The Russians of the Flats of Boyle Heights Go to the Movies, Part Two

This the second in a series of posts about the Russian (known commonly as Molokans) immigrant community that settled in the Flats area of Boyle Heights and often served as extras in the Hollywood film industry.  Author Rudy Martinez, Advisory Board member of the Boyle Heights Historical Societies, gives an excellent overview of the Flats in this post.

Before developers renamed it in 1876, Boyle Heights was called Paredon Blanco 
(white bluff). The area of the Flats is bounded by the eastern edge of the Los Angeles 
River and Boyle Avenue (the bluff side), and from Aliso Street (largely replaced by the 101 Freeway) to 4th Street.  Initially verdant farmland and vineyards and then subdivided, but never developed, as a potential fashionable residential district, the Flats was, by the early 1900s, an area of small modest homes built by railroad and lumber companies for low-wage workers and recent immigrants. The San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad depot sat at the edge of the (usually) dry, white-graveled riverbed, while small industrial enterprises and livestock-related businesses were established in the area.

The headline of a Los Angeles Times feature, from 27 January 1924, of “Holy Jumpers”, as Molokan Russians were sometimes called, becoming “Americanized” at Boyle Heights.

As early as 1903, the hardscrabble Flats was known as “Boxcarville” because it was home to a large number of traqueros, Mexican immigrants earning poverty-wages working mainly for the Pacific Electric Railway streetcar system.  Many of the workers and their families lived in self-built wooden shacks, commonly known as “Cholo Courts.”  Some of the first Russian families to settle in this Mexican immigrant enclave also lived in these simple dwellings. Continually used by the most hard pressed of the working poor, these makeshift structures remained a fixture in the Flats for several decades as Russians and Mexicans became the two dominate groups in the area. 

Through deliberate spatial planning that furthered the city’s seemingly sprawling east-west class divide, the Los Angeles City Council passed two landmark zoning ordinances in 1908. These reserved the west side of Los Angeles primarily for residential development and concentrated industrial zones in the southern and eastern areas of the city, including Boyle Heights. This, along with racially restrictive covenants, confining people of color to southern and eastern areas of Los Angeles, compelled many non-white migrants and the working-class poor to settle nearer these industrial corridors.   

A photo by the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles overlooking Aliso Village in the Flats with downtown Los Angeles in the distance to the west, 6 September 1941.  From the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, Online Archive of California.

By 1920, the growing multicultural area of The Flats was commonly being referred to as the Russian Flats as Russian immigrants soon achieved the highest rate of home ownership in the neighborhood. Some earned extra money renting out rooms to local non-Russians while a number of others established their own stores and churches on some of the more commonly known area streets, such as Clarence, Gless, and Anderson. While the younger children attended Utah Street Elementary School (Russian students were 40% by 1915), young Russian girls worked in the area’s biscuit, candy, and nut factories and the older women worked in the canneries. Men often found jobs in lumberyards or trash hauling. Incidentally, Utah Street Elementary School was one of the most important neighborhood institutions for the Russian immigrants. Many of the adult Russians in the area eagerly signed-up for evening classes offered at the school to learn English.  

By January 27, 1924, the Los Angeles Times published a lengthy article, with elaborate sketches, about the swift “Americanization” of the “happy” Russian Molokans, or “jumpers” of Boyle Heights. A number of articles in this vein were periodically published in an attempt to calm any public fears about revolution-minded Bolsheviks in Los Angeles. It also served to differentiate them from another local, and often referred-to “Russian colony” of immigrants that began to establish itself in the Hollywood area just after 1920. Most of these more recent emigres were either artists or former members of the Russian military and aristocracy who fled after the Russian revolution. However, the two immigrant communities appeared to have had little to do with one another.

Though reserved, the Boyle Heights Russian Molokans maintained a fondness for their traditional native dress, multi-family feasts, and large processions. Because of the common sight of Russian men with beards, many riders recall the Pacific Electric trolley conductors calling out “Beards Town!” when the crowded trolley made a stop in The Flats. 

The razing of Aliso Village dwellings in preparation for the construction of public housing projects (which were removed not long ago for current housing projects), also from the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles and in the holdings of the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, Online Archive of California.

Speaking of crowded trolleys in The Flats, the area became a popular destination for baseball fans in 1920. That year the black semipro team, the Los Angeles White Sox, one of the best teams in the west coast Negro league, began to play their home games at the new 3000 seat Anderson Park (or White Sox Stadium), located at Fourth and Anderson Streets. The team continued to play in The Flats venue until they relocated to a new stadium in Compton in the late 1920s.

By 1930, this vibrant and crowded family neighborhood was thriving in what was essentially, an industrial zone. While the first-generation immigrants from The Flats lived almost cheek by jowl in somewhat ramshackle homes, some former residents recalled many homes had well-tended gardens, and several others were simple, but neatly kept. Overall, a harmonious atmosphere of cordial respect prevailed in this diverse community.

In her landmark 1935 book about the Boyle Heights’ Russian Molokans, The Pilgrims of Russian-Town, sociologist Pauline Young vividly described her observation of the Flats:

The atmosphere in the Flats is heavy. Factories, warehouses, small industrial plants of all kinds and description contribute their share of pungent smells. Industrial establishments hem in the district to the north, south and east, while a network of railroads defines the west boundaries. Noisy engines, clanking over a maze of tracks, puffing steam and emitting black smoke spread a pall over the region.
Wave upon wave of immigrants have invaded the district and have settled here…. Japanese, Italians, Negroes, Russians, and Mexicans have all settled here. Negro workmen, Jewish merchants, Armenian truck drivers, Japanese gardeners, barbers, tradesmen, all contribute to the community of life in the Flats.

On the other hand, progressive reformers, city officials, and the press primarily had a much more negative view. Since the early 1900s, they continually viewed this working-class immigrant area as a civic embarrassment, often referring to it as a “slum,” perhaps the first area in Los Angeles to be termed as such. In short, this was an area to be eradicated and its residents relocated. The efforts by the city’s urban reformers culminated when the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) razed almost the entire “old Russian Flats” neighborhood for the development of the Aliso and Pico public housing projects in the early 1940s.  In the process, most of the original inhabitants were denied an opportunity to return.

A photo taken 8 November 1932 by Anton Wagner and showing a section of Clarence Street north of 3rd Street in the Flats.  From the California Historical Society Digital Library.

However, during the 1930’s The Flats had already begun to see signs of change. As a run-up to its future relocation efforts as part of its mandate to “cleanse” the area, when Los Angeles County initiated their repatriation program against the city’s Mexican population in the early 1930s, The Flats area of Boyle Heights was the single largest target for repatriation efforts in the entire county.  In addition, by the late 1930s many of the second-generation Russian Molokans began to move further southeast, to cities such as Montebello, Downey, Maywood and Southgate. Nevertheless, they were still the two dominate groups when the city’s rehabilitation program for The Flats began in the early 1940s.

Check back in next week for part three in this series and the Boyle Heights Historical Society wishes you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving!