I’ve written several times about Boyle Heights as I often attend performances at the CASA 0101 Theatre located there. It’s a city known for its Chicano heritage but if you delve into Los Angeles history, you’ll find that its cultural richness is made up of a diverse variety of cultures. I attended the theater’s recent production called “Remembering Boyle Heights” and it was an eye-opening peek into how the area has evolved and the threat of gentrification that is taking place now.
As most of us know, California was conquered by Spain and was later ruled by Mexico up until 1848 after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo when Americans rushed to the area during the Gold Rush. Mexicans bought up the land and some turned mission properties into large ranchos. Boyle Heights is located near the Los Angeles River in the east section of downtown. It was named after an Irishman named Andrew Boyle who purchased 22 acres there after the Mexican American War.
During the late 1800s, the area became populated with working-class families that included the largest Jewish community in Los Angeles as well as Chicanos, Spiritual Christians from Russia, Serbians, Croatians, Portuguese, Asians, and blacks. The famous Canter’s Delicatessen opened in Boyle Heights in 1931 before relocating to its Fairfax location after WWII.
Some bad things happened there
From 1929 to 1936, there was a mass deportation of Mexicans and Mexican Americans back to Mexico because Americans believed they were taking their jobs. (Sound familiar?) Families who had lived in Los Angeles for generations and had ancestors buried there had to pack up and take a train to a country they had never known. Some didn’t even speak Spanish.
The Japanese began immigrating to the United States during the 1880s and after the 1906 Earthquake in San Francisco, many settled in downtown’s Little Tokyo and Boyle Heights. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed an executive order forcing the removal and incarceration of Japanese American families who were first sent to sleep in stables at Santa Anita Racetrack and the Rose Bowl before being transferred to internment camps.
Remembering Boyle Heights
The play begins with a pre-performance in the lobby where the audience listens to several “Boyle Heights residents” about how the area is being targeted for gentrification. In recent years, Boyle Heights has morphed into a prime business and residential location for artists much like Echo Park and Silver Lake. Developers are jumping to renovate buildings and apartments sparking rent increases. This is forcing out working-class families who have lived in the area all their lives.
A mariachi explains how he works at Mariachi Plaza, next to the Metro stop in Boyle Heights. He used to live in an apartment nearby but had to relocate 2 hours away from his job because he could no longer afford his rent. Other “residents,” tell of similar experiences and explain why they are opposed to the gentrification of their community.
A town hall meeting
The audience is led to the main theatre and is asked to stand on the stage where a gentrification town hall is taking place in commedia dell’arte style. Community members on both sides of the issue voice their opinions as the audience becomes part of the meeting.
Taking a tour of Boyle Heights history and gentrification
Audience members are told to find seats in the theatre and are taken to various “stops” on a tour of Boyle Heights history. The stops include “Coming to Boyle Heights.” “Food, Culture and Music,” “Community Social, Faith, & Politics,” Theodore Roosevelt High School,” “War & the Removal of Japanese,” “Life and Death After WWII.” It’s a fascinating glimpse into the enormously rich culture and diversity that makes the community what it is today.
We learn about the scope of political activism that has taken place over time which includes the zoot suit riots, socialist and communist influences, protests and strikes.
At one point we walk through Boyle Height’s Evergreen Cemetery, which is one of the oldest cemeteries in Los Angeles. Many Los Angeles pioneers are buried there with familiar names like Hollenbeck, Lankershim, and Van Nuys. There are former mayors and politicians who are also interned there but even more intriguing are the faces of deceased Mexicans, Armenians, white settlers, blacks (who were notably not banned) Japanese, and some Chinese, who were initially barred because of discrimination.
The play was created and devised by Josefina Lopez, Corky Dominguez, and the Ensemble cast. It was directed by Corky Dominguez and is a real ensemble effort with a diverse cast all of whom do a respectable and energetic job playing multiple roles.
The Boyle Heights Museum
In the theatre lobby is a display sponsored by the Boyle Heights Museum entitled “Roybal: A Multi-Racial Catalyst for Democracy.” In 1947, Edward Ross Roybal ran for a position in the Los Angeles City Council in the district that included Boyle Heights, Bunker Hill, Civic Center, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, and the Central Avenue Corridor. At the time the council consisted of only white males even though the district was a mix of 45% white, 34% Latino, 15% African American, and 6% other. Roybal lost but persisted and was finally elected in 1949 to a two-year term and was re-elected every two years through 1962. He was the first Mexican-American to be elected to the Los Angeles City Council in the 20th century.
After his election, he and his wife sought to purchase their dream home in the area. They were rejected by a real estate developer because the housing development didn’t allow Native Americans, Asians, Mexicans, Jews, and blacks to purchase property there. For a while, 10% of California’s public officials, including the Los Angeles’ chief of police and sheriff were members of the Ku Klux Klan. Ed Roybal made a huge difference in changing many of Los Angeles’s discriminatory housing laws.
“The root cause of much of the tension and conflict now existing in Los Angeles is the prevalence of discrimination and segregation in the sale or rental of housing on the basis of race, color, creed, national origin and ancestry. Such discrimination has imposed disadvantages, disabilities and indignities on minority group persons and has perpetuated barriers against contact, communication and understanding among Los Angeles residents.”
He served in the U.S. House of Representatives in the 30th district from 1963- 1975 and in the 25th district from 1975 – 1993. In 2001, Roybal was presented with the Presidential Citizens Medal by President Bill Clinton. He passed away in 2005 at the age of 89.
Program notes – how not to gentrify your neighborhood
The program lists several tips to help people avoid gentrification if they choose to move into a working-class neighborhood such as:
- Say hi to your neighbor
- Think before you call the police
- See your communities problems as opportunities
- Volunteer at non-profits
- Shop local
- If you start a business don’t jack up your prices
- Learn the community history
For the full list of tips to avoid gentrification click here.
A real walking tour
Remembering Boyle Heights runs through December 16, 2018
CASA 0101 Theater
2102 East 1st Street
Boyle Heights, California 90033
For more information visit their website here