By Guillermo Aviles-Rodriguez
The storied history of Boyle Heights is one of a transit friendly, ethnically dynamic and religiously tolerant region with an established reputation for constant demographic shifts. This neighborhood’s repute comes, in large part, from its welcoming of traveling migrants, both voluntary and forced from all over the globe. How appropriate then that the first automobile to ever roll into Los Angeles did so through the streets of Boyle Heights. The maiden voyage of this experimental gasoline powered vehicle took it through downtown and across the Los Angeles River towards the home of J. Philip Erie, a well to do New York civil engineer who spent $30,000 to design, invent, and build, with the help of Samuel D. Sturgis and C. H. Albers, the first “gasoline-propelled automobile carriage” west of the Mississippi River.
According to the Los Angeles Times, their carriage first rolled down the streets of Boyle Heights on Sunday May 30th in 1897. Though this motorcade was primarily to test the vehicle's efficiency it also doubled as Los Angeles’ first ever Sunday drive, since the car was loaded with eight passengers that included family and friends. After starting its engine at 2 o’clock in the morning, so as to avoid the crowds that would inevitably gather and possibly “interfere seriously with the progress of affairs.” The route for this historic event started on Fifth Street, turned on Broadway made a left on Sixth Street, Main Street, and took Seventh Street across the Los Angeles River, coming to a rest in Erie’s home near Hollenbeck Park. The group could not reach its maximum promised speed of 25 miles per hour, three times the speed limit of eight miles per hour in residential areas at the time, but it did foreshadow a long standing love affair that families in Boyle Heights, and throughout Los Angeles, have had with the automobile to this day.
Sparked by the promised arrival of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1880s, Los Angeles’ growth and development pushed out in all directions from its center in downtown. In the 1870s, however, Boyle Heights represented one of the most profitable regions for the then young Los Angeles to expand into. By World War I thanks to heavy infrastructural investments, this largely rural area was transformed into one of the most popular neighborhoods outside of downtown. Evidenced by the fact that the city’s first railway system would dedicate three of its five rail lines to Boyle Heights thoroughfares.
As the popularity of living in new neighborhoods further away from downtown Los Angeles grew so, too, did the popularity of the automobile. A vehicle was one of the most useful possessions that both rural and urban working families could own. In some cases enabled a family’s very survival, in that a functioning and reliable car was often a rural migrant family’s means of travel from one agricultural field to another as well as their sleeping quarters to save money. For an urban family, their vehicle could become a hired taxi for workers with no other reliable transportation or a mobile produce stand that could slowly cruise through neighborhoods selling everything from foodstuffs to clothing in order to supplement a family’s income. In essence, cars transformed the practice of peddling—which Jews had engaged in since the dawn of the industrial Revolution—from a physically demanding and socially-isolating form of work to a convenient, and often lucrative, profession and one that many Jewish residents of Boyle Heights used to establish their careers.
By the 30s and 40s, cars proved indispensable to accessing jobs created by Los Angeles’ southward industrial development that concentrated new rubber, steel, auto, and aerospace plant jobs beyond the downtown industrial zone in areas such as Vernon, where there was limited transit infrastructure at the time. So, too, did young residents of Boyle Heights take advantage of cars to access public higher education as it expanded in the same years, many fondly recalling their carpools to the new Westwood campus of UCLA. Cars became both material and economic markers of prosperity and success, and, most importantly, social mobility, as reflected in the frequency of family portraits that featured the family car.
As freeway construction in and around the neighborhood began in the years after World War II, many young descendants of the Mexican population in Boyle Heights (known as Chicanos), along with Japanese Americans, and Jews formed social clubs revolving around the automobile. These clubs would then sponsor events such as food and toy drives, carwashes, and other community events that built good will in their neighborhood. Chicano owners then developed practices to transform their cars that included taking a Detroit brand and Chicano-izing it by fashioning the vehicle into a new more ethnic aesthetic. By modifying their cars so that they ran “bajito y suavecito” (“Low and Slow”)—lowered just inches off the road— Chicanos fashioned an alternative to the hot-rods and muscle cars of their day and mobilized an assertion of their new cultural identity not as Mexicans or Americans but as something completely new. These cars would later feature elaborate customizations, including color coordinated upholstery, candy coated paint jobs featuring ornate imagery throughout the car’s body, and equipped with hydraulic or air bag systems that adjusted the height of the vehicle. They would call their modified vehicles lowriders.
As in the early twentieth century, the tradition of car ownership in Chicano lowriding culture has become a family affair, passed down from one generation to the next, and a parent will often deed their vehicle to their children so that the tradition is continued. A particularly poignant example of just how potent a lowrider car could be for a family is the story of Dave’s Dream, a 1969 Ford LED acquired by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in 1990. This lowrider is now on permanent display in the museum’s Road Transportation hall surrounded by a photo mural of the Sanctuary of Chimayó in New Mexico, and the collection of trophies won by this lowrider. Dave’s Dream, like so many other lowriders was a collective response to a tragic situation; after purchasing this car with the intentions to customize it in a celebration of his Chicano culture, and competing in lowrider shows with it, Dave Jaramillo died in an automobile accident. His widow, young son and other members of his family decided to keep working on the car as a tribute and memorial to him. In this way lowriding transforms cars from functional and utilitarian purpose into objects more akin to chariots in a battle for cultural survival.
Today, lowriders are putatively known as any aesthetically modified vehicle lowered to within a few inches off the ground and equipped with a hydraulic suspension system designed to enable a car to bounce and jump. Lowrider owners have also gradually started to decorate their cars with high gloss multicolored paint jobs often peppered with colorful and intricate geometric designs and religious iconography, upholstering them with themed colored crushed velvet interiors, adding whitewall tires with 13 inch wire-spoke wheel rims, chroming every external metal surface (in some extreme cases even the entire engine). Adding complicated sound systems with amplification powerful enough for blasting sound across multiple blocks so as to announce the vehicle’s approach from blocks away by rattling windows and turning heads from both sides of a city street have also become standard features of today’s lowriders, and adding even more complex hydraulic suspension systems, that would enable the lowrider to jump much higher, side to side and even to complete a 360 degree lateral rotation.
Boyle Heights from its inception has been a dynamic junction whose only constant has been motion. It has always been a place of convergence for many people searching for a place to call home. It has seen many groups come and go, each one leaving a mark that never truly disappears but simply recedes into a historical background, always ready to resurface when one decides to cruise through its archives. Ultimately, Boyle Heights can be thought of as a dynamic map where many people have left their tracks, one atop of the other enabling a layered crisscross of historical highways full of cars, families, and cultures.