Sharing History With The Boyle Heights Historical Society

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Yesterday’s “doubleheader” of presentations on regional history at the Homestead and Chino Hills was followed this afternoon by another talk given to the Boyle Heights Historical Society at its monthly meeting in that neighborhood’s city hall.  The PowerPoint-illustrated discussion was an overview of some of the elements of the history of the community through the 1920s given to a group with a lot of new directors.

My association with the Society goes back to its founding in 2005 after inspiration derived from a Japanese-American National Museum exhibit on Boyle Heights, in which I was involved as a research consultant assisting with photo collection sessions and the conducting of oral histories.

When the Society was established, I was asked to join and have remained a member of the Advisory Board.  I have been happy to make presentations on several occasions for Society functions and events and, since 2009, have managed its history blog.  The ties between the Homestead and the Society have been well-established and today’s presentation was a continuation of that relationship.

WH Workman 1880s
William H. Workman (1839-1918), a founder of Boyle Heights, named for his father-in-law, Andrew Boyle.

The talk began with the observation that, although it deals with pre-written history, the native peoples of our region undoubtedly utilized what became Boyle Heights for hunting animals, gathering plant materials and other uses, if not for settlement, though the Yang-na village in what is downtown Los Angeles was nearby.

In 1835, Esteban López was given a grant of land in what was then known as Paredon Blanco (White Bluffs), so named because of the bluffs overlooking the Los Angeles River and the city.  López and his children settled in the area, building homes, establishing vineyards, and raising crops over decades of residence.  A son of López, Francisco (Chico) was particularly industrious with his portion of the Paredon Blanco area.

Petra Varela, widow of Esteban, who died in 1852, sold most of her holdings to Andrew Boyle six years later.  Boyle, a native of Ireland who was a resident of the San Patricio (get it?) colony in Texas and who later lived in New Orleans, came to California as a widower and had his only child, daughter Maria (pronounced Mah-rye-ah) sent out after a few years.  A brief period in San Francisco was followed by the move to Los Angeles and the acquisition of much of the López holdings.

130 093
An early map showing the Boyle Heights area, with the Los Angeles River at the left and the bluffs sketched out in sections 63, 60, and 59, along which most of the early settlers, including the López, Boyle and other families lived.

Boyle built the first brick house east of the river and maintained the successful management of the vineyards that came with his purchase.  A shoe store owner, as well as winemaker, Boyle served on the Los Angeles Common [City] Council and became well-known in his roughly dozen years in Los Angeles.

In 1871, four years after Maria married William H. Workman, a saddler and nephew of Homestead owners William and Nicolasa Workman, Boyle passed away, leaving his property to his daughter and son-in-law.  At the time, Los Angeles was in the midst of its first period of sustained and significant growth and William H. Workman recognized an opportunity to participate in the development of the city.

Two years after East Los Angeles (later renamed Lincoln Heights) was founded just to the north, Workman teamed with John Lazzarovich, a native of what is now Croatia who married into the López family, and Isaias W. Hellman, a Bavarian Jew and a highly successful banker, to subdivide Boyle Heights.  The three had ambitious plans for the community, but an economic crash punctuated by the failure of the Temple and Workman bank in 1876, stifled growth in the new community for about a decade.

Breed Street School Boyle Heights 2010.291.1.1
Breed Street School, 1891.

An early resident and investor in Boyle Heights was John E. Hollenbeck, an American who tried to come to California during the Gold Rush but was stranded because of a lack of funds in Panama.  He remained in Nicaragua for about a quarter century, operating a successful shipping and transportation business and a hotel, the latter with his German-born wife Elizabeth Hatsfeld.

The couple came to Los Angeles  just as Boyle Heights was being created, bought property there, deposited $20,000 in the Temple and Workman bank, and returned to Nicaragua to close their affairs there.  Upon returning to the City of Angels, they learned of the financial crisis, including the loss of their funds.  They remained, however, building a fine estate on the bluff and Hollenbeck became a prominent figure in banking and real estate until his death in 1885.

Elizabeth Hollenbeck ably managed her late husband’s affairs and, in his name, turned their estate into a home for indigent seniors (today it is the Hollenbeck Palms home for senior citizens).  With William H. Workman, she donated land to create Hollenbeck Park in her husband’s honor.  From its opening in the early 1890s, the park has remained a core part of the community.

Moonlight Hollenbeck Park 2008.369.2.2
A beautiful early 20th-century view of Hollenbeck Park at night.

Boyle Heights, which benefited from the famed Boom of the 1880s which took place when William H. Workman was mayor of Los Angeles in 1887-88, was generally promoted as an upper middle class enclave, especially with its fine views from the bluffs.  Improved transportation, including a cable railway completed in 1889, a proliferation of churches and public schools, and a commercial core along Brooklyn Avenue (now César Chavez Avenue), were integral to the neighborhood’s growth and development in its early years.

As an industrial core rose along the west side of the Los Angeles River, Boyle Heights changed into more of a working class community during the first three decades of the 20th century, while the well-to-do largely migrated to neighborhoods west of downtown.  Restrictive covenants, limiting which ethnic groups could live in most areas of the city, were not established in Boyle Heights, so Asians, blacks, and Latinos made up a substantial proportion of the population, as did a substantial contingent of Molokan Russians and Jews.

The ethnic diversity of Boyle Heights was particularly striking during much of the 20th century and, while the racial harmony found in the neighborhood has perhaps been somewhat idealized, the class structure in the community did tend to bring people of varying ethnic groups together in ways not found in most of Los Angeles.

Orphans Asylum Boyle Heights Los Angeles 2011.450.1.1
The Los Angeles County Orphans Asylum, long located in this rather imposing edifice in Boyle Heights.

From about 1965 onward, Boyle Heights gradually became a predominant Latino community and recent years have been marked by the controversy of gentrification, an issue that remains potent as redevelopment, new development and rents and home values have risen dramatically.

One of the most important elements of the history of Boyle Heights, as with most communities, is the nature of change.  This can often be unsettling and painful, but transformation is almost always unavoidable.  Promoting the history of this neighborhood is vital for understanding the nature of changing communities and it was a pleasure to be at today’s meeting to discuss the importance of some of that history.

In fact, just after I finished Tracey and Brian Lane of Angels Walk LA, which has developed self-guided historic trails throughout the city for over twenty years, gave an update on the Boyle Heights trail, which is slated to be completed soon.  I had the honor recently to participate in the project by writing text for four of the fifteen stanchions that will be placed, largely along First Street, in the community.  Hopefully, the Angels Walk trail for Boyle Heights will be a valued part of the recognition of the fascinating and diverse history found in this vibrant neighborhood.

Leave a Reply