“There’s a lot of beauty [in Boyle Heights],” says actor, writer, and director Xavi Moreno in East L.A. Interchange, a documentary about the history of Boyle Heights that will screen the opening night of the New Urbanism Film Festival on October 8. “If we invest in that beauty, then we invest in our community… as opposed to investing in things that might destroy what Boyle Heights has always been.”
Moreno’s perspective is one I’ve written about many times while tracking changes in this lower-income and largely Mexican-American community over the last few years, most recently with regard to developments Metro had planned for a complete overhaul of Mariachi Plaza.
And it’s a perspective readers from outside the community often find controversial, associating it with “anti”-ness: anti-outsider, anti-white people, anti-change, and/or anti-development. Or they see it as a NIMBYist position that denies Boyle Heights’ own storied history of being a haven for people of many different ethnicities, including Caucasians.
Ever the occasional optimist, I like to think that more knowledge about the history of the community could help remedy this disconnect.
Because when you know the history of how Boyle Heights came to be — how the institutionalization of racism in city planning and policy via redlining, government-sponsored white flight, “sanitation” sweeps, urban renewal programs that razed housing and funded freeway construction aimed at displacing and isolating poor ethnic communities, overt discrimination in education, the denial of economic opportunity, the labeling of non-white cultures as subversive, immigration raids, police brutality, and deliberate disinvestment constrained Boyle Heights’ ability to flourish — it becomes very easy to understand why the existing residents are raising questions about race, class, and the intentions of both public and private investors in the community.
And knowing how the community managed to thrive in the face of these obstacles and take pride in the heritage they were once told rendered them “unteachable” and “mentally inferior” makes it easier to grasp what it is that residents like Moreno are looking to preserve and invest in. Rather than “re-imagining,” “revitalizing,” or “place-making” their community, as is popular in planning now, they seek to help Boyle Heights grow and develop while remaining true to what they believe it represents. And what it represents is community, culture, resistance and resilience, unique voices and forms of artistic expression, struggle, transcendence, family, and heritage. The physical landscape matters, in other words, but it is the people, their histories, and their relationships with each other that give it meaning.
These are all things that I’ve tried to convey in previous articles in one form or another. But it’s one thing to read descriptions of how a community feels about itself and another altogether to see it for yourself. Which is probably why the arrival of Betsy Kalin’s East L.A. Interchange feels rather timely.
Eight years in the making, it began as the Connecticut-born Kalin’s exploration of what made Boyle Heights a place that people were proud to be from and felt rooted in, even long after having moved away.
Early on in the process, her focus was on residents’ transcendence of racial boundaries to forge a strong sense of community and enduring friendships in an era when state-imposed segregation was the order of the day. To that end, we hear from a range of elder African-American, Japanese, and Jewish Angelenos (and, occasionally, will.i.am) that grew up in the area in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s and have memories of the days when Boyle Heights was a veritable United Nations of neighborhoods and everyone knew a little bit of everyone else’s language.
Cognizant that it is hard to speak about the history of the community without investigating the discriminatory policies that gave rise to it, however, Kalin seems to have shifted gears a bit. While still (a little too) driven by the narrative of multi-ethnic harmony, the film also incorporates the voices of experts like George Sanchez, Professor of American Studies & Ethnicity and History at USC, to illuminate those links.
It was the right choice. Read more…