The Ultimate First Street Guide to CicLAvia: Where to Eat and Who to Meet

Lupita Barajas sits in front of her restaurant, Yeya's (across the street from Mariachi Plaza), with her grandson, Julian. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA
Lupita Barajas sits in front of her restaurant, Yeya’s (across the street from Mariachi Plaza), with her grandson, Julian. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

CicLAvia! Bicycles! Hipster Invaders! Gentrification!

Made you look!

Probably provoked some strong emotions, too, given the way recent headlines (see here, here, here) in asking whether activities assumed to be the purview of “hipsters” could be compatible with lower-income communities, have inadvertently re-ified the “us vs. them” framing that guides too much of the conversation on gentrification.*

Very little productive dialogue tends to come of that approach, regardless of how well-intended the question is. For one, it is incredibly effective at enticing all the angry, underwear-clad racists, classists, and all-around terrible people with Internet access out of their caves. But even among those who seek a more elevated debate, that framing almost guarantees that the highly complex issues surrounding community transformations will devolve into unpleasant wranglings over who has the right to make claims on a place based on creative interpretations of history and sweeping generalizations about “culture.”

Behold, the most tone-deaf gentri-flyer in the history of man. (Photo source unknown)
Behold, the most tone-deaf gentri-flyer in the history of man. (Photo source unknown)

That is not to say that bike lanes, bicyclists, CicLAvia, or even “hipsters” aren’t touchstones in gentrification debates. The gentri-flyer heard ’round the world (at right) made clear that they certainly are.

But, as I tried to illustrate in the stories penned on the storm the flyer generated (here, here), it’s not those things, per se, that provoke such a strong reaction. It’s the processes and power structures they represent.

In other words, people are often looking at current efforts to engage their communities in the context of the long history of discrimination, deliberate disinvestment, displacement, and exclusion from the planning processes those communities have endured and asking where they fit.

From that perspective, it becomes easier to see how residents with a lengthy list of unaddressed infrastructure and other needs might wonder exactly who lower-priority concerns like bike lanes (or an event like CicLAvia, staged in their community by non-residents) were intended to benefit. Particularly since investment often seems to not be directed at a marginalized area until after turnover is already underway and developers appear prepared to “ride the wave of increased gentrification”** by snapping up homes, apartment buildings, and retail sites.

Students from around the area speak about how memories and family define what home on the Eastside means to them at an Activarte workshop led by artist Omar Ramirez. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA
Students from around the area speak about how memories, family, relationships, and struggle define what home on the East Side means to them at a recent Activarte: Detouring Displacement workshop led by artist Omar Ramirez. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

Of course, none of this means that people don’t want to see investments, improvements, events, or even “outsiders” in their communities. On the contrary — a number of the small business owners I’ve spoken with feel that more investment in the area and greater exposure to a wider customer base are necessary for them to survive and flourish.

They would just prefer that when that happens, investments will be directed at existing businesses and local entrepreneurs so they can grow and adapt to a changing landscape, the community will be treated as a partner in planning, development will be respectful of the character, history, and culture of the area, improvements will address the needs and aspirations of the long-time residents — especially those on the margins, and the existing residents’ ability to remain in their homes will be safeguarded so they can reap the benefits of any growth or change that results from that process.

Activarte participants discuss what "home" means to them and prepare to make signs bearing their ideas. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA
Activarte participants discuss what “home” means to them and prepare to make signs to communicate their ideas. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

So, some of the community’s stakeholders are hoping to help visitors and city officials to see the value of that approach by inviting participants to explore the length of 1st St. during this weekend’s CicLAvia, get acquainted with the small businesses, and learn about how culture, history, food, and family play into their vision for the future of their community.

They’re going to make it super-easy for everyone to do so, too.

Most of the businesses along 1st are family-run. Yeya's has been there four years, although owner Lupita Barajas worked in restaurants along the street for 15 years prior to starting her own business. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA
Most of the businesses along 1st are family-run. Yeya’s has been there four years, although owner Lupita Barajas (holding the baby) worked in restaurants along the street for 15 years prior to opening her own. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

Thanks to the work of Aldo Medina of the East L.A. Community Corporation, who is working to organize the businesses and offer them technical assistance, Chris Pina who nurtures the growth of small businesses via Business Source, and Juan Romero, the owner of cafe Primera Taza, 1st st. will be hosting the equivalent of one very long block party. There will be food, music, art, live painting, food, outdoor tables and chairs, awesome people, and food.

Did I mention food?

The buffet at Taqueria el Sol, a family-run restaurant located near the 5 freeway on 1st St. Photo: Taqueria el Sol
The buffet at Taqueria el Sol, a family-run restaurant famous for its chilaquiles located at 1949 E. 1st St. (near the 5 freeway) Photo: Taqueria el Sol

“I don’t know if any other community has done this!” Pina said of the businesses’ collaboration to showcase the street.

Romero concurred and spoke of the importance of drawing people from the hub at Mariachi Plaza into the community itself.

The section of 1st St. between Mariachi Plaza and the 5 freeway. (Google maps)
The section of 1st St. between Mariachi Plaza and the 5 freeway. (Google maps)

Always brimming with ideas for ways to bring activity to the area, Romero was one of the folks behind the Boyle Heights Farmers’ Market and has been busy organizing a 5k Run/Walk and Munchkin Half-Mile, slated for Saturday, October 11. Taking advantage of a massive event like CicLAvia to “focus [attention] on the businesses…on the mom-and-pop shops” so they could build new connections while communicating what the area represented and had to offer, to him, was a no-brainer.

It apparently wasn’t too hard to convince others of the potential value of the effort, either. Councilmember Jose Huizar’s office is supplying the tables and chairs that will be set up outside the many restaurants that line the street between the plaza and the freeway to the east, and White Memorial Hospital is donating the decorative balloons. Renowned local artists Fabian Debora and Ray Vargas should be on hand to paint the walls of an alley across from Mariachi Plaza (next to La Serenata), while a DJ plays music.

The J&F Ice Cream Shop at Mariachi Plaza. The inside also has a lovely mural depicting some of their family members. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA
The J&F Ice Cream Shop at Mariachi Plaza. The inside also has a lovely mural depicting some of their youngest family members. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

Their goal is to entice you into taking a cultural and culinary voyage through Mexico and beyond. Considering what the street offers, that shouldn’t be too hard.

The Food

What are you hungry for?

Pretty much anything you need can be found within just a few short blocks of Mariachi Plaza, including: ice cream, raspados, juices, and tortas at J&F Ice Cream shop (above); la carne en su jugo, el pipian (sauce), handmade tortillas, or la jericalla (flan) at Yeya’s (Jalisco; Guadalajara); la cemita poblana de milanesa, huaraches, or pambazos at La Placita del D.F. (Puebla; Distrito Federal); a unique goat stew (birria) recipe served with tortillas, cilantro, and onion that Birrieria de Don Boni (Jalisco) has been serving since the 1970s; seafood, special sauces, and mole at La Serenata; quesadillas, juices, smoothies, and, of course, tortas, at Super Tortas Luisito; menudo, chicken mole, tortas, nopales, and the famous chilaquiles from Taqueria el Sol; bean and cheese burritos at Al & Bea’s; coffee drinks, sandwiches, and salads at Primera Taza; the super-fresh vegetarian and vegan cuisine of Un Solo Sol‘s Latin American kitchen (food porn found here) or fresh tortillas or chips from Tortilleria San Marcos. (Note: some restaurants will have a reduced menu for CicLAvia).

Most of the restaurants are family-run, incredibly welcoming, and offer “casera” (home-style) cuisine, based in the recipes handed down to them through the generations. And because most of the owners have lived and/or worked in the area for decades, they take extra care with the food, knowing the people they are serving are their friends and neighbors.

Which is also the reason you may not have heard of most of these places — they’ve largely relied on word-of-mouth advertising over the years. The 12-14 hours days most spend in their restaurants have left them little time for extra marketing or anything else.

Lupita Barajas prepares homemade tortillas at Yeya's. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA
Lupita Barajas prepares homemade tortillas at Yeya’s. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

It’s a lot of work,” Columba Gasca said in Spanish of the long hours she’s kept for 11 years at La Placita del D.F. and the time it took to get the hang of running a small business. But being able to share her food and her heritage with the community — especially those missing their home cuisines — was really important to her, and she felt privileged to be able to do so.

Lupita Barajas of Yeya’s (above) echoed her sentiments, gigglng with her nephew, Edgar Barajas (who helps out after school), about spending so much time at the restaurant that she can’t wear any of the lovely perfumes family members have gifted her over the years.

Food and perfume don’t mix,” she laughed

Well, I wear the scent of Fruit Punch,” Edgar teased.

But the long hours she puts in and the many years she had worked in other kitchens in the area had been key to their ability to get Yeya’s off the ground. When they opened their doors in 2010, she said, they didn’t even bother to do any advertising. People trusted her to serve them well. And she does.

It doesn’t mean that they — or any of the restaurants — have had it particularly easy. Word-of-mouth is the best way to build a loyal base, but it is also an awfully slow one. So, all are hoping that CicLAvia participants will take the time to wander up the street and check out what their kitchens have to offer.

Some of the colorful decor inside Taqueria el Sol. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA
Some of the colorful decor inside Taqueria el Sol. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

Once you’ve had your fill, they hope you will explore some of the other unique spaces and shops along the street.

The Arts

Two doors down from Mariachi plaza, Espacio 1839 — home to Radio Sombra and a conscientiously curated gallery space/bookstore/music store/clothing shop steeped in the culture and history of the East Side and the struggles of the oppressed — will have its own set-up, offering music, art, clothing, and thought-provoking conversation. Collective members Marco Amador, David Gómez, Elisa García, and Nico Aviña founded the space two years ago to provide a creative outlet for the community’s needs, aspirations, and desire for social justice. The expertise each member brings — Aviña as an artist, García as a former bookstore owner, Amador as a media maker and community organizer, and Gómez as a DJ — and their shared commitment to both investing in those on the margins and giving them a voice makes the space feel urgent and alive.

Just east of the freeway, at Cummings, arts, education, action, and wellness collective Corazón del Pueblo will host an open mic and offer refreshments and t-shirts for sale. While you’re there, peruse their eclectic calendar of workshops, which run the gamut from men and women’s talking circles and spoken word open mic nights, to yoga, zumba, and bike fixing classes, to dance, musical, or theatrical performances. Amazingly, they’ve managed to do all this with an all-volunteer staff and without the support of grants since 2009. Rents being what they are, however, Corazón could use your help to keep their doors open. Revenues from their CicLAvia celebrations will go towards ensuring they can continue to offer free health- and healing-oriented workshops to the community.

Check out the nearby Casa 0101 Theater while you’re there for upcoming film screenings and performance information for their next production — Julius Caesar — set to begin October 17.

The Boyle Heights Bridgerunners -- founded by David Gomez of Espacio 1839 -- celebrate one year of Wednesday nights running the bridges between Boyle Heights and DTLA. Photo: Boyle Heights Bridgerunners
The Boyle Heights Bridgerunners — founded by David Gómez of Espacio 1839 — celebrate one year of Wednesday night runs over the bridges between Boyle Heights and DTLA. Photo: Boyle Heights Bridge Runners

If you’d just like to get to know local personalities — of which I assure you there are many — take a stroll and stop in the open shops or find ones you’d like to come back to explore.

The Businesses

Peek inside Don Jorge Tello’s Casa del Mariachi (1836 E 1st.) and get a sense of what it means to be a tailor to the stars. The Guatemalan native who learned the craft at an early age — age 9, to be exact — has been a tailor for the past 50 years. But it wasn’t until he came to this country 30 years ago that he began specializing in “charros” (suits for mariachis). It (only) took him several months to learn how to do the specific detailing, he told me, but because he had had so few tools at his disposal in Guatemala, he was actually well-equipped to use the older pedal-driven sewing machines needed to do the intricate stitching and design work. His love of the craft, meticulousness, and extraordinary talent have paid off — he’s dressed most of the biggest mariachi stars as well as Placido Domingo and Carlos Santana.

Don Jorge Tello shows off some of the detailing work he's done on jackets and sombreros. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA
Don Jorge Tello shows off some of the detailing work he’s done on jackets and sombreros at la Casa del Mariachi. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

Or stop by the House of Trophies to relive your childhood memories of victorious triumphs and/or terrible defeats. Although normally closed Sundays, owner Saul González (pictured here, with Mayor Eric Garcetti) mentioned he might be open just to let people come in and poke around his shop, which is jam-packed with shiny trophies, plaques, and medals of all shapes, sizes, and materials.

Co-owner of the shop with business partner Dante Bullock, González has worked at the shop since he was 12 years old. A kid from the now-demolished Aliso Village housing development, he had needed the job to help support his family.

The business has changed a bit since the early days. In the 1990s, it split from Casa Prieto — the family-run sporting goods store that has been in the community for 40 years — next door. More recently, the recession and the loss of their biggest client — the city’s Department of Parks and Rec. in 2012 — means the owners have had to up their involvement in all aspects of the business while cutting back on staff. But they’ve also worked to diversify their offerings, capitalizing on people’s penchants for custom-made trophies — fantasy football trophies and prizes for weird competitions (i.e. barbers vying for the best comb-over cut or trophies with sex toys on them for erotica contests). But their focus on building personal relationships with clients and the community has clearly remained consistent, as evidenced by the number of genuine hugs and hearty handshakes I saw given to clients while I was there and their donation of 400 medals to next weekend’s 5K run to celebrate all the neighborhood kids they hope will participate in the event.

Screen shot of the interior of the Trophy House. Yes, there are that many trophies, and more. And they will unfailingly evoke one or more childhood memories. (Google maps)
Screen shot of the interior of the Trophy House. Yes, there are that many trophies, and more. And they will unfailingly evoke one or more childhood memories. (Google maps)

And while the Casa del Músico will likely be closed, you might want to press your face up against the glass and ogle some of the instruments, accessories, and awesome old vinyl records from around Latin America found inside.

La Casa del Musico at 1st and State sports one of my favorite facades. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA
La Casa del Musico at 1st and State sports one of my favorite facades. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

New owner Noel Jaramillo bought the business last year, much to the relief of the community, as it meant a shop that has been around for more than three decades would not be lost forever. Like any music store, it offers a wide range of instruments, accessories, sheet music, and the like. But this store, in particular, has been key to supplying mariachis from the area and beyond with quality instruments at affordable prices. In doing so, it has helped to keep the local mariachi tradition alive and allowed the music to reach a wider audience. Their customers now include professional musicians, youth who are studying with summer programs or following in their parents’ footsteps (mariachi bands are often family affairs, with skills and songs being passed down through the generations), and a growing number of non-Mexican Americans who have come to love Mexican music.

Guitarrones, a staple in a mariachi band, hang on the wall at Casa del Musico. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA
Guitarrones, a staple in a mariachi band, hang on the wall at Casa del Musico. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

Other notable personalities along the street include the owner of Pepe’s Thrifty Shop, most notable, perhaps, because his name is not Pepe. It’s Raúl.

Given the interesting things you might stumble across in his shop, the shop’s name would have likely contained the words “vintage” or “salvage,” were he to have been located on that other East Side. But here, in Boyle Heights, he serves a wide variety of customers and is happy to do so. He enjoys being able to find eclectic pieces and artifacts for customers that have the financial ability to add unique touches to a home. But he also wants to make sure that those in need of cheap appliances or household necessities — beds, stoves, washing machines — can get access to products that are cost-effective and that work well. He believes that selling a customer a defective product is a terrible way to do business, and more costly to him in the long-run. It’s a philosophy that has kept him and his brothers — one of whom is actually nicknamed Pepe, and all of whom own other Pepe’s Thrifty Shops in other parts of the city — successfully in business for decades.

Pepe's Thrifty Shop. Photo: Pepe's Thrifty Shop
Pepe’s Thrifty Shop. Photo: Pepe’s Thrifty Shop

Finally, you might want to stop in some of the general stores along the route, like the recently opened Belem’s discount. The owner, who has worked for a number of the businesses along 1st St. over the past 20 years, finally decided it was time to open her own space to fill the needs that she felt were not being met. Or swing by the Corona Market (below) to meet recent transplants Daniel and Jane from San Francisco. They came down here looking to open a business that would allow them to retire. It’s been a bit more of a struggle than they expected (“I work, I cry, I work, I cry!” Jane told me of the early days at the market). But they like the community, and like Belem, are incredibly friendly people.

Between the two shops, you’re likely to find whatever it is that you needed and probably stuff you didn’t know you needed, so stop by and say hello.

The facade of Corona Market. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA
The facade of Corona Market. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

You may be wondering if it is not somewhat counter-intuitive to try to convince people to stop and spend so much time in one section of a 10-mile long route.

I agree — it’s an awful lot to expect.

But this CicLAvia may just be the perfect one for that approach.

As the mayor charts his vision for Great Streets and LADOT purports to implement that mandate via a more connected city, it becomes essential that we have an understanding of how the different neighborhoods around Los Angeles envision what it means for their own streets and communities to be “livable” or “great.”

For the businesses I interviewed here, that vision was far more grounded in people than in infrastructure. Knowing their neighbors, having the trust of their patrons, feeling their culture and experiences were valued, and being surrounded by family were at the roots of what made them strong, secure, happy, and successful. That foundation was also what kept them motivated to do what they could do to keep the area feeling like a welcoming place.

In short, what makes the area “great” is the people and how they relate to each other. While their history of resistance, activism, and pride might beautifully captured on so many of the walls around them, those artifacts have little meaning without the presence of the people and cultures whose struggles they represent.

So, explore the architecture, check out the murals, and compare and contrast the sensory experiences of the neighborhoods you pass through. But take some time to stop and explore a few blocks, shake a few hands, share a meal, and hear a few stories, too.

 * * * *

*The KPCC story on the CicLAvia meeting in East L.A. last month was a faithful description of the discussion, but my statement was taken out of context. I was summarizing some of what had been said before launching into a discussion of the possibilities for promoting the businesses along the route, taking ownership of the event, and showcasing the neighborhoods’ unique visions of “community” and “livability.”

**A phrase taken from a press release received from Sperry Van Ness regarding the purchase of a “distressed asset” (residential building) in MacArthur Park.

  • Meche

    Wonderfully written!

  • Jake Bloo

    I did see a “Boyle Heights is not a trend” sign on the route.

  • sahra

    Yep…there were a few signs about gentrification… It’s a funny thing — you’ll see signs, and people have strong feelings about preserving their communities, but they are not hostile — they’re warm, welcoming, and kind. They just want their community to be respected and valued for what it is instead of being thought of as the next hot place to be.

  • MarkB

    On the one hand, bravo to the community for putting so much thought and effort into this.

    On the other hand, as far as I can tell, CicLAvia isn’t about stopping for an hour and getting to know an area, no matter how many stories that area may hold. Being sweaty on a bike in 90° heat just doesn’t scream, “Come in and look at the art, then stop next door for the food, then cross the street for…”, it’s about lapping the route. However, by riding through unfamiliar areas, those areas may then become ripe for exploring in future weeks and months.

    Given the activism of the community, it seems to me Boyle Heights would really benefit from their equivalent of a “Chinatown Summer Nights” program: something like that would bring people who would view BH as a *destination* and not a *way station* as it was for most people today. Myself, I’m not all that familiar with BH but would jump at the chance for a curated event(s) that would show me what I’m missing.

  • sahra

    True, but I gotta say — the section of 1st I wrote about was popping all day. They all had tables out, and there were a ton of places to choose from food-wise. The mural painting was amazing. There were free screenprints made on the spot by someone from Espacio 1839… there was a lot going on. It did help, though, that the south side of the street was shady early in the day, so it was more inviting than it might have been otherwise…Everyone I spoke to was happy with how the day went. But, it’s true, an established cultural program might help. They do have Caminarte in Mariachi plaza, but it hasn’t been too much of a draw for folks outside the community just yet…

  • Joe Linton

    I think CicLAvia is exactly about stopping for an hour and getting to know an area.

  • urbanlifeLA

    Exclusionary attitudes are never ok, no matter what income bracket is perpetuating them. Lower-income Boyle Heights residents vehemently opposed to new residents and new development are no different from wealthy Bay Area NIMBYS vehemently opposed to new and denser development. Both are based on the exclusionary idea that current residents get to decide who to let into their neighborhoods.

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