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.

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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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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; 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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Rekindling our Jewish holiday spirit in Boyle Heights

The story of the new menorah from an old Jewish shop founded on the eastside

20151208_174952The joy of the holidays are found in that warmth we get from remembering holidays past, and the magic of the season is found in how we rekindle these memories anew.

During the winter months the cultural and religious traditions of the area seem to shine the brightest. When during the winter months people of our various cultures display their festive ways to bring brightness to the darkest time of the year. When the days and short and the night are longest, the spirit inside of us just longs to brighten up the darkness.

Catholics brighten up these winter nights in the neighborhood of Boyle Heights with las posadas (processions) and bright nativities; from Christmas time and through Three Kings Day. Protestants as well, with their stirring candlelit Christmas vigils. And our Armenian neighbors too, with their celebrations of the eastern orthodox Feast of the Nativity and Epiphany also on January 6th; when their churches will light lamps and the faithful will hold candles according to their ancient custom, symbolic of the presence of the holy spirit in their lives (yes, we even have an Armenian Catholic church in the area as well!).

These are commonly shared themes in many faith traditions.

And the holidays are nothing if not about tradition! If you haven’t noticed, I’m a pretty old school cat. So I get a lot of joy out of keeping the old traditions alive.

Olive Oil Chanukah Menorah (Chanukiah)One of the ways I have been connecting to our old school Jewish heritage of the area over the past few years has been to light old classic style olive oil Chanukah lights with my friends in the community of Boyle Heights. To share the celebration of the miracle of the oil lamps – commemorating when in ancient times Jewish rebels recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem, relighting the Menorah’s sacred oil lights that were miraculously sustained for eight days on one day’s oil, until more sacred oil could be made.

This is a bright celebration of culture and faith, overcoming imperialism and hegemony. And as the haftarah reading from the prophets for this holiday reminds us: “Not by might, nor by power but by My spirit says the L-rd of hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6); this is a festival when we celebrate the power of spirit over militaristic might.

This is a message many of us around here can identify with culturally, if not religiously. Among my friends it has been a time to share Jewish traditional holiday treats and stories of our warmest memories of years gone by, sometimes joined by a few local Jews who grew up in the area and who are still found in these parts.

This year we were intent on lighting the Chanukah lights up on top of the Sixth Street Bridge for the last time, before the bridge comes down. As the viaduct is set for demolition over the next few weeks. Ordinary I do havdalah on the bridge, so figured I could pull it off with Chanukah lights. So I brought with me a most beautiful, silvery chanukiah to light – a traditional Chanukah menorah, and lit it on the Boyle Heights side of the bridge just east of the river.

Maybe you had seen me and my friends out there in the first few nights of the festival (before the rain came in), lighting the menorah in view of the bright Los Angeles skyline:

In previous years, I have brought travel sized menorahs and done guerrilla-style lightings around town. Though last year I had promised that I would buy a new, big boy’s sized menorah, to add some beauty to the mitzvah of lighting with olive oil lamps; one which is reminiscent of what many Jewish families of the area would have used in the classic days of the Yiddish eastside.

The question is, where do you find such a thing around here? Are there any Jewish bookstores or Judaica shops in the area? Aside from the small gift-shops at our local synagogues, where does a local find their religious Jewish items?

One of my favorite shops is Solomon’s Judaica and Bookstore, on Fairfax Ave. in mid-city, but was originally founded right here in Boyle Heights. In fact, I often find myself buying from shops off Fairfax which used to be located right in our own eastside community when Boyle Heights was then the heart of the LA Jewish community!

Solomon’s was founded in Boyle Heights almost 80 years ago, operating a shop on Brooklyn Ave. (now Cesar E. Chavez Ave.) just a couple of doors down from the original location of Canter’s Deli. They were among the businesses which later relocated to the Fairfax with the mass migration of Jewish families heading that way some 70 years ago.

Today as both Boyle Heights and Fairfax are once again going through tremendous changes which seem to be jeopardizing the classic and cultural character of these neighborhoods, it’s nice to know that some family run businesses like these are somehow managing to remain in loving service to our changing communities.

Learn more about the history of Solomon’s and the rent hike issues being faced in Fairfax see: “Solomon’s Judaica and Bookstore, founded in Boyle Heights.”

After having a wonderful time lighting the new menorah on the old Sixth Street Bridge in it’s final days, people keep asking where I’m going to do a public lighting for Chanukah next year.

The suggestion I really like the most is that maybe next year we should do a public lighting off of old Brooklyn Ave. itself, where the story all started. To really bring this cultural history which we share together completely full-circle!

Happy holidays and a blessed new year to one and all!

Some nice shots of the Chanukah menorah from the LA eastside:

Solomon’s Judaica and Bookstore, founded in Boyle Heights

One of my favorite shops is Solomon’s Judaica and Bookstore, on Fairfax Ave. in mid-city Los Angeles. They are one of the shops on my list which I feel like I need to visit during the holidays, along with the Jewish bakeries and kosher food shops.

Over they years I have made this trek countless times, to bring all the essential items of Jewish life back with me this side of the river. Many times buying from shops in the Fairfax, which were once located in Boyle Heights when the eastside used to be the beating heart of the Jewish community!

Solomon’s Judaica was founded almost 80 years ago out of the Solomon family’s home living room on Chicago Street in Boyle Heights. Later opening a small shop on Brooklyn Ave (now Cesar E. Chavez Ave.). They then relocated to the Fairfax district, with the mass of Jewish migration which went westward some 70 years ago.

Solomon’s is among those handful of time-loved shops, which Jewish families have been coming to for generations. Over the years I have met many people who tell me that this is where their family came to buy all their religious Jewish items – a yarmulke, a tallis, a prayerbook, etc. To purchase all the items one needed for their special occasions – bris, bar mitzvahs, weddings, etc.

Read this fine history compiled by the Jewish Genealogical Society of Los Angeles. with the help of the Solomon’s family :

Elimelech Solomon, the fourth generation of his family to be born and live in Jerusalem (in what was then Palestine) made a fateful decision in 1926. ElimelechChayaSolomonAt that time he owned a grocery store to support his family. During an Arab pogrom, his store was looted and ransacked and he was left with nothing. Hoping to find a better life for his family, Elimelech left for America, not unlike his ancestor Reb Zalman Solomon who, a century before Elimelech, left his native Lithuania for a better life and became the first Ashkenazi Jew to arrive in Jerusalem in 1812.

Elimelech settled in Boyle Heights where he was barely able to make enough money to sustain himself. First he worked as a m’shulach (fundraiser), collecting money for Talmud Torah religious school and Bikur Cholim, hospital care. Later he served as a mashgiach, inspecting kosher meats. Back in Jerusalem, Chaya, then pregnant with their fourth child and the three other children had to survive on what little money she could earn by helping neighbors with ironing and odd jobs.

Elimelech wrote home often, but it would be ten years before he had enough money to bring his family to the States. In 1936, Chaya and the four children (Masha, Pinchas, Moishe, and Naftali, a ten-year-old who had never seen his father), traveled from Jaffa to Marseilles by boat, then by train to the port of LeHavre, where they boarded a boat to New York. Eventually they arrived in Los Angeles by bus.

Solomonshome

The Solomon family home, where their front room became their first showroom.

To help with expenses, Chaya’s brother in Israel sent Judaic artifacts for her to sell to the growing Jewish community. Chaya placed a sign in their front room window and soon customers came to inspect her wares, displayed on a table in the living room where, at night, the three sons slept. People came to buy at all hours of the day. Often the Solomons were one of the first to learn about upcoming important events in the community–a marriage, a bris, a bar mitzvah–when families came to buy ceremonial items and gifts. From these humble beginnings was born one of the first Judaica businesses on the West Coast, Solomon’s Hebrew & English Book Store.

As they became more successful, Elimelech and Chaya moved the business out of the house and set up shop in a section of a butcher’s store and later a key shop. Eventually they expanded and moved into their own store on Brooklyn Avenue (now Cesar E. Chavez Avenue). From Israel, they imported gift items such as olive wood objects and filigree jewelry. Everyone in the neighborhood knew that if anything religious was needed—a machzor, a tallis, a yarmulke—it could be found at Solomon’s.

The Solomon children helped out in the store occasionally doing whatever was needed: from waiting on customers or weaving lulavim to polishing the silver or cleaning. One more child, daughter Miriam, was born in Los Angeles. As a young girl, Miriam sat outside the store, selling Jewish new years cards and encouraging passers-by to come into the store. Chaya’s keen business skills complimented Elimelech’s gregarious nature. He loved to kibbitz with customers. He used to say, “King Solomon had a thousand wives, but I have only one wife and thousands of items in the store.” Bills for books the couple sold to synagogues and religious schools often went unpaid because of Elimelech’s generosity. Chaya would prepare dinner in the morning before she opened the store so the family would have dinner ready for them. Elimelech would come in later and unpack and price merchandise until midnight.

The couple’s ability to speak several languages, including Yiddish, English, Hebrew, and Arabic was vital to their success as shopkeepers. Chaya also spoke Spanish, which she learned from her Sephardic neighbors in Jerusalem. In an article published in The Jewish Journal when Solomon’s celebrated its 50th year in business, it noted that the store was “probably the only place in L.A. where good, old-fashioned discussion on culture, politics and life are more important than moving the merchandise.”

The Solomons attended the Breed Street Shul, but during High Holy Days, Elimelech served as a cantor at other synagogues. He passed down his skills to sons Nathan and Moishe who often performed holiday cantorial duties as adults. Their daughter Masha sang solos and duets with her father as she sat in the first row among the congregants.

After twelve years in Boyle Heights, as the Jewish population moved westward, the Solomons moved their store to its final location on Fairfax Avenue. The long narrow store was lined with shelves on each side. One side held candlesticks, spice boxes, and jewelry; the other side had wine and every imaginable book on Judaism from ancient texts to Jewish cookbooks and Jewish newspapers in many languages. Jews from around the world ordered items through their mail order business. Even after Elimelech’s death, Chaya and her sons Philip (Pinchas) and Nathan (Naftali) continued to run the flourishing business. The sons who were educated at a New York yeshiva, also answered phone calls received daily from people with questions on Jewish customs and rituals. Despite suffering from debilitating arthritis, Chaya continued to work well into her eighties.

Finally, in 1986, after being in business for more than 50 years, the family sold the store to Jews from Iran who retained the store’s name because of its good reputation. Though she no longer worked there, Chaya sometimes visited the store in her wheelchair, greeting old customers and answering the new owners’ questions such as how to price certain items.

Today, Elimelech, Chaya, and their two children Masha and Moishe are buried in Israel. Philip, Nathan, Miriam, their spouses, and many of the ten grandchildren fondly remember Elimelech and Chaya and the legendary bookstore known simply as Solomon’s.

This year I needed to buy an old school styled olive oil Chanukah menorah (chanukiah), to bring back home and to share the festival lights with the community in Boyle Heights! I couldn’t think of a better place to buy from.

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Solomon’s Hebrew & English Book Store. now at 438 N. Fairfax Ave.

Nor could I think of a better way to bring our shared history full circle.

Though my choice to buy from this store is not just based in tradition and the impulse to buy from a shop which is as familiar as an old friend. It is to show support a fine business which is falling on tough times.

In recent years, Solomon’s has been forced to downsize and restructure due to rent hikes. They have also moved storefronts a couple times over the past few years, and are now located on the other side of Fairfax from their longtime location. Now situated directly across the street from Canter’s Deli. In a storefront which used to be part of good old Simon Rutberg’s Hatikvah Jewish record shop, as revealed by the remnants of the old neon record sign out front.

Fairfax has for several years been feeling the stress of urban change; as the hip-hop street-ware scene has taken shape in the district, raising rents ever higher and displacing several older Jewish shops, a creating some frictions. And as gentrification has taken hold here, recently being most egregiously displayed in this very district.

Some people wonder if these changes are going to put the distinct Jewish character of this area in jeopardy.

I personally doubt that the Jewish flavor of the area is going to quickly disappear. As Fairfax Ave. is still home to many of our favorite cultural Jewish hot-spots and Jewish-style eateries, which maintain this areas own character which is distinct from that of the more orthodox community that has pushed ever westward into todays “kosher corridor” of the Pico-Robertson.

Though all this change going on does leave many wondering what the future is for the handful of religious Jewish shops and institutions such as these, as Fairfax has for some years been moving away from being the central focal point of religious Jewish life in LA.

While this shop has certainly never made the owners rich and has always been but a struggling little business, for generations it has enriched the Jewish community both in Boyle Heights and Fairfax. Let’s hope it’s legacy and charm lasts for many years to come!

Recommended articles:

The original Solomon’s Hebrew Bookstore storefront location:

About the Solomon’s family and their early years in business:

The Anti-Nazi Parade, Boyle Heights (1938)

How Our Multi-Ethnic Community Responded to the Jewish Refugee Crisis

lawnazis-in-la

“It should not surprise us that in these pictures capturing the Anti-Nazi protest of November 1938, we also see the faces of black and brown people protesting alongside their Jewish eastside neighbors.”

On the night of Tuesday, November 22nd, 1938 the Jewish public was backed by their multi-ethnic community in Boyle Heights in protesting the Nazi savagery being inflicted on the Jews of Germany and Austria in the days following the eruptions of Kristallnacht.

The protest parade was backed by the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC). and organized by a more diverse coalition known as the United Anti-Nazi Conference (UANC). Also supporting this event, was the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League (HANL) and the Los Angeles Jewish Community Relations Committee. (CRC).

The history surrounding this notorious night is best described by historical scholar Caroline Elizabeth Luce:

“The collaboration between the UANC and the JLC in their fight against fascism reached its peak in November 1938 when members of both organizations staged a massive protest in Boyle Heights to honor of the victims of Kristallnacht. Under the aegis of the UANC, some 10,000 to 15,000 people marched down Brooklyn Avenue, gathering on the steps of the Breed Street Shul for a massive rally, at which both Rabbi Osher Silberstein and Chaim Shapiro denounced the “savage terrorism,” “inhuman atrocities,” and “massacres of the Nazis.” The crowd primarily consisted of the neighborhood’s Jewish residents, who carried signs with Yiddish slogans and performed skits in Yiddish and English reenacting acts of Nazi persecution. But non- Jews, or “sympathizers” as the Los Angeles Times described them, joined the protest as well and both Rev. Floyd J. Seaman and Democratic Congressman Charles Kramer spoke about the threat Nazism posed to American peace and democracy at the rally. The attendees signed a pledge calling on President Roosevelt to sever all economic and political relations with Germany, and vowed not only to work to fight the “horrible savagery against the Jews in Nazi Germany” but also to work to create a “secure haven” for refugees in America.”

“Footnote by Luce: ‘The details on the protest come primarily from two sources: a front page article in the Los Angeles Times from Nov. 23rd, 1938, who characterized the attendants as “Jewish citizens and sympathizers” and these photographs of the event that appear in the Collection of Los Angeles Daily News Negatives, UCLA Library Department of Special Collections’”

Source: “Visions of a Jewish Future: the Jewish Bakers Union and Yiddish Culture in East Los Angeles, 1908-1942.” Caroline Elizabeth Luce, UCLA 2013.

The Los Angeles public in Boyle Heights was on that night responding to the wave of anti-Jewish violence in Germany which had begun less than two-weeks before on the night of November 9th, 1938. And which for two days ripped through the entire German Reich with brutal, coordinated attacks against its Jewish population.

The event became known as Kristallnacht – the night of broken glass, so named because every Jewish community in the German territories were left covered in shards of broken glass in the end. The shattered remains of the countries synagogues which were damaged, and in many cases destroyed. And the broken storefronts and display cases of Jewish businesses, which were also smashed and looted.

During this wave of violence some Jews were beaten to death by Nazi brown-shirts and police, while others were sadistically forced to watch. Even a few non-Jewish Germans – who were mistaken for Jews – were beaten to death. The violence of this pogrom directly resulted in the deaths of 91. Though hundreds more were believed to have also died as a result of panicked suicide amidst the violence.

Also during this operation the world would get a startling preview of the holocaust, as more than 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps; primarily Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen. The treatment of prisoners in these camps was brutal, resulting in the deaths of some 2,000 to 2,500 men. Though, most would eventually be released during the following three months, on the condition that they leave Germany.

The problem was, there was no place for these people to go. In nearly every place in the world the conditions were such were Jews were being expelled from their home countries, while other countries restricted immigration to the resulting unwanted refugees.

It needs to be stressed to this generations – which is so far removed from the realities and the context of the humanitarian crisis of the time – that this event was not the start of the refugee crisis. It was the mid-stream result of one!

And it also needs to recognized that while these pictures here may arouse a communal sense of pride – in that the diverse people of our local community responded to such violence and inhumanity by loudly demonstrating for the United States government to accept more refugees – we ought to soberly reflect upon the fact that the American public did not want these refugees.

Looking back at this event, I am struck by the realization that these protesters were here pleading the case of Jewish refugees a year prior the start of World War II (three years before the US would enter the war) and before start of the holocaust. In these photos we are looking upon a pivotal moment prior to these tragedies, when many more Jews could have still been saved from the coming calamity.

I cannot help but be grieved by this realization, that our community’s activism and protest which we see in these pictures went largely unheeded. That these cries to save our Jewish brothers from one of the most brutal regimes in history, fell on the deaf ears of an isolationist and racist American public of that era.

However, we will see that these early organizing efforts to unify the community for civil rights gains were not entirely fruitless!

 

As we further delve into this history we will explore the nature of the refugee crisis of their day, as well as the prejudices which caused and further enabled it all. Prejudices which were not only present in Germany, but also in our own county.

And we will lastly explore how alliances between Jews and our multi-ethnic neighbors were forged in order to fight such prejudices through joint activism. As these collaborations would actually live on past this crisis, directly inspiring continued cooperation between our minority communities in civil rights activism for decades to come.

The Pre-War Jewish Refugee Crisis (1933-1941)

When the Nazi party came to power in 1933, their well-announced aim was to make Germany judenrein – cleansed of Jews, who were being scapegoated for the societal and economic issues of the country. This they tried to achieve by making life so difficult for Jews that they would be forced to leave the country. Including baring them from most trades, professions and educational institutions; as well as limiting their rights of full-citizenship.

Then in 1935 with the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws, the Nazi Germans government began stripping the citizenship and residency of Jewish people of foreign ancestry; including persons who themselves were actually born in Germany. This resulted in leaving many Jewish people not just jobless, but also stateless.

By the start of 1938, a quarter of the German Jewish population – some 150,000 people – had already left the country. Though this crisis went from bad to worse when Germany invaded and annexed Austria in March 1938, bringing another 185,000 Jews under Nazi rule. This left hundreds of thousands of Jews waiting in desperation for any country in the world to open their gates to them.

As described by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:

“Many German and Austrian Jews tried to go to the United States but could not obtain the visas needed to enter… Americans remained reluctant to welcome Jewish refugees. In the midst of the Great Depression, many Americans believed that refugees would compete with them for jobs and overburden social programs set up to assist the needy.

“Congress had set up immigration quotas in 1924 that limited the number of immigrants and discriminated against groups considered racially and ethnically undesirable…. Widespread racial prejudices among Americans – including antisemitic attitudes held by the US State Department officials – played a part in the failure to admit more refugees.”

As we see, even in the United States the feeling was that we did not have the resources to help these people. And even in this country, there was still the widely held sentiment at the time that Jews were racially undesirable as well.

With nowhere to go, the Jewish refugees of Germany and Austria were being pushed from one place to another. Which was an issue of great concern to the world powers.

Under great political pressure, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had called for an international conference which took place in Paris in July of 1938, to address the refugee crisis.

Again citing the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:

“In the summer of 1938, delegates from thirty-two countries met at the French resort of Evian. Roosevelt chose not to send a high-level official, such as the secretary of state, to Evian; instead, Myron C. Taylor, a businessman and close friend of Roosevelt’s, represented the US at the conference. During the nine-day meeting, delegate after delegate rose to express sympathy for the refugees. But most countries, including the United States and Britain, offered excuses for not letting in more refugees.

“Responding to Evian, the German government was able to state with great pleasure how ‘astounding’ it was that foreign countries criticized Germany for their treatment of the Jews, but none of them wanted to open the doors to them when ‘the opportunity offer[ed].’”

Despite the international community recognizing the reality of the crisis at hand and the tragedy unfolding, they collectively choose to do nothing. The only country willing to open their doors to these Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, would be the small island nation of La República Dominicana.

It is my strong belief that this disregardance given by the international community to the plight of these Jewish refugees emboldened these next and further sufferings to be inflicted upon Jews.

The next month in August 1938 the German government began the process of canceling and demanding renewal of all residency permits for Jews of foreign origins. This included German-born Jews of Polish descent. While at the same time, Poland began announcing that it would not accept any more migrant Jews of Polish origins past October 1938.

A group of 7,000 Jewish people expelled from Germany by the German Nazi authorities and living in Zbaszyn on the Polish-German border, 3rd November 1938. More than a thousand are staying in a stable and others are in huts provided by the authorities. The German action is in response to the Polish government�s removal of the Polish citizenship of Jews living outside the country. A total of 17,000 German Jews were expelled from Germany over this issue. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“A group of Jewish people expelled from Germany by the German Nazi authorities and living in Zbaszyn on the Polish-German border, 3rd November 1938. More than a thousand are staying in a stable and others are in huts provided by the authorities. The German action is in response to the Polish government’s removal of the Polish citizenship of Jews living outside the country. A total of 17,000 German Jews were expelled from Germany over this issue.” (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

So on October 28, 1938 the Germans acted on Hitler’s order to round-up some 12,000 Polish Jews for “repatriation” and forcibly sent them over the Polish border, over 8,000 of which were immediately refused entry. Leaving thousands of refugees trapped without entrance to Germany or Poland, in the most dire of straights.

Among the refugees was the family of one Herschel Grynszpan, who himself was born in Germany but was illegally living in France at the time. Who upon receiving news of his family’s suffering at the German-Polish border he worked himself up into such a frenzy that he decided to buy a handgun and in protest assassinate a Nazi diplomat in Paris, ultimately mortally wounding a third-level embassy secretary.

It would be the news of the killing of a low ranking Nazi diplomatic staffer in Paris by a Jewish refugee on November 9th, 1938 which would be eagerly seized upon by the Nazis in order to erupt into and justify a much expected, large-scale attack against all Jews under the shadow of the German Reich.

Indeed, there is evidence which suggests that the Nazis began planning for such a coordinated attack already a year prior. [Friedländer, Saul. Nazi Germany and The Jews, volume 1: The Years of Persecution 1933–1939, London: Phoenix, 1997, p. 270]

The Nazis were not really able to use this assassination as an example of an international Jewish conspiracy in the end, as they had hoped for in a potential catalyst. As Grynszpan clearly acted alone and could not be tied to a larger plot, furthermore his act was loudly decried by the Jewish establishment.

Though this act did tragically present itself as the provocation needed in order to hold all Jews responsible for the crime of one desperate Jewish refugee, and to somehow vilify all Jews as dangerous illegal aliens as well.

It was just the incident needed to seemingly justify the brutality and terrors of Kristallnacht, and to turn the corner towards a more intense form of violence against Jews under the German Reich.

Considering all this, when we look back at the Anti-Nazi parade of 1938 we can now understand what these people were protesting against. Now we can appreciate the peril of the people they were demonstrating for. They were organizing to try to help unwanted Jewish refugees, whose lives desperately hung in the balance.

Local Civil Rights Activism born out of the Jewish Refugee Crisis

The persecutions and difficulties of the Jews in Europe had not gone unnoticed by the American Jewish public and their allies here in the United States. As they had actually begun to organize protest against the Nazi fascists soon after they came to power and began enacting discriminatory laws against Jews.

The Jewish Labor Committee (JLC) was formed in 1934, in response to the rise of Nazi persecution in Europe. Bringing together several Jewish labor factions for their cause. Fighting for better treatment of laborers, and raising awareness regarding the dangers of European fascism.

And then in 1935 the United Anti-Nazi Conference (UANC) was formed, bringing together a much more ethnically diverse coalition for a broader cause. Luce wrote of them:

“The UANC defined their fight against fascism on much broader terms than the JLC. Their goal was not simply to raise awareness about the Nazi threat in Europe but to encourage the public to see that the same fascist attitudes that propelled Hitler to power in Germany also maintained the Jim Crow system and perpetuated racial and economic inequality in America.

“The UANC’s understanding of fascism was best articulated in the pamphlet, ‘It Can Happen Here,’ that the UANC commissioned local lawyer, writer and activist Carey McWilliams to write in 1935. In it, McWilliams described how fascist leaders like Hitler, Mussolini and their American supporters used ‘demagogic slogans and fancy proclamations’ to convince the public that prosperity could be achieved by ‘eliminating’ political, racial and social minorities. Rather than enact real changes, these leaders simply fulfilled the ‘will of monopoly capitalism,’ ginning up hate and fear ‘to conceal its ghastly failures.’

United Anti-Nazi Conference protesting, with the police restraining them.

United Anti-Nazi Conference protesting, with the police restraining them.

“Los Angeles was particularly susceptible to fascist influence because of its tradition of ‘fascist jurisprudence’ – the LAPD’s arrests of those seeking to distribute literature, protest or otherwise exercise their first amendment rights – and because Hollywood was a ‘fertile field’ for anti-Semitism because of Jewish executives’ ‘ruthless management’ of their studios.

“The only way to resist the insidious influence of fascism in the city and in America at large was to unite in common struggle against all ‘phobias,’ including anti-Semitism and racism and defend the civil rights of all Americans.”

To this end the UANC was organized and began addressing the underlying causes of fascism – manifest in racism, segregation, persecution of immigrants, and antisemitism – which was also present in our own society. And to counter the demagoguery which was seen not just in Nazi Germany, but also mirrored in our own country.

Though I believe one of the most important characteristics of the UANC was that they understood the need for addressing the very real issues which were being seized upon by anti-Semites and racists in our very own city of Los Angeles. Instead of dismissing and deflecting, they engaged both the rhetoric and also the uncomfortable truths head-on. They took much more than a nuanced approach, they fiercely took-up addressing the fears and phobias; even when this came with harsh criticism of the Jewish establishment in Hollywood.

Yet while Jews had a presence in the Hollywood film industry, we need to understand that they were still outsiders in much of the larger society. And even Hollywood itself was no haven from antisemitism. This is actually most horrifically displayed in the bigoted reactions which were already elicited to the protest against Nazism and fascism in America.

As described by Thomas Doherty, professor of American studies at Brandeis University, in this article here:

“On October 1, 1938, ‘Box Office,’ a glossy trade weekly, reprinted a crude antisemitic leaflet circulating around theaters in the Midwest and, closer to home, along the streets of downtown Los Angeles. ‘Hollywood is the Sodom and Gomorrah where International Jewry controls Vice-Dope-Gambling,’ the leaflets read. ‘Where Young Gentile Girls are raped by Jewish producers, directors and casting directors who go unpunished.’ A caricature depicted a hook-nosed Jew despoiling a vessel of lily-white Aryan womanhood.”

 On October 1, 1938, ‘Box Office,’ a glossy trade weekly, reprinted a crude antisemitic leaflet circulating around theaters in the Midwest and, closer to home, along the streets of downtown Los Angeles.

On October 1, 1938, ‘Box Office,’ a glossy trade weekly, reprinted a crude antisemitic leaflet circulating around theaters in the Midwest and, closer to home, along the streets of downtown Los Angeles.

This was how antisemites responded to the public rallying calls against fascism by the studio funded Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. (HANL) Similar antisemitic leaflets would also be inserted into 50,000 copies of the Los Angeles Times by antisemitic employees.

What we do need to remember is that in those days Jews in America were still considered a form of ethnic minority in many ways; othered in society, and even at times racialized. And therefore were still subjected to many of the harsh realities of discrimination and segregation.

In fact the prejudices against Jews seemed to be peaking at this time, as some Jewish families were actually starting to successfully assimilate into middle-America; which came with alarm and repulse for many white Americans. As they saw some Jews begin to make inroads to where they were traditionally not welcomed.

When we look at this era we see that the Jewish people were actually facing much discrimination on both ends of our society. Jews as a people were being vilified as Hollywood moguls, while also being despised as needy immigrants. They were being hated for being ruthless capitalists, while also being demonized as communists. They were scorned for wanting to be like white Americans, and detested for being too foreign.

And during this point in history antisemitism had a particular appeal to many people, amid the Great Depression. In some of the same ways as how Jews were being scapegoated for the depression in Germany, antisemitism also surfaced here. Though what is also important to understand about this moment in history is that the Jewish people were not just fighting ambient racism.

As in fact over in downtown Los Angeles on Broadway was located the western headquarters for the German American Bund, founded in 1933 as the “Friends of New Germany” – the American manifestation of the Nazi party and a pro-Nazi Germany advocacy group.

Los Angeles and Hollywood itself was particular susceptible to this type of fascists ideology, in an atmosphere in which nationalism was still fashionable and Nazism was even romanticized. And in an age when it was common for people of society to attend controversial political meetings, national socialism was also to be found in the mix.

As early as 1933 Los Angeles Jewish leaders responded to this threat by founding the Community Relations Committee (CRC) – initially created to monitor groups and report activities which were seen as a threat to Jews and to democracy in general. Monitoring groups such as the Bund, the Friends of New Germany, the Silver Shirts, as well as other antisemitic and racist groups like the Klu Klux Klan (KKK).

Adolf Hitler Geburtstagfeier (birthday celebration), being celebrated in Los Angeles, April 20, 1935. Deutsches Haus Auditorium.

The CRC was quite successful in infiltrating these organizations and exposing their realm of influence within the city. Which resulted in a dramatic decrease in the membership of the Friends of New Germany.

Lesser know is the fact that they were also successful in uncovering and preventing a terrorist plot planned by the Bund from their downtown Deutsche Haus, to execute Jewish Hollywood studio heads and to murder Jews at random in the densely Jewish populated neighborhood of Boyle Heights. (Professor Steven Ross, of University of Southern California; this topic be featured in his upcoming book “Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America.“)

Their successes in their fight against organized racism and in preventing violence positioned them as the leading organization within the Jewish community for years to come.

As described by historian Shana Bernstein:

“The CRC became a main organization occupied with the defense, protection and civil rights of the Los Angeles Jewish community in the 1930s.

“During the 1930s, through the first decades of its existence the CRC spoke for the many constituent organizations in the greater Jewish community of Los Angeles, which all represented a relatively small but growing community.”

The CRC would eventually change their name, later becoming known as the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles.

As a small minority, the Los Angeles Jewish community at this time came to recognize that they had to partner with other minority groups in order for their voice to be heard. And their draw needed to be broad, as Los Angeles was such an ethnically diverse city that there was not any one nationality with which they could secure a powerful alliance.

Organizations such as the CRC were among the first to realized that their goals were best achieved through broader partnerships with their non-Jewish fellows. For in practice they found that their fight for civil rights as Jews was very much similar to the civil right struggle of various ethnic minorities and immigrants, including African-Americans and Mexican-Americans.

When Kristallnacht erupted in November of 1938, the Los Angeles Jewish community and their allies organizing the Anti-Nazi parade did not even attempt to hold the event in Hollywood or even downtown, but rather in Boyle Heights. And this was for a couple of reasons.

First, because the Jewish public knew that they did not have the backing and clout to really hold a successfully anti-Nazi protest in Hollywood itself – let alone one which would attract broad and diverse support they were seeking.

Which leads to the most importantly reason yet, to remind the public of the fact that what Jews were experiencing both in Europe and America was a struggle against racism. Holding the protest here in Boyle Heights reinforced the reality of this, tying this event to the struggle they were facing alongside their various immigrant neighbors and with people of color in this very community as well.

For this reason, it should not surprise us that in these pictures capturing the Anti-Nazi protest of November 1938, we also see the faces of black, brown and Asian people protesting alongside their Jewish eastside neighbors.

Don Hodes and Shmuel Gonzales

Don Hodes (left) and myself Shmuel Gonzales (right): This is my friend Don, he marched in the Anti-Nazi Parade of 1938 here in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles. He was about 8 or 9 years old when he marched with his family carrying a picket sign. He remembers singing protest songs like, “A-tisket, a-tasket… we’ll bury Hitler in a basket!”

This partnership between Jews and with other minority groups beginning with their fight against fascism and their public education campaigns against racist ideologies in those pre-war years constituted one of the first major joint effort in civil rights activism between the communities. And the lessons learned at that time would provide a working model for inter-racial cooperation which would be followed for years to come.

After the US entered World War II – when it was no longer necessary to convince the American public of the Nazi threat – the focus of Jewish organized civil rights clearinghouses such as the CRC would be redirected to the then most poignant issues at hand. While still maintaining their founding principles to addressing the causes of antisemitism and race related violence, as the nature of ethnic tensions would shift.

And in the post-war years the CRC would continue to back and support civil rights work, with specific focus on the Los Angeles eastside. When after the war it seemed that Jews and the local ethnic minorities appeared to have less in common with each other, revealing many fears and racial tensions which then needed to be addressed. At a time when antisemitism and race-based scapegoating came with different challenges for the community.

In our continued exploration of this history, we will later see how in the post-war years the CRC addressed inter-community tensions and racial inequality, though supporting the empowerment of our local ethnic minorities. Ultimately providing essential backing and funding for groups such as the Community Service Organization (CSO); which would become our first major Mexican-American civil rights training ground in the area, out of which leaders such as Cesar Chavez would eventually emerge.

To be continued….

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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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