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.
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.
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 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.
|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!