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A WALK ON THE EASTSIDE : Cinco de Mayo Weekend’s the Perfect Time to Experience Many Cultures of Boyle Heights

<i> Pierson is the author of "The Beach Towns: A Walker's Guide to L.A.'s Beach Communities" (Chronicle Books)</i>

Perhaps no other neighborhood in Los Angeles has served as a point of entry for so many ethnic groups as Boyle Heights, one of L.A.'s first suburbs. Over the past 100 years, this often overlooked East L.A. neighborhood has welcomed Germans, Eastern European Jews from Russia, Poland, Hungary and Romania, Japanese, Latinos and most recently Indochinese newcomers.

Brooklyn Avenue’s commercial district is as lively as Melrose. Children play soccer on the side streets, homeowners water their gardens and older residents sit on front porches watching the locals walk by. Churches of all persuasions abound. Now predominantly Latino, it celebrates a strong sense of neighborhood. While the non-Latino visitor may get an equally strong sense of being in the minority, the neighborhood offers by day an engrossing, stimulating walk.

What follows is a three-hour self-guided walk of Boyle Heights. With the festive holiday of Cinco de Mayo this week, the community will be particularly lively. Wear sunglasses, comfortable shoes and casual dress. You may want to have lunch at a cafe or one of the eateries along the way, or sample frozen tropical fruit bars from one of the many pushcart vendors.

To get to Boyle Heights from either the U.S. 101 or Interstate 5 freeways, exit on 4th Street and travel east several blocks to St. Louis Street. Park near this intersectionand begin the walk at the northeast corner of Hollenbeck Park, one of the city’s oldest.

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It was named for John C. Hollenbeck, whose widow, along with William H. Workman, donated 21 acres of land to create this park in 1892.

Walk south along the eastern side of the lake, noting the steep hillsides, lawns and mature trees. Mid-point in the lake is a stepped bridge, its shape reminiscent of an ancient Mayan pyramid. Continue walking south and follow the path to Boyle Street, turn right and walk north beneath the freeway bridge.

In the 1950s this entire district was crisscrossed with four freeways, creating a massive network of interchanges. Thousands of residents were displaced, countless homes destroyed and many neighborhoods disrupted. Today residents still feel resentment for this intrusion into their community.

Curiously, from the vantage point of the underpass--with its huge pillars emerging from the lakebed and the massive concrete canopy curling above--the freeway has a sculptural effect.

As you walk north, you pass the Hollenbeck Home for the Aged at 573 S. Boyle Ave. The Hollenbecks lived in Nicaragua in the mid-1800s, when they became wealthy from shipping agricultural products. In 1874 they moved to the small town of Los Angeles, then with a population of about 5,000. John Edward Hollenbeck purchased a large tract of land in Boyle Heights, where he built a large house and planted exotic gardens at the present site of the retirement home.

After he died in 1885, Elizabeth Hollenbeck established the Hollenbeck Home for the Aged in 1890, the state’s first such retirement home. Sadly, because of the city’s new seismic safety codes, some of the older structures have been condemned. The original building was recently been demolished and a new residential facility is now under construction.

Continue walking north on Boyle Avenue, noting the grand scale of the houses. Most were built between 1891 and 1920 when--with its proximity to downtown--this avenue was one of the prime residential sites in L.A. Rows of mature California fan palms tower above. Now many of the homes are in decline, but one can still imagine the status the area once enjoyed.

Low-Cost Music Lessons

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Cross 4th Street and stop at the Neighborhood Music Settlement at 358 S. Boyle Ave. Headquartered in this ornate 1891 Victorian, the non-profit organization was founded in 1916 to provide children of low income families with music instruction at nominal cost. Currently more than 115 children receive instruction in piano, guitar, violin, flute and voice at $4 a lesson. Across the street at 325 S. Boyle Ave. is the Japanese Home for the Aged. Originally, this complex formed the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aged, which moved to the site in 1914. An auditorium, a synagogue, a kosher kitchen and other facilities were built, including a building named for Mary Pickford, who gave the major support for the home. In 1972, the Jewish Home relocated to the San Fernando Valley and in 1975 the Japanese community bought the property for its senior citizens. Recently one of its main structures was razed after it too was condemned under the city’s new seismic safety code.

Continue walking north of Boyle Avenue to the corner of 1st Street. Before freeways were built, this intersection served as the gateway to “the Heights.” At the northwest corner stands the Boyle Hotel, once one of L.A.'s finest Victorian commercial buildings. This three-story brick structure was built during the boom of 1887. A fare war between the Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe railroads had lowered passenger tickets from St. Louis to Los Angeles to only $1. Tens of thousands of newcomers moved to the city. Between 1880 to 1889, L.A.'s population grew from 11,000 to 100,000 residents.

Veer to the left and follow Pleasant Avenue north. Some of Boyle Heights’ first houses were built along this hillside street, which offered panoramic views, ocean breezes and privacy. Note the elegant late Victorian manor at 1530, a Mission Revival church with twin bell towers at 1526, and an imposing Queen Anne Victorian house at 1519.

At 1418 Pleasant Ave. is what may be the oldest bakery still standing in L.A., the Mt. Pleasant Bakery. The simple, single-story storefront, built in the mid-1880s, evokes an era when neighbors walked to the baker and bought their daily bread. Behind the now-abandoned bakery stands a Victorian house with wrought iron tracery and finials above its bay window.

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Early Bungalows

At Kearney Street, turn right. As you walk uphill, on either side of the block are early California bungalow courts. Constructed in the early 1900s for working class families, these simple wood-framed bungalows allude to the Craftsman Movement with their fieldstone foundations, exposed rafters and front porches.

When you reach Pennsylvania Avenue, turn around and survey the view: The monolithic downtown towers create a dramatic foreground to the sweep of the Santa Monica Mountains.

Turn right on Pennsylvania Avenue and follow this quiet residential street lined with turn-of-the-century cottages. At State Street, turn right and walk to 1st Street. Turn left and walk east through the commercial district, which undoubtedly has seen better days. After the freeway overpass, turn right on Cummings Street and walk one block south to 2nd Street and then turn left to survey the 2000 block of 2nd Street.

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Examples of three architectural styles stand out on this short block. At 2013 and 2018 are two late Victorian cottages, each with good examples of decorative patterned woodwork in the corbels, brackets and shingles. The Craftsman Movement finds expression at 2009 and 2012. Both two-story structures display one of the principle themes of this style: The construction creates the ornamentation. Note the exposed beams, overarching eaves, horizontal windows and Orientalized door and window moldings.

At the end of the block, a fine example of the Mission Revival style stands at 206 S. St. Louis St. The Calvary Baptist Church, built in 1906, features plain stucco surfaces, scalloped parapets and a bell tower with niches.

At St. Louis Street, walk north to the corner of 1st Street. From this intersection, observe the 1920s commercial structures.

Turn right on 1st Street. At 2127 1st St. is Fire Station 2, an unreinforced masonry structure built in 1923. Its entry niches contain Batchelder tiles. Unfortunately the building has also been condemned by the new seismic safety code and the station’s future remains uncertain after its personnel moves to the new station at 1962 Brooklyn Ave. in June.

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Cross 1st Street at Chicago Street and walk north to the Iglesia Baptista Unida, 132 N. Chicago. One of the best examples of Carpenter Gothic ecclesiastical architecture in L.A., this imposing wooden church built around 1895 features stylized Gothic windows with Victorian art glass and was once a Presbyterian church attended by the Hollenbecks.

Walk north and turn right on Michigan Avenue, then turn left on Breed Street. At 247 N. Breed stands the Congregation Talmud Torah, also known as the Breed Street Shul, the last remaining synagogue in Boyle Heights. The shul’s interior is designed after traditional Eastern European Orthodox synagogues with its stained glass, zodiac paintings and partitioned seating areas for women.

In the 1920s many Jews moved here to “the Heights.” By 1935 about 10,000 Jewish households made this district the center of Jewish life in L.A.

Brooklyn Avenue contained so many kosher delicatessens, butchers, grocers and bakeries that the area became known as “the Lower East Side of Los Angeles.” After World War II, most Jewish residents began moving to the Westside and the Valley; today few Jews remain in Boyle Heights. In fact, Canter’s Delicatessen stood at 2323 Brooklyn Ave. from 1930 until 1948 when it too moved west to Fairfax Avenue.

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Walk north to Brooklyn Avenue, the community’s commercial center and turn left. This busy street is often crowded with shoppers frequenting the grocers, cafes, bakeries and other neighborhood services. Take your time to window browse and people watch, appreciating the flavor of the district.

One of the best restaurants in Boyle Heights is La Parrilla at 2126 Brooklyn Ave., open every day from 8 a.m. to midnight. Famous for their parrilladas, charcoal grilled meat dishes served with rice, charro beans, grilled onion and handmade tortillas, the restaurant also specializes in fajitas al comal and regional seafood dishes of red snapper and shrimp.

Explore Sal’s Market at 2200 Brooklyn. Inside you’ll find nopales--cactus leaves sauteed for use in various recipes. Pinatas hang above papayas the size of soccer balls.

At 2106 Brooklyn, visit La Morena Panaderia, a traditional Mexican bakery and grocery, open daily from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Pastries and breads are baked on the premises, the corn tortillas, sopas are homemade, as is the menudo, a spicy soup made from tripe, a traditional hangover cure. On weekends, patrons line up with pots in hand to buy menudo made in large vats.

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Stop by Uruapan Carniceria y Mercado, a butcher shop, grocery and cafe at 2100 Brooklyn Ave., open every day from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. You may want to sample carnitas, a dish with lamb, beef or pork, or a hardy meat-filled turnover-like gordita.

At St. Louis Street, cross Brooklyn, turn right and walk along the other side of the avenue. If you still have room for a snack, be sure to stop in Velarde’s Fruits at 2201 Brooklyn, open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sundays until 8 p.m.

Inside, the display cases are filled with fresh tropical fruits, including mangos on sticks and mixed fruit bowls with papaya, pineapple, strawberries, watermelon and oranges, jicama and cucumbers. At the counter you can order licuados, fresh fruit shakes made with either dates, mangos, papayas, guavas, strawberries or platanos. In back, soft tacos, tamales and enchiladas are prepared to order. In the rear room, women prepare fruit bowls for Velarde’s fruit stand at Olvera Street.

At the intersection of Brooklyn Avenue and Soto Street are two murals. On the northwest corner, a surrealistic mural by Willie Herron and A. Trejo portrays the struggles and hopes of the East L.A. community in an array of images. At the southwest corner is a joyful mural entitled “El Corrido de Boyle Heights” by the East Los Angeles Streetcapers.

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Continue walking east on Brooklyn to Fickett Street. On the side of the commercial building on the southwest corner is another mural, dedicated to a homeboy who died in gang-related violence. Walk south of Fickett Street one block and turn left on Michigan Avenue. Follow this quiet residential street four blocks.

Michigan leads into Evergreen Cemetery, which opened in 1876. Walk inside its ornate gateway and follow the road to your right. Many of the tombstones are more than 100 years old and some date from the 1870s. As you approach the Ivy Chapel, prominent names from L.A.'s early history stand out: Workman, Hollenbeck, Van Nuys, Lankershim, Perry and Bixby.

ENGLISH COUNTRY CHAPEL

The small stone chapel, designed by Arthur B. Benton in 1903, suggests an English country chapel. Note is Richardsonian Romanesque entrance with squat, Gothic-inspired columns. Benton also designed the Mission Inn in Riverside.

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Follow the road as it winds west of the chapel and returns to the gate. The cemetery has also become one of the primary burial sites for California’s Japanese-American community. Just before the entrance gate, walk to the tall column to the north. The memorial, topped with the statue of a lone Japanese-American soldier, commemorates those American soldiers of Japanese descent who fought in both World War II and the Korean War. Here rest the remains of many soldiers who fought in Italy with the 442nd Division.

Return west on Michigan Avenue and turn left on Saratoga Street, walking past the Tenrikyo Church and Cultural Center at the corner of 1st Street.

At 1st Street, turn right, noting the Rissho Kosei-Kai Buddhist Church at the corner of Mott Street.

Turn left on Mott Street and turn right on 3rd Street. At 2637 3rd St. stands a late Victorian house with a fieldstone wall along the sidewalk. The architectural gem of the neighborhood, however, is the Queen Anne manor at 2616 3rd St., with its broad veranda, three-story cuppola, stained glass windows and swag decoration.

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Continue walking to Chicago Street and turn left. At the southwest corner of 4th and Chicago streets stands St. Mary’s Catholic Church, built in 1924. With its bell tower, front portico lined with columns, Byzantine-inspired capitals and garland-like ornamentation around the windows, the church is a centerpiece of the neighborhood.

From here, walk one more block west on 4th Street and you’re back at Hollenbeck Park. Reward yourself with a frozen tropical fruit bar from one of the vendors and rest your feet near the lake.


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