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American Quarterly 56.3 (2004) 633-661
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"What's Good for Boyle Heights Is Good for the Jews":
Creating Multiracialism on the Eastside during the 1950s
George J. Sánchez
Two magazine articles published in the mid-1950s pointed to the Boyle Heights neighborhood in East Los Angeles as an "example of democratic progress" to a national audience. The first, published in October 1954 in Fortnight, focused on the diverse group of Boyle Heights residents and organizations that gathered together to fight the proposed $32 million Golden State Freeway that would invade Hollenbeck Park and destroy some of the oldest mansions and social service agencies headquartered on Boyle Avenue. This article claimed that "few districts in America are as ethnically dynamic, religiously and politically tolerant, and community proud" as Boyle Heights. Its population was depicted as more civic-minded than the residents of any other neighborhood, with more than a hundred coordinating councils, fifty community centers and associations, and "probably more social workers per cubic feet of sorrow than anywhere else in the world."1
While this article and a similar one that followed in Frontier in 1955, "U.N. in Microcosm," both saw the Mexican-American dominated Community Services Organization (CSO) as the most vibrant organization in the Boyle Heights scene, they credited the Jewish community for first instilling a spirit of working together across ethnic lines. "It was the Jews who supplied the initial energy to create ethnic understanding and work-activities on the Heights," reported Fortnight, while Frontier proclaimed that "the Jews have worked hard for the advancement of the area as a whole."2 Both articles referred to the support of the Jewish community for Mexican-American Edward Roybal for city council, even when he ran against "one of their own." Joe Kovner, publisher of the Eastside Sun and member of the Eastside Jewish Community Center Board, was highlighted as having campaigned vigorously for Roybal and quoted as saying, "Eddie was the best man. What's good for Boyle Heights is good for the Jews. We keep pounding away on the theme of sticking together. An injury to one is an injury to all."3 [End Page 633]
These articles were written at a time, however, when Boyle Heights was becoming less, not more, ethnically diverse. By 1955, Mexicans had grown to form almost half of the Boyle Heights residents, and it appeared that their numbers would only increase dramatically over the next few years. The Jewish population, by contrast, had plummeted by more than 72 percent in the past fifteen years, and now made up less than 17 percent of the area's population. The Boyle Heights community, once considered the centerpiece of Jewish life in Los Angeles, had collapsed in the postwar period due to out-migration. Other ethnic communities, most notably the Japanese American and African American populations, had held steady at less than 5 percent since 1945. Why then, in the wake of Mexican ascendancy and lessened demographic diversity, did Boyle Heights gain a reputation as the seat of "democratic progress" for Los Angeles of the mid-1950s?
The answer lies, in large part, on the actions of a select group of Jewish residents of Boyle Heights in the late 1940s and 1950s that either remained in Boyle Heights or moved into the area as most others were moving out. These residents came from both liberal and leftist political viewpoints and were committed to building a new multiracial community in Boyle Heights, while Southern California as a whole was becoming more suburban and conservative. Fighting the literal geographic movement of Jews into white America, they collaborated with leaders from the growing Mexican American population and from the smaller ethnic communities on the Eastside to leave a legacy of political interracialism, commitment to civil rights, and a radical multiculturalism in Boyle Heights, despite the growing conservative climate of the 1950s.
Los Angeles's Geography of Difference
Boyle Heights can still be found nestled at the eastern edge of the city, directly across the...