by Paul R. Spitzzeri
I had the pleasure of participating this morning in a program, “Boyle Heights Walking Tour: Placemaking to Activism,” sponsored by Nature for All, an organization dedicated to providing more access to nature and activities related to it by protecting natural resources, creating parks and bike paths among other amenities, and connecting people to these opportunities.
The walking tour began at 8:30 at Roosevelt High School and two community members and activists spoke as we gathered in the front hall of the school about their work to protect and preserve a historic building on campus (the “R”, or sometimes called the “A” Building) as Los Angeles Unified School District embarked on a modernization and improvement program at the school.
As is often the case, however, communication with the community was, to these speakers, lacking and a lawsuit was filed to try and halt the demolition of the building. While this effort failed, what did transpire was that the district allowed for a center to be built on the campus that focuses on the history of the campus, including that of the building. The presentations showed that community activism can achieve successes, even if some of the aims and goals are not met.
Roosevelt, which opened in 1923 during a boom period in Los Angeles and in Boyle Heights, remained the only secondary school in the community for many decades, despite the growth of the local population. As recently as a little over a decade ago, the campus had one of the largest student body populations in America with over 5,000 students and a year-round schedule was required to accommodate the size of the population. After new school were added, the Roosevelt population declined by some 75% and is now about 1,400, so concerns about its future are being expressed by community members, especially in light of recent pushes within the district for more charter schools.
Another interesting site to visit with respect to dramatic changes in Boyle Heights was the Metro Gold Line station at Soto and 1st streets in the heart of the community. There speakers involved in the local neighborhood council talked about the idea of “place making,” which is an urban planning concept, though there was some discussion about what that term really means, given the places have existed before they were “made” by human action. Even with human interfaces with place, though, there are reinventions, including the gentrification that has caused a great deal of controversy in Boyle Heights.
After such experiences in places like Silver Lake, Echo Park, and Highland Park, the gentrification process in Boyle Heights definitely impacts the use of public space, but that question went back before that, as existing ordinances and statutes, developed in many cases by a dominant Anglo society, were being challenged by uses of public space by ethnic groups, principally Latino, that thought and acted differently about what these areas mean. This has to do with questions like street vending, for example, but there was also discussion about murals, homelessness, altares (altars to the deceased, principally), and others.
My involvement was with two other locations, Evergreen Cemetery and Hollenbeck Park, these being probably the best-known public spaces in Boyle Heights. While I was asked to participate by giving some historical background on these locales, I tried to bring in issues of how these spaces are dealt with now and what their futures could be, on a very general level.
We didn’t actually go to the cemetery, stopping at nearby Evergreen Park instead. There, I talked about the cemetery’s origins in 1877, two years after Boyle Heights was founded, as the first corporate one in the region, as well as the fact that its placement on the eastern extremity of city limits was on land not considered as valuable and useful as others in Boyle Heights.
Still, Evergreen was extensively improved with plants, trees, and walks, has a beautiful chapel designed by Arthur B. Benton, perhaps best known for his work on Riverside’s exuberant and exotic Mission Inn, and had other amenities that made the cemetery an attractive public space, as well as a profitable project for its creators and investors.
Many early pioneers and powerful movers and shakers in Los Angeles are buried there, including Isaac Van Nuys, a San Fernando Valley developer; John E. Hollenbeck, who owned much property in Boyle Heights, on the Rancho La Puente in modern West Covina, and in downtown Los Angeles; and the family of William Workman’s brother David, including Boyle Heights founder, William H. Workman.
Yet, in segregated areas of the burying ground there are substantial areas of burial plots for Chinese residents of Los Angeles (some of the remains of these persons were actually found outside the cemetery when the Gold Line was built through the area, leading to obvious questions about what operators of the burying ground did beyond the walls of their facility) and others. One notable person of color brought up in the limited time available was Bridget (Biddy) Mason, a black woman brought as a slave to Gold Rush California, but who sued for her freedom as slavery was illegal in California and then went on to amass a substantial amount of real estate in Los Angeles.
I also noted that a reluctant City Council (which had a city-owned property in mind for a cemetery at the time) insisted that the operators of Evergreen set aside 10 acres for the burial of the indigent and poor (the proverbial “potter’s field) and which later included the county crematory, which still operates for that same population today.
After 140 years, though, Evergreen is basically at “build out,” meaning there’s very little space left for new burials (well over 300,000 people are at rest there now), so the managing entity is resorting to film shoots to raise revenue, while skimping on maintenance to save expenses.
This has caused outrage among many who remember its green lawns and healthy plant life and are saddened to see the decrepit state of late. As we finished our discussion, however, it was observed that some other governance may have to take place for improvements to be made, perhaps with Evergreen as a city or regional park and with access to, say, park bond funds.
The last location visited, after a brief detour in the building containing the offices of city council member José Huizar where some cool old photos of the community are in the main hallway, was Hollenbeck Park. Again, I was asked to provide a brief historical sketch of the park before a community member talked about the problem of securing the resources to allow for residents to have the expected amenities of a park, such as permanent bathrooms.
I noted that the park was established as a monument to John Hollenbeck, whose large estate was just to the west, by his widow, Elizabeth and Hollenbeck’s friend, William H. Workman. The famed Boom of the 1880s, which brought a large population, largely of people from the midwestern and eastern states, included the development of a series of public parks (Westlake, Elysian, and Eastlake [now Lincoln], among them.) This not only beautified the city (a national movement to beautify growing cities, many with heavy industry was underfoot), but enhanced property valued and aided developers and homeowners.
In the case of Evergreen, Elizabeth Hollenbeck gave ten acres and William H. Workman (mayor during the Boom and a parks commissioner for much of the 1890s) offered fifteen, on condition the city invest $15,000 to improve the park space. When plans were finished for the site, the boom had gone bust and America was entering a period of economic depression. With an emergency appropriation of sorts, the city got the money allotted toward the park and it opened in 1893.
Quickly, however, shoddy work was revealed, such as with pipes installed to bring water from a nearby reservoir to the lake and which failed soon after installation. The city had to appropriate additional funding to repair the damage and complete the work. Once that was done, both Mrs. Hollenbeck and Workman embarked on subdividing land they owned around the park into Hollenbeck Heights and Workman Park, respectively. The use of public funds for improving the park raised property values and boosted profits for the two benefactors.
Yet, Hollenbeck Park was a showpiece for the community, which was largely developed for middle and upper middle class homeowners, especially those who lived adjacent to the park on Boyle Avenue and nearby streets. It was the site of some of the earliest film location shoots (there were also a couple of studios on Boyle Avenue near the park), as well. Over the years, however, as the community changed, so did the park.
The most egregious effect came in the post-World War II period when massive investments in regional freeways meant eminent domain proceedings in Boyle Heights, the bifurcation of portions of the community, and the division of the park. The construction of Interstate 5, in particular, dramatically changed the landscape and atmosphere at the park. As an older, economically less advantaged neighborhood, Boyle Heights had little say in how the freeway project (along with others, like public housing projects) was planned and executed.
Still, the park is an important public asset and those members active in Boyle Heights who were on the tour and spoke to their concerns and aims for the future, conveyed the commitment to community that was what this tour was largely about. I really enjoyed taking part, especially having about three hours to walk the community and take in what was being seen and heard on the tour. For the Homestead, working with the history of Boyle Heights, because of the connection to its founder William H. Workman and its early years fitting into our time frame, can be enhanced by comparing and contrasting these concepts with current conditions and future possibilities.