Where Is LA’s Eastside? A Brief History Of Class, Gentrification And Maps

Published July 22, 2019

In 2014, the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council voted to stop calling Silver Lake “the Eastside.”

In practice, the vote was relatively meaningless — there was no way to enforce it, and the council had no authority to require compliance from anyone — but it was a symbolic effort to end the fight over the exact location of L.A.’s Eastside.

The debate had begun slowly. As neighborhoods like Los Feliz, Silver Lake and Echo Park began gentrifying in the late 1990s and early aughts, new residents started to refer to the areas as “the Eastside” — presumably in reference to the communities’ proximity to the Pacific Ocean.

But what those recent inhabitants seemed to either not realize or disregard was that the “Eastside” nickname was already taken. It was shorthand for the predominantly Mexican American neighborhoods located east of the L.A. River, like Boyle Heights, El Sereno and Lincoln Heights.

As the argument heated up online, it touched on issues of race, class, gentrification, community, culture and identity.

In the 2000s, some Eastsiders fought back against co-opting of the “Eastside” name by slapping up stickers around the west bank declaring, “THIS IS NOT THE EAST SIDE!”

In the 2000s, some Eastsiders fought back against co-opting of the “Eastside” name by slapping up stickers around the west bank declaring, “THIS IS NOT THE EAST SIDE!” (Courtesy LAEastside.com)

IT’S PERSONAL. IT’S PRIDE.

Activist Al Guerrero, an East Los Angeles* native who advocated for the SLNC to vote in favor of eliminating the phrase, told LAist that “the real Eastside (east of the L.A. River) means, to me, a community born from marginalization, that thrived and fought the challenges of racism and oppression to create a culture of identity and pride.”

Guerrero calls the gentrifiers’ mindset “a bubble world where L.A. begins at Santa Monica and ends in Echo Park and there’s nothing south of Wilshire.”

Jesús Sanchez, also a native of East Los Angeles, runs the blog The Eastsider and disagrees with Guerrero’s geographic boundaries.

“For me, [the Eastside] is basically from like unincorporated East L.A. all the way to Los Feliz and Hollywood,” he said. “It’s a feel or vibe...it’s, ‘Would I feel at home here?’ It’s very personal, which is something that explains a lot of the friction over the issue.”

CIRCA 1781

The Silver Lake Neighborhood Council meeting addressed a modern-day conundrum, but L.A.’s Eastside/Westside demarcations date back to the 1700s.

In 1781, 44 individuals set up a settlement called El Pueblo de La Reina de Los Angeles at the base of the Elysian Park hills, straddling the banks of the L.A. River. The waterway’s east and west sides were promptly designated for two different purposes, according to a map drawn up by a Spanish soldier in 1786. The west bank was for the settlers. The east bank was “lands belonging to the crown.”

Over the years, the area was built up, industrialized and parts of it were incorporated along with the rest of Los Angeles.

By the 20th century, neighborhoods east of the river — including Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, El Sereno and East Los Angeles — drew a wide range of immigrant and minority communities.

Neighborhoods east of the L.A. River (1): Lincoln Heights (2), El Sereno (3) and Lincoln Heights (4).

Neighborhoods east of the L.A. River (1): Lincoln Heights (2), El Sereno (3) and Boyle Heights (4). (Dana Amihere/LAist)

CIRCA 1970s

Eventually, the area became populated largely by one group.

“[Because of] rising patterns of immigration from Mexico beginning in the 1970s,” said Eric Avila, a professor of Chicano studies and history at UCLA, “that area became predominantly Mexican American.”

As the century progressed and the counterculture took hold, L.A.’s Mexican American community began finding its voice in politics. The group’s art, activism and intellectual output birthed the Chicano movement, a political and cultural uprising spearheaded by young community members who were fighting, among other things, for equality, self-determination and self-identity.

Linda Vallejo, an artist and teacher whose work is in the permanent collections of The National Museum of Mexican Art, Carnegie Art Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Print Department among many others, lived in East Los Angeles at that time and was at the center of the Chicano movement.

“It was a really beautiful time where people were coming together, the community was coming together and discovering itself and its history and its roots,” she said. “The artists were really working hard together to create a movement of their own and a voice of their own and to be recognized for that… the blacks were doing the same thing, the feminists were doing the same thing and the Chicanos in East L.A. were doing the same thing — creating a new image, a new voice.”

Harry Gamboa Jr., another artist at the vortex of the Chicano movement whose work has been exhibited at the Autry Museum of the American West, the Marlborough Contemporary, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among many others, said, “The original set of Chicano artists [included] many poets, writers and philosophers...East L.A. was always very fertile ground.”

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MAPPING IDENTITY

In the wake of the movement, the term Eastside came to symbolize more than just a geographic area.

“Eastside [is] a state of mind,” said Avila. There was a “whole style that developed around this Eastsider or Eastside way of life.”

“When you are working to build something, it becomes an emotional commitment, a spiritual commitment,” adds Vallejo. “It’s like a family commitment. [There’s a] loyalty to the Eastside. The Eastside means something. The emblem is imbued with loyalty, honor, culture, history, familia – all the kinds of things that make for commitment.”

BACK TO THE VOTE

Brought forth in a motion by councilmember Dorit Dowler-Guerrero, the vote that night at the Micheltorena Elementary School in Silver Lake was, at best, fraught.

East Los Angeles is NOT the same as the Eastside, ya dig? (East Los Angeles is actually an unincorporated area governed by L.A. County.)

East Los Angeles is NOT the same as the Eastside, ya dig? (East Los Angeles is actually an unincorporated area governed by L.A. County.) (Courtesy (Amayzun/Flickr Creative Commons)

One councilmember “rais[ed] her voice,” according to a liveblog published by Curbed LA. Another person wondered aloud why the council would take away his “badge of honor” by revoking Silver Lake’s Eastside status.

“The vote caused a lot of ruffled feathers,” said Dowler-Guerrero in an email. “A lot of folks had a vested interest in the Eastside branding of Silver Lake and neighboring communities.”

Ultimately, the SLNC voted 12 to 3 (with one abstention) to stop describing themselves as the Eastside.

Guerrero insists that to this day, some people still ignore the decision. “The false label carries just too much ‘hip edginess’ to give up so easily,” he said.

He’s not wrong. In 2016, Leonardo DiCaprio, who grew up in Echo Park, told a reporter on the Academy Awards’ red carpet that he was from “East Los Angeles.”

BORDER PATROL

Sanchez, the editor of The Eastsider blog, continues to cover neighborhoods west of the river on the website. He’s made peace with the fact that the group he calls “border patrol” — those who maintain that the river is the Eastside’s boundary — will likely never see things his way.

“This is what I feel,” he said. “I am not changing my mind, I am not going to change your mind because you don’t want to change your mind either. We can coexist.”

Artist Linda Vallejo, meanwhile, may have come up with a third solution. Noting that “what comes out of East L.A. has really added to the flavor of Los Angeles; the food, the music, the cultural statements, the imagery,” she has decided to lay claim to an area that vastly exceeds either side of the L.A. River.

“I am an Angeleno — the whole damn city belongs to me,” she said. “All of L.A. is the Eastside.”

* A gentle reminder for those who need it: East Los Angeles is an unincorporated area governed by L.A. County, not to be confused with the more amorphous Eastside.