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The Hills Are Alive in City Terrace

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Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles are both known the world over for their important place in Chicano history. A lesser known but equally important area of East Los Angeles is City Terrace. Similar to Boyle Heights, City Terrace has a fascinating history and is also a mecca for murals. This week, L.A. Letters examines City Terrace with a special focus on its geography, cultural history, activist legacy and the many murals throughout the area.

City Terrace is the area directly north of Boyle Heights, south of Cal State Los Angeles and just west of Alhambra and Monterey Park. The neighborhood's defining geographic features are its many hills and the hundreds of homes that cascade the topography. A transitional area exists between Boyle Heights and City Terrace along Wabash Street where a former Jewish Community Center is now the Salesian Boys and Girls Club. Wabash turns into City Terrace Drive adjacent to this site.

Arts activist and writer Tomas Benitez explains further, "Wabash connected Boyle Heights with City Terrace but it was over the hill. They were two different areas, City Terrace being the 'nicer' part. It is parallel to the 10 Freeway and the other side of the hills from Brooklyn, later Cesar Chavez Avenue. It was the back door, the road that only the locals knew and used."

The heart of City Terrace was first developed in the early 1920s by Walter Leimert, a few years before the Leimert family developed Leimert Park in the late 1920s. Originally known as a Jewish neighborhood, similar to Boyle Heights, it also had a small Russian and Japanese population along with Mexican residents. Driving through City Terrace today there are traces of this past, like a three-story building on City Terrace Drive that has a Star of David near the top of the structure's façade.

Opening of the Jewish Cultural Center in City Terrace, 1947 | Photo: Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Opening of the Jewish Cultural Center in City Terrace, 1947 | Photo: Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Arts Legacy
I drove around City Terrace a number of times both on my own and with two longtime residents: First with Sesshu Foster, the author of the great book "City Terrace Field Manual," and later with Tomas Benitez. Both lived many years of their lives in City Terrace. They each pointed out hidden sites I never would have found without their assistance. Both attended Wilson High School in nearby El Sereno and they each came of age during the time of the Chicano Moratorium. Before sharing some of their anecdotes, I'd like to begin with a few City Terrace tales told to me by Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis Rodriguez.

Luis Rodriguez spent much of his life in L.A.'s Eastside and he lived in City Terrace during the 1970s. "City Terrace when I lived there was all barrio--no sidewalks, dirt roads, with ravines, hills, vacant lots, old homes," Rodriguez remembers. "My first wife, Camila, grew up there on Herbert. We were 'high school' sweethearts." Camila had gone to Garfield High and though Rodriguez did not, he met her while working as a political organizer for the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA).

Rodriguez says that at the time, City Terrace was the neighborhood that looked most similar to his own barrio of Las Lomas in South San Gabriel. "In the early 1970s, both barrios were poor as all get out," he notes. Rodriguez lived at the end of Geraghty Street, where it becomes Bostwick. Rodriguez also lived in City Terrace a few years later when he worked for the Eastside Sun (Eastern Group Publications) and later when he had an office in the old Self-Help Graphics building on Chavez and Gage.

"City Terrace was always full of life--people on the streets, noises, fights at times, glass breaking. But it was mostly good families, hard-working people, almost entirely Mexican although there were a few remnants of the Jewish families that once predominated, some Asians, other whites." Rodriguez notes that much has changed in 40 years. "You can still see the rundown homes, the vacant lots, the sidewalk-less streets, although almost everything is now paved, and new homes have sprouted up here and there. There are efforts to gentrify--make this place palatable to well-off, mostly white, people. But for now, it's still heavily Mexican, still barrio, still one of L.A. most interesting neighborhoods," he says.

Rodriguez loves to take visitors to a hill on De Garmo off Pomeroy where you can see the downtown skyscrapers and miles of the Eastside. It's one of the best views of the city from any direction. "People from all over love it when I take them there," he tells me. Coincidentally on the day we spoke, Rodriguez was just returning from there after giving some visitors a taste of the Eastside.

City Terrace Tailor and Cleaner on City Terrace Drive in the 1930s. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.
City Terrace Tailor and Cleaner on City Terrace Drive in the 1930s. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.

In continuation of my trip through City Terrace, Sesshu Foster took me on a thorough drive one afternoon and showed me just about every corner of City Terrace in less than three hours. Foster grew up in City Terrace from the time he was in early elementary school until he went to college. His mom still lives in the house he grew up in and she has been there over 50 years. Foster took me to meet her and the view from her backyard was similar to the one Rodriguez describes above.

Foster's book, "City Terrace Field Manual" from Kaya Press, is a collection of prose poems that capture the neighborhood in technicolor. The book combines urban realism with surrealism mixing his childhood memories with various musings. "I have my friends and we have our own world in the streets of City Terrace, East L.A.," he writes.
"City Terrace Field Manual," is considered one of the greatest works ever composed about the Eastside. Foster's work paved the way for a whole generation of Eastside poets. One of them is Jessica Ceballos, who was born in City Terrace in 1977 and currently organizes the Bluebird Poetry Reading Series at Avenue 50 Gallery. She recalls first reading "City Terrace Field Manual" when she was 20 years old and the reality was made concrete. "Stories I had heard were retold, through someone else's lens, but as their own," she says. "We lived the same lives, but the fractures were in different parts of the body. In this book, the entirety of Los Angeles wasn't neglected, it was honored, told from the hills of City Terrace."

Willie Herron's 'The Wall that Cracked Open'. Photo courtesy of Social and Public Art Resource Center.
Willie Herron's 'The Wall that Cracked Open'. Photo courtesy of Social and Public Art Resource Center.

Foster showed me multiple murals including Willie Herrón's well-known 1972 mural, "The Wall that Cracked Open." We drove me down the alley where it is located, along with many other murals, just north of City Terrace Drive. Foster told me the history behind each and how the art movement he grew up around in City Terrace influenced him. Foster was a few years behind Herrón at Wilson High School and the spirit that Herrón injected into his murals inspired Foster to become an activist. Furthermore, Foster says Herrón's commitment to social justice with his collective ASCO greatly informed the ethos behind his books like "City Terrace Field Manual."

One of the only people in Los Angeles who know as much about murals of City Terrace as Foster is Isabel Rojas-Williams, the Executive Director of the Los Angeles Mural Conservancy. She notes that the murals in City Terrace were inspired by Jose Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, the three great Mexican muralists from the 1920s and '30s.

"Pioneer muralists inspired by the 'Three Greats,' like Willie Herrón, Johnny Gonzalez, and George Yepes helped give birth to the 1970's Chicano Mural Movement by painting iconic murals in City Terrace," says Rojas-Williams. Both she and Foster recounted how Herrón painted "The Wall that Cracked Open," after his younger brother was stabbed there by local gang members. Herrón grew up in City Terrace and his family owned Macias Bakery on City Terrace Drive. The mural was painted in the alley behind the bakery.

Rojas-Williams told me that this section of City Terrace Drive has become known as "Callejón Herrón," because Herrón painted several pieces over a three block stretch of the street. These pieces include, "Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec god, symbolized as a plumed serpent," also from 1972 and a mural he painted in 1976, "La Doliente de Hidalgo." In 2011, he painted "Asco: East of No West," for the Getty's Pacific Standard Time Initiative. Williams calls it "Herrón's monument to ASCO, the avant-garde art collective he co-founded in the 1970s."

A few blocks west of "Callejón Herrón," is a mural by George Yepes on the exterior of a church. Painted in 1992, the work is called, "Pieta del Tepeyac." The work depicts, "a traditional Madonna and Child next to an image of a mother cradling her fallen gang-member son," explains Rojas-Williams. A few steps from the Yepes mural at the City Terrace Library is a ceramic tile mural created by José Luis Gonzalez, the co-founder of Goez Art Studios. The 1978 piece titled "Ofrenda Maya I (Mayan Offering I)" is done in Pre-Columbian style and depicts Mayan warriors.

These iconic murals have made City Terrace a place that art aficionados from all over the world visit. According to Rojas-Williams, "Herrón, Yepes, and González symbolize the spirit, which guided the 1970's Chicano muralists. Their artworks were then, and are still today, tools of social activism, of empowerment, communication, and education for the people of City Terrace and all who often tour the murals of this unique neighborhood."

Sesshu Foster is particularly fond of Paul Botello's mural at City Terrace Park. He pointed out how there were no graffiti tags on it at all. Titled "Inner Resources," the piece emits a psychedelic peaceful spirit that Botello says is, "about the veneration of life." The central figure is a Mexican Indian goddess surrounded by people planting, harvesting and celebrating. Botello is a native of East Los Angeles.

The contemporary artist Jose Ramirez still lives in City Terrace. Best known for his mural at White Memorial Hospital, his father's family lived there in the 1960s. When he was born in 1967, they lived on City Terrace Drive. Over the years, he has painted the houses on hills with views of Downtown Los Angeles. Ramirez is deeply involved with the local community participating in events, classes and workshops at Self Help Graphics, Plaza de la Raza, Casa 0101, the Eastside Cafe and other cultural art spaces that are in Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, El Sereno and Downtown. Ramirez loves being in the middle of "Aztlan." He also loves the large lots. "I have expanded my art/work into the garden and have developed my south facing lot into 'a perennial edible garden (food forest),'" he says. I was at his home and his sprawling garden was truly something to behold.

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Activism
Another Eastside luminary with a deep connection to City Terrace is the former director of Self Help Graphics and longtime Chicano activist Tomas Benitez. Benitez lived for many years of his childhood across the street from City Terrace Park. His mom, Linda Benitez Basco, was a local activist that founded the East Los Angeles Community Center, a small NPO that was deeply involved in neighborhood politics. She was instrumental in the expansion of the City Terrace Park and getting the tennis courts built. Today, Benitez is trying to have the tennis courts named after his mom.

Benitez was also strongly connected to the park because he grew up playing baseball there. "When I moved to City Terrace I joined the Little League and got my first full uniform," Benitez remembers. He played second base and right field with the Orioles. In recent years, Benitez has written a lot about the Chicano connection to baseball in Los Angeles and this all started back in his childhood at City Terrace Park.

City Terrace Park. Photo by Bobby C.
City Terrace Park. Photo by Bobby C.

Mrs. Benitez Baca worked closely with several other leaders and residents in East Los Angeles, often inviting them to her home. She would often host dinners "with Ed Elliot who was the County Supervisor and lived around the corner up Miller Drive." The conversations over food at their house helped transform the neighborhood. The pioneering Chicano congressman Ed Roybal would also eat over at their house. His mom would make her specialty, steak picado.

"Ed would always come by to have a plate." These meals were instrumental to the expanded development of City Terrace Park.

Benitez carried on his mother's legacy of activism and participated in the Chicano Moratorium on August 29th, 1970 shortly after he graduated from Wilson High. He remembers the dramatic events of the Moratorium vividly:

"Mom and I went to the Moratorium together, but it was hot, so she took my little brother home. I was working crowd control in the park, a newly recruited volunteer. I heard there was a disturbance a block away but the event was going on well, so we kept the perimeter in the park in check, making sure people were being well behaved. In a flash, the cops moved in and formed a line across from us, which agitated the crowd. We were trying to hold them at bay, telling them not to throw things. The cops advanced then charged and all hell broke loose. We were the first ones struck as they shot gas over us. I got trampled but not busted. I got up and tried to get out of the park but the cops had blocked the street. The only way was through the park so I ran into the gas, still trying to get away."

"For the first time in my life I felt pride in being a Chicano walking down the street, then in a moment it was all mayhem. I heard cops cars pulling up on the street but I did not turn around. Kept on walking... I cut through side streets and stayed away from signals. I made it to my Dad's office on First." Benitez spent the next week laying low at his mom's house across the street from City Terrace Park. That fall he began attending school at Los Angeles City College. He now lives less than a mile south of City Terrace near Obregon Park.

This experience led Benitez into a lifetime of activism that still continues 45 years later.
Benitez also shared memories about the Floral Drive-In Movie Theater. The theater was on the eastern border of City Terrace and Monterey Park. During the years it operated, the land was Unincorporated Los Angeles County and considered East Los Angeles. The site is now a part of Monterey Park and a corporate office park is there, but for many years it was a large drive-in that showed films in Spanish. Though it closed in 1986, Benitez saw many films there in the 1970s and early '80s.

The combination of unique houses and rolling topography give City Terrace a distinct charm within the landscape of Los Angeles. Nestled deep in its alleys and canyons are murals, sculptures, funky houses and colorful gardens. A great example is the big cactus garden on Floral just east of Eastern. A great way to sample this epic area is to either read Sesshu Foster's "City Terrace Field Manual," or drive down City Terrace Drive. Salute to City Terrace for being one of the most fascinating pockets in the geography of L.A. Letters.

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