Boyle Heights is a working class neighborhood just east of downtown LA. Until the 1950s it was a diverse place called home by Jews, Latinos, immigrants from Eastern European and Portugal and people from Japanese descent. But a practice called redlining (in essence, financial institutions drawing a red line around an area on a map and deciding not to provide loans, insurance etc. to the people living within that red line) eventually forced all but the poorest people out and today Boyle Heights is almost completely Latino. If it is a working class neighborhood, it is also a neighborhood of people who know how to live: while it is quite shabby in some places, you don’t ever get the sense of desolation that you encounter in some of the urban wasteland in the poorer parts of LA. Boyle Heights is alive with people who go grocery shopping, take the family out for breakfast, sip a cup of coffee in a café, wave at a neighbor walking by. And that is the way the people like it here: the city is resisting attempts by developers to gentrify the neighborhood, and right now, it looks like they are winning: good for them, because Boyle Heights doesn’t need any ‘improvement’ beyond the normal maintenance people themselves can do.
The three of us were there on a Melting Pot food tour, but some of the highlights of our visit had little to do with food. There was plenty of that too: a marketplace with a bewildering variety of foods, colors and flavors, a place where a gringo like myself would get completely lost without a little bit of help, which we had in the guise of our guide, Andrew. I tried spicy cucumber ice cream (interesting, but next time I am getting a different flavor), Christine got all kinds of mole and I found a place that sold cheese. We also visited a tortilla factory and we sampled the goat stew at Birrieria de Don Boni. Yup, I said goat stew. That’s why their call the restaurant a birrieria – a goatery, if you will. It is pretty much all they serve there, and many people bring their entire families here for a simple but tasty meal on the weekend. And that means everyone, not just mom, dad and a kid or two: a family order in this otherwise inexpensive restaurant sets you back $195 – they know you’re bringing the lot of them.
As for the non-food highlights: certainly the heart of Boyle Heights, Mariachi Plaza, would be one of those. The west side of the triangle is occupied by a beautiful Queen Anne building, the former Cummings Block and Hotel (named after the man who paid for it back in 1889), now the Boyle Hotel or the Hotel Mariachi. It is a residential hotel, and several dozens of musicians live here. And then, throughout the day, it is a coming and going in the plaza of colorfully dressed Mariachis, all looking for gigs. There is something very ‘artisanal’ about these men in their charro suits, getting ready to go to work like any other working man – except their work is the business of making music. On the Plaza there are two stores, one for charro suits and all manners of accessories, and the other for instruments. On the eastern edge of the square is a beautiful mural of a musician and there is even a music school in the neighborhood, the Mariachi Conservatory, where children learn how to play this music of frustration, heartbreak and longing, the Mexican Blues. Historically musicians have mostly been male, but the school also has girls, and I recently found an all-woman band called Mariachi Flor de Toloache on NPR.
Not far from Mariachi Plaza is Primera Taza, a coffee shop in a small, narrow building, and this is where I met the Blue Girl. She was in a painting by local artist Ray Vargas who also made a very large piece that sits in the back of a makeshift patio behind the café. We bought the Blue Girl home, where she represents a gritty urban LA in our decidedly suburban home. At the café, I also picked up a postcard from a local realtor. It showed a house that was maybe 15 feet wide at most but looked cheerful and well kept. It told the story of an entrepreneur who knew her area and her potential customers, who was there to provide a service (and make a living in the process) rather than transform the neighborhood. I took the postcard with me, as a reminder that a place like Boyle Heights can do quite well for itself and thrive without masterplans, mixed-use projects and development corridors, thank you very much. I plan to come back occasionally to see how the neighborhood changes – hoping that I will be pleasantly disappointed when it comes to any large-scale gentrification developments.
Shameless Plug #1: This was the third time we did something like this with the Melting Pot; if you are out here (or if you live here, of course) and you are looking for something fun to do, try one of their tours. Christine, Charlie and I thoroughly enjoy them.