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A Los Angeles Primer: Boyle Heights

The stories of certain Los Angeles neighborhoods seem easy to tell. Sometimes their geography, architecture, and apparent population practically tell it for you. Boyle Heights, for instance, located just east of downtown over the river, looks and feels like a district that has drifted far from its original purposes. Like Westlake, the neighborhood around MacArthur Park, Boyle Heights built up its identity in the early- to mid-twentieth century as a more or less Jewish community, original home of Canter's Delicatessen. More recently it has, also like Westlake (which remains the home of Canter's distant rival Langer's Delicatessen), gone overwhelmingly Latino. While this has, speaking on the most superficial but nonetheless most accessible level, filled it with choice places to eat, most of my recent trips to have started or ended with visits to Libros Schmibros, the used bookstore founded by bookseller David Kipen, who refers to himself as "the first Jew in decades" to move back to Boyle Heights. If more have followed, they haven't made themselves commercially known. None of my trans-river lunches have brought me to a new-wave delicatessen, though I have noticed a spot called Thai Deli on Cesar Chavez Avenue, well known for its teriyaki plates and macaroni salad. Clearly, the tale of Boyle Heights has more nuance than we assume.

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The employees of the nearby White Memorial Medical Center know Thai Deli well, anyway; those coming from anywhere farther away would presumably feel put off by its uncomfortable proximity to Interstate 5. Yet keep walking east on Cesar E. Chavez Avenue, the continuation of Los Angeles' wearily iconic Sunset Boulevard, and you find what architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne calls "a model for other neighborhoods eager to make their major thoroughfares friendlier to pedestrians, cyclists and local business" with "all the urban-design amenities the average L.A. boulevard is desperately missing." My mind has come to conceive of this particularly welcoming mile, along with the parallel run of First Street two blocks to its south, as Boyle Heights — its core, if not its entirety. Certainly not its entirety: set out to see the entire neighborhood, and you could find yourself walking across it for nearly two hours. Like Los Angeles itself, Boyle Heights looks big; you just don't realize exactly how big until you decide you want to see it up close.

But if you stay with the comparatively effortless stroll between Cesar E. Chavez and First, you may well pass the Evergreen Cemetery, perhaps Boyle Heights' true physical core. When envisioning a Los Angeles cemetery, many of those who've never come near the city must imagine something out of "The Loved One," the Evelyn Waugh novel and, later, Tony Richardson film, that sends up Forest Lawn, the chain of Southern California cemeteries that famously allows — or at least, in the dimly glamorous past, allowed — the bereaved to spare no expense and suffer no restraint of taste in elaborately burying and garishly memorializing their dead. Though expansive by the scale of its surroundings, Evergreen comes off as, by comparison, a vanishingly modest operation. It leaves itself open to ridicule on only a single front, an irony too crashingly obvious to easily notice: Evergreen has turned brown. You seldom see live grass there, except in one- or two-yard radii around certain gravesites the relatives of whose occupants take it upon themselves to water. On Sundays these unofficial caretakers — sometimes individuals, sometimes whole multi-generational families — park along Evergreen's pathways, set up camp chairs, and relax amid the tombstones.

Though I've noticed these visits as mainly Latino practice, Evergreen's soil contains multitudes. Unusually for a cemetery founded back in the 19th century, it never absolutely barred any ethnic group, though for a long time each had their own designated sections: the whites, blacks, the Armenians, the Mexicans, the Chinese, and so on. Walk into Evergreen today, and right away you see the first few dozen of countless Japanese graves: dark stones engraved with contrasting kanji characters, topped with romanized names, from the plain- to the aristocratic-sounding: Sato, Mori, Okubo, Kawabe, Yakushi, Kawamoto, Yoshimura, Kunitomi. A nearby building, which identifies as an "International Funeral Home," certainly stands on suitable grounds. This place, where Boyle Heights has buried its dead, remains far more diverse than Boyle Heights itself, more so even than the neighborhood in its fondly remembered era before Brooklyn Avenue became Cesar E. Chavez, a time when a cross-section of races and creeds supposedly mixed as freely as they do in, well, Brooklyn.

Discuss diversity in Los Angeles, though, and you quickly find yourself playing a complicated game of term-definition. Examine Boyle Heights at the crude scale of race and, sure, it looks unvaried, even bland. But examine it at just the slightly more fine-grained scale of national origin, and it won't take long to find residents born not just here in the States, but in Mexico and all across Central America as well. And should we consider the makeup of only one area when Los Angeles' vaunted human variety really resolves only at the level of the whole grand patchwork? As patches go, Boyle Heights makes for a considerable one, stretching from Valley Boulevard to below Olympic, from the Los Angeles River to Indiana Street, though its size hasn't protected it from the intrusion of not one, not two, not three, but four freeways. When people who prefer other, less fragmented American cities complain about Los Angeles, they must envision someplace like Boyle Heights: oversized, not always easy to navigate, and passed inconsiderately through at sixty miles per hour (theoretically, anyway) by those who, heading somewhere else, regard it as not where we all live, but where "they" live.

But like its cemetery, Boyle Heights does have an appealing modesty. Its most striking features, other than what still stands of its late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century architectural heritage, take the form of recently built transit stops. Walk out of Evergreen and west on First Street, past the neighborhood's remaining Japanese florists, churches, and eateries, and you'll come across a couple of its underground train stations, through which runs the Gold Line to and from Little Tokyo, downtown, and ultimately Pasadena. The most impressive of these, Mariachi Plaza, lies just east of the square of that name at First and Boyle Avenue. Most days I emerge from that station, it strikes me as incongruously clean and advanced, less a space you'd expect from an American transit system than one in the more prosperous parts of Western Europe or Asia. Yet it deposits you mere steps from an operation as proudly bohemian as Libros Schmibros, and, just a door or two down from there, from one of the more enjoyable cones of walnut ice cream in town. I prefer to eat mine right there in Mariachi Plaza, while watching its population of actual mariachi-band members hang out, mill around, and organize their musical work for the day. Fragmentation, as any Angeleno must learn, has its pleasures.


Photos by Colin Marshall.


About the Author

Colin Marshall hosts and produces the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. These columns present essays adapted from his book-in-progress, "A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City."
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