Boyle Heights -- Before becoming involved with historic preservation efforts, Vivian Escalante was already part of what she called a “vintage world” - swing dancing, classic cars, vintage fashion styling for masculine women and men.
So when she joined a small group that helped turn the Black Cat restaurant in Silver Lake into LA Historic-Cultural Monument No. 939, “It was just meant to be,” she said.
She then turned her attention to Boyle Heights after moving back there in 2012, and joined the fight to save the historic R building and Auditorium at her alma mater, Roosevelt High School.
“LAUSD during their many community meetings shared the vision of their modernization project, yet never wanted to share or mention that it would include the demolition,” Escalante said, “nor did they ever mention that they also had an Alternative II, which could have been a win-win situation for our community.”
Those buildings ended up being demolished in the Autumn of 2018. But the Committee To Defend Roosevelt nonetheless lived on, and became the Boyle Heights Community Partners - of which Escalante is president and CEO. The organization is set to become a 501(c)(3) in 2021.
“Demolition of historic places are more frequent in underserved communities such as Boyle Heights,” Escalante said.
As a member of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council, Escalante also created the committee "Historic Preservation Committee.” She was also voted Vice President of the Boyle Heights Historical Society in 2019.
In 2020, she helped submit two high-profile nominations for Historic Cultural Monuments to the Office of Historic Resources: The International Institute on Boyle Avenue, and Otomisan Japanese Restaurant on East 1st Street. Both nominations are being contested by the buildings owners.
We asked her a few questions about historical preservation.
What is something about history in Boyle Heights that many people may not know?
That East First Street was predominantly Japanese from Boyle Heights to Little Tokyo. When I was in high school, I worked at a 5-10-25¢ Store just across from Al & Bea’s. It was Japanese owned, and 80% of by best friends from Roosevelt High School are Japanese, and we are still in touch. I was in Student Council in High School, as a Girl Athletics Coordinator. Many of my other friends were black, Chinese, Mexican and Russian.
Most are clueless that we had a large group of Russians living here, and many Chinese that still own businesses here, as do the Japanese and Jewish.
What's the biggest challenge for historical preservation in Boyle Heights?
The demolition of our historic Roosevelt High School's R Building and Auditorium, which is an example of erasing the cultural and long standing history of those that attend, and the many events that took place, like the 1968 Blow-outs/Walkouts, which you can't really explain if the very school where it took place is gone.
The demolition of our historic German Hospital, the negligence and lack of accountability from L.A. Department of Building and Safety and the others involved, especially our new Councilmember Kevin de Leon and his new staff.
[Editor’s note: The old Deutsches Hospital on 443 S. Soto St. was demolished sometime around Dec. 12, despite a request to stay the demolition because there was an interested buyer, according to David Silvas, who is Vice President of the Boyle Heights Community Partners and a member of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council. A petition claims the demolition raised “ongoing dust clouds and particulate matter.”]
That most stakeholders are tenants, and are not invested. Therefore historic preservation isn't as important to them. And many come from other countries. For them, historic places are not as pleasing. Therefore they support the cookie-cutter new development. They didn't grow up here, and do not understand our valuable rich history.
Some building owners object when their property becomes a Cultural-Historic monument, since it limits their property's value for development. Is there a way for the preservation process to account for that?
Of course. Here are just a few reasons why historic preservation is important:
- Preservation connects us to specific times, places, and events that were significant by milestones in our collective past. Sometimes one or two historic buildings can serve to define a community.
- Historic preservation is the visual and tangible conservation of cultural identity. In addition to solidifying a community's past, preservation can help strengthen a community's future.
- Historic preservation strengthens neighborhoods.
- Historical homes are aesthetically pleasing, with unmatched architecture.
- Preservation encourages local economic growth
- Preservation conserves natural resources
- Historic preservation will increase the value of my home or property. Most don't realize this important fact.
- Many property owners have lost touch with the value of what their historic place can offer, and should be honored to have such a place to preserve and continue with the legacy of our history. Why is it that so many visit European countries for their rich history, and historic preservation in their own backyards is not as important?
What are your next projects for preservation? If you haven't decided, what are you looking for in the next project?
We want to have a summit to help educate our local government that represent us (L.A. City Councilmember Kevin de Leon, State Assembly Miguel Santiago, State Senator Maria Elena Durazo and U.S. House Rep. Jimmy Gomez), as they have shown that they do not know anything about historic preservation. So when Scott Weiner is creating bills for towering market rate apartments, our leaders don't know how to rebut it, nor do they understand the value of homes for families.
It's in their best interests to create healthier homes for healthier communities, where families and their children have a safe place to live and play, and where families can gather together and have a barbecue. These are things that you can not do in apartments, especially for children. And why aren't we creating newer communities outside of Los Angeles, instead of squeezing far too many people into what little space we currently have?
We are currently working on five Historical-Cultural Monuments, just to name a few. All of these places are so important to everything Boyle Heights, and should be treated as such.
We have several other projects. Our fundraising campaigns will begin early in 2021.