The area was known as “Russian Flats” when the social reformer Jacob Riis visited it in 1910. Riis wrote that it was worse than the tenements of New York. By the 1940s, residents like Floyd Jeter did not think of it as a slum.
“The Flats,” as more recent generations knew this area of Boyle Heights, became home to thousands of foreign-born and non-white new arrivals to Los Angeles. Brooklyn Avenue, now Cesar Chavez Avenue, was one of the most diverse streets in the United States.
It was a place where 8-year-old Danny Sanchez earned a dollar every Friday evening for turning on the lights at the Breed Street Shul, then the largest Orthodox synagogue in the western United States. Marge Masaki and Rose Matsui could “walk by Canter’s Deli at Brooklyn and Soto over to Evergreen Avenue to apanaderia to get pan dulce for 5 cents.”
These memories of a neighborhood now largely destroyed by freeway construction and the influx of wholly new cultures are preserved in the “52 Roosevelt High School Round Up,” which was started and is edited by Floyd Jeter of San Luis Obispo.
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This column is the final chapter in a three-part series (Track star Floyd Jeter blazed a trail on race and San Luis Obispo man recalls life lessons as a young world-class athlete) about Jeter’s achievements as a world-class high jumper at Roosevelt High, East Los Angeles College and the University of Southern California. But there is another dimension to Jeter that began for us with a comment by our late friend Teri Kelley. As we were eating in a SLO restaurant, Teri saw him and said to us, “You must write a story about Mr. Jeter.”
Teri, office manager for Jeter’s Messenger/ Attorney Service for 12 years, spoke of his tremendous generosity to her and to the causes she championed for more than 30 years.
Beginning at age 17, and until he was 22, Jeter was a 20-hours-a-week assistant playground director at several playgrounds in Boyle Heights.
“In my youth,” he said, “every neighborhood in Boyle Heights had a playground. Playgrounds were a big deal then, with a coach, where kids could go after school and learn chess, photography, kite-making and crafts and go on trips while their parents were working. I wouldn’t let anyone who was drunk on the playground. And if someone brought a gun, he knew he had to hand it over to me before he could go upstairs to play basketball.”
Jeter worked at the playgrounds during his time at East Los Angeles College. While at USC, Jeter was working 4 p.m. to midnight at Wilson’s Lumber Co. to provide for his two children, whom he was raising on his own. He eventually had to drop out.
He spent 26 years as an L.A. County probation officer. He had to take a medical disability for hypertension in 1981 and moved to San Luis Obispo in 1982.
Today, Jeter lives in the SLO Country Club neighborhood. His quarterly roundup, now in its 12th year, provides some of the best social history we have read, along with stories of the heroism of people like 1952 Roosevelt graduate Rosendo Vera. Vera is a beautiful writer who describes his experience being a shoeshine boy in a barbershop filled with World War I veterans at the moment the radio reported the attack on Pearl Harbor. After serving in Korea, Vera married. His wife, Debbie, nearly died and was left a quadriplegic for 25 years. Vera went to church for answers to his despair. When no one answered, he encountered some Hare Krishnas, whose leader told him to find a house without some misery.
Vera couldn’t find one and returned home to happily care for his wife.
The “52 Roosevelt High School Round Up” attracted the attention of PBS filmographer Betsy Kalin. Betsy and her film crew met with Jeter and his ’52 buddy Bill Novikoff at the Pecan Playground, where they both worked more than 60 years earlier.
The film pictures the Boyle Heights of the 1940s and ’50s as a symbol of hope for a diverse and multicultural future. As with most PBS films, “East L.A. Interchange” needs funding for completion, but readers can view a segment of it at http://www.bluewatermedia.org/default.aspx.
This column was written by Liz and Dan Krieger and is special to The Tribune. Liz Krieger is a retired San Luis Obispo librarian. Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.