by Tom Nguyen
Boyle Heights, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Los Angeles, is so much deeper than how the community has often been portrayed. In Hollywood films, it’s the Latino community with intractable gangs glorified by graffiti along the concrete of the Los Angeles river, massive freeway interchange and bridges connecting it to downtown. When Boyle Heights makes mainstream news nowadays, it’s either in reference to a gang shooting or impending gentrification. What has been largely forgotten and what the documentary “East LA Interchange” seeks to restore and rightly celebrate, is its rich history of being LA’s most racially integrated and welcoming of communities. The history is one of a poor community of color that has historically been ignored or pushed aside according to the whims of those in power but it has always fought back. From coalition building by its different minority residents to elect the first Latino to LA City Council to the student walkouts against unequal education, the community has a long history and pride in resistance and empowerment.
Narrated by Danny Trejo, the film is the 9 year culmination of extensive research by filmmaker Betsy Kalin, with archival footage and interviews with historians and current and former residents, including notable people like will.i.am of Black Eyed Peas, LA Councilmember Jose Huizar and playwright Josefina López of CASA 0101 Theater. The film starts with the unprecedented global migration occurring in the early 20th century from upheaval and war, that resulted in immigrants from all over the globe finding their way to Los Angeles.
Because of federal legislation that allowed racist housing covenants restricting where people of color and immigrants could live, Boyle Heights, known as the Ellis Island of the West Coast, was one of few places where newcomers were generally all welcomed. Interviews with residents recall growing up in a diverse neighborhood of Latino, Japanese, Irish, Italian, Russian, Black and Jewish families. They fondly remember growing up speaking each other’s languages, eating each other’s foods, and realizing that once they left the multicultural refuge of Boyle Heights, they’d encounter a much more intolerant world where people were not used to being comfortable with each other, the way people learned to live with and appreciate each other’s differences back home.
The 1940s saw the forced displacement and incarceration of Japanese Americans and the film documents how overnight, Roosevelt High School students saw a third of their classmates suddenly disappear. Most families lost everything — only allowed to carry few possessions to the concentration camps, many desperate families tried to bury their valuables and heirlooms, hoping to return for them one day. There’s a poignant moment when an elderly Japanese American man returns to his family’s former home and the current residents, a Latino family, returns to him a family heirloom they found.
Boyle Heights demographics dramatically change again with the post-war boom in population growth and a big push for housing development in new suburbs. What was once the largest Jewish community on the West Coast would change due to many factors, like White Flight to these new suburbs and less racial segregation against people “not quite White” but more readily accepted like Russian, Polish, Jewish, Armenian, Greek and others of European descent who now had access to more places to live.
One historian, George J. Sanchez, points out that it wasn’t simply a choice of not wanting to live next to someone any longer, but that the federal government actually subsidized White Flight and racial segregation through the practice of Redlining: assessing home loans as most risky and most expensive in the most racially diverse communities like Boyle Heights. The more White and homogeneous, the higher the rating for that community. The less White, the lower the rating. Boyle Heights was also denigrated as an unsavory place to live because of its working class immigrant roots so for many Jews, being welcomed into new neighborhoods for the first time was seen as a step up in social mobility. It would be cheaper and more respectable for Jews to buy a home in White neighborhoods than in Boyle Heights where they grew up.
Also during the post-war boom, the building of the interstate highway system of freeways throughout Southern California would detrimentally affect Boyle Heights. Where these massive new freeways were built and which neighborhoods were expendable were deliberately planned. While wealthier neighborhoods could stall or reduce the building of these highways, the poor, lowly represented Boyle Heights community would have the largest, most complex freeway interchange in the country built right through it.
Over the course of more than two decades, 15,000 residents were displaced, including a sizable Russian community, to make way for the East LA Interchange, which averages almost 100,000 vehicles an hour, more than 2 million per day and not surprisingly causes pollution and health problems for residents and schoolchildren living right next to this massive system.
In the era of McCarthyism and conformity, artists, activists and leftists would find a safe haven in the politically tolerant, working class, multiracial community. The community spirit of activism would lead to a coalition of Mexican, Jewish and Japanese residents to increase voter registration and help elect Edward Roybal in 1949, the first Latino in the LA City Council. A community long ignored and left with few resources would finally have representation in their city government.
During the 1960s, the first public housing projects brought a large Black community to Boyle Heights, one of few places in Los Angeles where Latinos and Blacks lived together. It was during this time of the nationwide Civil Rights movement, that Mexican American high school students in Boyle Heights and East LA staged walkouts to protest racial discrimination and unequal education in the LA Unified School District.
The documentary then fast forwards to the 80s and 90s where national media portrayed Boyle Heights as a notorious gang mecca and Father Greg Boyle recalls 1988-1998 as the decade of death. He founded Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention program in the country, and points out that it was grassroots efforts from and by the community that helped address the gang problem and not any magical help from outside the community. While the community still deals with issues like youth violence, Lopez and Huizar point out that this persistent stereotype of Boyle Heights does not define how vibrant and active the community is and has always been.
The film’s last chapter brings Boyle Heights to where it is now: facing development and gentrification just as many other parts of Los Angeles. The film lists many organizations advocating for residents and preserving the community’s culture and history: Comite De La Esperanza, Mothers of East Los Angeles, Corazon del Pueblo (which has since suffered eviction itself), Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council. The film shows there isn’t universal agreement in the community about what constitutes positive change.
One commentator says it’s mostly Latino people who are behind the push for development, from getting a 7/11 to open in the neighborhood to support for expanding Metro’s Gold Line light rail system in order to revitalize the neighborhood. Others see the expansion and development as reminders of what the freeway system did to the community. Still others who grew up and left are returning to help invest in the community, like will.i.am, who says “I came back because I am who I am because of the community I grew up in…I think you can never leave a place that helped raise you…when they raised you in a good way.”
The films says there is extraordinary tension and uneasiness in the community about what the future will hold for working class, immigrant families in Boyle Heights. “Look at what’s happening now to Boyle Heights…the story is not over,” says Lopez. The film ends on an optimistic note about the lesson of racial inclusion and diversity that Boyle Heights can teach the rest of the nation. Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard, the daughter of Edward Roybal, born in Boyle Heights, says, “One of the things that I’ve learned since I’ve been in Congress is just how unique Boyle Heights is…in terms of growing up in Boyle Heights, because there are members of Congress who have never had a friendship with an African American, or a Japanese American, or a Chinese American. It’s unbelievable. So there’s this big gap and when you don’t have that basic understanding about people of diverse backgrounds then you end up making very bad policy and you end up buying into the demonization and the fear of something that is different.”
In a time of increasing inequality, tension and divisiveness, and a political climate that once again relies on xenophobia and fear mongering of immigrants, the film and the lesson that Boyle Heights history teaches could not come at a better time. “Boyle Heights stands for what we could become if we stood against forgetting that we belong together,” says Father Boyle.
Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival will screen the film for the first time in Boyle Heights this Sunday, May 22, 3pm, at Breed Street Shul and on Tuesday, May 24, 7:30pm, at Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino. Both screenings will be followed by a Q&A panel with Kalin and some of the cast.