Although East Los Angeles, and the bordering Boyle Heights, is now the heart of Mexican Los Angeles, vestiges of its diverse past still remain. The exterior of Self-Help Graphics, an art gallery and workshop, is covered with multicolored tiles in a visual tribute to the diversity this area was famous for. The gallery is on César Chávez Avenue, formerly known as Brooklyn Avenue, in honor of the New York borough that was legendary for its immigrant communities (the street was renamed in Chávez's honor, shortly after his death in 1993). Some stores still have "Brooklyn" in their title, such as Brooklyn Hardware and Brooklyn Pants.
A couple of blocks away from Self-Help Graphics lies the historic Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights. Located across the street from a supermarket, a Bank of America and a Social Security office, the deserted temple stands in stark contrast to the thriving neighborhood surrounding it.
But this will soon change -- if all goes according to the plans of a diverse group of organizations united to restore the shul. The building is scheduled for renovation and will reopen to serve the local community -- but in what capacity no one is yet certain.
Ever since the building was designated as a historical monument by the L.A. City Council in 1988, lengthy debates have erupted over what the shul should be used for. Proposals have included converting it to a museum to document the history of the area, or tearing down the still-magnificent building altogether. Some Jewish leaders have even called for the reestablishment of the Congregation Talmud Torah that once used the shul and operated in the once Jewish Boyle Heights.
East L. A. and Boyle Heights have historically been the entry point for emigrants from Europe and Asia. For many years, in addition to Mexicans, East Los Angeles was home to enclaves of Russians, Poles, Japanese and Italians that lived and worked together. Boyle Heights, in particular, became the focal point for Jewish immigrants, and a large community sprang up around the Breed Street Shul, built in 1923. Many of the Jews who lived in Boyle Heights at the time were poor, Yiddish-speakers from Eastern Europe. During the height of the Jewish presence in East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights -- before World War II -- about a third of Los Angeles' Jewish community lived there. After WWII, many of the Jewish immigrants began to leave the area for other sections of Los Angeles. Over the years, many of the Jewish businesses in Boyle Heights around the shul went out of business until only the shul remained. The shul, which was operated for many years by Rabbi Noah Ganzweig and later his son Mordechai, fell into disuse as its congregants began to leave the area. It eventually closed in 1992.
To the people currently living in the area surrounding the shul, there seems to be a strong consensus of the importance of preserving the building, even if it is not clear what the building is or was. "If you asked 1,000 people in this neighborhood, they wouldn't know it's even there," says Miguel Amezcua, who has lived in the area since 1969. "When I was younger, we would just wonder what it was."
Amezcua is an artist-in-residence at Self-Help Graphics. The artists' collective is one of the Latino organizations that have worked in tandem with the Jewish community in determining the fate of the building. Self-Help Graphics prides itself on offering free workshops to the community and even allowing residents to use its parking lot for free in a city that is notorious for the lack of free parking. With that egalitarian spirit in mind, the organization stresses that -- whatever the fate of the Breed Street Shul -- it should both include, and be a part of, the overwhelmingly Mexican community that now occupies East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights.
Due to the poverty that has always existed in the area, some people have proposed converting the shul into a facility to help the area's residents. But Amezcua points out: "Helping the residents is a bottomless pit. It's like the cathedral [the downtown cathedral that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Los Angeles is currently finishing]. Some people said that the money used on the cathedral should be used to help the poor. Problem is, you can never give enough."
All plans to renovate the shul so far have involved keeping the Jewish presence of the building, which suits Amezcua just fine. "The Jews have precedent towards the Breed Street Shul," Amezcua told The Jewish Journal. "It's their building. A big part of it should be Jewish. But at the same time, the building should reflect the multiculturalism that has always been a part of the area."
Even now, the population of Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles is shifting. Although it is still primarily Mexican, Chinese signs are starting to pop up in the neighborhood. Arabs own many of the stores at the intersection of Breed Street and César Chávez Avenue. Steady streams of Central American emigrants are coming from the Pico-Union area to the slightly more prosperous Eastside. The Jewish heritage of the area remains only as a ghostly artifact represented by the shul.
"I think of the shul as an Aztec pyramid in terms of reverence," Amezcua said. "Although the builders are no longer here, we should still respect the original intent and sacredness of the building."
The Jewish community that once thrived here and built the shul is nowhere to be found and has not made an effort to reach out to the new residents. As Amezcua puts it, "I bet you 95 percent of the residents in this neighborhood have never seen a Jew here or even know that this was once the heart of Jewish L.A."
Various people along César Chávez Avenue near the Breed Street Shul offered their opinions as to what they thought the building was and what should be done with it. No one was able to identify it as Jewish, but all had an idea that it was once a sacred place.
"It's a really nice building. Wasn't it once a temple for the Hermanos ['The Brothers,' a Christian sect]?" asked two young men.
"I once heard from other people that the building used to be a church," offered a woman going to the supermarket. "Then something bad happened and they began performing satanic rituals and sacrificing animals there. That's why they put barbed wire around it."
One cannot blame anti-Semitism or cultural ignorance for such responses. The community -- mostly composed of recent Mexican immigrants -- has been isolated so long from Boyle Heights' Jewish legacy that any recollection of a Jewish community has been warped by years of hearsay. The amazing thing, though, was that even though the area is sorely lacking a community center or open space, there are those who want the building to remain sacred.
"If it was a church, I think they should reopen it," an older resident of the area said. "You just don't build a shrine to God, then abandon it," she added.