Today is the 48th anniversary of the National Chicano Moratorium protest which began August 29, 1970 in East Los Angeles, which attracted as many as 30,000 people to protest the drafting of young Mexican Americans into the Vietnam War.
In this photo we see an African-American student in the very front lines, holding the National Chicano Moratorium banner at the front of the parade, while a young Chicano holds it on to the other side of the banner.
On account of the lack of educational and vocational opportunities extended to Mexican Americans because of persisting racial discrimination of that era, our people were most often being denied deferments from the war. And consequently it became clearly evident to the public that our brown-skinned young people were being disproportionately sent to the front lines as cannon fodder for this war. So in the face of this reality, our people began to protest. They fiercely organized when they realized that Latinos accounted for about 20% of the wartime deaths in Vietnam while making up less than 5% of the population of our country at the time.
The protest was organized by local college students and activists from the Brown Berets.
However, it should be noted that the National Chicano Moratorium had a multi-racial backing and presence on the front-line of this protest. As you will see in pictures and film from the events, there are also black and white people standing in solidarity with the Chicano anti-war movement.
In the police violence that ensued, Ruben Salazar, then the news director of KMEX Channel 34 and a Los Angeles Times columnist, he would be killed by the sheriff’s department.
However, our dear Ruben Salazar would not be the only death in the actions known as the moratorium, actions which raged for months; there would be four deaths in total; among the dead were three other people. One is Lyn Ward, who was a Brown Berets “medic” who was killed when a burning trash can containing combustibles exploded; and also another Chicano simply identified as José “Angel” Diaz.
And the fourth fallen person was a person who did not identify as a Chicano at all. In-fact the oral legends and passing historical accounts identified him as a Jewish college student from East Los Angeles.
This is how the account is generally remembered (taken from Wikipedia):
“Some of the deaths seemed accidental but Gustav Montag got into direct confrontation with the police, as reported by the Los Angeles Times. Its front-page article the next day recounted that several protesters faced police officers with drawn rifles at the end of an alley, shouting, and kept their ground, even when ordered to disperse. The article stated that Montag was picking up pieces of broken concrete and throwing them at the officers, who opened fire. Montag died at the scene from gunshot wounds. The police officers later said that they had aimed over his head in order to scare him off. A photo accompanied this article, showing Montag’s body being carried away by several brothers. Montag was not a Chicano, but a Sephardic Jew who was supporting the movement.”
I have spent a few years investigating this account, trying to authenticate this story.
What I have found out is that while this story might be true, it seems that it might have at least one fact wrong. The student is identified as a Sephardic Jew; and to some eastside people this would have seemed to have made sense to them as to why he might join in such a movement; if he was a Jew of Spanish extraction.
Though as a Sephardic Jew myself, this doesn’t sound exactly right.
The name Gustav Montag, both the first and last name, suggests that he was actually an Ashkenazi Jew, of German Jewish roots. And I can tell you with great certainly that we did have Ashkenazi Jewish families by the name of Montag who had lived in the area for generations already; some buried in East Los Angeles Cemeteries.
This seems to been confirmed by the original Los Angeles Timesarticle I just found. This news report is actually taken from the fourth and final moratorium march, held several months into the movement on February 2, 1971:
“The Toll of Sunday’s outbreak:
Dead: Gustav Montag, Jr., 24, a native of Sternowitz, Austria, who lived with relatives at 2208 Tuller Road. A spokesman for the Sheriff’s Department said he was evidently struck by a ricocheting gunshot pellet that pierced his heart.
The coroners office said Montag had recently dropped out of East Los Angeles College, where he had been enrolled in a Hebrew course.”
The death of Gustav Montag death would shock his comrades and the public. His death would ultimately become the last death of the Chicano moratorium; tragically ending this series of marches on the same sour note with which they had begun, with the brutal killing of unarmed protesters; in a cruel display of an excessive use of force against the largely peaceful demonstrators.
In the past couple years I had many people retell this story to me and inquire about where this martyr of the movement is buried, though I have not yet been able to locate the resting place of the martyr Gustav Montag (z”l). I hope to one day be able to fill in the details of this story, and pay my respects at his resting place if such a site exists.
Rest in power martyrs of the National Chicano Moratorium… Ruben Salazar, Lyn Ward, José “Angel” Diaz… and our Jewish brother Gustav Montag.
Film from the events of the National Chicano Moratorium:
Note: In this film “Chicano Moratorium: A Question of Freedom“, by Loyola-Marymount film student Tom Myrdahl which captures the events, it opens with my dear friend John Ortiz, que descanse en paz, marching with pride on the horizon of change. John passed away this passed year. Rest in power, our friend and “professor”!
March 23rd is National Tamale Day – At one times the tamal – and its closely related north of the border variation known officially as the tamale – was a treat as all-American as the hot dog and hamburger, and could be found on street corners across the entire country by the end of the 19th century.
This is “The Tamale” in East Los Angeles, which opened in 1928. It is shaped in the popular shape and wrapping-style of tamales at the time.
EAST LOS ANGELES- “The Tamale” was built in 1928. It’s an example of programmatic architecture – where buildings are made to attract customers, often looking like what they sell inside. This building is no longer a restaurant. It has changed hands many times, and has been used as a hair salon and even a dental office. It was recently up for sale. Sadly, it is not land-marked for preservation and there are limited protections because of its location outside of the City of Los Angeles, located in unincorporated Los Angeles County.
The shape and wrapping of this tamale was a result of the process becoming automated by the California Chicken Tamale Co. in 1892; giving rise to the San Francisco style tamale. The automation of tamale making would also give an interesting uniform shape to our local XLNT brand tamales, founded in 1894, which had a plant located off of Washington Blvd. in Los Angeles.
This machine-made process not just made them easier to make, it also made it possible to produce and sell across the country.
In 1892 the founder of California Chicken Tamale Co. would take his product first to Chicago, where it would be met with great success. And eventually make their world debut during the 1893 World Columbian Fair in Chicago, and would proliferate as a craze across the country.
And in Chicago a new tamale recipe would also be popularized and take the market by storm, the corn meal style tamale filled with chili con carne; which seems to be inspired by Southern and Mississippi Delta related ingredients and flavors African-Americans brought with them as they migrated. And maybe even influenced by similar dishes and recipes from the delta region. These style tamales would also be popularized by African-Americans, and sold in mass on corners across the country. [See: “The unique Chicago tamale, a tuneful mystery.”]
Now back in Los Angeles tamale carts managed by street vendors had existed as far back as anyone can remember, the presence of tamales here stretching back to the Spanish-Mexican settlement of the area. And by the start of the 1890s in the American-era, even before they had become well-known elsewhere, tamale carts had already begun to take their place at the old Placita.
“They dominated downtown by the 1890s, specifically from the old plaza near what is today Olvera Street southwest toward 6th Street, between Temple and Main, blocks that attracted itinerant men, new residents and laborers looking to waste their week’s earnings in the many saloons. As dusk fell, an army of 2-by-4 pushcarts and wagons wheeled their way through this Tamale Row, setting up shop until last call and beyond.”
These tamale carts were essential to laborers, residents, migrants… and even the frequenters of saloon nightlife, they depended upon them. In time they even came to service the local working-class anarchists and labor socialists who held meetings close by. This certainly made them a target by local business owners and politicians. And eventually tamale carts were banned from the Placita in 1924.
XLNT Tamale Cart – One of the original tamale carts of Los Angeles. Founded in 1894, they have been using the same recipe since 1906.
Then just a few years later in 1928, in a wide and open stretch of what is today known as Whittier Blvd., in the unincorporated territory of East Los Angeles, this tamale structure in the tradition of programmatic architecture arose. Offering a diner-like experience in which to enjoy tamales.
Now notice the items that they are serving here in the tamale cafe.
They are serving tamales; as well as chile con carne. Most likely both of them were provided by XLNT, one of original tamale carts which started a successful tamale empire in Los Angeles; making the tamales and the brick chile base. In the style of the time, the tamales were often served unwrapped and with chile con carne spooned over the top as a sauce. This “hot tamale” style is still a popular favorite with some old-school Angelenos to this day.
This building is an interesting look at a fascinating period in Los Angeles history, indeed American history. I hope that one day The Tamale is historically land-marked and preserved!
HOW ABOUT THAT:
In Los Angeles street vending has had a big influence on our local food fare. Many immigrants made ends meet by food vending, not just Mexicans; but Shiks, Pakistanis, and African-Americans as well. And by the end of the 19th century tamales were already one of the hottest selling items across the country.
In the classic film “War of the Worlds” in 1953, one of the most important scenes is when the townsfolk notice the smoking crater which is concealing the space ship. Crowds of residents, journalist and officials all come out to see the spectacle. And with all these people waiting around the local entrepreneurs talk about making it into a tourist attraction. One of the characters, a Mexican man with an accent, suggest they can sell to the visitors: “…tamales, enchiladas and hot dogs.”
Now what can be more American than that, and also more Southern Californian?
Jack Kruschen, a Canadian Jewish guy, playing a Mexican American in “War of the World” (1953)
Oh and by the way, the actor who played the Mexican pulled off the part, he had the look and accent down, almost like he had come from the barrio himself. The part was actually played by a Canadian-born Jewish actor named Jack Kruschen.
The Jewish tradition of visiting the cemetery during the High Holy Days
EAST LOS ANGELES – It is a very special Jewish custom that during the Days of Awe – the ten days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur – that one visit the cemeteries, to consider our mortality like that of our forefathers. And to visit the graves of our ancestors.
I recently went to the annual Kever Avot memorial service at Home of Peace Memorial Park in East Los Angeles. Several families from my synagogue have loved ones buried here and so were in attendance on this day. And I also have many friends who have loved ones buried here as well. So I came out to pay my respects to our eastside mishpacha and some of my favorite Jewish heroes.
So what is this custom of visiting the cemeteries during the holy days?
In the Jewish calendar there are two very important dates in the fall. The first is Rosh HaShanah, the head of the year; when every year one acknowledges the Divine as being King over us all. On that day we celebrate with anticipation the hope of being declared for a good new year by the King.
Though on Yom Kippur the day is more solemn; it is the day of atonement. When we consider G-d as the King sitting in judgment over us for based on our deeds; and therefore we seek atonement for our sins through repentance, prayer and charity. It is a day of fasting and people wearing white garments like a burial shrouds. On this day we remember that we are but mere mortals, who will one days perish and all that will remain is the memory and merit of our deeds.
And likewise it is also said in the Jewish tradition, on Rosh HaShanah the declaration is written in the Book of Life, who will live and who will die in that year. And on Yom Kippur, this fate is then sealed.
So in the ten days between these two most holy days, one is encouraged to visit the grave sites of their loved ones and teachers. To reinforce this understanding in the most vivid way.
Although I must make the case that most Jews also come out to visit the graveyards on these days between the high holy days for less pious and mystical reasons.
The graveyard visits became a pervasive custom since days of old for more obvious reasons; because when the holidays come people just miss their loved ones so much. And it’s felt most deeply during the high holy days.
It can be overwhelming sometime, when someone you love and have spent a lifetime of joyous holidays memories with, and then for them to no longer be there. And sometimes it just really hits one at the core, as you hear that holiday melody your zaydie taught you. And as you make that recipe that you and your bubbie used to make together. And as a mother and father passes away, while they remain alive to you in your vivid holiday memories; it can be entirely overwhelming.
The Jewish tradition recognizes this. It has given us several ways of affirming that sense of loss and turning it into soulful remembrance. One is the visiting of the resting places of our dearly departed. The other is special memorial services with solemn prayers that are recited during the midst of the holidays; the Yizkor service; the name comes from the Hebrew word zachor, which means to remember.
And that is how the tradition of the Kever Avot – which in Hebrew literally means the grave of the ancestors – has come to be.
In this video I invite you to come with me to observe this tradition today at Home of Peace Cemetery, and a quick peek into the lesser known Mount Zion and Agudath Achim orthodox cemeteries.
Home of Peace Cemetery is the oldest of the Jewish cemeteries that in continual use to this day, and is the relocation of the original “Old Jewish Cemetery” founded by the Hebrew Benevolent Society near Chavez Ravine, near the base of today’s Dodger Stadium until it was evicted at the start of the 20th century; as discussed on my “Lost Cemeteries of Los Angeles Tour.” In the years between 1901 and 1903 almost all of the 360 burials were transferred to this then newly dedicated Jewish sacred burial site. Making this site one of the most deeply historical Jewish sites in all of the city.
And to me, it is all together lovely. Where I hope to come to my final rest some day.
DID YOU KNOW? In the most ancient times of Jewish history the Yizkor service was only recited once a year; during Yom Kippur. However, eventually it became four times a year according to the widespread Ashkenazi tradition of Central and Eastern European Jews. In the aftermath of the massacres of the middle-ages and crusades that had decimated their communities. Thereafter people were so grieved that they began demanding more liturgical opportunities during the holidays to acknowledges their loved ones. In the Sephadic and Mizrahi tradition this is generally not the custom, though it is has come to be adopted by some western-influenced Sephardic synagogues in America.
Nancy Valverde (1932 – present) is a barber, as well as a notable lesbian and gender-nonconformist. She was repeatedly charged and incarcerated in Lincoln Heights Jail for “masquerading.” Her story is one of challenging bias and injustice; and eventually winning. Her life has been the subject of much interest by queer historians in recent years, and through their documentation she has become well-known as a butch lesbian icon. Though to many on the Los Angeles eastside, she is simply known as “Nancy from Eastside Clover.”
Today I want us to take a look at the life and celebrate the life of a very special queer hero from the barrio.
The Early Life of Nancy Valverde
Nancy was born in the southern New Mexico town of Deming, and when she was 9 years old her father brought her to Lincoln Heights, East Los Angeles.
When asked about her childhood and school age years, she would talk about the awkwardness of having all the girls chattering about the cute boys and asking for her fawning input, but that she just ended up feeling alienated and like an outsider. And of the reactions she got from people for being different.
Though her formal education was really short. She didn’t really have much schooling except for grammar school. As she had gone to work in the fields with her family by the time she was 11 years old, seasonally picking Apricots in Santa Paula and cotton in Tulare County up near Bakersfield.
And by 13 years old, she was already working in a local neighborhood restaurant in Lincoln Heights, helping the matron of the kitchen. When the restaurant was sold by the man who owned the building, it was sold to Mexican Americans who started a bakery there. Nancy would continue on working for them for the next few years, delivering pastries all over Los Angeles. Though keep in mind, this was years before she had a driver’s license. Driving her baked loaves and pan dulce up to the once thriving Mexican enclave of Chavez Ravine, where Dodger Stadium sits today. Where later in life she would also witness a woman being dragged from her home, as it was demolished and she was left homeless.
A lot of the experience of discrimination begin as a Mexican American, feeling like a second-class citizen. Which quite naturally resulted in producing in her a certain sense of rebellion. Though nothing seemed to be more of a rebel statement at the time than her gender non-conformity, wearing pants and short hair. She began to realize she was different at the age of 15, all the while thinking of herself as growing into being comfortable in her own skin.
Nancy’s Arrest for Gender Nonconformity, the Crime of “Masquerading.”
In 1948, Nancy Valverde was just 17 years old when she was arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department. She was charged with the crime of masquerading, an old law on the books which prohibited men and women from wearing gender-nonconforming clothing. The authorities pointed to her short hair and the zipper fly of her pants as evidence, which got her sentence to three months in jail. A criminal charge that got her kicked out of her mother’s house.
And that was just the beginning of her persecution by the Los Angeles Police Department over several years. She often ended up in the lock-up for lesbian women known as the Daddy Tank at Lincoln Heights Jail.
Lincoln Heights jail had mostly become notorious for its “Drunk Tank” when it opened in 1930. And then through the next couple decades still, drunks would be locked up for 30 to 90 days, then released – often to inevitable destitution on skid row – and then picked-up against and it starting all over again.
In the same manner they had a gay men’s section of the jail called the “Fruit Tank,” as well. People would be held for some time, released and then before long picked-up again by harassing police.
Nancy would be dragged in to jail repeatedly. And be placed in the lesbian lock-up.
Sometimes she was even held in the jail without being officially booked, so at times her friends could not find her for days and sometimes weeks.
Nancy insists that the hostility shown to her was because the authorities were against lesbians. Though she makes the point of addressing that as well when talking of her incarceration:
“I was a juvenile. I wasn’t supposed to be there with those older women. Of course, I didn’t mind it,” she says, laughing. “I didn’t even know the word ‘lesbian.’ The first time I heard it was in jail.”
All the while Nancy contended that the clothes she wore was a matter of comfort, while working to financially support herself. The jail would seem to have a revolving door for Nancy, a cycle she tried hard to break out of.
In 1951 she visited the Los Angeles County Law Library in hopes of finding some legal defense. In her research she was able to find rulings from 1950 that stated that women wearing men’s clothing was not actually a crime in Los Angeles. She informed her lawyer and was able to use this in her defense. And so eventually the police stopped arresting her.
Even though the LAPD stopped incarcerating her, the harassment didn’t stop. The beat policemen were known to have made a habit of knocking loudly with their nightstick on the window of her Brooklyn Ave barber shop, to intimidate her and scare away customers.
Though Nancy worked many jobs to make ends meet, her main occupation was as a barber. Though it is important to note that like many of the situations in her life, getting her barbers license was also came with challenges. She found herself being unable to be admitted to barber school because her lack of education. Though eventually she was able to overcome this when a man came up to her and informed her that she could proceed to getting her barbers license if she could pass a basic IQ test. Which she did, and was issued her barbering license. However, like much of her life, she was treated unequally by the other barbers who were all male. And was paid less than the other barbers, because she was a woman.
On top of all this, she also the target of harassment from inside the community, from the cholos and gang members who also went after her for being a lesbian. Even though she was well liked and accepted in the local bars by those who got to know her, long before there were any gays bars around here she would frequent the local watering holes, and be acknowledged just as “Nancy from Eastside Clover,” simply as their friend from the barrio.
Career, Family Life and Retirement
She also worked in the eastside as a bartender, as well as doing odd jobs and home repair work around town. Not to just support herself, but also a family.
One day, she ran into a woman named Mary Sanchez, whom she had met before at a bar with mutual friends. By chance, Sanchez was moving her belongings out of her apartment, and Valverde offered to assist her.
“The next day, my back was shot,” Valverde says. “Destiny. I believe in that — the invisible forces.”
Valverde stayed in bed while Sanchez, who was pregnant at the time, cared for her. She told Valverde about the troubles she had been having with her boyfriend. By the time Valverde’s health improved, Sanchez had ended the relationship, prompting Valverde to offer to help support her and her unborn child.
“I said, ‘I’m not lazy, I work,'” she remembers telling Sanchez. “And she looked at me really sad, as if she’d heard that line before.”
Already two weeks behind on the rent (a total that, at the time, amounted to $14), Sanchez managed to convince her landlord to let her become the building’s manager. They were able to stay together in the apartment.
Valverde and Sanchez became a couple and sustained their relationship for 25 years. However, they broke up after Sanchez’s child grew to become an adult suffering from drug addiction, causing a rift between the pair.
“I couldn’t see myself putting up with an addict for the rest of my life,” says Valverde, sadly. “And I walked out. I miss her every day of my life.”
Throughout her lifetime, Valverde helped raise four children of women she loved. She raised one child, Salvatore, for six years, before his birth mother, who initially rejected the baby, returned to take him away.
“They said lesbians could not raise kids,” Valverde says.
But 10 years ago, Salvatore tracked down Valverde, and the two reunited. Valverde keeps a picture of him and his wife in her apartment, along with a photograph that the pair took together when he found her as an adult.
After a long career as a barber and laborer, she retired to assisted living. And is now a resident of the 104-unit Triangle Square senior housing facility in Hollywood, created by the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center.
“This is the best place that I’ve lived in,” Valverde says of Triangle Square. “People know what you’re about.”
Which is really something special. After a long life of struggling for her sense of place up against so many societal prejudices which stood against her. Since her childhood she had to work hard to get by, she had to contend with the rejection of family, and then even had to contend with the gangs that also terrorized her for being a lesbian. Now she has a safe place in this world.
The Legacy of Nancy Valverde
After she moved to Triangle Square she was found by lesbian historians, journals and playwrights. And based on their documentation of her life story in recent years she has become regarded as a Mexican American butch icon by those who admire her.
She inspired Raquel Gutiérrez of the Butchlalis de Panochtitlan, who wrote The Barber of East L.A. based on her life.
Nancy Valverde has a tremendous life story. Her life experience is one that is both reflective of a terrible history of homophobia and gender politics in the 20th century. And the experience that she suffered through was something that was not uncommon in other big cities, but it was more complicated here due to the conditions and culture of Los Angeles at the time.
Now let us keep in mind that Nancy is not transgender, she is a butch lesbian. She was not trying to pass as a man, meaning she was not trying to “masqerade.” She even had people testify in her defense that they knew she was a woman and that she was certainly not trying to fool anyone either. That is just who she was and who they knew her to be.
Most white, queer and transgender scholars state that her attire would hardly be noticed today. And note that even at that time it might have likely gone unnoticed in many other big cities. However, it must be stated that Los Angeles was especially intolerant in respect to gender non-conformity and any attire that broke with white cultural norms; all this coming to a head during this height of World War II.
In addition to that Los Angeles, unlike some other cities, would eventually target both male and female cross dressers. This was something of a particular obsession for mayor Fletcher Bowron, who was mayor of Los Angeles from 1938 to 1953. He was known to have a specific abhorrence for women in pants. In 1942 he declared to the city council that he loathed “to see masculine women much more than feminine traits in men.”
Now keep in mind that is all going on during the middle of World War II, as women are going to work in local industrial jobs as the men went off to war, as they work their asses off in the factories to help support the war effort. Nonetheless he looked at these women in their practical work attire as a desecration of gender and womanliness.
While Bowron was alarmed that he could not prevent this of women in defense factories (as wearing pants was a matter of safety), he contended with his council members that this needed to be stood against and banned in City Hall. In that year of 1942, the city council was urged by him to pass a regulation that prevented women employees from wearing pants at City Hall.
In 1950 legal precedent began to offer some level of defense, that wasn’t present before the war. However, in the post-war years and going into the 1950s, still this era came with increasing examples of harsh treatment as women refused to return to the traditional gender roles they had emerged from.
And certainly, as a Mexican American Nancy Valverde also suffered even more persecution. In an era in which there was increased targeting of Latinos, who had also stretched their legs in society during these years and then ultimately refused to be pushed back into their subjugated roles again as well. And who were likewise often seen as challenging all that with their attire as well.
One of the things which needs to be respected in that the wearing of pants was one of safety; it prevented women from being caught and killed in industrial machines.
However, it also needs to be understood pants also protected women from being easily sexually assaulted. This has often been another reason for women to wear pants; and one may argue that the wearing of pants was both a self-protection of their sexuality by working-class women and this came with repulse by perverse supervisors who felt entitled, the conflict over pants being an unspoken social norm of the sexual exploitation of women in the workplace.
Though certainly the wearing of pants aside from the workplace also had other facts which incited criminalization. Such as the popularization of pant suits by women; pants and coat suits worn by Zoot Suiters, a.k.a. pachucas who became the targets of mob violence on account of their outfits during the heights of World War II.
We will discuss this more in the future as we further explore the history of the repeated criminalization of minorities and non-conformists at the Lincoln Heights Jail, in upcoming blog entries. Stay tuned!
A film celebrating the Jewish history of Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles
In 1996 director Ellie Kahn premiered a wonderful documentary called “Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto,” about the old Jewish community of Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles. It is still one of the most well-known and most loved documentaries about the history of the neighborhood.
This documentary was released at a unique turning point in history. As a community which once was a vibrant home and business district for tens of thousands of Jews, dwindled down to only a handful of Jewish people remaining. It also came at a unique time when good old Brooklyn Ave was giving way to Cesar E. Chavez Ave, bearing witness to the transition of the area into a noteworthy Spanish-speaking neighborhood.
This film weaves in so many gorgeous old pictures as it tells the story of the neighborhood. Showing glimpses of some of these notable sites as they once looked in the old days. It gives us a good view into the social aspects of the neighborhood. And presents us with wonderful testimony of an active community, rich in Yiddish culture and leftist organizing, as recounted by former residents.
What I love so much about this film is the personal stories from people who grew up in the area. I think it is one of the most heart-warming documentaries you will find.
Back in 1996 when the film was first released, it was shown on PBS. The Los Angeles Times reported it as the center piece of a 90-minute KCET special with Huell Howser in October of that year. The special featured a brief chat with Kahn and “ends with his own walking tour of a vastly different Boyle Heights than the one memorialized by her.” (Los Angeles Times)
This documentary by Kahn was released on VHS, and became an instant favorite in the area. Being passed down from person to person in the neighborhood, until the tape has worn out. I have even shown worn out copies of it a few times at back-yard screenings in the neighborhood.
It has never been released before in DVD to my knowledge. So people have been anxious to see this film for many years now.
Recently I was amazed to see that some Boyle Heights residents were sharing a digitized copy of this film on social media, uploaded into several parts due to it’s length. Though this might not be an authorized copy, I think that given the fact that after 20-years this has not been re-released in a digital format, we can turn a blind eye in charity!
It is not infrequent that Latino residents of Boyle Heights have related to me that they have sometimes felt that historians of other ethnicities have been overly nostalgic and have tended to avoid the harsher realities of life here. And sidesteps the coarse racial issues which were historically present and which still linger in Boyle Heights.
The above cited Los Angeles Times article by Howard Rosenberg noted: “Kahn says that a couple of former residents she contacted worried about the film’s nostalgia softening reality. But the ethnically mixed Boyle Heights depicted here is not one of constant harmony, even though we do hear stories of connections made between diverse cultures.”
The last Cruise Sunday of Whittier Blvd, from the Sixth Street Bridge
On Sunday, December 27, 2015 the Sixth Street Bridge attracted every local car cruiser, classic car enthusiast and lowrider for one last showy ride.
For as long as any of us remember the viaduct has been the local focal point of the car clubs, and has also served as the starting point for cruising in our area. From all around car enthusiasts have been drawn to race in the riverbed, show off their cars in the expansive underside of the bridge, and finally ascending it to cruise eastward into the evening.
The cruising culture is one of the finest manifestations of working-class subcultures. One which has long been maintained by successive generations of local Mexican American, working-class, young people and car club veteranos.
Today they were all out in force. As we approached the Sixth Street Bridge the traffic approaching from the east over the various viaducts was intense. Followed by every car making their way to the parade, starting at Santa Fe Road which runs directly under the bridge and in front of the river access tunnel.
And as each car arrives in procession, for a moment each car has it’s moment to shine as it briefly makes its pause. Before taking to the riverbed for a ride, or rolling in for parking under the bridge for exhibition.
This day the parade route is more packed than I’ve seen it in years. As each car comes around, the scene is buzzing as the crowd admire and cameras click. Each spectator trying to visually capture a memory of this teeming stream of chrome, curves and also classic streamline bodies. Some faithful restorations, others kustom modifications, and still others yet with bold lowrider customizations.
This day the underbelly of the bridge is packed with cars; lined up and basking in the golden rays of a Sunday afternoon. The cars of yesteryear properly vested in the atmosphere of the bridge’s deco-streamline modernist setting.
We spend a while mingling with the crowd. As the scene turns into the site of car-side parties. With everyone sharing details about their car builds, and ladies proudly showing off their own flawless pachuca style and others their rockabilly flair.
For a while we just take in the scene and the vivid nature of the site. Pensively considering the history of the car culture which is synonymous with this spot.
This has long been the chosen site for the start of the East LA cruising strip, which begins precisely above us at the point of the slight curve of the classic bridge marks the transition from downtown’s 6th Street to the eastsider’s main drag of Whittier Blvd.
But how long has the East Los Angeles cruising subculture existed here? What is the significance of car cruising movement? And more specifically, what role does this play in the local working-class community and the Latino youth culture of East Los Angeles?
The birth of the local youth car club culture
It is not possible to overstate that the city of Los Angeles has been uniquely shaped and its character defined by its reputation for having a car culture; to many this means that there is a pervasive sense of car dependency among Angelenos. The modern city we know today was very much shaped by the car.
However, it is also equally important to note that the car also uniquely influenced cultural expression itself. Especially the youth culture of the city, which with the aid of the car gave birth to various subcultures with distinct forms of self-expression here.
Though to explain why the car culture became ubiquitous to this area, it should first be stated that this specific side of town had developed a car enthusiast spirit quite early on.
The car enthusiast energy of the area stretches all the back the beginning of the 20th century.
It all began when Ford Motor Company establishing their first Los Angeles plant at 7th St. and Santa Fe in 1912, from there pushing hundreds of cars off the production lines daily in order to feed the need for commuting speed across an increasingly sprawling city.
The early car owners often brought these cars to the edges of the city to show off these new machines. Drawing crowds of people for spectacles of motor enabled brawn. To witness races between cars and horses, hill climbs and early speed trial races held by the early car owners at the seams of the city.
Though initially car ownership was something which was primarily held by the affluent.
However, that all began to change in the 1920’s – when the Ford Model-T gave way to the Ford A-Model roadsters – the technology of car making would greatly improve in bringing production cost down. Making it possible for a broader section of middle-class people to afford these newer cars.
So by the mid-1920s there were tons of used cars being tossed aside, which thereby enabled car ownership for eager young people who were more than willing to snap them up and fix them up for themselves. And others who were willing to strip them down for something even more exciting yet.
When young people eventually got their hands on cars, they were also naturally drawn to the outskirts of residential Los Angeles to try it all out themselves. But their exhibitions were purely for the trill of the car. Often removing the fenders and stripping the vehicles down to lessen their weight, to further push the limits of their vehicles for a thrilling ride.
However, the old auto spectacles would soon give way to a more defined form of car exhibition.
In the early days from the 1930s through the 1950s car clubs were encouraged and sponsored by civic leaders; as a way of steering people away from youth delinquency. However, in the 1960s sociologists began to attack this group form of re-socialization as building cohesion among urban youth they perceived as gangsters.
In the late-1920s the first car clubs in Los Angeles were born. And by the 1930s the youth club culture was something which was already being accepted by civic leaders, who began to support the transformation of these car clubs into officially sanctioned associations; all in the aims of steering young people away from the dangers of street-racing and youth delinquency.
And thus were born the early cruising clubs. Most people don’t appreciate that the car culture, which would give birth to the hot rod and the roadster car craze, dates all the way back to these early days.
While all this vibrancy surrounding the car culture would lay the groundwork for the popularization of the hot rod and the car club’s acceptance into mainstream culture, it would remain as a small subculture, being challenged by the rise of World War II.
The active growth of the modern car enthusiast culture is believed to have been curtailed during the war, on account of the limitations of resources and materials during wartime. And also more critically by the military deployment of the young men who embodied this cultural phenomenon.
However, these wartime setbacks would translate into gains for the movement after the end of World War II. As many of these returning men came back from war with advanced technical skill which would advance their automotive works.
As described by historical scholars regarding this presumed lull:
“The cessation of hot rodding during World War II promoted an apprentice culture in which hot rod enthusiasts from the prewar period tutored new teenaged participants. While ‘old timers’ provided the technical knowledge to sustain the development of the culture, teenagers became the mass participants who encouraged its growth and continuing evolution.”
To this day the car culture is something which still very much benefits from the direct apprenticeship of old timers, and the energy of the youth.
How the car culture challenged racial boundaries
The rise of the personal automobile in Los Angles for youth also coincided with the rise of widespread racial segregation which began in the late 1920s.
Racially restrictive covenants in housing became common after 1926 following the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Corrigan v. Buckley, which validated their use. And then in 1934 discrimination in home loans began. Pushing minority communities to live on the edges of the city, and relegating them to the crumbling communities being left behind by the white middle-class.
Here in Los Angeles these minority designated “red lined” areas became the neighborhoods east of the Los Angeles River and South of Adams Blvd; this applied to all types of minorities including Jews, Latinos, Blacks and Asians.
Most often white historians talk about how the car enabled segregation in Los Angeles at this time, and it certainly did. However, it needs to be understood that the car is also what enabled youth to challenge those boundaries.
It is for this very reason the cruisers were often seen as a direct challenge to the Jim Crow system which was being more tightly woven into the social fabric of the city at that time. With their cars and clubs, these youth were exerting their freedom over these societal barriers and the urban geography of segregation.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that youth of East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights quickly became enthusiasts and were often at the forefront of this cruising culture.
1940s Mexican-American Pachucos in their Zoot Suits
One of the biggest influences upon these working-class youth of our community at the time was the energetic jazz nightlife found in the areas around Central Ave., in historic South Central. This area was then at the forefront of a jazz renaissance since the late-1920s. With many jukejoints in the blocks around the Dubar Hotel. And also huge jazz venues like the Lincoln Theater, which was in those days considered the “West Coast Apollo.”
This vibrancy of South Central Los Angeles attracted various minority groups, including the white minorities and working-class. And it was there that most of our locals became familiar with both the sound and style of jazz. As Filipinos, Latinos and Jews, along with their African-Americans friends developed a unique form of cross-over jitterbug style of their own: the Zoot Suit.
I’m told by old timers that for the Zoot Suiters from the eastside there was almost no greater joy than throwing on their “drapes” and riding on over in glorious procession together to Central Ave. And that tall feeling of walking into the clubs in all their glory for a night of dancing.
However, on account of the circumstances and traumas of history, the only Zoot Suiters people seem to remember today are the pachucos. It is upon these Mexican-American working-class youth that the growing paranoia of youth delinquency and the racial disdain of their era would be directed against.
“Mexicans in L.A., writes historian James D. Hart, got low wages, were crowded into barrios (ghetto neighborhoods), and were generally scorned by whites. Young people were stigmatized as pachucos (juvenile hoodlums). The “pachuco generation” was a term used by historian Carey McWilliams to describe these American-born [Mexican-American] kids who reached maturity in the early 1940s.
“The parents of the pachuco generation, McWilliams writes, generally stayed close to home, seldom venturing from East L.A. into the downtown sector. By contrast, the new generation was “by no means so docile and tractable as their parents” and was lured to the “downtown shopping districts, to the beaches, and, above all, to the glamour of Hollywood.” They made their journeys by car, and they liked to drive in style. Police harassed them but cruising continued – a bold assertion of freedom in the land of the free. They were “laying a claim,” writes scholar Ben Chappell – “this is my city, my street, as much as anyone else’s.””
Naturally what these young people with their first taste of American success wanted to spend their hard-earned money on was their clothes, cars and the nightlife. Their obsession with American boogie-woogie and it’s lifestyle not only came with ire from the larger white society, who felt this was an affront to social decorum and distastefully encouraged mixed-raced dancing.
The scorn also came from their own families. As described by historian Eduardo Pagan:
“These kids spoke to each other in English. And it was an English that was punctuated by jazz phrases: ‘cool,’ ‘hip’, ‘on time.’ …They didn’t speak Spanish,” describes historian Eduardo Pagan. As young Mexican Americans stepped out in their zoot suits, their parents saw their children disappearing into a different world, and they feared their kids would become ill-mannered “pachucos” — a word they used to mean “punks.””
On this side of history, what is hard for people to understand is that the pachucos and zoot suiters, that they were not hyper-ethnic hipsters. What they were was an emerging group of ethnic young people who lunged at the style and pace of American life.
Young people being stopped by the authorities.
And had this been understood, and these young pachucos not been vilified, othered and racialized they would have continued to fully assimilate into American culture. Instead they were violently persecuted and criminalized, by a public which felt these pachucos didn’t understand their place in society.
And this really came to a head amidst World War II. At that time many Mexican manual laborers – the braceros – started coming to United States to fill wartime jobs left vacant as American men went off to war. The population of Mexicans increasing significantly during this time.
Also with the interment of the Japanese of Little Tokyo, the neighborhood there would begin to swell with African-Americans and Mexicans; and would at this time come to hold the title of “Bronzeville.” The nightlife would thus move more closely downtown, and naturally brought these young people into direct and uneasy contact with downtown society.
In addition, these complications of wartime also exposed them to hostility from US servicemen who had flooded into the area during wartime. And the attacks of newly arriving mid-westerners who were often unfamiliar with and intolerant of ethnic minorities.
Servicemen of the day were regularly incensed by the appearance of the lack of support in uniform by Mexicans during WWII, all the while accusing Mexicans of making out well financially in industrial jobs they were called up to fill as the war raged.
This precipitated into the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943. Which was not any one event, but a series of riots throughout the city directed against this youth subculture, especially the Mexican-American Zoots.
Servicemen undressed and beat their victims. Defrocking these youth of their infamous baggy dress suits in public and tearing them to shreds as a protest to the supposed appearance of excess and opportunism during the lean times of war. An orgy of violence against those they perceived as draft-dodging and disloyal, which spilled into all the minority communities of Los Angeles. [Note: At the time there where actually as many as half-a-million Hispanics serving in the armed forces, making up almost 5% of the US armed forces. Which adds insult to injury.]
Though during this time many cars were mostly parked because of gas rationing limitations, servicemen would still drive up from as far as San Diego by the carload in order to beat the hell out of Zoot Suiters in Los Angeles. All with the instigation of the media, and the tactic approval and even repeated assistance of the police.
Zoot suit riot erupts in front of the Hippodrome Theater on Main Street, Downtown Los Angeles.
Zoot Suiter youth beaten and stripped naked.
In the aftermath of the riots which raged for a week, many Latino young were arrested and thrown into the criminal system.
And in the panic of what the county saw not as mob beatings but instead as race riots, the Los Angeles civic leaders called upon east coast sociologists to help them address this crisis they saw on their hands. Quickly, these sociologists came to define our youth clubs as “gangs,” and by extension their members “gangsters.” Projecting on to our local youth their mobster problems of Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, etc. And through criminal institutionalization, made this a self-fulfilling prophecy; Mexicans Americans forming their own mafia only later, while incarcerated.
And in the panic of what the county saw not as mob beatings but instead as race riots, the Los Angeles civic leaders called in East Coast sociologists to help them address this crisis they saw on their hands. Quickly, these sociologists came to define our youth clubs as “gangs” and their members “gangsters.” Projecting on to our local youth their mobster problems of Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia. And through criminal institutionalization, made this a self-fulfilling prophecy; Mexicans Americans forming their own mafia while incarcerated.
Rioting servicemen stripped some zoot suiters of their clothes in public. According to the Examiner’s caption, this arrested teenager took the turn of events ‘philosophically.’ Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.
Even though during the span of WWII was considered a lull for the advancement of the car culture, the events of this period had a dramatic effect on how it emerged post-war. The public and law enforcement would for decades be gripped with fear of new riots. And in the shadow of looming fear of dark-skinned people imminently rising up in vengeance, which never really happened.
Nonetheless, because of these traumatic events the civic leaders and law enforcement would become further obsessed with youth delinquency, gang violence, and protecting youth from intermingling with adults. And were now more than ever intent on keeping youth clubs in their own neighborhoods.
And this is how the perception of our cruising Latino youth as rolling gangsters came to be; both an insult, and a historical blunder.
The Rise of Modern Car Cruising
After the end of World War II and the Korean war, many people returned from war to pick-up their car enthusiasm again. Aside from the technical skill which many gained during their wartime service, these veterans also come home with the benefit of the GI Bill. Which gave them the ability to buy new cars, and the money to invest into their cars.
Cruisers stopped by cops on Whittier Blvd for sobriety check, in East LA; 1950s
However, in the years after the war the older pre-war car parts became much more expensive to produce. And new cars became much more costly as well, as the hot rods would begin to make their way toward mainstream consumerization.
In these post-war years the civic leaders once again began promoting car clubs; again to promote safety and deter from youth delinquency. And with the commercialization of show cars and hot rods, this also provided commercial sponsorship. While this granted legitimacy to mainstream middle-class car enthusiasts with the newest and best cars, this also began to further cause a disparaging of the working-class car culture.
The respectable white, suburban car clubs with the benefit of community approval and commercial sponsorship; these car driven social clubs, they rose up as uppity socials. While the same manifestation by the unsanctioned working-class car clubs, these hepcats in their rebuilt “bombs” were labeled greasers.
The car clubs of Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, were born as a racially diverse, working class movement. As it remained for several decades to come. Mikado Car club at the parking lot of the Evergreen Hostel, circa 1960. Japanese-American hep cats and their classic cars.
It is essential for us to remember though, that the eastside car culture persisted as something that was mixed race for years to come. And the reason is because the transformation of the eastside from an ethnically mixed working-class community to a nearly entirely Latino enclave was gradual. And for years to come the promotion of the eastside cruising culture would be a multicultural manifestation of the local working class.
The hands-on nature of the eastside car culture would be maintained from the post-war years and for decades to come by white, Latino and even Japanese hepcats.
Drag racing and car exhibition on the Los Angeles Riverbed, under the classic Sixth Street Bridge. c. 1956
One of the few places people could race on the eastside was on the riverbed. In 1964 some people even had suggested that the paved area be designated as a racing speedway; though it never came to be.
March 6, 1955: Police check licenses on hopped-up cars driven by teenagers drag racing on a paved section of the Los Angeles River bottom. Four squad cars converged on the racers. Photo taken at 6th Street Bridge. (Los Angeles Times, 1955)
The Emergence of the Lowrider
In time the car culture of Mexican-Americans would begin to distinctly emerge with its own character and style. And ultimately manifest some playful touches, culminating in the form of the lowrider.
Consider this for a second. When most communities talk about their car clubs, it usually involves racing. And this was most often the case in white, middle-class communities. And even more so in the suburbs and outlying communities. Though it should be noted, racing did occur on Whittier Blvd itself; though only in the more affluent suburban cities of Whittier and La Habra, where it was often was given a blind eye.
However, here in the working-class and more ethnic urban sides of town, speed was a privilege we couldn’t enjoy; with serious racing being too costly of a pursuit, and illegal street racing far less tolerated by our local authorities.
Therefore here in East Los Angeles our style emerged not based on the thrill of speed, but on the stunning effect of rolling bajito y suavecito – low and slow. The cars themselves became the full show.
And in order to accentuate this sense of parading, cars were often modified. This started as early as the 1940s. First, as people started adding frame skirts to cover back wheels, and even beaver backs to cars in order to exaggerate that land yacht effect. Rounding off the edges of their cars with sleek and wide curves.
And then in the 1950s people took it one step further and started altering their suspension, lowering their blocks, cutting their coils, and tweaking z-frames. Lowering cars also became much easier later on with the development of x-shaped frames in 1958.
In time this lowrider style, and all its flamboyance would be carried over to the more modern car and influence even more futuristic vehicles as well.
The lowrider quickly became the ubiquitous symbol of the Mexican-American car culture. Intended to be showy, and even seductive. Together these cars creating an armada of chrome vessels, leaving a party atmosphere in their wake. Carrying car loads of cruising guys and girls, mingling from vehicle to vehicle in a carnival of traffic.
And this of course troubled the authorities and the public; worried about the traffic and questioning the safety of these vehicles.
In response to this concern, in 1958 Section 24008 of the California Vehicle Code was enacted; which limited the types of lowering modifications one could make to their car. Including the requirement that no part of the vehicle be lower than the bottom of the wheel rims. Which in a single, clean strike of legislation seemed to outlaw the lowrider.
However, this would not be the end of this style. Indeed it only gave the lowrider image a new rebel mystique.
And it also lead to the most amazing evolution of these vehicles yet; with the addition of hydraulics.
In this early days this was achieved with adding aircraft hydraulics to one’s ride (which the x-style frames were ideal for). So that with the flip of a switch one could raise their car, in order to clear an obstacle or even avoid ticketing from cops rolling up at your side. And then with another flip, return back to a lowered cruising posture.
The addition of hydraulics would of course eventually inspire the hopping which is also a dramatic part of this form of street exhibitionism.
Today the most distinguishing characteristic of many of the lowriders of East Los Angeles would be their flashy Latino style.
Many of these more bold, modern and lush touches – the layered paint jobs, and airbrushed designs; the crushed velvet interiors – this would emerge with the rise of the Chicano civil rights era starting in 1968. Lowriders became a major player in the image of the Chicano movement at that time; it was then that the lowrider would rise-up as symbol of the agency of Latino culture itself. And therefore also subject to further racial and class oriented scorn.
For these reasons, despite the style and the fancy touches given to these working-class rides, they would continue to be branded as rickety and dangerous jalopies. And a reoccurring object of scorn by the establishment.
The Attempts to Ban Cruising in East LA
Cruising East LA in the 1970s Photo By: Gusmano Cesaretti
Though the cruising of Whittier Blvd has be a staple of the car culture for as long as anyone can remember, it has come with its ups and down.
In Los Angeles there were also several other popular cruising strips as well. Among them being the Hollywood Sunset Strip, Firestone Blvd in Downey (near the Harvey’s Broiler), Tweedy Blvd in South Gate, and also Van Nuys Blvd in the San Fernando Valley.
Generally cruising had to have a social destination. And this often meant the cruising oriented heading towards popular hangouts and night spots.
Cruising Whittier Blvd in the 1970s
Over the years the procession of cars here on Whittier Blvd. had headed ever more eastward. Eventually making its way into the commercial center and down the shopping corridor of East LA; near the more affluent area of old Belvedere. This didn’t sit well with the still mostly white store owners and the more middle-class residents. Lowriders and their cruising became seen as a more dangerous public nuance.
Though the hight of the cruising phenomenon of Whittier Blvd was in the 1970s. The car clubs membership would wax and wane, sometimes consolidating and other times restructuring; car clubs activity had highs and lows through this decade.
The biggest challenge came in the late 1970s, when Whittier Blvd was closed to cruising.
By that time the demographic of the area and almost entirely become Latino. And it becoming a destination for more and more Latino clubs. However, it also was well known to attract gangs as well. And the blvd often became a place of not just a party atmosphere, but also a volatile center which attracted many conflicting gangs and crews.
Starting on Friday, March 23, 1979 in response to the violence, vehicular cruising was banned entirely. And here in East Los Angeles, Whittier Blvd was blockaded starting at Eastern Ave. With the intention of protecting the boulevard’s shopping district of East Los Angeles.
The events of that ban and the mess left in its wake are described by lowrider historians this way:
“Whittier Boulevard was again closed in the late 1970s because law enforcement continued to make the claim that gang activity were directly related to cruising on East Los Angeles’s [sic] main street.
“The closing of Whittier Boulevard is the late 1970s brought adversarial tensions between lowriders and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to their highest point . Roberto Rodriguez, who was then a reporter for Lowrider magazine, recounts how he was almost killed by sheriff’s deputies on Whittier Boulevard on March 23rd 1979. He had been taking photographs of the cruising on the avenue and had been witnessed and attempted to photograph what he describes at the beating of an innocent and defenseless individual by the Special Enforcement Bureau of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. He does not deny that there had been “troublemakers” on the avenue for most of the 1970s, but he claims law enforcement’s crackdown on lowriders gave sheriffs free rein to consider all Mexican -Americans on the avenue suspect. Rodriguez was attacked by deputies, had his camera and film confiscated, sustained serious head injuries requiring several days of hospitalization, and faced criminal charges for attacking the very deputies who had injured him. He later brought a criminal suit against the Sheriff’s Department to clear his name; he won his criminal trial won more than seven years later. Rodriguez describes the night of violent confrontation: “As a result of the incident, 538 people were arrested, countless individuals were beaten and harassed, the Boulevard was shut down, and by the end of the weekend, Whittier Boulevard in East LA resembled a war zone.”
However, despite the reality of there being negative elements which did come along with this cruising phenomenon, it would be wrong for us to only focus upon that, and dismiss the other truth that the car club culture also still continued to presented itself as an alternative to gang membership as well. As it had since the days of the early car clubs.
“The 1979 film “Boulevard Nights,” set on Whittier Boulevard, draws an explicit connection between lowriders and violent gang life – a controversial topic in the lowriding community. Although lowriders have indeed been used by gang members over the years, and gunshots have rung out at more than one lowrider gathering, the cars are largely a family affair, say some observers. According to James Sterngold, writing in the New York Times in 2000, mainstream lowrider clubs actively seek to wean Chicano youths from the lure of gangs.”
However, this reality is still sadly overlooked. And the history of car clubs as socially positive groups became almost completely obscured and forgotten at this time.
The ban on cruising would be maintained throughout the 1980s and for the next decade. And the war zone and police state atmosphere of Whittier Blvd of those days is something that even I personally remember to this day.
And so I can say with certainty that the cruising culture didn’t stop just because of a few road blocks. Actually in the end this motivated the cruisers to just go around the barricaded intersections, often making their way into the residential neighborhoods from East LA to Pico Rivera.
As a kid I vividly remember the excitement of all the flashy cars, and also the drama of the police spectacles. My family often getting caught into the caravans of traffic by chance. And other times by my watching the cars as they diverted through the residential neighborhoods my family members lived in, shinny cars being pursued by flashing helicopter search lights. Leaving me with my face pressed up against glass windows, thrilled by it all.
And a few times, I even joined my older uncles and cousins cruising!
First night of the Cruising Ban; Whittier Blvd, East Los Angeles, March 23rd, 1979.
Eventually by the mid-1980s the Sheriff’s Department would move their barricade more to the east; eventually barricading traffic where Whittier Blvd met Rosemead Blvd in Pico Rivera. Diverting cars north, towards an inevitable destination at Legg Lake Park by day and away from heading towards the suburban core of the City of Whittier. And by night, preventing the mass of cruisers from gathering at the Tommy’s Burger and Mario’s Tacos parking lots in Pico Rivera (again, due to gang violence).
So by the 1990s if you actually made it as far as Durfee Road, you were considered boss!
Eventually cruising was banned again in 1992 under the guise of anti-loitering laws, which were drafted by their sponsors with the city’s anti-gang ordinances in mind.
From the late-1980s through the early-1990s the cruising culture would be maintained in East LA by a few die-hards. Though the old car cruising clubs would continue to shrink, with many lowriders instead focusing their energies towards show cars and classic car competitions.
“One of the few positive indicators of continued interest in lowriding was the success of the large car shows. These shows served to shift the emphasis for lowrider clubs and owners away from cruising and toward the production of award-winning show vehicles. Another positive sign for lowriding in general was the integration of the African American and Chicano cruising scene on Crenshaw Boulevard.”
Which shows how the car clubs and working-class car culture ultimately found a way to once again challenge racial boundaries and make new connections across the city; as they had since their earliest days.
The Current Legacy of Eastside Cruising
Though the street presence of the car culture seemed to decline for many years, the popularity of the working class car culture has proliferated. So much so that by the turn of the turn of the 21st century it had moved from being a subculture, into being a celebrated form of expression by the popular culture.
Today if you walk up to any major newsstand you will find various classic car, hot rod and lowrider magazines. Filled with amazing oral histories of the car club veterans who helped propel these movements forward.
The working class car culture is something which today is a much respected form of urban expression. Even though it still holds a certain type of outlaw repute by those who remain inappreciative.
However, I ask people to look around at the car club events of today and take notice of the diversity of people who attend.
And more importantly, notice that the now senior-aged leaders of the original clubs have now become respected veterans of this local heritage. And they most often speak as honored sources of technological, historical and cultural wealth.
And also take notice of how the car culture continues to find new energy in the youth. Who continue to revision this urban expression for themselves. Youth who have continued seeking out the apprenticeship of the car club veterans; fathers, grandfathers, uncles, and elder friends.
In the past two decades, the cultural trends of our area have also helped spark a revival in the kustom car movement. Which has brought new life and passion for the car clubs. Both as an expression of the reemerging Chicano street culture, and also the all-American rockabilly subculture which is common to many working class eastsiders.
Though I believe the biggest sign of the sustained vitality of the local car culture has been the meet-ups and car cruise nights which still center around the Los Angeles viaducts. The cruising from this spot has never really gone away.
In fact, this passed February the local car clubs teamed-up to revive the old Whittier Blvd cruising route. Starting from underneath the soon to be demolished Sixth Street Bridge and again heading towards East Los Angeles. These meet-ups have attracted the older guys and their classic cars, to enjoy a final ride to recapture their glory days. And the younger people as well, who just want to try to capture some treasured memories for themselves.
The question still hangs on the minds of people: Can the local working class car culture of the area survive the wave of change which is coming to the eastside? And will the demolition of the Sixth Street Bridge place in jeopardy this age old tradition; not just by displacing and diverting the cruise route, but also blocking access for riverbed drives for years to come.
In light of the plans for the new Art’s District amphitheater planned for the underside of the new Sixth Street Bridge at the entrance to the riverbed at Santa Fe (in addition to the push for revitalization of the Los Angeles River), there is much doubt as to whether our car clubs will have anyplace to return to here once the redevelopment project is completed.
With all of this nostalgia and uncertainty hanging thick in the air, people have continued to come out in droves for these final days. And I suspect in increasing numbers right up until the very end.
‘Cruise Night’ big headache for policemen – Banned from their old haunts, Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles and Van Nuys Boulevard in San Fernando Valley, young motorists now converge on Hollywood Blvd. (Associated Press; 1981)
Cruise night returns to Van Nuys Blvd – After a 28-year break, car lovers meet once a month on Wednesday nights to show off their souped-up muscle cars, restored classics and lowriders in a scene familiar a generation ago. (Los Angeles Times; 2010)
A community organizer’s account of the debut for the new Sixth Street Bridge Project – October 6th, 2014
Before I went to the city planning meeting that day, I just had to take one more wide look of this Sixth Street Viaduct. Watching her from the distance of the Seventh Street Bridge, I somberly took in full view of the crumbling Sixth Street Bridge there in the middle of it all. I needed to see the activity and the interconnectivity she provides for this community, just to keep the subject in perspective.
The viaducts of the Los Angeles river are an integral part the city, more than many people realize at first. These structures here were created not just to traverse the river, but also to serve as essential corridors for our local freeways. And also for providing passage for all our local commercial and passenger trains; the Amtrak and Metrolink trains, being among them.
My personal favorite of them is the Sixth Street Viaduct. Almost everyone in the city commutes over, under and through this structure on a regular basis. And so it has been for as long as any of us remember, that we find our goings and comings from the city greeted by the glory of this bridge and her arches.
And this bridge has also become the primary hang-out for my friends and I over the years. A part of our city infrastructure we feel most connected to. Most often taking our spot at the observation point on the north end of the pedestrian walkway. From here we have always watched and reflected upon this great city. It is almost hard for us to imagine the city landscape without her.
The historic Sixth Street Viaduct which has graced the city skyline since 1932 has been scheduled for demotion and replacement. As for many years there have been concerns about the structural integrity of the bridge.
Indeed, history tells us that within the first 20 years of the bridge being built the concrete of the structure began to suffer terrible damage. The consequences of badly mixed concrete in the construction, utilizing a poor choice of sand aggregate in the mixture. The grains of sand and the concrete-mix having a fatal reaction when repeatedly exposed to water over time, causing the mixture to produce a corrosive gel, as the sand grains swell with moisture. The concrete eventually becoming brittle enough to crack, separate and fall away. A condition called alkali-silica reaction, or “concrete cancer” by the engineers.
The bridge is literally crumbling and melting away. This is a serious crisis, for certain.
But I’ll tell you the truth: I have never seen anything as broken and damaged as the politics which surrounds the entire rebuilding project for the Sixth Street Viaduct. This has been what I have found most alarming here.
Let us consider the project, and all its implications. We are talking about a reconstruction project which when originally proposed it was estimated to cost at around $140-million dollars, which has since morphed and ballooned into over $440-million; a project which is consuming 2/3rds of the entire infrastructure development budget of the City of Los Angeles. And yet for all the money committed, this bridge project remains the most egregious symbol of inequity in the current city redevelopment.
Here we are at the start of another building project here which is wrong from the beginning. With the current failures of this project reflecting the deafness of both the civic and neighborhood council leaders. This all clearly demonstrating the complete failure on the part of our local leaders across the board to advocate for the needs our disadvantaged community which is most effected by this project; the neighborhood of Boyle Heights.
So here I gathered my thoughts here for a few moments. And then finally walked my way from the viaduct and over to the local magnet school which was hosting the community forum for the Sixth Street Viaduct Replacement Project. A much-anticipated update from the city and the contractors, regarding the demolition and rebuilding.
And as I walk up to the entrance I run into the Los Angeles City Council member for this district, Jose Huizar. We pass with barely a pleasantry, greeting and parting abruptly.
Actually I think the same can be said for his appearance at this meeting in general. His very presence at the community forum was short and abrupt. Excusing himself for another hearing after a few short words, and conveniently not having to be present to answer for any of the community concerns regarding the project.
As the community members began to pile in to a room mostly filled with suits and contractors, we also joined them; my local companions and I. This was not our first time at the rodeo, but even we were shocked by the fruitlessness of this forum.
Huizar came with his usual attempt at charm and carefully expressed sympathy over the loss of this iconic bridge, though in the end all he did was do political nodding and offered little of substance. He had a few nice things to say which I appreciated, about developing the art of the space and reusing materials from the historic bridge. The latter of which I believe is the most sincere.
What I found troubling was one of his last and briefest points to address, regarding the redevelopment of the underside of the bridge. In which he credits his office with securing $1-million for the construction of a “soccer park” on the cleared land underneath the bridge.
As he mentioned this my eyes were drawn to the diagrams and maps, to take notice how the businesses in the Boyle Heights Flats are effected. Only to notice many cleared away in the new renderings. I know the area very well. And every single business which they are replacing with just grass there in their diagrams.
In reality, they are not adding much more than white lines and adding two words to the remaining open field, and it thus becomes a “soccer park.”
Now how is that a community organizer like myself, in a Latino community, is opposed to this? My opposition is to a clearly mindless form of ethnic pandering here. And my scorn is for the cheap and token redevelopment feature aimed to pacify Latino objection to a highly unpopular redevelopment project. A typical move which is not just cynical, but also inequitable.
What completely amazed me was that just a year before at similar public briefing and forum hosted by Huizar’s office the city had warmed us all over with emphasizing that the bridge was to be transformed into a destination on both banks, with active artistic and cultural components. Stating that this all needed to be equitable and integral to the space, so as not to feel like an afterthought.
[Citation: See video of the December 11, 2013 meeting; citing Felicia Filer, Department of Cultural Affair. My favorite part is this, “There are so many different areas on the project in which public art happen. Where art can happen and future art programming. We wanted to look at the project holistically and cohesively, so that wherever opportunities are they tie together, so that it feels like a plan and not an afterthought.” Felicia Filer, Department of Cultural Affairs. I would say we are all in agreement with her, which is why it is shocking they have in the end planned nothing significant in terms of integrated programmable artistic and cultural space on the eastern side of the bridge.].
However, now what we had being presented to us was far less than carefully balanced. A revelation that would further be compounded as the city planners and engineers unveiled the model and animations for the new Sixth Street Viaduct. Complete with an amphitheater and an “arts park” to be constructed on the now gentrified Art District side of the bridge, on the western bank of the Los Angeles River.
While as for their plans for under the much larger Boyle Heights span, so far all they had to show for was an afterthought of a soccer field feature being represented by a piece of green construction paper under their model of the eastern span of the bridge; in the struggling minority community on the other end.
Very much an afterthought and point of disregard, as revealed by the words of Huizar himself: “We recently also awarded, through some of the advocacy of my office, a million dollars for a soccer field on the bottom of the Art’s District side, right?” To the solicited correction of his staff, he snapped back, “… Boyle Heights side. Right. Boyle Heights side.”
The viaduct of today is just about 2/3 of a mile long; 3500′ of bridge, with 400′ of twin double steel arches spanning over the river where the bridge slightly curves southwest as it extends towards downtown LA. The painted bluish-gray arches standing 40′ high, are the most beloved accent of the bridge.
The old bridge was designed at the height of the Art Deco era. The design shows both Art Deco and streamline Moderne themes, the first bridge of it’s kind. Indeed each of the bridges have a unique theme to them. Some of them neo-Classical like the First Street Bridge, and others are Gothic Revival like the nearby Fourth Street Bridge. All of them made to play off of and accentuate each other.
This motif has great historical significance to us locals, in providing functional and yet comfortingly classic atmosphere to our area. For these reasons, the Sixth Street Viaduct is designated as Historic-Cultural Monument #905 by the California Register of Historical Resources.
The bridge of the future is tremendously different. As the civil engineers spoke, we all stared eagerly at the scale model which took up the whole auditorium. This new design being a great departure from the current architectural theme of the area, and also from the previous design plans. Almost nothing of the original bridge and charms were retained, except for an embellished stream of integrated arches designed to span nearly the full length of the bridge.
There is no doubt that the new bridge design is bold and breathtaking. However, it is more stupefying when we see that they have diminished the historical integrity of the surrounding area in ways which appears to push a wave of sweeping redevelopment and character changes upon this area.
Considering all the other options for the rebuild, this most certainly is the best design. Early on in the design planning for the new viaduct, reproductions of the bridge were considered. Reproductions of the old bridge without any arches, a lackluster redesign which would have done no justice to the original Sixth Street Bridge. This bridge design as least incorporates an homage to the original arches. Which is quite meritorious.
And the bridge also does comes with some impressive features. The new Sixth Street Viaduct is designed to have protected bike lanes and paths. As well as a safer pedestrian walkways, secured by dividers. And circling bicycle ramps which promise easy acceptability.
As the presentation continues, we hear of how the “Ribbon of Light” theme for the bridge will incorporate embedded LED lighting. State of the art lights which can be changed in color in order to enhance the bridge, thematically or according to artistic tone. Mood light streaming along the face of the bridge and walkways. An admittedly expensive, but beautifying feature integrated into the bridge.
Most impressive though are the integrated artistic and cultural space planned for much smaller, western span of the bridge; on the Arts District Side. The amphitheater which will meet up against the entrance to the service tunnel of the Los Angeles River. Re-envisioning the almost urban cathedral nature of the underside of the bridge there as a programmable space. With an arts park which also planned for the adjacent areas.
These type of features are not by accident. Indeed early on in the process of the redesign the now gentrified Los Angeles Art’s District had demanded a percentage – I believe at one point they wanted as much as 4% of the redevelopment money – in order to apply to artistic redevelopment of their area. In the end, some effective advocacy for their community resulted in the incorporation of these grand features, the amphitheater and arts park.
The green construction paper signifies the after-thought soccer field feature.
What I find starkly contrasting is that for all of this light and programmable space being planned here, the only thing that this massive model has presented for the Boyle Heights side of bridge – for the 2500-feet which makes up over 2/3rds of the length of the bridge – is a piece of green construction paper on the underside of the bridge just west of Anderson St. An ad-hoc representation of their trite afterthought of a soccer field. This green piece of paper being just as barren and honest as the reality of that plan, just an empty green space left on the dark underside of their bridge.
For the first time I really felt the full effect of the dissonance which the community members around me also felt in the face all this. Even I began to feel the tension.
The civic planners have made great use of space in their designs for artistic expression in the gentrified side of town. And it makes great concessions to the newly arriving yuppies who need to feel that their own contrived being is in itself artisanal, who see their very privileged lives as performance art.
But what about for the genuinely culture rich Boyle Heights? What for the side which has a well established historical tradition of folk and applied arts? The east side – which has great historical significance for it’s rich ethnic and cultural character – what did we get for tangible programmable arts space? Gornishtmit gornisht… un montón de nada… a lot of nothing.