A Brief History Of Boyle Heights, In 6 Landmarks

Mariachi Plaza (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

By the early 20th century, Boyle Heights had become a multi-ethnic enclave. World events had led to an influx of immigrants from Mexico, Russia and other parts of the United States. But the neighborhood's development wasn't simply due to population growth. Racist and xenophobic practices dictated life in Los Angeles, everything from where you could live to what jobs you were likely to get to where you could be buried. For people of color and recent immigrants, this meant that not every neighborhood was hospitable or even open to them.

The Japanese American National Museum notes that back when the Los Angeles Cable Railway opened in 1889, a banner in Boyle Heights read, "East Side Greeting, We Welcome All." As the new century took shape, that became a motto of sorts for the neighborhood.

Close to downtown and accessible by public transportation, Boyle Heights became home to a multitude of ethnic and religious groups: Latino, Jewish, Japanese, Russian, Armenian, African-American and more. Over the years, small businesses, houses of worship and organizations that helped with immigration services to medical care would reflect this diversity.

Still, Boyle Heights wasn't immune to the pressures of the outside world. The neighborhood was "redlined" by banks and local officials, meaning it was deemed "hazardous" to investors. Notes from a 1940 Home Owners Loan Corporation map described the neighborhood as:

"a 'melting pot' area and is literally honeycombed with diverse and subversive racial elements. It is seriously doubted whether is a single block in the area which does not contain detrimental racial elements, and there are very few districts are not hopelessly heterogeneous in type of improvement and quality of maintenance."

The diversity of Boyle Heights was considered dangerous and that had long-standing ramifications for the neighborhood and the people who lived there.

In the documentary East L.A. Interchange, USC professor George J. Sanchez points out that this made leaving the neighborhood a more affordable option for some residents when they were planning to buy homes.

Looking southwest across the intersection of Whittier Boulevard and Soto Avenue in Boyle Heights. Seen are homes, a Foster and Kleiser billboard promoting Nucoa margarine and the neighborhood market, Ramona Grocery. Photograph dated July 14, 1938. (Blackstock Negative Collection/Los Angeles Photographers Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, leading to the mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans. This had a devastating effect on Boyle Heights, which had been home to a significant Japanese community. In East L.A. Interchange, it's estimated that 1/3 of the senior class at Roosevelt High School was incarcerated. Following World War II, the freeway boom led to displacement for many Boyle Heights residents. While the community tried to fight the multiple freeways that now twist together in the neighborhood, their efforts were mostly unsuccessful. Between 1944 and 1972, 15,000 Boyle Heights residents were displaced, according to the documentary.

Activism has always been intertwined with the history of Boyle Heights, from the Jewish bakers who formed their own union in the 1920s to the Mexican-American students at Roosevelt who walked out of class in 1968 to protest education inequality. More recently, the neighborhood has been at the center of the struggle against gentrification.

Today, Boyle Heights is a primarily Latino neighborhood. According to the Los Angeles Times' Mapping L.A. project, a little more than half of the residents were born outside of the U.S. and it is considered a low income neighborhood by both the city and county of L.A. The arrival of new art galleries and coffee houses combined with rising rents has triggered a backlash. Groups like Defend Boyle Heights have launched protest campaigns that highlight "artwashing," when galleries act as the vanguard of gentrification that ultimately leads to the displacement of locals.

These six landmarks help tell the story of Boyle Heights, its many communities and the struggles that have shaped the neighborhood.

Mariachi Plaza (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Mariachi Plaza

In 1998, a grand stone kiosk was dedicated near the corner of 1st Street and Boyle Avenue, marking the spot where L.A.'s mariachi musicians have congregated to find work. It was also a harbinger, foreshadowing the neighborhood's struggle with rising rents. More than a decade would pass between the Mariachi Plaza dedication and the opening of the Gold Line station in the same location. But locals had concerns about the future of Boyle Heights before that. Fears of new development and higher rents came to a head when rent at a nearby apartment building on 2nd Street, home to a number of mariachi musicians, skyrocketed, sparking a rent strike that lasted from April 2017 to February 2018. It finally ended with a deal for less severe increases over the next few years.

The former site of Canter's Deli in Boyle Heights. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Canter's Brothers Delicatessen

When most Angelenos think of Canter's, they think of the deli on Fairfax Avenue but the famed late-night restaurant debuted in Boyle Heights in 1931 as Canter's Brothers Delicatessen. Boyle Heights was once home to so many Jewish immigrants it was known as Los Angeles's Lower East Side, Caroline Luce notes in the book Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic. The population boomed in the 1920s and that was reflected in the local food culture. Luce also notes that many of the new residents in Boyle Heights had first lived in other U.S. cities. The Canter brothers had operated a deli in Jersey City, which went bust after the 1929 stock market crash. They relocated to Los Angeles and opened up shop on Brooklyn Avenue (now Cesar Chavez Avenue). Canter's didn't stay in Boyle Heights for long. The original location shuttered in 1948 and moved westward, following its client base. The old building remains at 2323 Cesar Chavez, where it's home to a dentist's office.

Japanese Hospital (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Japanese Hospital

Today, the building at the corner of Fickett and First streets is a nursing home, Infinity Care of East Los Angeles. Decades ago, it was the site of the Japanese Hospital. According to a report recommending the building for historical-cultural monument status, it opened in 1929 after a legal battle that lasted several years. Prior to World War II, Boyle Heights was home to a large Japanese community. At the time, Japanese and Japanese-Americans in L.A. had difficulty securing adequate health care because of racist medical staff and institutions. With that in mind, several Japanese doctors joined forces to lease property and establish a hospital. They had the funds but the process was halted when California's Secretary of State said they couldn't incorporate or lease land because they were Japanese citizens. People born in Japan wouldn't be allowed to become U.S. citizens until after World War II. The ensuing case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the doctors in 1928.

The institution's struggles didn't end after it opened. During World War II, 117,000 Japanese and Japanese-American residents of the U.S. were locked away in internment camps. In many cases, their property was also seized. That didn't happen with the Japanese Hospital. Instead, as the application for Historical Cultural Monument Status notes, White Memorial Hospital leased the space until the war's end. After the war, it again became the Japanese Hospital, which operated in Boyle Heights until the early 1960s. In November 2016, the building was designated Historical Cultural Monument #1131. Los Angeles's Japanese community newspaper, Rafu Shimpo, notes that it is the seventh such monument that reflects the history of Japanese-Americans in L.A.

The International Institute of Los Angeles in Boyle Heights. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

International Institute of Los Angeles

On Boyle Street near 4th, you'll spot a rambling, two-story, white building with a tile roof and a small sign that reads "International Institute" hanging from its arched entrance. Welcome to the International Institute of Los Angeles. Providing services for recent immigrants, it dates back to 1914, when the program was launched by the YWCA to help women who had recently arrived in the U.S.

The organization moved into the Boyle Avenue property in 1924. The Institute offered job placement and financial support. It also hosted cultural events. A Los Angeles Times article from 1937 recapped a "feast" put together by young women from the Russian Molokan community, a Christian sect. Another Times article, from 1938, noted that the organization served as a clubhouse for many different ethnic communities and that it had built up an ample library for local youth, run with help from "Polish, Armenian, Russian, Mexican, French and Chinese girls." Today, the institute offers services that range from legal assistance to programs for children and it continues to support of migrants, including refugees and unaccompanied minors.

A row of freshly filled graves at Evergreen Cemetery, located at 204 N. Evergreen Avenue in Boyle Heights. No date given. (Security Pacific National Bank Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

Evergreen Cemetery

Dating to the late 1800s, Evergreen Cemetery is a testament to the multi-ethnic history of Boyle Heights but it comes with a caveat. Segregation existed in cemeteries across the United States, and Los Angeles was no different. Evergreen didn't completely exclude people by race but not all the dead were treated equally. Early Chinese migrants were buried in the potter's field for a fee, which wouldn't have been required for anyone else buried in that area. Some of their remains were discovered during construction of the Gold Line, which lead to a monument that was erected here in 2010. Elsewhere, you'll find sections of the cemetery that are distinguishable by the ethnicity of the deceased. Near the entrance is the Japanese section, which features a monument to Japanese-American soldiers who died fighting in World War II or the Korean War.

There's also a small section of headstones with Armenian last names. I only know this because two of my great-grandparents are buried there. This enclave points to the early and often overlooked history of Armenian Angelenos. In 1925, a USC graduate student named Aram Yeretzian documented the local Armenian community of his era. His paper notes that Armenians had been settling in various parts of Los Angeles and surrounding cities for a few decades. Boyle Heights was home to a community of about 800 "Russian-Armenians," people from regions that were under Russian control in the early 1900s. That area includes parts of present-day Turkey and Armenia. At that time, Boyle Heights was also home to an Armenian school and an Armenian branch of the YMCA. The Armenians who came to Boyle Heights were among an early wave of Armenians who settled in Los Angeles during the early 20th century. It would be a few more decades before the community swelled in the greater L.A. area.

El Mercadito (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

El Mercado de Los Angeles

Known as a hub for Mexican food and goods, El Mercado de Los Angeles opened in 1968 as an international market. The multi-level complex, with an entrance situated against a side-street parking lot, welcomes you into a maze of stalls where vendors sell everything from spices to t-shirts. There are plenty of food options from icy, fruity raspados to hearty seafood cocktails to sweet baked goods. For a more leisurely, sit-down meal, head to the mariachi restaurants on the top floor where you can catch live music on weekday evenings as well as weekend afternoons and evenings. El Mercadito, as its known, gets busy, especially on weekends

The exterior of the building was redesigned by artist Jose Luis Gonzalez of Goez Art Studios in 1991. An important figure in the Chicano Art movement, Gonzalez has painted a number of well-known murals in the region and opened his studio in nearby East L.A. His work on the building's facade includes mosaics featuring Mayan temples and figures from Mayan mythology. There's been talk that El Mercadito is going to be developed but so far, that hasn't happened.