The Shifting Cultures of Multiracial Boyle Heights

Top: Portion of a mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe honoring the Brooklyn neighborhood in Boyle Heights. Photo by Gary Leonard, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

[Editor’s Note: Fifteen years ago, a a group of Jewish and Latino activists began efforts to renovate and save the historic Breed Street Shul as a means to highlight the community’s diverse history. With 2015 upon us, ToM thought it would be a good opportunity to revisit these efforts and place them in historical context]

In a critical scene from the 1997 neo-noir “L.A. Confidential,” the ambitious and overzealous Detective Ed Exley (Guy Pierce) escorts rape survivor Inez Soto (Marisol Padilla Sanchez) through the tumult of press coverage upon her discharge from the hospital. Soto’s testimony proved vital in convicting four black men of murder at the famous Night Owl diner massacre; a case that led to Exley’s promotion and subsequent municipal fame. However, in a brief exchange, Soto reveals that while guilty of sexual assault, the four men never stepped foot in the notori ous Night Owl. “I don’t know what time they left me, I wanted them dead,” she tells Exley in a private moment. “Would anyone care that they raped a Mexican girl from Boyle Heights if they hadn’t killed those white people at the Night Owl? I did what I had to do for justice.”

Though amounting to little more than a minute or two, the scene captures several important insights regarding Los Angeles of the 1950s: increased segregation of the city’s communities, Boyle Heights’ emergence as a Mexican American enclave, and the injustice suffered by non-white communities. Moreover, even in its brevity, it reveals a Los Angeles moving away from its multiracial/multiethnic roots, toward a more atomized and segregated existence.
Multiracial Boyle Heights

Though Los Angeles of the 1920s remained a segregated landscape, many neighborhoods boasted a diverse non-white population consisting of Latino, Asian, African American faces. “Like other cities,” notes California State University Northridge history Professor Josh Sides, “Los Angeles was clearly divided by a color line, but on one side of that line was a white (and largely Protestant) population, while on the other was a large and vibrant patchwork of race and ethnicities. Places like East L.A. and Boyle Heights included Mexicans, blacks, Jews, and Asians.”

Local housing covenants that prohibited “alien races” or “non Caucasians” often discriminated against Jews, Japanese, Chinese, Mexicans, and blacks. This in turn gave activists of all aggrieved parties a shared interest and a tangible reason to form political coalitions. While Mark Brilliant has noted the frailty of such alliances, in an ironic twist, between 1917 – 1945, the very policy of segregation that mandated separation created politically active multicultural communities that brought dozens of lawsuits in common cause against housing discrimination.1

A great deal of this new diversity developed as result of industrial expansion. In the 1930s, Los Angeles’ population increased by 600,000 with nearly 90% of this growth the result of net migration. East and Southside L.A. absorbed much of the industrial zones, leading to the growth of multiracial and ethnic neighborhoods where working class migrants from Mexico, Asia, the Midwest and the Northeast settled.2

Talmud Torah Synagogue, located at 247 N. Breed Street in Boyle Heights | Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
Talmud Torah Synagogue, located at 247 N. Breed Street in Boyle Heights | Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Boyle Heights as a Jewish Enclave

By the mid-1930s, Jews accounted for 35,000 of Boyle Heights’ population, sharing the community with increasing numbers of Mexican Americans, along with significant pockets of African and Japanese Americans. Evidence of this diversity remains even in the once crumbling, now partially renovated, form of the Breed Street Shul. Known as “Queen of the Shuls,” it opened in 1923 (though a smaller historic structure within the larger compound had been built eight years earlier) and housed the Congregation Talmud Torah of Los Angeles. Eventually the Congregation Talmud Torah consisted of 75,000 members, making it the largest of the then 30 recognized Jewish congregations in Los Angeles.

Designed by Abram Edelmen and costing roughly $75,000, the shul’s architecture recalled the grandeur of Byzantium, thereby aligning with the aesthetic expectations of the large immigrant Eastern European Jewish population that defined L.A.’s semitic community in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. Ornately carved wooden pews populated its floor and painted murals of Jewish festivals adorned its walls. For many newcomers Boyle Heights and the adjacent City Terrace community operated much like a “West Coast Ellis Island,” and the shul served as a beacon for new arrivals. “It was the most beautiful building that people of a modest means could have,” Stephen J. Sass, the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California President, told the Los Angeles Times in 2000.

However, by the 1960s and 1970, the shul endured a severe decline. In the 1970s it became a hang out for gangs as the community struggled with violence. By the 1980s local grafitti artists began tagging the building regularly, and feathers and pigeon droppings covered much of the floor. The 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake damaged the main sanctuary, forcing what was left of the congregation to hold services in a smaller chapel near the back of the compound.

The shul’s decline mirrors Boyle Heights’ demographic change that transformed the multicultural community and serves as a window into mid-century developments that unfolded at the national level. For much of the early twentieth century, Jews, Slavs, Italians, and the Irish did not fall within the definition of “white.” However, as Los Angeles grew and the second Great Migration brought greater numbers of African Americans to the city, suburbanization expanded, and the influx of black residents drastically changed race relations in Los Angeles, as it did in other American cities. While it forced municipal officials to face the “deleterious effects of segregation”, the Great Migration led others to rewrite the rules that kept whites separated from non-whites.3 As result, definitions of whiteness shifted.

Jews now found themselves increasingly included as part of the metropolitan area’s abstract conception of whiteness, and many took advantage of new housing opportunities. In the Fairfax district, four Jewish congregations had already established themselves by 1940. With the arrival of middle income housing to the area, along with the establishment of the Park La Brea housing project, many Jewish Boyle Heights residents considered resettlement. In the San Fernando Valley, newer housing and proximity to industrial employment — in large part a result of WWII — led to the growth of planned communities like Panorama City and North Hollywood. By 1950 22,000 Jewish families resided in the Valley.

By 1951 Los Angeles’ Jewish population had reached 300,000. Yet few could claim roots in the city. Only 8% of the city’s adult Jewish population had been born here, and by the end of the 1950s only one Jewish head of the household out of six had resided in L.A. before the war. In Boyle Heights, Jewish leaders faced decisions regarding their role in Los Angeles’ Jewish life — the memory of Boyle Heights as an enclave of Los Angeles Jewry and its history of multiracial action began to languish. Even some that remembered the shul experience had trepidation about their relationship to it. “A sense of perhaps embarrassment about immigrant origins,” Sass acknowledged. “The fact that it wasn’t high class. It was a place that you wanted to get out of and move on up.”

Many of the Boyle Heights Jews that remained viewed their Westside counterparts with a certain level of contempt. In the hothouse of Cold War anti-communism, Los Angeles mainstream Jewish communities rejected the radicalism of their Boyle Heights counterparts. New Jewish leaders like Rosalind Wyman, the first Jewish City Councilmember, and often referred to as the “second liberal” elected to the council after Edward R. Roybal in the 1950s, embraced a liberalism that expressed support for moderate civil rights efforts, but also put forth a staunch anti-communism stance.4 With changing political winds and diminishing demographics, by 1960 only four percent of Los Angeles’ Jewish population lived in Boyle Heights. Many of even the most dedicated leftist Jewish residents had uprooted themselves.

Interior view of the Talmud Torah Synagogue in Boyle Heights, showing handpainted muraled walls now covered with graffiti | Photo: Gary Leonard Collection, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Boyle Heights as Mexican American Enclave

By the late 1940s Boyle Heights had become largely Mexican and Mexican American. Still, traces of the once prominent Jewish population remained. Even as the exodus for the suburbs began, Boyle Heights Jews, along with Mexican Americans and residents of other ethnic backgrounds, formed multiracial coalitions that played a critical role in cracking the all white façade of the L.A. city council with the 1949 election of Mexican American Boyle Heights resident Edward R. Roybal.

While these coalitions persisted into the 1950s, they faced a particularly virulent strain of Southern California anti-communism that labeled such civil rights victories as little more than pinko corruption of the status quo. Chairman of the California Un-American Activities Committee Jack Tenney hardly concealed his anti-semitism, often equating Judaism with communism. Tenney even pursued the Boyle Heights Soto-Michigan Jewish Center in 1948, accusing its director Joseph Esquith of overseeing a communist enterprise.

Though the postwar Red Scare shined a light on the political leftism, progressive politics had served as a defining feature of the Boyle Heights community for decades. When anti-communist organizations pushed for deportation of the city’s foreign-born populations in 1950, Boyle Heights’ Jewish and Mexican American residents helped to establish an Eastside branch of the Los Angeles Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born (LACPFB).5 The LACPFB’s efforts proved critical for hundreds of immigrants and Los Angeles residents cowed by overzealous anti-communists.

Importantly, the LACPFB understood that institutional prejudices meant groups experienced discrimination differently. It eschewed a “melting pot” approach; instead their promotional and educational material made sure to keep the appeals distinct from each other. “The consequence of this sort of political approach … was to both utilize and foment a multiracial sensibility that could be used no matter what specific group was targeted in anti-immigrant measures,” notes University of Southern California’s George Sanchez.6

By the 1960s, increasing numbers of Mexican Americans established roots in suburban Los Angeles. Hawthorne, Huntington Park, Inglewood, Lynwood, South Gate and Bell Gardens, counted more than 9,000 Mexican residents in 1960, but less than seventy blacks. If one traveled to further outlying suburbs such as Baldwin Park, Manhattan Beach, Norwalk, Redondo Beach, and Torrance, the gap between Mexican and African American homeownership appeared even starker.

This is not to say that Jewish and Mexican American residents evaded discrimination, but that the institutional factors that had encouraged multicultural urban communities and political movements now functioned in ways that encouraged fracture and increasingly mono-ethnic neighborhoods.

Brooklyn Theatre in Boyle Heights | Photo by Leo Jarzomb, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
Brooklyn Theatre in Boyle Heights | Photo by Leo Jarzomb, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

In 2000, an alliance of Jewish and Latino groups sought to raise funds to repair and renovate the shul and repurpose it as both a museum celebrating Boyle Heights’ rich multicultural history, and a neighborhood community center for the local, predominantly Latino, population. “I think the shul really can become the cultural center of the community,” Boyle Heights activist Elsa Casillas Cambon asserted. “I call it a little jewel that’s going to be fixed up and repaired,” echoed Boyle Heights Neighbors Organization member Mary Mendoza. Jewish Historical Society’s Robert Chattel concluded similarly, noting that although it represents a now-absent community, the shul “may be the seed of a new future.”

L.A. Times journalist Reed Johnson noted that shul might be a “harbinger” of relations between the two communities, though clearly the interaction suggests a return to past practices, rather then genuinely new ethnic partnerships. “With Jews and Latinos attempting to forge political alliances throughout the city, the shul’s time may again be at hand,” Johnson suggested.

In 2011 a small historic portion of the building, built in 1915, reopened its doors to the public. In February of this year the Mexican bands Quetzal and Los Cojolites celebrated their respective Grammy nominations — Best Latin Rock, Urban and Alternative; and Best Regional Mexican Music Album — by filling the shul with the sounds of Son Jaracho, which fuses Spanish, African, and Indigenous music with dance and folk under the bright cultural lights of Veracruz, Mexico. While it might not be the LACPFB or the “harbinger” of relations suggested by the L.A. Times, the shul and Boyle Heights continue to provide an example of how a long tradition of multicultural history can reverberate after decades of de facto segregation, and point the way to a multiracial future that harkens back to a tangible past. To quote the aforementioned George Sanchez, Boyle Heights’s story reminds us that neighborhoods of diversity have worked together in the past and remain “our hope for a multiracial Los Angeles that can work together in the future.”7

1 Josh Sides, L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003), pg. 18.
2 George Sanchez, “‘What’s Good for Boyle Heights is Good for the Jews’: Creating Multiculturalism on the Eastside during the 1950s,” in American Quarterly, Vol. 56 No. 3 (September, 2004), pg 635.
3 Josh Sides, L.A. City Limits, pg 54.
4 George Sanchez, “‘What’s Good for Boyle Heights is Good for the Jews,” pg. 653.
5 Ibid, pg. 650.
6 Ibid, pg. 651.
7 Ibid, pg. 657.

This article originally appeared on the KCET Departures website under the Intersections columns in August 2013.