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Local Politics at the Grassroots: Community Organizing in Postwar Boyle Heights
For over one hundred years, Boyle Heights' history has been shaped by the contest between the dreams of the neighborhood’s residents, the ambitions of real estate developers, and the policy goals of government leaders, contests that have given rise to forms of grassroots community activism around planning and development projects, particularly in the years after World War II. This long history of grassroots community organizing provides important context for the new forms of activism and community mobilization emerging in Boyle Heights today as residents struggle with gentrification, economic inequality, and displacement.
Protesting the Freeways
The new suburban communities that emerged throughout Southern California in the 1940s created thousands of commuters who lived miles from the places where they worked, resulting in serious traffic and congestion problems on regional roadways. In an attempt to alleviate these transportation problems, local and state authorities proposed the construction of a system of multi-lane freeways throughout the Southland. In May 1953, the California Highway Commission announced its proposed route for the Golden State Freeway, a section of the Interstate 5 that would pass through Los Angeles and connect the city north to Sacramento (and on to Oregon and Washington) and south to San Diego (and on to the Mexican border). A portion of the proposed route was to cut directly through Boyle Heights, tracing along the western edge of Hollenbeck Park to meet the Hollywood Freeway (US 101) near Whittier Blvd.
The proposed Golden State Freeway generated forceful opposition among the residents of Boyle Heights, particularly those who recognized that the construction would threaten their homes. Area residents and business owners sent dozens of letters and petitions with hundreds of signatures to the Highway Commission, including this one from Mrs. Eva M. Gard who disclosed that she had been a resident of the area since 1895. They voiced their opposition at planning meetings and, with the support of City Councilman Edward Roybal, submitted several alternate routes complete with maps to prove their feasibility. Unfortunately, in June 1954, the Commission announced that it had rejected their proposals and would continue along the original proposed routes, resulting in the displacement of hundreds of families.
The images included here and additional information about the resistance to the freeways can be found in the Edward Ross Roybal Papers, UCLA Library Special Collections.
The Madres de Este L.A.
The Madres de Este L.A. (Mothers of East Los Angeles) formed after the California Department of Corrections announced plans to build a state prison in East Los Angeles in March 1985. A group of Latina mothers, some of whom had been raised in the neighborhood and experienced the displacement and lasting impacts of freeway construction firsthand, came together to voice their opposition to the proposal. They knew well that only a community-wide campaign would stop the prison project and, with the support of Monsignor John Moretta of Resurrection Church and City Councilwoman Gloria Molina, formed the Madres de Este LA to mobilize their neighbors and friends. In August 1986, the Madres, sporting white mantillas (scarves) to signal their nonviolent principles, led a protest march of some 2,000 neighborhood residents along Olympic Boulevard near the proposed site of the prison, a strong demonstration of the community’s opposition to the project. When it finally came up for a vote in 1991, the prison project failed.
As protectors of their families and caregivers of their community, the Madres have since focused their efforts on environmental justice, waging successful campaigns against the construction of a hazardous waste plant in Vernon, an above-ground oil pipeline that would have cut through Boyle Heights, and a chemical treatment plant in Huntington Park. The organization grew to include over 400 members who served as nodes in broader neighborhood-wide networks through which news and information flowed out into the community. The Madres were forerunners in the environmental justice movement, fighting to improve air and water quality in their neighborhood, particularly near Boyle Heights' seven schools, and to educate local residents about the disparate racial and environmental impacts of development policies. Although the original Madres group split into factions in the late 1990s, its members and allies continue to fight for improvements in zoning regulations, access to low-income housing, and improvements in air and soil quality, as well as raising thousands of dollars to provide scholarships for area students.
Additional information about the Madres de Este L.A. can be found in the Juana Beatriz Gutiérrez Mothers of East Los Angeles (MELA) Collection at the California State University Northridge Urban Archives.
Honoring History and Memory
Following the death of César Chávez, famed leader of the United Farm Workers who devoted his life to fighting for the rights of immigrants and workers, the Los Angeles City Council passed ordinance 169111 in October 1993, authorizing a renaming of portions of Brooklyn Avenue, Macy Street, and Sunset Boulevard to “Avenida de César Chávez (César E. Chávez Avenue).” The ordinance was supported by City Council members Mike Hernandez and Richard Alatorre, along with the United Farm Workers, who felt the location was appropriate because of its proximity both to the historic plaza, the center of the city's population when Southern California was part of Mexico, and to Boyle Heights, which had been the epicenter of the Chicano/a civil rights struggle since the late 1940s. But while some residents supported the name change, many others opposed it, particularly the owners of small businesses located on Brooklyn Avenue.
Among the leading opponents of the name change was Dean Zellman, proprietor of Zellman’s Clothing, a family-owned menswear shop first established by Dean’s grandfather on Brooklyn Avenue in 1927 and operated for decades by his father Manny. While he believed that Chávez’s contributions deserved recognition, Zellman and his allies were concerned that the name change would “erase” other aspects of the neighborhood’s history and heritage. As he described in a letter to the councilmen in advance of the vote, he believed it was important to “[preserve] the history of three generations of Jews, Italians, Russians, Mexican-Americans, Japanese, Armenians and many other ethnic cultures” that had historical ties to Brooklyn Avenue. Zellman included in his letter copies of a petition signed by thousands of area residents and business owners who shared his belief that Brooklyn Avenue was a “cultural landmark” deserving of protection. While they failed to stop the renaming of the street, with the help of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, they negotiated a compromise to designate the portion of the street between Chicago and Cummings Streets as a Historic-Cultural Monument, the Brooklyn Avenue Historic Neighborhood Corridor.
Like the fight against the freeways and the work of the Madres of Este L.A., the conflict over the renaming of Brooklyn Avenue reveals the strong attachments that residents and former residents alike hold for Boyle Heights and their shared desire to protect the neighborhood during a period of rapid socioeconomic change in Los Angeles.