by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This cloudy, cool morning, I met with an artist working on a project (more on that in a future post) in the community of Boyle Heights on the east side of Los Angeles, specifically walking through and offering thoughts on the history of two of the neighborhood’s most identifiable, best-known locales: Hollenbeck Park and Evergreen Cemetery.
It occurred to me as we perambulated (now, there’s an archaic word for you!) through these places that it has been nearly a quarter-century since I had the good fortune to be invited to participate in the Japanese-American National Museum’s remarkable exhibit on Boyle Heights called The Power of Place. This was not only an opportunity to work on a true neighborhood history project that included photo collection days and the conducting of oral histories, but led to my joining, as an advisory board member, the Boyle Heights Historical Society when it formed in 2005.
What followed was attendance at Society events, presentations on the community’s history, and, for several years, writing and editing posts on its blog. In more recent years, there has also been involvement with Boyle Heights Community Partners, including taking part in events and giving talks, such as a series given virtually during the pandemic. A few years ago, there was another excellent project, this being the Boyle Heights installment of the Angels Walk LA self-guided historic trails with contributions for several of the kiosks placed along a 1.4 mile route, largely along First Street.
All of these experiences expanded and enriched what began as a basic knowledge of the early history of the community, launched in 1875 by William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead owners William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste and whose father-in-law Andrew Boyle is the neighborhood’s namesake, banker Isaias W. Hellman, and merchant John Lazzarovich, who was married into the López family, which settled what was long known as Paredon Blanco (White Bluff, the distinguishing feature of the landform separating The Flats adjacent to the Los Angeles River from the rest of the community) in the 1830s.
Taking part in all of these activities deepened the understanding of the richness and diversity of Boyle Heights as it evolved over the decades through the end of the Homestead’s interpretive period of 1930 and, to a certain extent, beyond, including some remarkable contributions to the Boyle Heights History Blog by fellow Historical Society advisory board member Rudy Martinez. While the Workman family connection was an entry point, the doors opened widely through all of these endeavors over nearly 25 years.
Because of the time warp that marked the COVID-19 pandemic, it wasn’t just that it had been several years since I’d been to Hollenbeck Park and Evergreen Cemetery, but it felt like any previous visits there were much longer ago. Beyond that, asked to record my thoughts on the historical significance and current conditions of these landmark locales forced me to view these places differently and look at them with something like new lenses.
Narrating while walking was something of a novel experience and the comparison of the pasts of these sites with today’s environment brought a new appreciation for these venerable community touchstones. For example, in driving out to Boyle Heights and, thinking the meeting would only be at Hollenbeck, I imagined talking at some length about its founding by Workman and Elizabeth Hatsfeldt Hollenbeck in memory of the latter’s husband, John and the park’s development and change over time.
While there certainly was mention of that, including the fact that its early 1890s establishment on about 20 acres was part of a “parks boom” in the Angel City during the late 19th century, a situation that was not sustained and which meant that a burgeoning Los Angeles became noticeably “park deprived,” the walk around the lake and taking in what was happening in the moment became more important than anticipated.
This included observing musicians (a guitarist and trumpeter), those getting exercise, and families with children at a recently installed playground. It meant taking stock of the intrusion on this urban retreat by the “progress” of freeway construction in the 1950s and 1960s, but also recognizing the unintended artistic effects wrought on the southern end of the park by light filtering (well, not today!) through the gap between north and south bound lanes on Interstate 10, the patterns of the undersides of the overpasses, and other features.
The three large fountains spraying water in the lake, the overgrowth on the island, the still-standing, but somewhat decaying gazebo projecting into the water, the sloping lawns and the landscape including trees, bushes and shrubs also stood out. Comparing the park today to photos in the Homestead’s collection dating from the late Nineties through the Roaring Twenties, it is clear that, despite the radically different socio-economic conditions and the transformation of demographics in Boyle Heights, Hollenbeck is still a vital and vibrant community amenity, even with mounting inequities and lacking resources.
In the 1890s, the park was not just founded as a memorial to John Hollenbeck, who became a notable capitalist (builder of the Hollenbeck Block and Hotel in Los Angeles) and real estate investor (including owning a large part of Rancho La Puente in West Covina and Covina) in the region during the decade he lived in Boyle Heights, but also served as a centerpiece for the sale of lots owned by Workman and Elizabeth Hollenbeck in the tony tract surrounding it.
Notably, some of these houses are still standing on the streets, principally Boyle Avenue and St. Louis Street, surrounding the park. Just west of the north end at the northwest corner of Boyle and 4th was the Workman estate, now the location of the contested Sakura Gardens of Los Angeles assisted living facility, which has long catered to Japanese-American residents. Immediately west across Boyle is another residential care facility, Hollenbeck Palms, established on the Hollenbeck estate.
Across from the southeast end of the park is another retirement home, Hollenbeck Terrace, that was a 190-bed hospital, built in 1905 and razed and reconstructed about two decades later, and operated by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway for employees and their families on the Coast Lines part of the system and then was the Linda Vista Community Hospital. Part of the complex is the Linda Vista senior apartments. Plenty of late 19th and early 20th century houses are also found on the edges of the park, which is now 130 years old and, hopefully, remains a Boyle Heights centerpiece for many generations to come.
While it was not planned as part of the morning, it was decided to head over to Evergreen Cemetery and have the same kind of experience, recording historical reflections and modern impressions of this 67-acre site, opened in 1877, which is the final resting place of some 300,000 persons. It was mentioned that the earliest cemeteries in the city included the original Catholic burying ground adjacent to the Old Plaza Church, the Calvary Cemetery at the base of the Elysian Hills with the Jewish cemetery nearby, and the City Cemetery on Fort Moore Hill.
Just after Los Angeles went through its first boom, lasting from about 1868 to 1875 though it was much smaller than the many that followed, Evergreen was established on the eastern edge of city limits and had the distinction of being the first corporate cemetery in the Angel City. Many of the most prominent and powerful white personages and families were interred in Evergreen, many in close proximity to the decaying, but still striking, Ivy Chapel, including recognizable names like Lankershim, Van Nuys, Bixby, Foy, Griffin, Hazard, Perry, Toberman and Widney. There, too, are the Hollenbecks and Workmans (though William’s brother David, whose family hoped to move him there from El Campo Santo at the Homestead, remains at the latter when the request for reinterment was rejected.)
Yet, as the city diversified ethnically, Evergreen did so, as well, though African-Americans were not restricted when it was founded. So, Biddy Mason, the most prominent Black resident of the 19th century and who will be part of a presentation this Thursday night at the Ovitt Family Community Library in Ontario for the Juneteenth holiday, was buried there after her death in 1891. Other well-known African-Americans interred at Evergreen include newspaper publisher Charlotta Bass; actors Eddie Anderson and Matthew “Stymie” Boyd; Negro League Hall of Fame baseball player James “Biz” Mackey and Lonnie Clayton, the youngest jockey to win the Kentucky Derby; religious leader, the Rev. Charles Price Jones, Sr.; Los Angeles City Council member Gilbert Lindsay and state Assembly member Frederick M. Roberts; and many others.
A very large contingent of those in their final resting places at the cemetery are Japanese-Americans, many of whom resided in Boyle Heights. Zen Buddhist monk and teacher Nyogen Senzaki; renowned photographer, including of the concentration camps in which Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II, Toyo Miyatake; and many of the service members who fought in the all-Nisei (second-generation) 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated unit in American military history, are among the many Japanese-Americans buried there. One of the most impressive sights is the massive memorial to the 442nd at the northwest corner of the cemetery.
Mostly anonymous were members of the Chinese-American community of Los Angeles and this was made tragically manifest when they were only allowed to be buried in the 9-acre “potter’s field,” acquired by the county for indigent interments, though a historic shrine from the 1880s remains and was restored in recent years. When the L (Gold) light rail line was built and work was conducted just outside the southeast corner of Evergreen, a shocking discovery in 2005 yielded the remains of 174 Chinese persons, who were reburied inside the cemetery near the shrine with a memorial dedicated to them in 2010.
In recent years, the condition of Evergreen has deteriorated significantly, with the lawns largely brown or dead, tombstones damaged or toppled, and the general appearance of much of it rundown and forlorn. As with Hollenbeck Park, the appearance of the cemetery has changed a great deal over its history, with its 150th anniversary just a few years away. In spite of the general decline in care, Evergreen continues to be an important historic landmark for Boyle Heights and Los Angeles, though what the future portends for it is the question.
This morning’s visit to these two venerable Eastside sites was a welcome one and an opportunity to see and reflect on them in a different way than during previous visits. The Museum’s collection includes quite a number of fine pre-1930 photos of Hollenbeck, as well as a great 1901 booklet on Evergreen, so we’ll look to share these in future posts.