…As seen by a transplant:
When I moved to Los Angeles, my first nine months in this city were spent living in Boyle Heights. Despite being only a couple Gold Line stops away from East LA, I didn’t venture east until I met Janeth. My attention was drawn to the west, to the spires of Downtown and the sunset-kissed coast beyond. It took meeting an East LA native to open my eyes to the wonders this community held.
For the uninitiated, “East LA” is often mistakenly used synonymously with the Eastside, or anything east of the Los Angeles River. East LA and Boyle Heights have often been blended together in the popular imagination, despite its residents frequently asserting their distinction from each other. At first glance, they seem to be extremely similar: after all, both are overwhelmingly Latino, predominately Mexican-American communities that are very tight-knit and located right next to each other. But look beyond these surface-level similarities and you’ll find that they have very different characteristics, different histories, and different qualities. And I think it boils down to one startlingly basic difference, something so simple it seems silly to point out: one is closer to Downtown Los Angeles than the other.
Boyle Heights is one of the oldest neighborhoods in LA. It was one of the city’s very first streetcar suburbs, after only Lincoln Heights, and its physical characteristics reflect that: narrow streets, turn-of-the-century houses, a compact street grid built for walkability, and a blatant disregard for terrain (“hills be damned, we’re laying out our grid whether it makes sense or not”). From its creation, it has been a part of the City of Los Angeles, albeit an often neglected and abused one. It had a great racial and ethnic diversity in the early 20th century, given that it was one of the few neighborhoods in the city without restrictive racial covenants. But since the postwar years, its position in the inner orbit of Downtown LA has brought considerable trauma. The freeways of the ’60s cut deep scars through the neighborhood, and now the economic spillover of Downtown has placed Boyle Heights at the center of the struggle over gentrification.
East LA, on the other hand, has always sat somewhat apart from Downtown’s sphere of influence. For one, it has never been a part of the City of Los Angeles, or any city for that matter. Originally a nebulous, undefined zone between LA and Montebello, East LA is still one of the largest unincorporated communities in the country. And where Boyle Heights grew up alongside the streetcar, East LA grew up with the automobile. The first subdivisions weren’t laid out until the 1920s, and large parts of East LA were agricultural fields as recently as the 1940s. The car may have damned Boyle Heights, but it gave life to its eastern neighbor. The same freeways which mark such ugly obstructions in Boyle Heights seem to merely exist beside East Los Angeles. The streets are wider, the houses have driveways, and the people take to their cars. East LA was practically built for car culture. After all, Whittier Boulevard is one of the most popular cruising strips in the world. It’s in East LA that low-riders became a symbol of American Latino culture.
But what does this mean for the people who live here? What distinguishes your typical resident of Boyle Heights from one of East LA?
There’s an infamous (and often misattributed) quote that LA is “72 suburbs in search of a city.” This has always been taken as an insult towards Los Angeles, an implication of homogeneous suburbia with no “real” city. But I think there is a kernel of truth to this statement, even if it’s unintentional. LA’s neighborhoods are extremely distinct from each other, shaped by the many groups of migrants which have come to this city. The sprawl of Los Angeles can be isolating, but it can also be liberating. These communities had the opportunity to craft their own communal identities instead of being beholden to that of a larger city.
East LA is the perfect example of this: a place that is unquestionably part of the LA landscape but doesn’t feel entrapped by it. Boyle Heights sits anxiously above Downtown, that skyline just to the west an ever-present reminder of the harm the city can inflict. It’s fitting that Gentefied, the recent Netflix sit-com about a Latino family trying to save their taco shop amidst a changing neighborhood, is set entirely in Boyle Heights. There’s a lot of community pride and resistance, but the mood is one of anxiety, even a sort of grim inevitability at times. Even the neighborhood’s disgraced city councilmember, Jose Huizar, was actually more beholden to Downtown real estate interests than the residents he claimed to represent.
But go east past Indiana Street, and the skyline recedes into the distance. Gentrification, pollution, and racism are still problems in East LA, but they don’t feel as pronounced. The mood feels more liberated, the people more free to do things like cruising or shooting off fireworks, which are a common occurrence in Boyle Heights but are practically ubiquitous in East LA. There’s also a subtle class difference: although both are working-class neighborhoods, Boyle Heights is predominately duplexes and apartments while East LA is mainly houses, which afford their residents a little more privacy and more of a sense of stability.
Nevertheless, there’s a deep spiritual connection between the two neighborhoods. The Chicano Moratorium of the ’60s occurred across both communities, and is commemorated in both. Forget everything you’ve heard about gangs and crime here—my experience of both has been really charming neighborhoods where children race each other down the sidewalk, families play in the yards, old-timers sit on their porches, and there’s always a carne asada, a bouncy castle, a quinceañera, or someone shooting off fireworks. At some point it occurred to me that these are exactly the kind of communities that white, middle-class suburbia feigns nostalgia for—think of anyone complaining about how back in their day people knew their neighbors—but is too paranoid to actually create.
The Gold Line cuts east through a long tunnel under Boyle Heights, emerging onto 1st Street just short of the city limits. Riders can spot the El Mercado on their left, a beloved shopping and dining locale of both communities (technically it’s still within Boyle Heights, but just barely). A charming little business district of tortillerias, tamale shops, taco stands, and tienditas lines this section of 1st Street, perched on a hill overlooking the houses to the north. Just around the corner from El Mercado, the Gold Line jogs right onto Indiana and makes a stop before continuing east down the middle of 3rd Street.
The more suburban character of East LA quickly becomes apparent. This stretch of 3rd Street is lined with strip malls, fast food joints, churches, and houses before crossing under and over a pair of freeways. A particularly charming gable roof house sits on your right a few doors past a McDonalds, painted blue with red and yellow trim. Between the freeways are several large cemeteries, one devoted to each denomination. My personal favorite to look at is the Russian Orthodox cemetery on your left, just because you can often spot chickens pecking at the ground in the corner facing the train tracks.
After crossing over the freeway, the next stop is Maravilla Station. The big attraction here is what I would consider the flagship location of King Taco, which sits directly across the street. While this isn’t the original King Taco, it has to be the largest. A huge illuminated sign points at the restaurant, which also has a taco truck in the parking lot just to handle the extra crowds. It’s common to see long lines on the weekend, especially after a Dodgers game. If you want something a little more local, you can also walk east a couple blocks to Lupe’s Burritos, a tiny burrito stand that’s been around as long as anyone can remember and whose walls are covered in Dodgers memorabilia.
The next stop is East LA Civic Center Station, at 3rd & Mednik. From here, you can see the end of the Gold Line, Atlantic Station, just a few blocks further east. East LA Civic Center serves its namesake across the street, which holds a bunch of county facilities that serve East LA, including a library, a courthouse, a clinic, and the rather bleak sheriff’s station. The best feature of the civic center is Belvedere Park, a well-kept park surrounding a trout-stocked lake. Indeed, the middle of the lake sports a pair of fountains spraying from the sculptures of fish leaping out of the water, and fishing is a common pastime here. Many charismatic flocks of waterfowl have taken up residence at the park, and you’re sure to see lots of ducks and geese walking around. One side of the lake holds an island amphitheater, and the 4th of July fireworks show typically held in the park is particularly audacious.
At the northern end of the park is a pedestrian bridge that crosses the Pomona Freeway, linking the park to a set of baseball and soccer fields on the other side. Further beyond, just east down Cesar Chavez Avenue, is the campus of East Los Angeles College (ELAC). On the southeastern corner of the campus, near the intersection of Cesar Chavez and Atlantic, sits the Vincent Price Art Museum, a lovely little institution with a permanent collection of Indigenous artworks from ancient Central and South America, paintings from 19th century Mexico, and changing exhibitions of Latinx art. (Technically the museum is closer to Atlantic Station on the Gold Line, but crossing under the freeway on Atlantic is a little harrowing on foot, making the Belvedere Park pedestrian bridge a far more pleasant crossing.)
The Gold Line terminates at Atlantic Station, next to a busy triangle of strip malls formed by 3rd Street/Pomona Blvd, Atlantic Blvd, and Beverly Blvd. The true heart of East LA, Whittier Boulevard, sits a little ways to the south, about a 20 minute walk down Mednik or Atlantic (or a short bus ride down Atlantic, if one prefers). Mednik, which turns into Arizona Avenue before reaching Whittier, is the more pleasant walk with its tree-lined median and more residential character, compared to the auto shops and car dealerships that line much of Atlantic. At the intersection of Arizona and Whittier is the archway which serves as an icon for the community, and this bustling stretch of Whittier is fun to take in, with its many local businesses and Mexican chains, crowded signage, colorful roadside architecture, and palm trees draped in string lights.
And if you do walk down to Whittier Boulevard, I encourage you to take a detour down a residential street to get a sense of the charming character of East LA. You’ll experience one of the most tight-knit communities in Los Angeles, a place of families and good spirit, and I hope you’ll be as enchanted by it as I am.
…Through a native’s eyes:
I am one of the “rare” Los Angeles natives, born and raised in East Los Angeles. And as a resident of East LA I must inform you, East LA is not Boyle Heights. You may think it’s petty that I have the need to share this distinction but hey I’m Latina, proud of my roots and live for the competition.
And what is the best form of competition? Sport. Every fall, Boyle Heights and East LA will have a fierce battle against one another through a high school football game. The Roosevelt Rough Riders and Garfield Bulldogs have been battling against each other since 1925 for a total of 81 games. “The Classic,” the biggest game between both schools, is hosted by East Los Angeles College (ELAC) and every year the stadium will be brimming with food, roaring crowds, loud air horns and beach balls floating down the stands. When the game ends late at night the winners will take every opportunity to rub the loser’s nose in it, honking their horns and shouting until getting out of the parking lot. But East LA is more than rivalries, it’s a community of delicious food and working families with big dreams.
If you were reading this post in hopes that it would introduce you to the best food in East LA, I’m sorry to say that this is not it. You see, both East LA and Boyle Heights have an unlimited amount of taquerias and restaurants. The same goes for bakeries, which adorn every neighborhood while emitting wonderful warm cinammony and sugary scents drifting through the wind. I hope to share locations that I adore and frequent. Similarly, I hope that I can share the warm and lively feeling East LA emits.
The ongoing pandemic has been particularly tough on communities of color and folks have been fighting to support their families amid the struggle. I’ve witnessed new taco carts springing up throughout the neighborhood. If you’re interested in looking for some of these locations be aware they will not be on Yelp or Google Maps. “Tacos Arandinos,” my local taco cart, happens to be featured on Yelp and Google Maps because they have maintained their business for over a decade. The key to maintaining a taco stand is like any other business: get some regulars. But for a taco stand, it’s about creating a community and lively environment. An empty street corner provides a new business opportunity and to market itself, a little plume of smoke rising above the houses is only the beginning. When you approach it, the smell of carne asada, onions, and limes will wash over you. You’ll spot a table exhibiting guacamole, red and green salsas, cilantro and onions, and lime wedges. As your mouth begins to water and your belly rumbles, your heart won’t be left behind as it dances to the rhythms of Banda or Cumbia. These taco stands draw a crowd by creating a lovely, warm and lively setting, vibrating with energy. Visitors will mingle and chat, and after a good laugh a complete stranger may even offer to bring you a beer from the tiendita across the street.
And our taco stands are not the only places vibrating with energy. El Mercado De Los Angeles (endearingly known as El Mercadito) is shared between Boyle Heights and East LA. El Mercado closely resembles a traditional Latinx marketplace, selling goods and delicious treats. But it is also more than that, it’s a place of mingling and entertainment. There is an expansive parking lot located behind the building if you decide to drive, but the Metro Goldline conveniently passes in front of Mercado. If you approach the building from the Goldline on 1st Street, the entrance will be a bit confusing. There is a stairwell that will lead you to a floor below and another that will lead you to a floor above. Go to the first floor, the floor below.
When you step inside the building you’ll be welcomed by a wave of scents, the most prominent scent being leather. The ground floor is home to several Latinx-owned shops of Mexican memorabilia like leather boots and belts, jewelry, charro outfits, baleros (a barrel shaped toy that the kendama toy resembles), munecas, guitars and accordions, religious figures and white outfits for children completing their first communion. When you move to the floor above you will once again be greeted by an entirely different blend of scents. Here you will find authentic ingredients like chiles, mole, cheese, chorizo, fresh and dried fruits, spices and seeds, different assortments of candy, and pan dulce (bread). As you explore this floor you might hear a trumpet ring out above accompanying singing Mariachis. The third floor is home to “El Mercadito Mariachi Restaurant,” a sit down restaurant where you can be serenaded by mariachis as you eat delicious plates of Mexican food. And as lovely as the restaurant sounds, I recommend the food stalls throughout the building. You’ll find booths both indoors and out, where you may eat authentic Mexican tacos, tortas, elotes, and botanas by hand. No need for silverware, these delicious treats can be eaten on the go. Be aware that the pandemic has changed the layout of this building. Most stalls have been moved to the outdoor plaza. What was before reserved for prayers and posadas in the winter has transformed into an outdoor market. El Mercado continues to thrive with vivid colors and music and even if you cannot experience the setting inside the building, the move outside has only made it more liberating. It truly embodies the harmony of a Mexican marketplace.
While Mercado has its own bakery, I grew up eating pan dulce from Sonora Bakery on Whittier Blvd. Monarcha Bakery sells tasty pan and pastries, but I’ll say that bakeries in both East LA and Boyle Heights are much more delicious. The bread is fluffier and the little pieces of cinnamon scattered throughout the dough are harmonized with every other ingredient instead of behaving like props. When I was a child I actually took a field trip to Sonora Bakery. It was my first introduction to baking. I remember being fascinated with the large rotating ovens. The window displays are usually adorned with tall layered cakes for weddings and quinceaneras. And next to the bakery lie the perfect neighbors, I&C Party Rentals and Lauri’s Bridal. On one side of the bakery you can purchase all the party supplies you need and on the other you can find elegant suits and quinceanera gowns. Sonora Bakery lies in a perfect location at a short distance away from the 710 overpass, at almost the start of Whittier Boulevard as you head east.
Whittier Blvd is the major street going through East LA and as it reaches the community of Montebello, you’ll find more shops that sell quinceanera gowns and party supplies. But in the heart of East LA we have small businesses with Mexican treats. La Michoacana, for example, is a growing chain that sells delicious paletas and ice cream flavors reminiscent of Mexican snacks and candy bars. If you’re craving a delicious frozen treat that tastes like Bubu Lubu, Mazapan, or Gansito then this is the place to go. You can find botanas like nachos and tostilocos, aguas frescas, and even crepes. As you walk through Whittier, you’ll find small restaurants that sell satisfying and filling meals like tortas and seafood. El Porky Restaurant in particular is special to my family because it happens to be the place where my parents had their first date thirty years ago. Across the street is one of my favorite buildings on this stretch of Whittier, a magenta colored building housing Whittier Crafts. This business has been around for years, selling balloons, styrofoam, glue, paint, and centerpieces. Businesses along Whittier Blvd make it very simple for you to find all of your party needs in a single location. It’s no wonder we can have lively parties every weekend.
If you decide to take a stroll down our residential streets over the weekend you’ll hear music blasting from multiple homes. A single lot may accommodate a couple of families, meaning we’ll have shared driveways if not lawns. If celebrating a birthday, a bouncy castle featuring Spongebob may be placed on the lawn while the driveway will be lined with tables and chairs. Once the party comes alive the adults will mingle at the tables and dance near the huge sound system near the back of the property. Children will hop onto the bouncy castle and try to hang on the air-filled columns in attempt to bring the castle down an immeasurable amount of times. Sometimes parents will rent a horse or a train for children to ride around the block, but if not, children are always excited to run down the block chasing each other in droves. Once exhausted, they’ll return to their parents laps and refuel on all the delicious snacks before running off once again. As the smell of birria or carne asada wafts through the neighborhood, neighbors may stroll on by but street vendors will come. Moving with glowing carts, our street vendors wander as they search for a party to sell glow sticks and wands or swords. When one home hosts a party the whole neighborhood comes alive.
In all the years I’ve lived here I’ve adored the different ways that the community will come together. The construction of the Goldline, for example, sparked a lot of curiosity. I remember hearing stories from people flocking to the closest station and taking a roundtrip on the new line. I’d hear them boast “Lo vamos a estrenar!” or in other words “We’re going to inaugurate it.” In late July 2003, the East LA community was excited to boast about this new train and claim they were going to be the first ones to ride the rail from end to end. If you were sitting in one of those cars you’d hear both children and parents excitedly point at sights out the windows and gasp excitedly when the train went underground into the tunnel between Soto Station and Mariachi Plaza. Riding the train at that time was about exploring with everyone else and sharing the experience with the family. Today, 17 years later, the Goldline continues to hold these precious memories. The line is expected to be transformed by the Regional Connector (expected completion 2022). And while this change is disappointing to some, it is also exciting. I can fully expect the same behavior when the project is completed. I expect laughter, oohs and aahs, and children and adults excitedly pointing out the window.
While the Goldline and the Regional Connector have been exciting, there are other projects that are not as welcome. The neighborhood is adapting to the growing population. New apartment complexes are springing up throughout the neighborhood. The complex on Third Street next to Belvedere Park and the sheriff’s station is a small apartment complex built on a plot of land that was formerly a Red Cross Hospital. And another building on Whittier Blvd and Downey was built on a former parking lot. But apartments in East LA have always seemed really unnatural and out of place. They stand tall and imposing in a neighborhood of local businesses, sometimes only being challenged by another tall building, the local school. The buildings are incompatible for our community. They’re enclosed and embody a sense of distance. I wonder where would I grill carne asada, where would I place my bouncy castle or tie my piñata?
I’ve lived in this community for over 25 years. East LA continues to be seen as a bad neighborhood to those that have heard of it through movies. What is seen as run down and criminalized is fictional. These “run down” homes or businesses have roots. Families have raised multiple generations by building that dream they clutched in their hands: a bright future for the family. Today one of the biggest problems is maintaining these businesses families have worked so hard to build.
East Los Angeles is a small forgotten community, but not by its residents. When times are tough, we fight. We are hit the hardest when the rest of the economy is suffering, but we stand tall for our gente. Families come here to achieve a dream, a better life for the family. And when society pushes them away and rejects them, they find friends that are willing to help them out. We grant each other opportunities to move forward, one step at a time.