Inner city communities continually reinvent themselves. This is especially true of the working-class, immigrant Boyle Heights neighborhood just east of downtown Los Angeles.
Between 1900 and the 1960s, Boyle Heights evolved from one of the most multi-ethnic in America to predominately Latino.
That evolution is the subject of Betsy Kalin’s award-winning documentary “East LA Interchange.” Featuring San Luis Obispo’s Floyd Jeter Jr., the movie will be screened at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival on March 17 and 20. The film shows how, despite rapid transitions, one neighborhood managed to survive the construction of the largest and busiest freeway interchange in the nation.
“East LA Interchange” features the music of singer-rapper will.i.am (The Black Eyed Peas), who was born in East Los Angeles and raised in the Estrada Courts housing projects in Boyle Heights. His family was among the few African-Americans living in a predominantly Hispanic community. It’s narrated by Danny Trejo (Machete).
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The multicultural neighborhood of the 1940s provided opportunities for a young boy newly arrived from the racist horror that was the Deep South. With the encouragement of Roosevelt High School track coach Peter Clentzos — a 1928 San Luis Obispo High School graduate and later a champion pole vaulter at the University of Southern California — Floyd Jeter became a highly rated high jumper.
The area was known as “Russian Flats” when the social reformer Jacob Riis visited it in 1905. Riis wrote that it was worse than the tenements of New York. But by the 1940s, residents such as Floyd Jeter and his classmates did not think of it as a slum.
“The Flats,” as more recent generations knew it, became home to thousands of foreign-born and nonwhite new arrivals to Southern California. Brooklyn Avenue, now Cesar Chavez Avenue, was one of the most diverse streets in America.
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 Western America. In the movie, Marge Masaki and her pal Rose Matsui could “walk by Canter’s Deli at Brooklyn and Soto over to Evergreen Avenue to a panaderia to get pan dulce for 5 cents.”
Jeter moved to Los Angeles in 1942, after his grandfather found work, thanks to the war buildup. There was a big migration of black people from the Deep South because even if you had little education, there was a need for painters, janitors and members of a crew.
When the Jeter family settled in Boyle Heights, it was a harmonious, multicultural salad bowl.
Jeter remembers: “Boyle Heights had such a variety of people, 30 nationalities represented at Roosevelt High in 1952 with Jews, Japanese, Italians, Armenians, Latinos and blacks. Brooklyn Avenue was thriving. People from the west side might look down on these ‘poor’ kids, but since graduating from Roosevelt High, there was no place I could go where I wasn’t comfortable, thanks to all the different backgrounds of my classmates. I know that not all whites are prejudiced and all Mexicans aren’t gang bangers.”
Floyd moved to San Luis Obispo in 1982 and became a successful businessman. He and his classmates cherish memories of a neighborhood that was nearly destroyed by freeway construction. Their reminiscences are preserved in the newsletter, “52 Roosevelt High School Round Up,” started and still published by Floyd Jeter a few times a year.
Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Assocation.
Where to watch
“East LA Interchange” will be shown as a part of the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival at 7 p.m. March 17 and at 1:15 p.m. March 20 at Mission Cinemas, 1025 Monterey St. in San Luis Obispo.
For tickets, go to http://slofilmfest.org/2016-schedule/east-la-interchange.