California Fool’s Gold — Exploring East Los Angeles

California Fool's Gold

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Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography’s Official Map of East Los Angeles

East Los Angeles is a neighborhood on Los AngelesEastside

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography’s Official Map of The Eastside, available as art prints and on a wide variety of merchandise

East Los Angeles is the best-known neighborhood on the Eastside and because of the similarity of their designations, some mistakenly believe that “The Eastside” and “East Los Angeles” are 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 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.

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.

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 uncontestably the cultural heart of that community.


EARLY HISTORY 

Humans have lived in the area that is now Los Angeles for at least 13,000 years, when the ancestors of the Chumash lived on the Channel Islands and coastal regions of the Los Angeles Basin. Roughly 3,500 years ago the Tongva arrived from the Sonoran Desert to the east.

After the arrival of the Spanish and the transference to Mexico, the area was typified by 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 region that’s now Los Angeles. The first wave of Mexican immigrants in the American era occurred in the 1910s, with most of the new arrivals coming from Sonoratown, which until then had been the primary enclave of Spanish-speaking Los Angeles.

California was also settled by a wave of 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 the immigration of 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.

Whittier Boulevard, 1924

By the 1920s, the Eastside was also home to significant numbers of other recently-arrived non-Nords, including blacks, Italians, Japanese, Jews, Mexicans, Russians, 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 Einstein (known professionally as Harry Parke); 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 BrothersHarry, Jack, and Sam.

There’s also the Chinese Cemetery of Los Angeles. The Chinese population was historically centered in Old Chinatown, located where Union Station is today. However, the 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 that only applied to them). As a result, 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

Eventually, ost of the neighborhoods blacks, Italians, Jews, Russians, and Serbs moved into newly developed suburbs, 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 the 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 deported to Mexico, regardless of whether or not they’d been born there or in the US. In 1942, 110,000 Japanese Americans have forcibly interned in concentration camps. The US reversed its policy of banishing Latinos and invited Mexicans to return to the US in order to fill the void created by the removal of the 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, grew increasingly visible in Los Angeles, some grew hostile 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. Chicano rock, literature, theater, and art flourished in East Los Angeles 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, Jose Luis Gonzalez started the first Chicano art studio, the still extant Goez Art Studio. He first invited his brother, Juan (then living in Spain) to join and Juan subsequently invited David Botello to join.

In 1970, Los Angeles Times columnist Rubén Salazar was killed by a sheriff’s deputy during the National Chicano Moratorium March against the Vietnam War whilst he was having a drink 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.”

A home in East Los Angeles

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 Southeast Los Angeles. 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.

The 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 all due respect to Cesar E. Chavez Avenue, which traverses Old Town Maravilla, Whittier Boulevard is East Los Angeles’s true high street. It’s filled with a variety of businesses and almost always full of 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, because there’s an assumption that East Los Angeles wouldn’t generate enough tax revenue for the Los Angeles to make it worthwhile.

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
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 Ensenada, 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 El Boulevar, Cal Cafe & Billards, 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 Ambersons (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’s 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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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery.
Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesVICEHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture.
Brightwell has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson Collegeand the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubithe StoryGraphand Twitter.

28 thoughts on “California Fool’s Gold — Exploring East Los Angeles

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