Written by Christine Madrid French
A store on 1st Street in East LA.
In 1853, when the Mount Vernon Ladies Association coalesced around the effort to save George Washington’s Virginia estate, the founders of the American preservation movement never imagined that their ideas might someday be applied to the modern cityscape of East Los Angeles.
Yet there is a vibrant, strong community here, engaging in preservation discussions. Recently, I met with Victor Felix, the originator of the Facebook site “Who Remembers in East LA?.” Victor, born and raised a block from his current home on Record Avenue, has long maintained an interest in his community’s history. When the recession cost him his job, he worked to expand his “outdoor movie night” enterprise at public parks and private functions. In his interactions with the public, he discovered that many of the younger people coming to the events were less and less aware of the “old days” in East LA. “I love talking with older people,” he said during our interview, “but the torn-down sites made it hard to remember the neighborhoods.” He was driven by a need to relate the past to upcoming generations. “People don’t see what is around them,” he asserted, “I wanted to combat the stereotypes of East LA while telling the stories.”
Traditionally delineated as anything east of the Los Angeles River (which runs adjacent to the downtown metropolis), East LA is well recognized for its historic importance in the development of the city. The oldest standing residence in Montebello—the Juan Matia Sanchez Adobe—dates from 1844 and is now the home of the Montebello Historical Society. Less frequently acknowledged is the significance of the everyday structures that mark important events for the citizens, such as the Silver Dollar bar/cafe where journalist Ruben Salazar was killed by a sheriff’s deputy during the National Chicano Moratorium March against the Vietnam War in 1970.
These sites – important for their cultural history – may not “look” historic at first glance. But, the significance of vernacular life in East LA is coming to the fore, noted by the recent formation of the Maravilla Historical Society (charged with preservation of the Maravilla Handball Court, the oldest in the area, and the El Centro Grocery, an unusual pair of sites that combine Japanese, Irish, and Latino immigrant histories), among a number of other local efforts.
A small corner market in East LA.
Finding others with shared memories is one of the benefits of “Facebooking.” “Who Remembers in East LA” hosts hundreds of comments that demonstrate the depth of people’s affection and remembrance of the area, from the Golden Gate Theater (“such a shame that they want to make it a drugstore,” wrote Matthew M.) to the locally owned shops (”Does anyone remember a little market on Whittier Blvd. named McKeon Brothers?” asked Carmen S., quickly answered in the affirmative by Linda R.). The site also has cross-generational appeal, with senior citizens conversing with younger folks, and some people finding each other after decades apart, including Victor himself, who re-connected with the principal from his junior high through the site.
The success of Facebook “depends on how you use it,” mentions Victor, who is only now realizing his own contributions to the long tradition of storytelling, albeit through a modern medium. The site gains dozens of new people every day – more than 4,000 fans at last count. Victor is hoping to expand the reach of the site by experimenting with blogging, so that more commentary and photographs can be included, while still directing people to Facebook in order to build on those all-important personal connections. Victor also wants to encourage reinvestment in the community by encouraging local owners to steward their sites with care, many places which are discussed by the “fans” of his Facebook site.
When the effort to save Mount Vernon began, the State of California was only a few years old. Now, more than one hundred years later, we can say “Este Lugar es Importante” for a wonderful array of buildings, landscapes, and histories, expressing the full range of the American experience. The National Trust is working with the Los Angeles Conservancy to study a number of sites, including Self Help Graphics & Art on Cesar Chavez Avenue. In the late 1980s, Eduardo Oropeza (1947-2003), a Mexican-American artist, created and installed the color mosaics that adorn the 1927 building, transforming the structure into a community icon. We are also working together to assist in community efforts (in collaboration with El Comite de la Esperanza and LA CO MEDIA) to preserve Wyvernwood Garden Apartments, completed in 1939 and determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Other groups are active in the area as well, including Mothers of East LA and the Boyle Heights Historical Society, adding to the collective energy for history and preservation that “Who Remembers in East LA?” has successfully tapped into.
Christine Madrid French is the director of the Modernism + Recent Past Program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which is headquartered at the Western Office in San Francisco.
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The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.