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The Cooperative Center
In the early 1920s, left-leaning members of the Arbeter Ring (Workers Circle) along with Jewish activists affiliated with the Cooperative Consumers League, a left-leaning cooperative buying club, decided to create a place where all of Boyle Heights' multiethnic residents could socialize, learn, and organize together. Inspired by the success of the Russian Revolution of 1917, they criticized the cultural and organizational isolation of their fellow Jewish socialists and sought to unite all of the area’s working-class residents to inspire a deeper change in American society. Some were members of the Communist Party Los Angeles (CPLA), others were anarchists, some progressive liberals, but they shared a belief that achieving social justice and equality required building interethnic solidarity among workers and oppressed peoples across the globe. In 1923, they purchased a large, three-story building near the corner of Brooklyn and Mott with several meeting rooms on the top floor, a bakery and café on the ground floor, and a large ballroom for lectures, rallies, and social events in the middle. The building was funded and run on a cooperative basis, with shareholder members voting democratically on all administrative decisions and union labor employed throughout the building. Accordingly, they called it the Cooperative Center.
The Cooperative Center quickly became a hub for a variety of neighborhood-based organizations and an important site of convergence of political organizing and social activities. The Center hosted lectures by Upton Sinclair, organizing meetings for the Carpenters, Furniture Makers, and Bakers unions, and rallies in defense of Sacco and Vanzetti and the Scottsboro Boys. Several local unions and cultural organizations rented space there, as did the local branches of the International Workers Order (IWO), a left-leaning fraternal organization that offered low-cost insurance to its members regardless of race, religion, or creed. The Jewish branch of the IWO, known as the Jewish Peoples' Fraternal Order, operated a Yiddish school for children in the building under the direction of Abraham Maymudes, who also directed Yiddish cultural programs at the Center. The Cooperative Center also hosted social activities that blended consciousness raising, interethnic mingling, and fundraising, including weekly dances for young people, and celebrations in honor of visiting CPUSA leaders like William Z. Foster and Moishe Olgin. During the depths of the Depression, the Center was a launching point for eviction protests throughout the neighborhood and several large hunger marches in the plaza downtown. Several units of the city’s Unemployed Councils met at the Center, the Cooperative Bakery distributed free bread, and the café functioned as a soup kitchen for struggling residents. The Center also increased its agitation against fascism following Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, holding mass meetings and protests to draw public attention to the threat posed by fascism in the United States. They connected the treatment of African Americans in the Jim Crow south to the antisemitic policies of the Nazi government in Germany, calling for an end to both systems of racist oppression, and offered strong opposition to the rise of Japanese imperialism in east Asia.
After the United States entered World War II, the IWO and other organizations affiliated with the Cooperative Center contributed funds to build a “Victory House” at the corner of Brooklyn Avenue and Soto Streets where they sold War Bonds, raising over $10 million to support the war effort by April 1944. One fundraising drive netted $300,000 in less than 2 months, prompting the Defense Department to dedicate one of its Flying Fortress Bomber as “The Spirit of Boyle Heights."1The IWO also raised funds to purchase an ambulance that they donated to the Red Cross, and its affiliated Jewish women’s organization, the Emma Lazarus Club, organized clothing drives and parties where they knitted blankets and clothing to support the families of the troops. But despite their support for the war, the organizations affiliated with the Cooperative Center continued their activism against the racial inequities that the war exposed, criticizing the racist treatment of African Americans in the defense industry and the forceful evacuations of Japanese Americans, and raising money to support the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee.
In the eyes of city leaders and the Los Angeles Police Department, the continued interethnic, interracial organizing at the Cooperative Center was dangerous and subversive. The Center was subject to a series of violent raids by the LAPD in the early 1930s, and plain-clothes officers repeatedly disrupted events and blocked access to the building. Those who worked at the Center endured vicious beatings at the hands of the police, including Isadore Brooks, manager of the Café, who died as a result of complications from injuries he endured at a rally in 1932. Several organizers who cut their teeth at the Center, including Ben Dobbs, Dorothy Ray Healey, and Miriam Brooks, as well as several organizations that held meetings there, also became subjects of investigations by both state and local Committees on Un-American Activity in the 1940s.
Amidst this crackdown, the Cooperative Consumers League disbanded and sold their building in the late 1940s to Adolph Franco who renamed it “The Paramount Ballroom and Café."
Born in Poland, Abraham Maymudes (1901-1989) emigrated to New York in 1920, where he worked as a furrier and studied at the Arbeter Ring (Workers Circle) Teacher’s Seminary. After teaching at a Yiddish school in Cleveland, he and his wife moved to Boyle Heights in 1933 to lead the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order’s (JPFO) three Yiddish schools in the neighborhood. Maymudes was elected secretary of the JPFO, operating its low-cost insurance program for its 250 members, leading its massive war bonds drive during World War II, and running the local office of the Morgn Frayhayt (Morning Freedom), a Communist Yiddish daily. Maymudes retired from his post with the JPFO after the war, but continued his work with the paper, serving as national editor from 1959 to 1963. The photographs above come from Maymudes' personal collection and were donated to the Los Angeles Public Library by his son, August (z"l).