I reviewed a play at CASA 0101 Theatre not long ago that took the audience on a theatrical “tour” of Boyle Heights. In the program was a mention of an actual walking tour given by a Latino Jewish man who calls himself the Barrio Boychik. I jumped on it and was glad I did.
I’ve been to Boyle Heights many times in the last few years. Once was to attend a Mexican coffee tasting at a local coffee shop. Most often, I’ve come to review other plays at the theater. Every time I go, I learn something new. What most people don’t realize is that the area is much different than what you hear about in the news.
For decades it’s been a Chicano community. But, starting in the 1920s it was home to a large Jewish population as well as pockets of Asian, Armenian, and blacks Most of the Jews moved to the westside after WWII but it’s still very diverse. If ever there was a melting pot community in LA, it was and still is Boyle Heights.
Glimpses of its pioneer past
The neighborhood has a number of impressive and somewhat deteriorating vintage craftsman homes. They were once the residences of some of LA’s city pioneers, including the Hollenbecks and makeup giant Max Factor.
There are also a variety of duplexes and small “bachelor-style” bungalows that were built in the 20s and 30s for city and railroad workers.
An exquisite inner-city park
Hollenbeck Park, built in 1892, is a serene and picturesque urban green area with a pond that’s nestled next to the 5 freeway. I had no idea it was there until we strolled through it on our walking tour.
Ducks and geese are plentiful there and add a sense of peace to the city sprawl around it. It’s a popular location to photograph weddings and special occasions like Quinceañeras.
Don’t believe everything you hear in the news
Most people think of East LA as a haven for gangs and violence and although it exists, it’s mostly made up of families who go to church, hang out with friends, and take care of each other. Colorful murals painted by local artists are plentiful and decorate buildings, walls, and freeway overpasses.
Art, theater, and music are everywhere even though some developers claim the area has no culture. The best Chicano bands have come out of East LA like Los Lobos, Freddy Fender, and Thee Midniters, just to name a few.
A legacy of helping others
There’s a history starting in the late 1800s of non-profits who built establishments to serve community members and immigrants. They took care of those who were homeless, aging or suffered from conditions like alcoholism. The buildings that were once the Hollenbeck Home for the Aging, Hebrew Sheltering and Home for the Aged, The Jewish Orphans Home, and The Jewish Home for Wayfarers (homeless immigrants) still stand.
The International Institute of Los Angeles built in 1914, is still in operation today and helps new immigrants assimilate. It has recently been assisting migrants who have crossed the border to seek asylum from Central America.
Music and mariachis
Mariachi Plaza has been a gathering place for Mariachi musicians looking for work to play at weddings and other events since the 1930s.
It’s a tiny charming square with a large kiosk often used for cultural events. The Los Angeles Metro Gold Line stop is next to it making it easy to get there from other parts of Los Angeles.
Our walking tour guide the Barrio Boychik
A Jewish Latino man named Shmuel Gonzales, the “Barrio Boychik,” conducted our 2 1/2 walking tour. He told us that he was homeless for several years as a teenager and has overcome serious medical issues. Shmuel is a well-known fixture in the neighborhood and as we walked, several friends honked at him to say hello. He serves on the board of directors of the Boyle Heights Historical Society and is a Jewish lay leader at the Congregation Beth Shalom of Whittier. During the week, he works as a historian for the Pico Union Project.
I’d like to take another walking tour he offers called “The Big Boyle Heights and City Terrace Jewish History Hike.” It covers more of the Jewish landmarks like the old Breed Street Shul and hidden cemeteries. Evergreen Cemetery, established in 1877 is LA’s oldest cemetery. City pioneers with names like Hollenbeck, Lankershim, and Van Nuys as well as, civil war veterans, former mayors, politicians, and some celebrities are interned there. You can see pictures on gravestones of Japanese Americans, Armenians, and Mexicans. About 400 indigent carnival workers and circus performers are buried near a lion memorial. Chinese residents, who were discriminated against for decades, lie under a potter’s field on the site where a shrine has been erected.
The community is being targeted by developers who want to destroy cultural landmarks to build hi-rises and raise rents. Almost all the residents who live there are working class citizens. Many are being forced to move because their rents have gone up as much as 85%. This includes the Mariachis who wait for work at Mariachi Plaza. Some are forced to drive 2 hours in traffic. The MTA has plans to completely redesign Mariachi Plaza into a modern edifice that will destroy the neighborhood’s charm and force families and senior citizens to become homeless.
Even in the San Fernando Valley, where I live, rents are going through the roof making it difficult for people who aren’t affluent to live.
If you’re in Los Angeles and want to take a walking tour of the historical center of mixed culture in Los Angeles, I recommend that you contact the Barrio Boychik. Sometimes tours off the beaten track are the most interesting and intriguing.
Have you found an unusual walking tour that you’ve taken and enjoyed? Leave a comment below.