While Los Angeles certainly has its frustrations, it is a place that is unlike many others, and has so much that I love. Walkable neighborhoods, quirky vibes that change every mile or two, cultural diversity matched by few cities on the planet, and great food – these are some of the hallmarks of my hometown. Just east of downtown Los Angeles sits Boyle Heights, a neighborhood I only just explored for the first time – and barely scratched the surface. Here, all of those things I love about LA come together, making for a really cool day immersing in all that is best about this amazing city.
Over the past few decades, the city of Los Angeles has tried to protect the history and culture of some of its most unique neighborhoods while encouraging locals and tourists to visit them through a program called Angels Walk LA. These self-guided walking tours cover many of the coolest parts of the city, from Union Station to Highland Park, and everything between. And yes, Boyle Heights. So I’m here trying out the online tour and seeing a neighborhood I previously knew little to nothing about. Sounds like a solid Sunday!
The tour route begins at the Pico/Aliso Metro station, just across the Los Angeles River from Little Tokyo and downtown. (Yes, Los Angeles has a metro system, with both light rail and subway lines, though most don’t realize it. It is a good system, though the city is too spread out for anything to provide full coverage, and growing more rapidly than that of most cities in the world. I use it frequently.) The tour takes me down First Street, to Soto Avenue, and up to Cesar Chavez Avenue, along with a few little side spurs. It talks about the history of the neighborhood and about some of the businesses and cultural landmarks that have made Boyle Heights what it is.
In 1858, an Irish immigrant named Andrew Boyle purchased 22 acres of what had been called Paredon Blanco (white bluff). In 1889, the neighborhood would be renamed for him, and it is still Boyle Heights today. From the 1920s, Boyle Heights was one of the Los Angeles neighborhoods not subject to widespread racial rules regarding property. As a result, communities prevented from fully integrating in other parts of the city (Russians, Japanese, Jews, African-Americans, Mexicans, and others) settled here, leading to one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the first half of the twentieth century.
While today Boyle Heights is 94% Latinx, remnants of these other communities is still prevalent, and the tour honors that diverse history, while also paying homage to a neighborhood that is at the center of Latinx culture in Los Angeles.
African-Americans were once a sizable minority here in Boyle Heights, and an icon of that community is the Weller Street Missionary Baptist Church, just off First Street on one of the tour’s little spurs, which heads past here down to the Dolores Mission. This congregation, which is still active, has been here since 1948. I’m greeted by the pastor as I stop to take a photo, starting what will be a trend of warm welcomes by pretty much everyone I encounter in Boyle Heights.
Dolores Mission is also notable for its charitable works here in the Latinx community. Of most interest to me is Homeboy Industries, a program that started here, which has grown to become one of the largest nonprofits working with local youth, former gang members, and current incarcerated individuals to offer alternatives to those lives through job training and employment consulting. As Boyle Heights fights gentrification that would risk displacing many of the current residents, organizations like this (or the Libros Schmibros Lending Library that has put more than 20,000 books into circulation locally; the tour passes that a few blocks later) offer local programs and assistance that help keep the character of the neighborhood while improving the lives of those here. These are cases of locals giving back, not of outsiders coming in, and are sources of immense pride, rightfully so.
Perhaps nowhere can the history of Boyle Heights be better seen than the corner of First and Boyle Avenue. On one corner is the 1889 Cummings Block, a Queen Anne style building with a street side turret that was constructed when the Los Angeles Cable Railway ran through the neighborhood. (That cable car, and the rest of what was once a large system, was put out of business by a combination of the oil, auto, and taxi industries, and LA is only just beginning to catch up as far as public transit goes.)
Across the street sits Mariachi Plaza. With funding from the state of Jalisco, this plaza, which had always been a center of mariachi culture, was redesigned and made “official.” It has a gazebo that seems to be the go-to site for engagement or quinceanera photos, as well as for local mariachi musicians to be hired out for those events. It is also a great place to enjoy a Mexican-style pastry and tres leches latte from La Monarca, a local LA coffee chain that has one of its flagship stores in the Cummings Block. Oh so yummy!
The tour continues, and I marvel at the street art in the neighborhood. Boyle Heights is a mecca for murals, paintings, and even just cool benches in floral or butterfly shapes. The pdf guide points some out, while others are unexpected and pleasant surprises.
One of the reasons I wanted to explore Boyle Heights is its Jewish history. My stepfather’s mother grew up here, back when this was the largest Jewish community in Los Angeles. The final stop on the walking tour is the Breed Street Shul. While it is currently closed (an organization is raising money to try to restore it, according to a Jewish Boyle Heights walking tour group that just happens to be here when I show up), the outside offers a glimpse at what was once the largest synagogue west of Chicago. Signage out front also gives a few photos of what the inside once looked like. It is another reminder of the diversity of Los Angeles, and of Boyle Heights specifically.
My day ends in the way every Boyle Heights adventure – and heck, every day – should: with tacos. The neighborhood doesn’t lack for incredible options, from King Taco to Al and Bea’s and everything between. I opt for Guisado’s, a small chain known for its braised meats on homemade corn tortillas. They are divine!
It is amazing how much character each Los Angeles neighborhood has, and how so many have their histories chronicled and preserved while keeping their modern identities intact. Such is the case with Boyle Heights, one of the centerpieces of modern Latinx culture with a shockingly diverse past. Add in some amazing food, warm people, and a wonderful city-created self guided walking tour, and it’s a day out I am thrilled to have had.
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