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Dusting Off Old Fairfax : New Book Offers a Background of Oil Fields and Airfields for the Los Angeles District, Which Has Mushroomed Into the Largest of Jewish Neighborhoods West of Chicago

November 04, 1990|MATHIS CHAZANOV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Think of the Fairfax District--small shops selling pickles and salami, old folks on bus benches taking in the sun, neat little houses and crowded apartments--and it seems as if it has been there forever.

But it hasn't. Less than a lifetime ago, there were little more than bean fields, oil fields and airfields in the wide open spaces that became the center of Jewish life in Los Angeles.

And, "in the '60s there was a large exodus out of there . . . it was a little bit seedy," said Lynn C. Kronzek, whose book, "Fairfax . . . A Home, A Community, A Way of Life," was published this fall by the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California. In her research for the book, Kronzek dug up some little-known history of the early years.

Because of the many changes in the neighborhood, she found few residents who have been around since the early days, she said.

Among the reminders of the older days that remain are a couple of Irish bars and the 56-year-old Farmers Market, whose owner, A. F. Gilmore Co., has held the land since 1880 and remains one of the area's largest landowners.

Kronzek said that most people used to think of history as the doings of kings and presidents and conquering armies, so hardly anyone bothered to save the records or memorabilia of everyday life.

So the author, who holds a degree in history, relied mostly on archival sources like the municipal files preserved in an annex near Los Angeles City Hall.

There, in a storeroom where researchers wear bibs or full-length aprons to ward off the orange dust of old records, she found the May 27, 1924, petition in which 15 residents asked that the largely empty space on the map known as Sherman, Calif., and RFD (rural free delivery route) No. 10 be annexed to the city of Los Angeles.

Under the rules in force at the time, the petition had to be signed by at least one quarter of the population in the area.

After 14 residents voted in favor and none opposed, the area was included as the Fairfax Addition, a name apparently taken in honor of the Colonial Virginia family whose coat of arms inspired the emblem of Fairfax High School.

The names of the time--Ward, Hole, Hackaday, Lee, Newman, Coak, Lightfoot--gave no sign that Fairfax was to become a center of ethnic life, the largest Jewish neighborhood west of Chicago, she said.

With the opening of the high school in 1924, the construction of new developments and the eventual establishment of the Miracle Mile as an upscale shopping district, the population began to grow.

But vast tracts along Wilshire Boulevard stayed empty for years. So empty that some parcels were used for airfields.

"One could purchase a flight in a World War I Jenny, if you had the courage," one old-timer recalled in the book, which includes a picture of airplanes parked on the site of what is now the May Co. store at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue.

Most Los Angeles Jews lived then on the Eastside, in the neighborhoods of Boyle Heights and City Terrace.

But the Fairfax District offered newer, bigger, more comfortable houses, and the Jewish population started moving west, said Kronzek. She used census data to track the population shifts.

A handful of religious groups were already meeting in private homes when the Etz Jacob congregation built the area's first synagogue in 1932, she said.

During World War II, thousands of servicemen from the East Coast were exposed to the warm weather and other charms of Southern California. Some eventually moved here, and by the late 1940s, Fairfax was well-established as a neighborhood of single-family homes, affordable apartments, synagogues and social and political organizations.

"Really, its heyday was the '50s," Kronzek said. "There was a balance of affluence and Jewish culture. But in the '60s a lot of affluent people moved out, and Fairfax had to deal with a lot more social issues. Now it's coming back and getting very developed."

As for the future, with a large-scale commercial development now proposed for the Gilmore Co.'s Farmers Market property, and the owners of the Park Labrea apartment complex eager to build office buildings and more rental housing, "It's hard to even imagine what it's going to be like," she said.

A former Fairfax resident, Kronzek said she got interested in local history when she and her husband rented a garden apartment at Park Labrea after moving from the Washington, D.C., suburbs.

A chance conversation with an official of the Jewish Historical Society led to the commission to write the book.

"It was a labor of love, but I lived there and it was interesting and it helps you get in touch with your own background," she said.

Also, as a former editor of history books, "It was fun to get a crack at it on my own," she said.

The couple has since moved on to Playa del Rey, where they found quieter streets and ocean air.

Kronzek also found work as a consultant to nonprofit organizations. The Fairfax project netted her only a modest fee.

"It was not a full-time project, but it was all-consuming, and when it was done I made real money again," she said.

Stephen S. Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society, said the 112-page Fairfax booklet, although marred by some typos and fuzzy photographs, is notable because it is probably the first history of a Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles.

"Nothing's been done yet on Boyle Heights or West Adams or any other areas of Jewish settlement," he said.

The society now plans to collect oral histories from former residents of those areas, he said.

"We have to move fast, because those memories are dimming or, unfortunately, passing away," he said. "At least on Fairfax we have something (left) to celebrate."

The booklet can be purchased at the Jewish Historical Society offices at 6399 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 502, for $11.95 or by mail for $13.95.

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