It's my personal soapbox, a place for me to express thoughts and feelings, musings and rants, reflections and recollections; to have fun with words -- about things spiritual, environmental, social, political, economic, and, from time to time, personal. And of course about peace. Soapboxes are in public places (as London's legendary Hyde Park) on purpose, and so I invite conversations with you, for it is through civil discourse that we can gain some perspective on the seeming chaos of these changing times and learn together how to shape a positive future for ourselves, our communities, and the generations to come.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Born in Boyle Heights

I suppose this post falls in the category of a personal recollection, a whimsical musing the accuracy of which, having been recorded through a child's eyes and then filtered through the mists of memory, I cannot vouch for.

When I was born we lived in a court on San Benito Street in East Los Angeles, an area known as Boyle Heights. I remember nothing of that time on San Benito Street but do have memories – some faint, some  vivid – of returning several times over the next four or five years for visits with Aunt Sarah and Uncle Charlie, who lived in the next court over.

In my 28th month, my parents, three months pregnant with their third child, my brother Gary, and needing more space, moved our little family, which by then had expanded to include my sister Jean, out to Rose Street in the Magnolia Park district of Burbank, the first house they would own.

Boyle Heights was the Jewish section of L.A. in those days, as it had been since soon after the turn of the century – the 20th century, that is (just to be clear!). It was a multi-ethnic neighborhood of immigrants, and remains so to this day, though by the late 1940s, toward the end of the time of these remembrances, the origins of the majority of immigrants living there was shifting from Eastern Europe to South of the Border.

Both my parents had grown up there and gone to Roosevelt High School. Being five years apart in age, though, they didn’t know  each other in school. Or outside of it, either, for that matter. My mother’s mother Ethel, better known to us – and indeed the whole world, it seemed – as Bubby, raised her five children on Judson Street. My father’s parents, on the other hand, raised their two boys up on Brooklyn Avenue, where they lived in an apartment over the general store run by Grandma Belle and from where Grandpa George (Gershon, actually) delivered ice throughout Boyle Heights in a horse-drawn wagon.

Speaking of conveyances, they weren’t all powered by live horses in post-World War I Los Angeles. All seven of the children – my parents and their siblings – grew up getting around the L.A. Basin, even all the way across town to Venice Beach, on the interurban Red Car (the Pacific Electric Railway). I have vague memories of the Red Car myself, in its waning days, trundling through the Cahuenga Pass to and from the San Fernando Valley. The dismantling of the Red Car and its city-wide sister network of yellow streetcars was later chronicled in the movie Who Killed Roger Rabbit.

It was my mother’s father’s tuberculosis (an aftershock of the Great Influenza Pandemic) that brought her family out to California from her native Pittsburgh. Both Ethel and Morris (Moishe, actually; the Hebrew name I was given in his memory) had come over from the Old Country – she from Moldova, he from Minsk in Belarus. They met in Pittsburgh when, so the story goes, he was one day walking down the street where she lived, minding his own business, and was suddenly overcome by a sweet, crystal clear voice, which turned out to be Ethel's as she happily and distractedly sang and sewed by the window. Bubby had been quite the seamstress in her day, earning extra money for the family with her craft, which included crochet, as well.

My mother Faye and her siblings Sarah, Joe, and George made the move out West with their parents from Pittsburgh to Judson Street in the winter, by train. My mother’s remembrance of that trip was of, as a little girl, falling asleep passing through the chilly snows of Flagstaff and then opening her eyes to endless miles of orange groves rolling past. Soon after arriving in L.A., Morris was admitted to a TB sanatorium. He was later furloughed just long enough to help Bubby get Aunt Mickie beyond the gleam-in-the-eye stage, but eventually had to return, where he lived out his remaining days.

Bella and George, meanwhile, brought their two boys out to California from Detroit, following other family members who had made the trek earlier. My father, Nathan (Nate), had come with them, at the age of a year and a half, from his native Ukraine, whereas Irving had been born in Detroit. Actually, Grandma brought Dad with her from the Old Country to Detroit while Grandpa went first seeking work in South America and then Texas before joining up with his family.

Bella had married George pretty much out of desperation, as a way to get away from the family that was forever badgering her about when was she ever going to get married, to escape from the chains that denied her, a girl, the education that she so desperately yearned for yet was lavished only on her brothers, chains that kept her in the kitchen when she so much wanted to be in the parlor with the men debating socialist politics. The bitterness ate at her – and, through her, her husband and sons – the rest of her, and their, life.

What I remember about their Brooklyn Avenue home in Boyle Heights is the arch at the front of the walkway that ran along the left side of the store and up the back stairs to their apartment. There was something about that particular architectural feature, the stucco, tunnel-like arch, that always captivated the imagination of little-boy me whenever we would come to visit. Then, the neighborhood changing and their boys grown and with families of their own, they sold the store and moved to suburban City Terrace, the next town over to the east.

Yes, Brooklyn Avenue was definitely downtown Boyle Heights. And it still is to this day, though since 1994 called Cesar E. Chavez Avenue.

My mother’s childhood home on Judson Street, on the other hand, was a standard suburban house, with both back and front yards. Bubby, a single parent after Morris’ death, raised her five children in that house as best she could, sewing and crocheting. The house doesn’t exist anymore, having been demolished with the rest of the street to make way for an off-ramp from (or maybe it was an on-ramp to) the I-5 freeway. Decades before that, however, after her children went off to make lives of their own, Bubby sold the house and moved westward to live with us in the Valley.

On San Benito Street, Aunt Sarah and Uncle Charlie had two daughters, cousins Diane and Peggy. The  younger of the two, Peggy, was three years older than me – still is, actually. A few times I would visit and spend the night. I remember one of the sleepover nights in particular…

Peggy, engrossed in her homework, tried to open my horizons to the wonderful world of fractions. “It’s easy,” she said. “It’s all about parts of things. The bottom number is called the denominator and tells you how many parts there are in all. The top number is called the numerator and tells you how many of those parts you have. And  you can even add and subtract them! You know about adding and subtracting already, don’t you?”

“Yes,” I nodded dumbly.

 “Adding and subtracting when the bottom numbers are the same is easy,” she plunged on, oblivious to my cluelessness. “You just add and subtract the top numbers and leave the bottom ones alone. You might even add them to get more parts than there are in the whole to begin with!”, she pointed out with glee. 

“That’s easy for you to say,” I thought in my five-year-old way.

“But you have to be careful,” she cautioned, “if the denominators of what you are adding and subtracting are not the same.”

OK, now I’d had it. Numerators? Denominators? Bad enough that they were words of more than three syllables, but being able to end up with more parts than you started with was just plain beyond my kindergarten ken. It was definitely a case of too much too soon! I was totally traumatized and terrified that in a mere couple of years I would be asked to understand not only this obviously insane kind of numbers but also the equally insane computational methods for manipulating them…
At the end of San Benito Street and around the corner was State Street Park. We kids would occasionally walk there to play during our visits. As you walked down towards the park end of San Benito Street, the two courts extended up a hill on the right, first the one we had lived in before our move to Burbank, then Aunt Sarah and Uncle Charlie’s. There were four units in each court, two on each side. My birth certificate reveals that we lived at 643¼ San Benito Street. Aunt Sarah and Uncle Charlie had the back unit on the right in their court.

The steep stairs off the street were set into the landscaped front lawn of the court, which towered behind a concrete wall flush above the edge of the sidewalk. For a little kid, climbing the walled steps to the level of the court was an adventure, an ascent up a canyon gorge only to emerge on a plain that sloped gently up to the ground-level basement and then further up to the ground-level front door to Sarah and Charlie’s unit. (It was always a wonder to me how both could be at ground level. Actually, walk-out basements are still a wonder to me.)

This is my earliest memory of a basement – a hidden place both underground and open to the outside, a mystery-filled world tucked just beneath, unseen from, and yet supporting the upper world of daily life – eating, sleeping, washing dishes, doing homework. On a few occasions, I remember walking out the front door and down to the basement, then standing, heart pounding with excitement and anticipation, as Aunt Sarah or Uncle Charlie would open the padlock and swing open the gate-like door to shed light on whatever lay hidden inside.

And then, at last, they, too, moved up and out in the world, and my childhood visits to and memories of Boyle Heights came to an end.

More general histories of Boyle Heights are available at Wikipedia and Wikimapia.


  1. This is quite a coincidence. I visited Boyle Heights for the first time just a few months ago. I had read that David Kipen, who had been a guest lecturer for me in a course on Criticism, had opened this bookstore, Libros Schmibros (http://librosschmibros.wordpress.com/) in Boyle Heights. David was a book reviewer for the SF Chronicle and later was with the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, DC. He now has this very unusual lending library/book store in Boyle Heights, in an area that largely populated by Latin Americans. It's worth a visit if anyone is in that area.

  2. Thanks, brings back a few memories, I remember a Horse drawn ice wagon in Portland, OR.
    It was a treat to get slivers of ice from the wagon on a hot day.
    Their was also an Ice Cream TRUCK, but that was for the kids with a few coins in the pocket.

  3. And I remember, for at least my very early few years, a real icebox in the kitchen, with a huge block of ice in the bottom; a ringer-washer in the laundry room; a clothesline in the backyard; and racks of milk bottles being placed on and picked up from the front porch by the red and white Carnation milk truck (not horse-drawn, though).

    Lest anyone get the wrong idea of how ancient I am, this was 1940s Los Angeles. We did have paved roads, Safeway stores, and, in the house, electricity, running water, and indoor plumbing.

  4. My Aunt Esther, known as Bounce, unable to post comments due to her constrained internet access, asked me to post the following for her.


    I loved your story, it could be something one reads in the New Yorker. My comment:

    I grew up in Boyle Heights. In fact, I'm such a native daughter that my birth took place at County General Hospital. I attended:

    Sheridan Elementary, 6 yrs,
    Hollenbeck Jr. High, 3 yrs
    Roosevelt High, 3 yrs

    And when I graduated I swore I would never have to live there again.

    19 years later, as a recent widow with 3 small children to support, I ended up teaching at Ramona High, a school for girls who needed another chance -- for 23 years. And passing Roosevelt High every week.

    Now that's irony, maybe sweet or not, but it was a living.

  5. As Dorothy in the Wizzard of Oz said "There's no place like home. There's no place like home." and this is a constant part of the Jewish Palestinian Dialogue.