responding back to his speech, rebuking him in a regular tone of voice, just up until his shtick became too much to tolerate. I yelled out, “You gutless thugs! You sold us out in the end!”

In response, you could see some of the people in suits turn around to voice and give thumbs up in support. For some people, it seemed like we were preaching to the choir. And it was only one person who in the end had a spasm; just one uppity young, property investor whining, “But I’m trying to listen!”

Though we would not be silent this day. Not by a long-shot.

Then everything erupted with my full on exacerbation and rage, following the very telling and completely shameful comments of Congressman Xavier Becerra. (House Dem, 34th Dist.)

He first tried to make his whole speech about boasting how some people in the federal government actually make things work, taking pride in this pork-barrel project they secured here. Saying that in the end this was all about creating jobs; even though we are already aware that the jobs he’s talking about account to about a week of work at most as part of a 4.5-year rebuild project, translating into no real job gains for our local working-class residents.

Then Congressman Becerra just couldn’t resist and thus showed his true colors, when he made the following statement to the crowd of suits and developers in front of him. He gushed that he had a secret “tip” for the crowd. As quoted by Sahra in StreetsBlog LA:

“Buy property real quick here” before the area changes and values go up. “This is going to be a great place! Buy now!”

[See: “The 6th St. Viaduct Replacement Project Officially Breaks Ground; Actual Breaking of Ground Is Yet to Come.” Streetblog LA]

And that point my frustration could not be muzzled. I cried out, “You bastards! You aren’t even bashful that your selling us out to developers!”

Now by that point the media had already begun to surround us. ABC, NBC and media writers from KCET (PBS).

What they expected to find was just a few punk rockers with off the wall things to say. Though once we explains what we meant, we noticeably effected the journalists. And each of them walking away focusing on a different aspect of the issues we had with this redevelopment, and focusing on the realities and sentiments they were unaware of.

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“A protestor from Boyle Heights | Photo: Carren Jao” (KCET)

Journalist Carren Joa from KCET – a PBS affiliate in here in Los Angeles – spoke to us most about the inequity of the new Sixth Street Bridge Project. Staking how offended we are that our neighborhood is getting none of the cultural and artistic redevelopment that we were promised us when this rebuild set out, promises made to appease the residents. Though now we are find out that in the end they are giving an amphitheater, art park and other impressive features to the newly gentrified Arts District. While leaving the Boyle Heights side of this bridge project – of which the majority is on our side – a barren corridor, vulnerable to aggressive redevelopment. All while displacing jobs and heaving hardship on respectable businesses in the Boyle Heights Flats.

We also made the case that the neighborhood of Boyle Heights has always been expected to take the brunt of aggressive and unpopular redevelopment. As often stated by Lucy Delgado and Gloria Molina, Boyle Heights has always suffered as the dumping ground for the public projects not wanted in other communities. That this minority, working-class community is once again being disregarded and disrespected in pursuit of Los Angeles’ notoriously unfair road works which have been imposed on us for generations.

She titled her article “Sixth Street Bridge Replacement Project Breaks Ground; Surfaces a Tale of Two Neighborhoods.” She wrote:

“Boyle Heights resident, tour guide, and writer Shmuel Gonzales takes an even more confrontational stance. As his friend holds up a sign that says “The new bridge sucks,” Gonzales explains, “Every day people on the other side [Boyle Heights] are wondering what’s going to happen. Businesses are anxious. We don’t know what the future is and the city didn’t give us any information.”

“Gonzales says that even today, residents of Boyle Heights still don’t understand that the Sixth Street Bridge, a “symbol of the Golden Age of Boyle Heights,” according to Gonzales, will eventually disappear. He adds that his neighborhood seems to be getting short shrift, receiving less that the amenities being planned for the Arts District side. He even notes that during the groundbreaking only about a dozen people from Boyle Heights were present. “We’re hopeful,” says Gonzeles, “but there has to be a dialog.”

“A bridge is always used to connect one place to another, but in the case of the future Sixth Street bridge, it seems that it’s ironically becoming a divisive symbol that needs to be addressed.”

When we spoke to KABC news we mostly spoke about the important role that these viaducts play in the narrative of the people of Boyle Heights.

I began to relate that their role has always been symbolic of our sense of place as people of Boyle Heights and the greater Los Angeles eastside. How these bridges are not just connectors, as they are also symbols of the complex relationship minorities have long had with this city of Los Angeles. To our eastside minorities who find much symbolism in our daily crossing over to fulfill the needs of a bustling city, to a westside we have long been segregated away from on the other end of these viaducts. They have become symbols of our sense of place. While at the same time these viaducts have also been symbolic points by which we could challenge the boundaries set before us.

For years I've promised you all that i would be there to bitch at some gutless people for not preserving the historical integrity of the area with a complimentary redesign.

For years I’ve promised you all that i would be there to bitch at some gutless people for not preserving the historical integrity of the area with a complimentary redesign.

I insisted that the viaducts have become symbols of the historic eastside, which we regard as our cultural heritage. For this reason they have long have been destinations for longtime resident and even the local classic car club movement, because of the classical style.

I also insisted that the Sixth Street Bridge which is neo-classical modernist in style in actually part of a progressive theme demonstrated by the various eastside viaducts over the Los Angeles River; demonstrating different neo-classical, deco, moderne, as well as gothic styles. Each one of the bridges following a theme, designed to be complimentary and to play off the style each other. I maintained my stance that to lose the Sixth Street Bridge as the glory of these bridges, for an ultra-modern monstrosity, takes away from the historical integrity of the rest of our gorgeous and time-honored viaducts.

In the end, I would get just a few words in to the nightly news on KABC evening news. When they reported that not everyone was thrilled about the rebuild. I was quoted as saying:

“It would have been nicer if they had taken account the viaducts around it and planned something that fit more close to us, that had a little bit more of those golden memories.”

And so we stood there for a while being interviewed, almost directly under the spot we had occupied as friends for years.

[See: “6th Street Viaduct Replacement Breaks Ground” (KABC)]

And so it was that we defending the honor of the classic Sixth Street Bridge and the historical legacy of Boyle Heights. Representing the local demands for respect of our heritage and for equity in this redevelopment. Insistent upon not letting the passing of this bridge go by without people understanding what we are losing here.

That evening I would be bombarded with messages from many friends who were excited that they had seen us on television! For weeks to come I was flooded with calls from so many different people sharing their own precious memories of the classic Sixth Street Bridge – some of them good and some of them bad, but all remarkably significant in their life stories.


Personal Reflections:

The memories of this day are very precious to me. Though this protest almost never happened. Not just because our circle of friends had already pretty much disbanded at that point. And not simply because this event came as such a surprise when announced last-minute, making it hard to schedule.

Other complications also hung over that day, both painful and ironic.

Immediately after the groundbreaking and press-conference at the Sixth Street Viaduct concerning our bridge being replaced because of “concrete cancer” and bad bones, I was scheduled for an appointment with a specialist surgeon in Long Beach. For him to take a look at my left hand that had been fractured for some weeks and to identify a large tumor in the bone; initially with the fear of cancer.

At first I was afraid I would be forced to sacrifice the groundbreaking, in order to make it all the way across the county for this urgent doctors appointment. But knowing how much it meant to meant to me, Squared offered to wildly drive me to both the event and the doctor.

So immediately after the groundbreaking ended, we rushed our way out to Long Beach. My head up against the window, heavy in thought and pained on so many levels.

The surgeon I consulted with was confident that it to be a most likely a benign tumor which has been growing outward from inside the bones in my hand nearest to my index finger. It has grown until the pressure of it was enough that it fractured the bones in my left hand, breaking it two places as it broke its way outward from the bone marrow.

It was determined that tumor needed to be removed, and the bone cleaned and rebuilt with bone shavings taken from a long bone near my elbow.

The surgery would be a success in the end.

However, the next year would be painful both emotionally and physically. As I tried to keep up with documenting the harsh changes coming to our classic eastside; all well nursing my arm in a huge cast. With my body and this bridge, seemingly locked in painful tragedy together.

[Read more about my recovery in my inspirational blog entry here.]


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The Day the Sixth Street Bridge Closed

The emotions that hung in the air the morning after

01-27-2016-sixth-street-bridge-workers-2We awoke to the next day, hung-over in our bitterness from the events of the night before. The morning was met with gloom, yet the breaking day felt harsh. Like someone had turned the white way up on a TV screen.

Nonetheless, we got our asses up to make our way back to the site of the Sixth Street Bridge. We had lost our chance to return to the bridge that last night because of the disruption and the resulting police sweep. Though there was the promise of a final walk with our city council member planned for the morning.

As we made our way off the block and on to Whittier Blvd, the reality of how complex this day was going to be really set in. The morning traffic we immediately noticeable.

Traffic stayed pretty much stalled as far back as Euclid. We rushed as we walked passed the frustrated commuters heading west towards downtown. It seemed that we made down the boulevard by foot faster than the people in their cars.

I was expecting this. All this traffic.

And was the city, because they called in traffic guards to direct the traffic at Boyle Ave. Diverting traffic that would usually pass over the Sixth Street Bridge to the other adjacent viaducts, the Seventh Street and the Fourth Street viaducts.

What I wasn’t necessarily expecting was to see the pedestrian senior citizens staring westward. Staring at the newly erected concrete barriers and chain link fences, placed just before the art deco pillars of the bridge entrance and the on-ramp to the 101-freeway’s northbound entrance.

I don’t know why it hadn’t really occurred to me that the final walk on the Sixth Street Bridge would be only be allowed from the Art’s District end.

Though when I saw the awe and confusion on the faces of elders here on the Boyle Heights end, that really captured my attention and concern. And I really forgot about everything else. I just wanted to be there with my people as they expressed both their awe and their disappointment.

So for a while I stood around talking to the other residents.

Some just stared towards the barriers. Others stood about complaining about a community that was changing far quicker than any of them had ever imagined.

And as we lingered there the corner of Whittier and Boyle seemed to attract even more people to the site like the aftermath of some calamity. And that’s exactly how it felt at this intersection, In the shadow the charred debris of the laundromat and Domino’s pizza.

An older lady sat at a bus stop for which a bus would never come. And the old guys chatted amongst each other and shook their heads in disappointment.

Emotions had already been high at this corner ever since the strip-mall went up in flames. Destroying the corner laundromat and a Domino’s Pizza location.

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The corner of Whittier Blvd and Boyle was already torn-up like an open wound, after a fire ripped through the strip-mall just a few weeks before the bridge closure.

Given the long history of property investors wanting to redevelop this corner and the fact that this fire happened just coincidently right before the bridge was closed for years.

These businesses had promised to stay open through the construction, even though many wondered how this was sustainable considering that they would be loosing vital traffic for years. Then this happened less than three weeks before the bridge closure.

So hanging in the air there were wild rumors of transa; conspiracy. Some throughly convinced the businesses were torched for insurance money, while others insisted it was to make a clean slate for development around the area of new bridge project.

I just listened as people as they let out their fears and anxieties, over what was happening to a town which had been pretty much unchanged for so long.

“You know, they have been trying to develop that corner with condos for years,” one of the older men tells me. Explaining that ever since the late 1970s developers hoped to take advantage of various propositions and ballot initiatives in order to change that whole side of the street, Starting with eliminating that retail strip. He wondered if this would now open the way for huge housing changes at this corner, at the entrance to the new Sixth Street bridge.

Now this corner was as ripped-up as an open wound. It’s hard to just dismiss the panic and confusion about. And the bitterness.

The television news media had set up in the middle of the street and began reporting.

The locals tried to get me to talk to the media. Which I had lost patience with, as they mostly wanted to just talk about the sense of excitement over a new bridge that wasn’t widely felt here among us here.

At one point I actually had a cold interview with the Univision reporter. When I began to speak about how the eastside was still being neglected in the plans for cultural and artistic redevelopment features in this new project. She insisted such features would certainly be included. I asked her to cite her sources and point in the plans to plan where these items were being represented. She said that she had heard and “just knew it was going to be done,” then ended the interview abruptly with a bitter face.

From that point on, I had enough of the media for the day. And for that reason did everything to avoid them as I continued to linger about the viaduct.

As everyone else made their way to work or back to their homes, I continued to explore. And eventually made my way over to the westside of the river, and over into the downtown Arts District.

Now you can come along with me for that experience in this video here:

The barriers were just as imposing on the western side of the bridge. And their presence was just as stark. Just as shocking to behold at first.

I was glad to at least run into some of our homeless friends, people we have met who have lived on and around the bridge for years. We have been really worried about what is going to happen to them.

As I made my way around the underside of the bridge I happened to stumble upon a press conference with the city and project officials, which was closed to the public.

Just then someone had motioned for me to follow her in, wanting to help me pass myself off as part of the junket. Though I resisted the urge, knowing I was the last guy these suits wanted in there for their exciting milestone media spread (especially after my last appearance at their press conference).

As you see in the video, I ended up talking to one of the photographers as I made my way over to the riverbed.

Notice the conversation we had. Why does the eastside need anything additional planned for our side? Why is the development in the Arts District not enough and why can’t we just go there instead? So I do find that I have to make the case that we have our own cultural identity and local heritage.

Though when I point to how many of the plans for redevelopment and in the end never fully follow through. Leaving whole areas in blight. Now that he could agree with, you could hear him reply in the background, as we parted ways.

As the press conference dispersed, I found that a few of the artistic and cultural community liaisons connected to city hall were out and about to capture some pictures on the riverbed.

So interestingly, after grabbing their attention I spent the rest of the afternoon and into the evening trying to push the idea of a Boyle Heights heritage and cultural arts corridor to these very establishment people, who just didn’t know what the facts and sentiments were of the everyday people in the barrio.

Sixth Street Bridge: The Last Day at the Bridge

The events of the final day on the bridge

There are certain days which come with excitement, and some approach with dread. And this day came with a great sense of both. Long had we been awaiting the final closure of traffic to the historic Sixth Street Bridge, and these were our few and precious final hours.

When I arrived at the viaduct the morning was already turning to bright noon. Without a hint of winter, the sun as strong and warm as a summer day.

The crew was already at the bridge, standing at Nowhere when I arrived. Along with them they had brought the silly plastic mascot of Boyle Henge, “Hedgie the Snowman.”

The bridge was already starting to buzz with photographers and news media. And people walking back and forth in order to capture a few final memories and connect with history. Many people coming out to pay their respects to this glorious landmark.

As we were standing there just communing with the bridge we were cheerfully approached by Merrill Butler III and his wife, he is the grandson of the designer and builder of the viaducts; including this very bridge here.

Merrill and his lovely wife spent a great deal of time hanging out on the bridge with us, and sharing their family stories regarding this place. It was a rare moment to receive and share some deep personal history. We also got to toss around ideas on how to preserve the history of this place.

One of his finest ideas on how to maintain our connection to the old bridge we all love so much, was when he personally suggested to the city planners that they preserve one of the original metal arches and some of the decorative light posts from the classic Sixth Street Bridge. For setting down in the area of a future park below the future bridge.

As we spoke you could actually see work crews all around us painting primer on the items which were being selected for later removal. For which he also noted that the two bridge dedication plaques had already been removed. The eastside plaque being stolen by vandals. Something which stings for Merrill, as his grandfather’s name was honored on that piece of the old landmark. While luckily the westside plaque was then removed for safe keeping, and is now kept in storage for future display.

[Also, it should be noted that he was totally amused to hear that it was our crew who were responsible for placing the photocopy of the plaque in its vacant spot after it was removed! He and his wife had noticed it when they passed by and were touched we remembered it.]

Merrill then explained how he is also going to be opening up his own art gallery in the Boyle Heights flats below, on the eastside of the river near Mission and Jessie streets. Re-purposing the buildings of old food and cold storage facilities which have recently called it quits. In an area where several notable and trendy art galleries have already opened up. [More about that later; as I hope to get to interview him soon and let him tell you in his words about his plans and vision.]

He also carefully listened to my concerns about how the vicinity of the bridge corridor in Boyle Heights is being carved apart for the new viaduct project, while in the end getting really none of the programmable cultural and artistic space which they had promised for both sides of the bridge, and thus far only delivering on the newly gentrified Art’s District side of this bridge project. And he offered us some great ideas for future programmable space, while making inspiring use of historically reclaimed materials as he does. And how to possibly attract interest in historic and cultural preservation here.

To say the least, the meeting was something which awed me both as local geek and as a historian! And also gave me a lot to think about, as I face these tides of community change and try to secure the best outcome for our homegrown eastsiders.

Now in the span of our hanging out the steady increase in the number of sightseers and brought out an unusually tense presence of the LAPD. Which at one point started to get all snappy with our crew for no reason, for which Merrill asked the cops to take it easy and leave us be because we were cool, before departing himself.

Though as the crowd grew it became clear that the police, which normally ignored this area and shirk at patrolling the top of this bridge, were today going to be relentless. As their sense of cautiousness became soured by their bitter resentment of being tasked with maintain order here.

Sadly, the repeating theme of the day was that of the police making a huge scene all for one person.

The following video I took about two hours before the sweep and posted to Facebook on a shaky mobile connection:

No doubt there was a party-like atmosphere to the entire afternoon and evening. And there most certainly was an ecstatic sense of festivity and also chaos. As a mass of locals and tourists descended on the entire viaduct.

The bridge became covered with a steady stream of car cruising and pedestrians. Taggers and photographers. Cars racing and spinning in the riverbed. The sky overhead constantly buzzing with helicopters.

And in these final evening rays spent at this most important spot to us, everything seemed to culminate into one overwhelming sense of how special this moment was. And also triggering this cruel sense of imminent loss and gnawing uncertainty for the future.

As the day turned to night, we continued to congregate. With each minute the excitement rising.

So how did it end? How did we end our final night on the bridge?

After all these years of dedication to maintaining our spot on the bridge and also being the fiercest demonstrators for the historical preservation of the viaduct, people wondered how we would walk away from this. I certainly know that most people expected me to chain myself to the bridge, refusing to leave.

In reality we ended up leaving the bridge just an hour and a half before the police sweep, of our own accord.

With crowds of people swarming in from both east and west, the atmosphere quickly became unruly. Sometime after sunset my parka jacket had caught on fire, a casualty of the ruckus of people and fire-spinning (don’t worry Chris, I patched it up buddy!). And still it seemed like nothing would put a damper on our closing night celebrations.

So it was a total shocker to me when in the middle of me doing some broadcast interviews, my friends picked-up from our spot and started walking back home towards the eastside. Startled to see them go, I quickly broke away and followed after them in concern.

When I caught up with them they explained that some westside hipsters started getting aggressive, with some outside revelers wanting to pick fights with them. Instead of resorting to violence, they had decided to leave.

So it was decided to regroup and grab more beer, and come back.

Though I was very reluctant to leave, I wanted us to be together for this last night. I began leaving the bridge while vowing to return when things had slowed down a bit. Wanting to have a more intimate farewell. Though it was clear to everyone that I was nervous this might actually be my last chance on the bridge.

As we walked back towards Boyle Heights, there was a sense of numb shock that came over me. And a painful grating felt inside caused by the rising sounds of both tense crowds and swarming police which rose from all round the viaduct.

And then for moment I stopped and took a moment to step back a few steps, and like Lot’s wife I looked back and stood their just paralyzed in my desperate attempt to take it all in one more time.

These are the final image taken from the bridge. One of my final moment of awe being captured by Zero. And the other, my last photo taken from the entrance of the bridge.

As we walked back home via Whittier Blvd my agitation grew, as something was very wrong at the bridge. I had never seen anything like it. And a few times I stopped and contemplated going back immediately.

Though by the time we arrived at the house, it was already all over the TV news. And people were messaging me to make sure that I was safe. Because something was already going down at the bridge.

It turned out that the crowds were stopping traffic on the bridge near the eastern set of the arches. The crowd was being asked to disperse by a police officer. At some point one police officer inexplicably grabs for the skateboard of a girl named Lydia. She grabs her skateboard and pulls it back to keep hold of it, with the officer lunging to grab it from her. She began to resist, and was taken down to the grown and arrested. All of which resulted in the crowd crying foul over this and groaning.

It was reported that the LAPD police officer felt threatened by the crowd and called for back-up. The backup arrive with the police coming in shoulder to shoulder, and both from the top and streets under the bridge, my local friends who did linger were dispersed by police holding the position of a skirmish line; brandishing batons and rifles.

The bridge was thus officially closed to all traffic at around 9pm on January 26th, 2016 by police in riot formation.

So I never did make it back to the top of the bridge to actually pay my final respects; something which left many unresolved feelings for me.

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