California Fool's Gold -- Exploring East Los Angeles

Posted by Eric Brightwell, September 20, 2010 06:30pm | Post a Comment


Pendersleigh & Sons' Official Map of East Los Angeles

East Los Angeles is a neighborhood on Los Angeles' EastsidePlease click here to vote for other Los Angeles Neighborhoods to be the subjects of future blog entries. Please also click here to vote for Los Angeles County communities. And lastly, please vote for Orange County neighborhoods by clicking here

Pendersleigh & Sons' Official Map of The Eastside

East Los Angeles is the best known neighborhood on the Eastside and because of the similarity of their designations, some confuse "Eastside" and "East Los Angeles" as synonymous. However, whereas most of the Los Angeles's Eastside is part of the city of Los Angeles (e.g. Boyle Heights, Brooklyn Heights, El Sereno, Happy Valley, Hillside Village, Lincoln Heights, Rose Hill, and University Hills), East Los Angeles (confusingly, given its name) is an unincorporated Eastside community that is part of the County of Los Angeles but not the city. Efforts to incorporate as its own city have occurred several times but thus far been unsuccessful.

East Los Angeles is neighbored by El Sereno to the north, Alhambra to the northeast, Monterey Park to the east, Montebello to the southeast, Commerce to the south, Vernon to the southwest, and Boyle Heights to the west.

East Los Angeles includes within it several smaller neighborhoods including Belvedere Gardens (or just Belvedere), City Terrace, Eastmont, Maravilla Park (or just Maravilla), Palma Heights, Observation Heights, Occidental Heights, the Whittier Shopping District (not to be confused with the city of Whittier), and Wellington Heights.

Although it is currently one of the most ethnically homogeneous areas of Los Angeles, in the past East Los Angeles was highly diverse. Nowadays 97% of East Los Angeles's residents are Latino and roughly half are foreign born (91% in Mexico and 4% in El Salvador). Though Mexican-Americans obviously live throughout the Southland, East Los Angeles is without question the cultural heart of the community. 



Humans have lived in the area that is now East Los Angeles for at least 13,000 years, when the ancestors of the Chumash lived in the Los Angeles Basin. Roughly 3,500 years ago the Tongva/Kizh arrived from the Sonoran Desert to the east.

After the arrival of the Spanish and the transference to Mexico, the area was sparsely populated ranch lands. It wasn't until the US took over and the Southern Pacific Railroad arrived in 1875 (and streetcars not long after) that significant numbers began to move to the area. The first wave of Mexican immigrants occurred in the 1910s, with most of the new arrivals coming from Sonoratown, which until then had been the center of Spanish (and French)-speaking Los Angeles and was soon to transform into Little Italy.

California, formerly part of Mexico, was a draw for immigrants from the South and by the 1910s they were a major source of immigrants to Los Angeles. The Literacy Act of 1917 was designed to restrict immigration on non-Nordic and Germanic people. But since most Nordic people weren't interested in working in dangerous conditions for low pay in seasonal work and with irregular hours, the railroads pushed for and achieved exemption for Mexicans when it passed. In part because of that, as of 1920 there were approximately 100,000 Mexicans living in Los Angeles. 

By the 1920s, the Eastside was also home to large numbers of other recently-arrived non-Nords, including Japanese, Jews, Mexicans and Serbians.

Serbian United Benevolent Cemetery

Saint Sava Serbian Orthodox Church

There isn't a lot remaining of Serbian character today outside of the Serbian United Benevolent Cemetery and the Saint Sava Serbian Orthodox Church. 

Home of Peace Memorial Park

The first Jewish cemetery established in Los Angeles was in Chavez Ravine, in 1855. The bodies interred there were moved to East Los Angeles's Home of Peace Memorial Park between 1902 and 1910. Buried in the cemetery are Lou Clayton (of the Vaudeville act Clayton, Jackson and Durante); comedian Harry Eintstein; composer Leo F. Forbstein; Curly and Shemp (of the Three Stooges); directors Kurt Neumann, Charles Vidor and Mark Sandrich; and film executives Carl Laemmle, Louis B. Mayer, Abe Stern, Morris Schlank, Harry Rapf, and the Warner Brothers -- Harry, Jack and Sam.

There's also the Chinese Cemetery of Los Angeles. Although the Chinese population was historically centered around Union Station, since Chinese were barred from burying their dead anywhere in Los Angeles (except for the indigent cemetery in Boyle Heights -- for which they had to pay a $10 fee which only applied to them), in 1922 the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of Los Angeles established their cemetery outside Los Angeles in nearby, unincorporated East Los Angeles.

Maravilla Handball Court

Most of the Jews and Serbs moved into new developments in Westside and Midtown, leaving East Los Angeles's demographic increasingly Japanese and Mexican. In 1923, neighborhood residents started the Maravilla Handball Club. By 1930, East Los Angeles was home to the largest population of Mexican-Americans anywhere. In the 1930s, the Great Depression saw immigration of foreigners slow to a trickle, but traqueros from El Paso and thereabouts brought their Pachuco culture to Los Angeles. Lowriding began when Pachucos lowered their cars by filling the trunks with sandbags.

At the same time, under the banner of "Mexican Repatriation," President Herbert Hoover authorized the forced removal of nearly one million Mexican-Americans who were sent to Mexico regardless of their country of birth. In 1942, 110,000 Japanese-Americans were forcibly interned in concentration camps and the US reversed its policy of banishing Latinos and invited Mexicans to return to fill the void created by the removal of Japanese. As a result, East Los Angeles's current homogenization was effectively in place.

El Centro Market

After the end of the war, some Japanese returned to East Los, such as Michi and Tommy Nishiyama, who opened El Centro grocery store next door to the handball court. But in the 1940s, most of East Los Angeles's new residents were from neighboring areas like Boyle Heights, whose former slum-dwellers benefitted both from the post-war economic boom and the affordability of housing in East Los Angeles. By 1950, the neighborhood was almost completely Mexican-American. 

As the emblems of Mexican-American culture, including zoot suits and lowriders, were increasingly visible in Los Angeles, some grew hostile toward them and in 1943, US Marines attacked Mexicans (and anyone else wearing zoot suits, including large numbers of Filipinos and blacks) in what came to be known as the Zoot Suit Riots. Much of the hostility was fanned by public officials. In the trial for the previous year's Sleepy Lagoon Murder trial, E. Duran Ayres (the chief of the Foreign Relations Bureau of the Los Angeles sheriff's office) testified as an expert witness that Mexicans as a community had a "blood thirst" and a "biological predisposition" to crime and killing due to their Aztec ancestry. 

Low Rider on Whittier

East Los Angeles Car Mural

Lowrider culture began in East Los Angeles. In fact, as a result, the California Vehicle Code 24008 actually outlawed lowriding in 1958. As a result, a customizer named Ron Aguirre developed a way of bypassing the law through the use of hydraulics. Although the word "lowrider" wasn't yet used, in 1964, East Los Angeles's Imperials car club got parade permits to allow them to cruise Whittier Boulevard between Eastern and Atlantic.

Around the same time, East Los Angeles emerged as the heart of the Chicano Rights movement. El Movimiento began in the 1940s, when "chicano" was still considered derogatory but by the 1960s, chicanismo was embraced as a symbol of ethnic pride and chicano rock, literature, theatre and art flourished in East Los and other Mexican communities.

In 1966, a group of East Los Angeles high school students formed the Young Citizens for Community Action. In 1967, they founded East Los Angeles's Piranya Coffee House and changed their name to the Brown Berets. In 1969, they began distributing their own newspaper, La Causa. That same year, Wayne Alaniz Healy, David Rivas Botello, Jose Luis Gonzalez and Juan Gonzalez started the first Chicano art studio, the still extant Goez Art Studio.

In 1970, LA Times columnist Rubén Salazar was killed by a sheriff's deputy during the National Chicano Moratorium March against the Vietnam War whilst he was drinking at The Silver Dollar Café, located at 4945 E. Whittier Boulevard. Salazar's killing was ruled a homicide but his killer was never prosecuted. His killing was commemorated in a corrido by famed East Los transplant Lalo Guerrero, with his song, "La tragedia del 29 de Agosto."

In the following decade, a variety of factors (including gang activity) led to many upwardly mobile East Los Angeles residents moving to destinations in Orange County, the San Fernando Valley, the San Gabriel Valley, and SELACO. East Los Angeles's culture has continued to thrive in spite of outward migration. Self Help Graphics & Art was begun in an East Los Angeles garage in the early 1970s and continues to operate today. The muralist arts collective East Los Streetscapers, founded by Wayne Alaniz Healy and David Rivas Botello in 1975 are responsible for many of the region's murals. Willie Herrón painted some of the most celebrated murals in the city, and went on to form Los Illegals with Jesus “Xiuy” VeloBill Reyes, and brothers Manuel and Tony Valdez.

Latino Walk of Fame

Latino Walk of Fame

Today, East Los Angeles remains the cultural center of Mexican Los Angeles. In 1997, the Latino Walk of Fame was installed along the sidewalks of Whittier Blvd. The East L.A. Classic Theatre is the nation's only Latino youth-targeting Shakespearean company. There's also the Josie Neglia Dance Academy. The neighborhood is still also served by the Los Angeles Music and Art School (LAMusArt), which was founded in 1945 by educator Pearle Irene Odell and moved to its present location in 1967.

Whittier Boulevard Shopping District

With respect to Cesar E Chavez Avenue in Old Town Maravilla, Whittier Boulevard is East Los Angeles's high street, which is filled with a variety of businesses and crowded with pedestrians. While the lack of big box stores and chains is refreshing, their absence is pointed to as one of the reasons why Los Angeles hasn't annexed the community, assuming that it won't generate enough tax revenue for the city. 

Ruben Salazar Park Mural

Other points of note in East Los Angeles include several parks: Atlantic Avenue Park, City Terrace County Park, Eugene A. Obregon Park and Ruben F. Salazar Memorial Park.

La Tia East Los Angeles

Que Ricos Mariscos!

No visit to East Los Angeles is complete without a visit to a restaurant. Rocky and I enjoyed a delicious meal at La Tia. Other options to consider include Alvarez Bakery, Boulevard Cafe, Chronis Famous Sandwich Shop, Chung King Cafe, Diana's Bakery, Eastside Deli, La Estrella, Fish Taco Express, Full House Buffet, El Gallo Bakery,  Gallo's Grill, Happy Bakery, King Taco, Little China Express, Little Mexico Seafood, Lolita's Tortilleria, Lulu's Bakery, Mi Tierra, Nick's Burgers, Olympic Donuts, Pizza Man, El Pollon Peruvian Restaurant, Porky's, Pronto Pizza, El Rancho Alegre, Raspado Express, La Ronda, Sandras & Lolitas Tamales, El Siete Mares, Sonora Pizza & Bakery, Super Taco, Tacos Baja Encenada, Tacos Cuernavaca, Tacos Jalisco by Angel, Tacos Mexico, Tamales Liliana, Taqueria La Que Si Llena, Texas Donuts, Thai Daily Bar BBQ, La Tiendita, Tila's Kitchen, Tortas Ahogadas El Guero, Troy Drive In,  2 For 1 Pizza and Zacatecas Raspados.

If you feel like drinks or pool, there's Boulevard Bar, Cal Cafe & Billares, California Tiki Club, Ericka's Place, Hi-D-Hi Tavern, Lorena's Bar, Memo's Place and Tu y Yo Bar.

East Los Angeles has a rich musical history, including way more than just Motley Crue's mention in the song "Wildside." A walk around the neighborhood will inevitably include crossing paths with wandering guitarists and accordionists. In the past, East Los had a vibrant music scene that drew chicano artists from various areas to play venues including Lalo Guerrero's Eastside Nightclub, Kennedy Hall, Rudy's Past House and Vex.

Performers from East Los Angeles include members of Black Eyed Peas, Cannibal & the Headhunters, Hope Sandoval, J-vibe, Kid Frost, Los Lobos, Louie Perez, Luis Villegas, Quetzal, Suzanna Guzman, Taboo, The Bags, The BlazersThee MidnitersThee Undertakers, and Tierra. Rap label Dragon Mob Records was established in East Los Angeles in 2002.

East Los Angeles Swap Meet

There are still several stores, swap meet stalls and sidewalk vendors peddling various Spanish language artists.

Inside Black Wax Records

Black Wax Records

In 2010, Black Wax Records opened, focusing primarily on punk and featuring live performances by newer East Los Angeles bands like Skeptical Youth.

Many films and a few TV shows have been filmed or set, in part or in whole, in East Los Angeles, including: The Magnificent Amebersons (1942), the TV series Emergency! (1972), the series Chico and the Man (1974), Rocky (1976), Boulevard nights (1979), The Hunter (1980), Breakin' 2 - Electric Boogaloo (1984), Born in East L.A. (1987), Stand & Deliver (1988), The Rookie (1990), American Me (1992), My Family (1995), the series Resurrection Blvd (2000), Crazy/Beautiful (2001), the series American Family (2002), Real Women Have Curves (2002), El Padrino (2004), Havoc (2005), Huge Naked Guy (2006), El Muerto (2007), The Devil's Tomb (2009), Drive by Chronicles - Sidewayz (2009). East Los Angeles was also the birthplace of noted actor/director Edward James Olmos.

The Golden Gate Theater heyday

Golden Gate Theater Today

The most famous theater in East Los Angeles is the historic Golden Gate Theater, a Spanish Baroque Revival Churrigueresque-style theater built in 1927. When the movie palace opened, the 1,345 seat theater showed silent films. By the 1970s, it was showing movies with Spanish subtitles and Spanish Language movies (as was The Unique Theater, down the street). It closed in 1986 and is now rumored to be the future home of a drug store. All of the structures have been demolished except the auditorium, although there are efforts to restore this amazing site to its former glory.

A less celebrated East Angeles architectural jewel is The Tamale

The Big Tamale then

The Tamale today


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