How An Outsider Found Identity And Belonging In The Intangible Shared Spaces Of A Redlined City

James Rojas, an urban planner, leading one of his Place IT! workshops which uses model-building and on-site interactive models to help engage the public in the planning and design process. (Courtesy James Rojas)

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By James Rojas

Growing up Chicano in L.A. during the '60s and '70s, I had an emotional attachment to African Americans. Whites were the disciplinarians: Irish nuns, teachers, and authority figures like the L.A. County Sheriff's deputies who patrolled my East Los Angeles neighborhood.

Maybe it's because as Chicanos, we were outsiders, too.

African American culture, friends and peers provided me with a way to feel the world through play, laughter, music, and dance, in a way that the white mainstream culture did not. A space to belong in, shared with others who were also outside the mainstream.

This started for me at home. We did not watch Spanish-language TV or listen to mariachi music in our house. Our TV was set to the major networks, but we connected most with Black shows such as "The Flip Wilson Show" and "Sanford and Son." My second-generation Mexican American parents, who identified as Chicano, grew up listening to rhythm & blues and Latin jazz, which was heavily influenced by Black jazz artists. They saw R&B singers and bands at Laguna Park (now Salazar Park), a few blocks east of L.A.'s city limits. For my younger aunts and uncles, it was soul. (For me, it was disco, which I'll discuss later.)

Furthermore, Chicanos, like my parents, found a common cause in the civil rights movement, which planted the seeds for what eventually became the Chicano Movement.

The neighborhoods of Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles, where I grew up, were relatively close to Black South Los Angeles, all of them communities shaped by segregation. Through redlining, we minorities were forced to live in certain areas of the city. Despite the physical separation, we learned from each other through culture.

During the 1930s, the Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC), created "Residential Security" maps of major American cities. Neighborhoods were rated and then mapped by color; green for A, blue for B, yellow for C, and red for D - the origin of the term "redlining." This is a HOLC map of South Los Angeles. (Courtesy "Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America")

It's sad that war brings prosperity, but World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars brought economic prosperity for both the Mexican American and African American communities in Los Angeles. From Downtown L.A.'s bustling Broadway retail district to the manufacturing plants of Vernon, working-class Black and Latino Angelenos shared these spaces and sometimes neighborhoods.

Veterans from both our communities brought back new ideas from their national and overseas experiences. On the home front, the Mexican American workforce developed a sense of pride and bravado in their industrial and manufacturing work. And as with African Americans, it also meant these workers were buying homes, including in neighborhoods outside the traditional inner city neighborhoods.

All of us outsiders, learning from each other.

EASTSIDE LATIN JAZZ

There's maybe no better example of this learning than my relative, the late jazz pianist and bandleader Eddie Cano. Music was a big part of my family's life. My grandparents liked big bands and tangos. Eddie liked jazz.

Born in L.A. in 1927 in Chavez Ravine, he began studying classical piano. Then, in his teen years, like other young Mexican American musicians, he would go to Central Avenue to listen to jazz at the Black clubs there. He fused his Mexican American heritage and classical training with the jazz he loved to create new sounds, which would form part of what became known as Latin jazz.


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What Eddie learned on Central Avenue, he brought back to the Eastside, where young musicians like him found a national audience as well as a local one.

America's changing tastes and embrace of the rumba, cha cha and mambo had helped create a new demand for musical experimentation, and East L.A. became a nexus. From the mid '50s to late '60s, unincorporated East L.A. was the epicenter for a new form of Latin jazz in L.A., and possibly the nation, that was distinctly Chicano.

This drew crowds of nicely-dressed young Chicano fans to an Eastside music scene that back then rivaled that of L.A.'s famous Sunset Strip or Central Avenue.

The old dance halls and church halls of Boyle Heights gave way to a smaller series of nightclubs farther east. The same lack of curfew enforcement and the live-and-let-live attitude that created the Sunset Strip existed in unincorporated East L.A., and dozens of small clubs flourished along Whittier Boulevard, starting east of the Los Angeles River to Atlantic Boulevard. More clubs stretched from Atlantic Boulevard south of Monterey Park to the City of Commerce, supported by a wealth of talent and community.

A table at Club Alabam, a famed L.A. nightclub at 42nd and Central Avenue, circa 1941. Revered as a jazz mecca, musicians and singers such as Billie Holiday, T-Bone Walker, Josephine Baker, Herb Jeffries, Art Pepper, Anita O'Day and Dorothy Dandridge took the Alabam stage. (Shades of L.A. Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

The Eastside blossomed as a musical center for the Latin jazz that grew from what musicians like my relative Eddie brought east with them from South L.A. — learned from the Black jazz masters who had brought their art west to California, to us.

PALM-LINED STREETS AND COMMUNITY

One day, my parents hung up a green and orange abstract painting of arrows they had purchased from my aunt's partner, Joe, a painter who was Black. He lived in South L.A. He talked about how the straight lines in the landscape such as the streets, sidewalks, and houses influenced his work.

Los Angeles artist Joe Norman studied at the Chouinard Art Institute (what is today the California Institute of the Arts). When James Rojas was young, Norman's art helped inspire his fascination with cities. (Courtesy James Rojas)

Listening to him, I began to see the lines on my neighborhood sidewalks, yellow-painted lines on streets, and discern the man-made from the natural world around me. This created a visual order, or formula, that helped launch my fascination with cities.

Growing up, we often visited family friends who lived in South L.A. A family we knew had moved up and out of Boyle Heights to have a fresh start there. I made friends and played with the local kids. The front-yard lawns of South L.A. were better maintained than ours on the Eastside. The uniform blocks of Spanish-style homes, ample yards, and palm-tree-lined streets were better designed than our ragtag Eastside blocks.

Those streets, perhaps the same ones that inspired Joe's painting, had a lasting impression on me.

I remember visiting South L.A. during the time of the Watts Riots. Once, when we visited the family we knew, an eerie silence engulfed the block. The front-yard playgrounds had become a demilitarized zone.

Nervously, a lady came out of her home to warn us of snipers. I imagined that behind the venetian blinds covering the large arched windows of the bungalows were men with long-barrel rifles ready to shoot us, like in old Western movies. All of us, Black and Brown, together.

Like plastic green toy soldiers, there were real-life soldiers stationed along random street corners in South L.A. as we drove through, heading back east. I was expecting to see a tank, but no luck. It was then that I realized the city is a fragile place, where things beyond my control can set it off. During these moments the city felt vulnerable. It was the first time I remember this feeling of the landscape becoming different, divided. It stuck with me.

A FRIEND IN A DIVIDED PLACE

Abruptly, while I was in high school, my parents moved out of East Los Angeles to Alhambra, which was predominately white. The larger homes, the bigger lots, and lack of people on the streets made me realize I was in a different sort of neighborhood than where I grew up, or even the neat South L.A. streets where I spent time. Here, division was palpable.

Our white neighbors built a barbed-wire barrier along our shared backyard fence. They kept to themselves and did not bother to talk to us, which in Latino L.A. would be considered rude.

I knew I was not going to make white friends in my new neighborhood. Then, I met Sharon. She was Black and in high school, like me, and lived a few blocks away, in a predominantly Black enclave that I was happy to discover was there. The small houses and a one-room church dominated the block.

Her family was from Louisiana, and the house and lot were inspired by that lush faraway landscape, covered in plants. The small house tilted and inside, it was filled with beautiful antiques. In the safety of her little community, Sharon made me feel accepted, and she became a big part of social life in my new neighborhood. We became fast party friends, and spent many weekends socializing together throughout our teen years.

James Rojas, second from left, with friends at an Eastside backyard disco party in the late 1970s. (Courtesy James Rojas)

My nonwhite peers would become especially important to me as I came of age. And again, as a Chicano and an outsider, it was Black art and music that gave me a safe space in which to be myself. In my teen years, Black disco music, flamboyant fashion, and dance helped me find my sexual identity and place when I came out, at the age of 15.

'WE OWNED THE CITY FROM THE BACK OF THE BUS'

The macho Eastside landscape was a hard place for queer Latino youth to find a safe space to be ourselves. My friends and I would take the Rapid Transit District bus from the Eastside through downtown L.A., en route to Hollywood. It was a long journey but I became used to it. At the 5th and Hill bus stop, we would be joined by African American youths making the same journey, but from South L.A., on to the Hollywood clubs.

The bus aisle became a fashion runway. Wearing platform shoes, tight pants, feathered hair, afros, and stack perms, we headed to the back of the bus trying to look cool on the shaking RTD floor. Once we joined our tribe in the back, the engine would groan, and we Black/Latinx queens would strain to talk smack over the noise. This was my Black and Brown community, and we owned the city from the back of the bus. The fresh night air created a sense of possibility and energy as we exited the bus together on Santa Monica and Highland.

L.A.'s Broadway entertainment and shopping district was another one of these safe shared spaces for me in my youth.The street was always packed with shoppers of all colors. I worked in the May Company department store, located in the predominantly Black section of the Broadway shopping district. It was here that I was introduced to gay retail scene, and found a new kind of freedom walking down this vibrant street.

Checking out who was coming in and out the men's room and shooting the breeze in-between sales with my gay fellow clerks, many of them African American, was how we passed the time away in clearance basement of the grand old May Co. store.

Sadly, many of the L.A. Black and Brown spaces of my youth no longer exist. Those old stores are gone. I haven't ridden that bus in years, and it doesn't stop at 5th and Hill anymore. And the Eastside Latin jazz clubs are a memory, let alone the old South L.A. clubs that inspired them. However, the loss of all these things makes the memories more precious.

Memories have also influenced my work as a city planner. Because I always begin with residents' memories to start the city planning process. These memories, needs and aspirations can't be found on a map. It's the city I cannot see that I am interested in knowing and feeling.

As a Latino, I will never know what it is like to be Black or white. However, as a Chicano youth, growing up in L.A. allowed me to learn through my experiences from these two worlds. Through our shared experiences, we blurred the L.A. redlining map and found identity, and community, in the fusion.

I learned lessons about community, about learning from one another, about being stronger together.

I found comfort and acceptance of my sexual identity outside of my own Latino community, in safe spaces where Black and Brown kids looked out for one another. These experiences made me the person I am today.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

James Rojas is an urban planner and artist, veteran, community activist, and educator. He is the founder of Place It!, an hands-on community engagement practice that uses storytelling, objects, and play to help individuals and communities reflect, collaborate, and find their core values based on their memory, sensory experiences, needs, and aspirations. He is currently co-writing a book on community engagement for Island Press.