Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Russians of the Flats of Boyle Heights Go to the Movies, Part One

Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board member Rudy Martinez continues his series of posts on early Boyle Heights history, including its ethnic and racial diversity, with this remarkable multi-part post on the "Russian colony" of the Flats area of the community.  Check back weekly for further installments and enjoy!

Angry at the indifference to the injustice committed against them and the refusal by a new growing power in their midst to make amends, the angry crowd of about a hundred began to storm the gates, shouting their demands. Some reportedly began throwing stones at the armed security force summoned to subdue the “angry mob” of mostly bearded Russian men. Tension and agitation had been openly simmering between two opposing forces throughout the city for some time, but on this day, the violation was too flagrant to ignore.

An article on the "Russian Revolt" from Variety, 28 March 1928.
This skirmish occurred in 1928 and the crowd of protesting Russians were actually compensation-demanding movie extras who had gathered outside the now-iconic arched gateway entrance to Paramount Studios in Hollywood – one of the largest and most successful movie studios in the world. The “gate-crashers” were Russian immigrants who lived in a section of Boyle Heights known as the “Russian Flats.”  This unscripted expression of labor unrest occurred during a period when Los Angeles civic and business leaders boasted that the local economy produced plenty of jobs and newly built homes, all surrounded by picturesque citrus groves. However, city leaders also supported housing segregation based on race and ethnicity while enthusiastically promoting Los Angeles as the capital of open shop, or non-union labor.

For several decades beginning in the 1920s, the historic and long-gone Russian Flats district in Boyle Heights was home to the largest immigrant “Russian colony” in the United States. Much less widely-known today is that, while the fledgling local movie industry was well-established as an entertainment and economic juggernaut, filmmakers and this unique, vibrant eastside community interacted several times during Hollywood’s silent era in interesting ways, to say the least.  The incident described above will be revisited with a little more detail later in this multi-part post, but let’s start with a brief overview of the Russian immigrants in the Flats in Boyle Heights, and some of the early connections between Hollywood and this little-known community.

Coverage of the "riot" in the Los Angeles Herald, 22 March 1928
    The first wave of Russian immigrants and the first pioneering filmmakers arrived in Los Angeles only a few years apart at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1907, the Chicago-based Selig Polyscope Company came to Los Angeles to film the final scenes of The Count of Monte Cristo on a crudely built outdoor set in downtown Los Angeles and at the shoreline in Santa Monica. Though the film camera had been introduced to Los Angeles as early as 1897 when a few operators occasionally shot some documentary-type shorts, this 1907 production would be the first time an actual motion picture company shot scenes in Los Angeles.

Seeking to escape the almost monopolistic hold that inventor Thomas Edison had on the emerging camera/film technology patents (and the licensing fees he demanded) other eastern-based film outfits would soon relocate to the west coast as they also discovered that year-round filming was easier with Southern California’s mild climate, varied geography, and relatively weak labor unions.

A Bain News Service photo from the Library of Congress showing Russian "Molokanes or Milk Drinkers" in Los Angeles, undated.
Meanwhile, as early as 1893, the Los Angeles Times reported on a small exploratory “committee of Russians” in the Los Angeles area looking for suitable farmland to “locate a Russian colony now based in Canada.”  On July 17, 1904, the Los Angeles Herald published the first account about Russian immigrants in Los Angeles: “six families of Russians from the Kars district of the Transcaucasian territory who are living in a single dwelling on South Utah Street.”

The new immigrants were members of a close-knit sect of the Russian Orthodox Church known as the Brotherhood of Spiritual Christians. Sometimes called Holy Jumpers because of their reportedly frenetic exuberance during religious services, (initially causing neighbors to protest to the local ward council about the unsettling “loud noise”), today they are commonly known as Molokans, which means “milk drinkers” because of their refusal to abstain from dairy during Orthodox fast days. Steadfast pacifists, many fled Russia after 1900 to escape compulsory service during the Russo-Japanese War and during the early stirrings of revolution against the autocratic regime of Russian Tsar Nicolas II.   

The first area of settlement by the Molokan Russians along the west bank of the Los Angeles River near today's Union Station, with boundary lines and landmarks superimposed on a 1909 map of the city.
 At their highest period of immigration between 1904 and 1912, almost four-thousand Russian Molokans immigrated to the United States, via Canada, with a majority moving to Los Angles. Florida industrialist and sympathetic Russian immigrant, Pytor Alexeyevitch Dementyev, better known as Peter Demens, a “founding father” of the Florida city of St. Petersburg, underwrote many of the early expenses for the California-bound Russian Molokans. (Demens passed away in 1919 in Alta Loma, California where the historic Demens-Tolstoy home still stands today).

The earliest Russian Molokans to arrive settled in the immigrant-crowded industrial section of Los Angeles in the area around Aliso and Vignes Streets near today’s Union Station.  Located along the western edge of the still-unpaved Los Angeles River, this site was surrounded by rail yards, gas tanks, and the prostitution or “crib district” on Alameda Street. Initially sleeping in horse stables and cooking outside, they eventually met Congregationalist minister Dana Bartlett, a devoted social reformer and “a friend of the immigrant poor.”   Bartlett also provided the Russian immigrants with free lodging, meals, schooling, and accommodations to hold religious services at the nearby Bethlehem Institutional Church Settlement and the Stimson-Lafayette Industrial School.

A pair of photographs of Molokan Russians in the Flats area of Boyle Heights, from the New York Public Library Digital Collection.
By 1907, most of the Russian Molokans started to relocate over to the floodplain area of Boyle Heights – the Flats – on the east side of the river. A few moved further east to the small hillside enclave of crude shack housing known as “Fickett Hollow,” centered at 7th and Fickett Streets. In addition, after a brief stay in Boyle Heights, a small contingent immigrated to Baja California’s Guadalupe Valley in 1906, establishing an agricultural colony that lasted until the mid-1960s. 

We hope you've enjoyed the first part and come back next week for the second installment in the series!

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Remembering Maria (Marie) A. Ybarra (1923-2017)

Maria (Marie) A. Ybarra, who lived in Boyle Heights for 86 years, passed away on July 7, a few weeks shy of her 94th birthday, at her home in her beloved community. She was born Maria A. Najera on July 30, 1923 in El Paso, Texas to Simon and Antonia Najera, immigrants from Chihuahua, Mexico, and her early childhood years were spent in Prescott, Arizona. Her father was a engineer/conductor with the Atchison,Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. Her grandfather, Patricio “Pat” Najera, also worked for the railroad for many years. Her family moved to Los Angeles in 1931 and settled in Boyle Heights. Marie attended Breed Street School, Hollenbeck Junior High School and graduated from Roosevelt High School in the summer of 1942. While at Roosevelt, she won the B’nai B’rith Award, presented by the Jewish community organization, for an essay comparing the diversity of her school and Boyle Heights with that of a colorful garden filled with different types of flowers.
Marie, who, as part of the “greatest generation,” lived through the Great Depression and World War II, married John Ybarra, a staff sergeant with the Marine Corps during the war, in 1950. The couple raised their eight children in John’s childhood home in the Mount Pleasant area of Boyle Heights and this remained Marie’s home for the rest of her life because she never wanted to leave the neighborhood.
She was an advocate for her community of Boyle Heights and loved the Benjamin Franklin Library, fighting for it to be rebuilt in the community after the original library was demolished. She worked tirelessly attending meetings with Los Angeles City Council member Arthur K. Snyder, the library’s staff, and other representatives from the City of Los Angeles until the new library was finally built. She treasured a signed photograph presented to her in 1976 from council member Snyder. She referred to the councilman as “Tom Sawyer” because of his red hair and he accepted this nickname fondly as he knew my mother truly appreciated all the work he did.
Marie Ybarra
That same year, 1976, Marie took a photo of Prospect Park with her Polaroid camera. On the back of the photo she had written this note: “Sort of a sad lonely park. It does have some ‘valuable trees.’ Children would rather have some playground equipment.” Eventually her idea would come to fruition. Working with the local council member, play equipment was purchased and installed at the park. She called the new play equipment “the doodads” and would often take her own grandchildren to play there. Later on, more playground equipment was added and amenities were upgraded through the years by the various council members of Council District 14, City of Los Angeles.
In the mid-2000s, when daughter Diana was working with other community members and supporters to organize and coordinate the formation of the Boyle Heights Historical Society with neighbors and long-time residents, Marie enthusiastically backed that work and was elated to know the organization finally became reality. She enjoyed learning about the many improvements that were taking place in Boyle Heights and looked forward to the future. She knew and believed Boyle Heights would be beautiful and diverse once again – just as she had written in her essay years ago.

Marie stood 4’11″ and weight under 100 pounds, but her spirit was strong and her feet and heart were planted firmly in the ground of Boyle Heights, a community she lived in and loved for over 85 years!

Remembering Daniel Muñoz (1949-2017)

Daniel Muñoz, a founding board member and recently elected president of the Boyle Heights Historical Society, passed away on July 12 at the age of 68. In honor of Danny, who was so instrumental in the establishment of the organization, the Society wants all of its members and others who are interested in Boyle Heights history to know that he will be greatly missed by the Boyle Heights Historical Society and hundreds of other friends. He was a dedicated preservationist and historian who loved Los Angeles and California history.
His passion for Los Angeles history and California history was evident through his membership and participation in numerous organizations such as the Associated Historical Societies of Los Angeles County, for which he served as president; the Los Angeles City Historical Society, for which he was also a past president; and many other local historical groups, including The Westerners, Los Angeles Corral; The Los Angeles Conservancy; San Fernando Valley Historical Society; Windsor Square-Hancock Park Historical Society; Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley; Conejo Valley Historical Society; Southern California Railway Plaza Association, Inc.; Culver City Historical Society; Historical Society of Monterey Park; Chinese Historical Society of Southern California; Little Landers Historical Society and others. He was also a member of other state and national organizations.
In 2005, the Boyle Heights Historical Society Coordinating Committee, reached out to Daniel to help start their organization in Boyle Heights. Daniel told Diana Ybarra, the coordinator of the effort, that he had tried to start an historical society several years ago since he knew Boyle Heights had many historical structures and an amazing history. He was thrilled to be our mentor and help guide us. He also introduced our organization to his dear friend, Hynda Rudd, who had retired from the City of Los Angeles as their archivist. The Boyle Heights Historical Society was very fortunate to have both Daniel and Hynda serving as mentors and guiding us throughout initial formation.
Danny Munoz
Moving forward, Daniel then engaged our organization in activities that introduced us to and linked us with numerous other historical societies, museums, historians and so much more. As president of the Associated Historical Societies of Los Angeles County, he held quarterly meetings at various historical sites throughout Los Angeles County and would share the interesting historical information through their newsletter. The Boyle Heights Historical Society hosted an AHSLAC meeting in our community at the historic Linda Vista Hospital Building (old Santa Fe Hospital). The board of directors were invited to tour the roof top and enjoyed a view that allowed them to see all of Boyle Heights looking north to the beautiful San Gabriel Mountains, west to downtown Los Angeles, and far south and east. This would not have happened had it not been for Daniel connecting our organization with the larger network of historians and museums.
Although Daniel was busy, he always had time for a telephone call. He was extraordinarily generous with his time and expertise. He was passionate about history of Los Angeles. He was excited to share the history with everyone who was interested. He was very soft spoken and one would never realize the extent of knowledge he had about the history of California. This knowledge is importantly reflected in the large archive of regional history that he created and stored in the beautiful Victorian-era home in Angeleno Heights that he and his husband, David Hlovich, lovingly restored and lived in since the 1980s.
Daniel had been recently elected as president of the Boyle Heights Historical Society after serving as vice-president for several years. Sadly, shortly after his election, Daniel was in the hospital and very ill and was unable to fulfill his duties as the newly elected president. It is a great loss to our organization to learn that he had passed away. However, his inspiration will live on every day in the work the Boyle Heights Historical Society will do and hopefully Daniel will smile down upon us with approval.
Rest in Peace our dear, beloved Danny.
The Boyle Heights Historical Society

Monday, July 10, 2017

"Mexican American Baseball in East Los Angeles" Book Signing on July 29

The Boyle Heights Historical Society is proud to present a book signing event for Dr. Richard Santillan's newly published "Mexican American Baseball in East Los Angeles" on Saturday, July 29 at 3 p.m. at the Benjamin Franklin Branch Library, 2200 E. 1st Street in Boyle Heights.  Baseball has played a vital part in the life of the Boyle Heights community and others on the East Side and Dr. Santillan's book tells a little-told story of how Mexican-Americans played baseball over the decades.  Because space is limited, please RSVP by emailing Victoria Torres at

Monday, May 1, 2017

Roosevelt High Grad and Israel's Fight for Independence in 1948

Check out this amazing article by Edmon Rodman for the Jewish Journal, published here in Los Angeles about Sam Lewis, a former Boyle Heights resident and graduate of Roosevelt High, who transported war materiel for Israel’s fight for independence in 1948, the commemoration of which is tomorrow on 2 May. 

Here’s the link

Executive Order 9066 Photo Exhibit This Sunday

The Boyle Heights Historical Society is proud to sponsor a photo exhibit related to Executive Order 9066, issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942 and mandating the forced internment of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps.

The exhibit will be available to view this Sunday, May 7, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., at the Breed Street Shul at 247 N. Breed St. just south of Cesar Chavez Street.  In addition to street parking near the shul, there is a public parking lot at Cesar Chavez and Chicago streets behind the Bank of America.

For reservations, please email Victoria Torres at 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Japanese-American Internment 75th Anniversary Event on February 18

On Saturday, February 18, the Boyle Heights Historical Society is commemorating the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 which ordered the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.  The anniversary of this controversial measure, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, takes on even more meaning in the current political climate. Guest speakers include former California Assembly member George Nakano and Susan Tenorio.

The free event is being held from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m. at the Benjamin Franklin branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, 2200 East First Street in Boyle Heights.

For more information and to reserve a spot, please email Victoria Torres at