Sharing History with the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council’s Historic Preservation Workshop

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The Homestead Museum has had a longstanding connection to Boyle Heights because of the historical relationship of the Workman family to the east side suburban neighborhood of Los Angeles dating to the 1875 establishment of the community by William Henry Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, and his partners Isaias W. Hellman (who briefly had a bank with William Workman and his son-in-law F.P.F. Temple) and John Lazzarovitch.

This connection was greatly strengthened in the early 2000s when I served as a contracted research associate for the Japanese-American Museum’s remarkable exhibit on Boyle Heights, including work doing oral histories and assisting with photo collection days in the neighborhood.

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A display board from the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council’s Historic Preservation Committee showing a historic house recently lost to demolition.

From that amazing project came the formation in 2005 of the Boyle Heights Historical Society and I was honored to be asked to join the Society’s Advisory Board.  In addition to doing many presentations at Society’s functions over the years, I was happy to be able to develop the Boyle Heights History Blog, which was launched in 2009 and have written most of the posts, though Advisory Board member Rudy Martinez has been the main contributor, with my editing, in recent years.  Another notable project was assisting longtime president Diana Ybarra in putting together an exhibit on the history of Boyle Heights through 1900, including displays at the Perry House, formerly in the neighborhood but now at the Heritage Square Museum, and at the Occidental College Library.

Recent changes to the board have led to a closer working relationship between the Society and the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council, including its Historic Preservation Committee.  With so many historic commercial, residential, religious and other properties in the community, it is a natural fit for the Society and Council to work together for common objectives.

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One of several boards from the Los Angeles City Planning Department’s SurveyLA project showing the Boyle Avenue Residential District, where members of the Workman family lived over many decades.  The historic image at the top left was of a “Working Girls’ Home” operated by the Volunteers of America in a building that replaced the early 1880s home of Joseph Workman, son of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman and cousin of Boyle Heights founder William H. Workman, who lived next door and sold Joseph the property.

That’s why it was an honor to be invited to participate in the first Historic Preservation Community Workshop, sponsored by the Council and its Historic Preservation Committee, and held today at the Boyle Heights Senior Center.  The program, lasting from 10 a.m. to about 1:30 p.m., included a quintet of presenters and I was happy to lead off with a general overview of the history of the community through the 1920s.

It’s a program I’ve given many times before, surveying the use of the land from the indigenous peoples to the settlement of what was called Paredon Blanco (White Bluff) by the López and Rubio families to the purchase by Andrew A. Boyle of some of the López family property which he left, upon his death, to his daughter Maria (pronounced Ma-rye-ah) and her husband, William H. Workman, and to the founding of the community.

Residence of Joseph M Workman Boyle Heights 2005.476.1.1
A mid-1880s cabinet card photograph by Ellis and Son of the Joseph Workman house.

I also talked about the neighborhood’s status as one of the first suburban districts of a steadily growing Los Angeles during the town’s first significant growth period during the 1870s—the other being East Los Angeles, later renamed Lincoln Heights, which abuts Boyle Heights to the north.

The end of that first boom, marked mainly by the dramatic collapse of the Temple and Workman bank, the city’s first major business failure, limited development at Boyle Heights until the arrival of the Santa Fe railroad at the end of 1885 and other conditions paved the way for the famed Boom of the 1880s.  Boyle Heights, like many other regional communities, experienced a resurgence and was, in many respects, a popular residential “streetcar suburb” (a term used in display boards at today’s event with such projects as the Los Angeles Cable Railway, completed in 1889, going to the neighborhood) for middle and upper middle class Angelenos.

Valencia tract Boyle Heights 1902
An original 1902 map of the Valencia Tract in Boyle Heights.  The subdivision was created by Robert E. Wirsching, a member of the Los Angeles City Council, whose home was in the area north of Brooklyn Avenue, now César Chávez Avenue.

By the turn of the century, as new residential tracts emerged around Los Angeles and the industrial core on the west side of the Los Angeles River expanded dramatically, Boyle Heights experienced a significant shift in demographics and social class.  The area had far more ethnic diversity along with a decided turn to more working class residents and this was cemented by the growing use of “restrictive covenants” which included people of color from virtually all areas of Los Angeles, except the southern and eastern areas, like Boyle Heights.

In the time available, I kept the discussion very general and limited, but wanted to get across some of the basic elements of the neighborhood’s early history through 1930. Obviously, there is so much more that could have been said, much less taken the discussion into later periods, including the gradual movement of residents from the neighborhood to newer suburbs in the city and county, the effects of Japanese internment in World War II-era concentration camps, and the reshaping of Boyle Heights into a predominantly Latino community, especially with recent immigration trends of the past few decades.

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Realtor David Silvas talks at the workshop about the value of historic preservation to the building, its owners and the neighborhood and community at large.

I was followed by David Silvas, a realtor and native of Los Angeles, whose enthusiasm for historic buildings and architecture and preservation gives him a solid grounding and valuable perspective about how the preservation and rehabilitation of historic structures in Boyle Heights is integral to the maintenance and development of community, including amid the controversies of gentrification.  One important piece of information David conveyed is his contention that market value is no longer the median home price of an area, but the maximum price developers, realtors and property owners believe they can realize for a property.

Haydee Urita-Lopez, a senior city planner for the City of Los Angeles’s planning department and its Community Planning Bureau talked about the continuing work done on the Boyle Heights Community Plan update, a vital planning document for the neighborhood, which is undergoing some major transformations, as are so many downtown-adjacent communities.  With her extensive background in public policy, she emphasized the crucial element of community participation, equity for residents and businesses and how development can strive for sustainability.

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Ken Bernstein, a principal city planner for the City of Los Angeles’ Office of Historic Resources, mentioned a new state historic tax credit, available starting in 2021 for rehabilitation projects with historic houses that are principal residences.

Following Haydee was Ken Bernstein, who has long worked for the city as manager of its Office of Historic Resources.  Ken is well-known and highly regarded for his knowledge and promotion of the city’s enormous inventory of historic properties through policies intended to make it easier for property owners and residents to know more about what to do with these properties.  He is the lead staff member for the Cultural Heritage Commission, which oversees the Historic-Cultural Monument program and also oversaw the massive SurveyLA program, which documented over years the city’s historic resources.  Moreover, he is heading the Urban Design Studio initiative and has directed community plans, housing policies and planning for transportation—all vital work.  One notable new piece of information Ken mentioned was a new state income tax credit relating to historic properties—the program will start in 2021 and involves credits for rehabilitation and preservation work (see the attached image for some details.)

Finally, Rosalind Sagara of the Los Angeles Conservancy completed the roster of presentations.  The Neighborhood Outreach Coordinator for this very important organization, which has been fighting and often winning battles for preserving significant historic and cultural places in the city and county, discussed five tips for preservation.  She especially promoted the idea of community awareness and action, noting that Boyle Heights residents often contact the Conservancy when they notice issues with historic properties and this can lead to important actions in identifying and helping to preserve structures and other historic elements.

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The General Plan Land Use Map for the Boyle Heights Community Plan, showing residents the various zoning and property types in the neighborhood which are color coded (blue, for example, is industrial, green is open space, red is commercial, and the sand and yellow colors are for various densities single-family and multi-family residential areas.

For a first attempt at a preservation workshop, Vivian Escalante of both the Council and its committee and the historical society expressed to me that she was pleased with the turnout and also happy with the number of participating organizations, including the city planning department, Census 2020 representatives, the Little Tokyo Historical Society (which just last week celebrated the Historic-Cultural Monument status given to the Japanese Hospital building in Boyle Heights,) and others.

Vivian stated that she’d like to have a follow-up workshop, perhaps later this year, and she and I discussed how the Homestead can be involved, including having my colleague Robert Barron come out to talk and demonstrate some basics of preservation and restoration of historic materials, including masonry, stone and plaster.  So, we’ll look forward to the opportunity to work with the Council and the Society when it arises again!

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