From Elite Suburb to Immigrant Enclave
The explanation most frequently offered for this rapid demographic shift is one of exclusion and discrimination. As the city of Los Angeles grew in the first two decades of the twentieth century, real estate developers began including restrictive racial covenants in mortgages and title contracts that prohibited the buyer from selling or renting their property to anyone who was not, in the language of the contracts, “of the Caucasian race.”2 Because such segregationist practices did not prevail in Boyle Heights, as the story goes, it became one of just a handful of neighborhoods where non-white Angelenos could live. Owed to the ambiguities of Jewish racial designation, the covenants were not always applied to Jews. However, it is likely that, for them and other historically-marginalized communities, even the potential for discrimination may have been enough to discourage them to look for housing in other neighborhoods where the covenants applied.
Such explanations, however, obscure other important realities that also factored in the transformation of the neighborhood. For one thing, many of the communities who settled in Boyle Heights in the 1910s and 1920s had deeper roots in the area that extended back to the 19th century. Workers of Mexican descent, some of whom were employed on the estates of the wealthy residents of “the white bluffs,” settled along the edges of the neighborhood closest to downtown, as did traqueros (railroad workers) in the low-lying flats near the rail lines. As the number of rail yards, metal works, packing houses, and brick yards in the flats grew—facilitated by new zoning and land use policies enacted by the City Council—Boyle Heights’ proximity to jobs enticed an increasing number of working-class families to settle there, including a significant number of Russian Molokans, a dissident Spiritualist Christian sect, who had by the 1910s established a vibrant community in the flats known as “Russia Town.”
While Boyle Heights held clear residential significance for working-class families in the late nineteenth century, the neighborhood also offered unique possibilities for residents who were both middle-class and non-white. Take, for example, Harriet Owens-Bynum and her family, who moved to Boyle Heights from Texas in 1887, where she and her husband Green Owens owned a 160-acre ranch outside of Austin. Along with her son, John Wesley Coleman, a graduate of Tilleston College, and his wife Lydia and four children, they purchased a tract at 2916-2918 New Jersey Street near Evergreen cemetery by the eastern boundary of the city. Entrepreneurialism seems to have run in the family: Mr. Owens opened his own livery company and, after working for a time as a driver and then a Pullman Porter, John Wesley Coleman and his wife opened a downtown café, followed by a small hotel. Coleman then started his own Employment Agency, claiming later to have placed some 60,000 Black folks in jobs across the Pacific Coast. But it was Mrs. Owens-Bynum who came to be recognized for her “business savvy”: recognizing that Black families had trouble getting a “square deal” from local real estate agents, she worked with the owner of the surrounding tract to purchase and resell lots in the area to some sixty-five Black families, and placed dozens of others in rental properties, including a development she owned with her son called Coleman Flats. Recognized as community leaders working for the betterment of African Americans in the city, the Owens-Bynum family ascribed to many of the same notions of bourgeois respectability, propriety, and Christian virtue as the white families in the neighborhood, helping to attract Black residents with similar values and aspirations.3
The same aspirations–for homeownership, community-building, and a place to call home–drove Eastern European Jewish immigrants to settle in Boyle Heights as well, many relocating from the Temple Street area and other parts of downtown. Historian Wendy Elliot-Scheinberg identified a handful of Jewish families who settled in the area in the 1890s—including Mendel Horwitz, a Russian-born tailor; German-born Max Kahn, who owned a dry-goods business; and Morris Lofsky, a peddler from Poland—and noted that a decade later, real estate developers Louis Lewin and Charles Jacoby founded the Pioneer Lot Association to sell lots for homes in the neighborhood, presumably to Jewish buyers.4 A 1940 neighborhood study, by contrast, credited the growth of the Jewish population there to “a real estate man named Heinemann” who travelled to New York and other eastern cities promoting homes for sale in the area, citing an “older resident” who claimed Heinemann’s promotion was so successful that one could ask any Jew on a westbound train where they were heading and they would answer, “Boyle Heights, California.”5
While some of them lamented these demographic changes, elite white property owners in the neighborhood also played a role in the neighborhood’s transformation, particularly William H. Workman. Aiming to improve their own access to downtown and increase the value of their holdings, property owners led by Workman lobbied the local City Council to build and then refurbish a series of bridges over the Los Angeles River at Brooklyn Avenue, 1st street, 4th street, and 6th street–bridges that were rebuilt as concrete viaducts in the 1920s and remain in use today. Workman also served as Mayor of Los Angeles from 1886 to 1888 and helped to persuade the city’s streetcar operators to extend their lines to the neighborhood, the first electric car line at east 1st street completed in 1899. Such transit options gave the neighborhood easier access to jobs and businesses downtown, in turn encouraging property owners and real estate speculators to further subdivide their holdings, and a flurry of new developments and tracts emerged. By the 1920s, would-be residents could purchase large lots in “the hills” for between $1000 to $1500 and cheaper lots in “the flats” for as little as $600. Rents too were affordable, ranging from $35 to $40 per month to under $10, and over 80 percent of all residences were single-family homes.6
With easy commuter access to jobs and affordable rent prices, Boyle Heights quickly became an appealing place to live for wage earners and professionals alike. The prevalence of restrictive racial covenants in other parts of the city only enhanced that appeal, drawing migrants from elsewhere in the city, the United States, and all over the world to make their homes in the neighborhood.