Artifacts and Replacements: How Communities are Transformed

Winter 2004

Cities can change dramatically over short periods of time. Yet what was once there may still leave its signs and material artifacts. Or, it may be effaced: by new institutional structures such as parks and schools; by inadvertent repainting; or by neglect.

Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, used to be known in the 1920s through the 1940s as a Jewish neighborhood. Just now it is mainly Latino/a. (Of course, there were and are other significant ethnic groups.) What was once Brooklyn Avenue (New York Jewish) is now Cesar E. Chavez Avenue. Yet, the businesses on East Cesar E. Chavez are much like those that were on Brooklyn. The adjacent City Terrace industrial area (the City Industrial Tract) still has some Jewish-owned businesses, including a unique casket factory.

Jack Lam and Natalie Golnazarians have photographed some of what is left of the Jewish community in Boyle Heights, and what has replaced it. The artifacts are just that, and the replacements often echo the original uses of the built environment. Synagogues and businesses become churches and similar sorts of businesses. Storefront shuls (shtieblach, little places) become retail stores again; home synagogues become just homes.

The Boyle Heights area is changing still, and is likely to be subject to urban renewal in the next two decades. Material artifacts that have withstood the neighborhoodís ethnic changes may well be destroyed. So it is valuable to have a systematic photographic record of some of the areaís heritages. (Here, think of Charles Marvilleís photographically documenting Napoleon IIIís Paris before it was eviscerated by Baron Haussmann. Such photographic evidence is surely partial, but useful nonetheless.)

Eduardo Arenas has been systematically documenting the events and actions that are precursors to the next likely transformation of Boyle Heights. On an ìactiveî map, he has plotted, much as on a weather map, the displacements, the political actions, and the crucial events in this process. In further work on the Pico-Aliso district adjacent to Boyle Heights, he has developed an analytical chronology of its transformations over the past decades.

Professor Martin Krieger, curator of the Lewis Hall Gallery, provides a personal note: In the end, you have got to go look and see whatís actually there. Photographing is a powerful way of doing so. So has been my experience of fieldwork. All the photographs, all the aerials on www.mapquest.com, all the multi-aspect images as in Pictometry and www.wanadoo.fr, do not displace actual bodily experience, the things themselves. Only then did I realize that the Bonnie Beach Place I photographed in the City Industrial Tract must be the same street (a street that goes North-South through East Los Angeles) as the Bonnie Beach Place I encountered in the Metropolitan Warehouse District on Union Pacific Avenue. The Jewish cemeteries on South Downey Road are just a few blocks from the factories on Union Pacific Avenue, albeit now separated by a freeway. Only then did I realize that the hundreds of storefront churches I once photographed are likely to be no more enduring than the storefront synagogues of Boyle Heights (and hence my photographing is inherently elegiac). And only then did I realize that the Department of Water and Power electrical distribution station Number 23, on Indiana Stóone of 150 such sites I photographed throughout Los Angelesówas right in the middle of Boyle Heights. I ìshould haveî known all this before I did my fieldwork. But I did not. Places are abstractions until they have been explored through their streets and their functions and their typologies. The city has an integrity in its layers and interdigitated parts. [Martin Krieger]