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A New Name Can't Change a Street's History : GEORGE RAMOS

September 20, 1993

Richard Workman has a personal stake in the history of Boyle Heights because the Eastside community's history is intertwined with his family's. His forebears gave Boyle Heights its name, built its first home, subdivided it for residential development and donated land for its first schools, parks and churches.

They also helped turn Los Angeles into a major business and transportation hub in the late 1800s.

So he wasn't surprised when I called the other day. "You're calling about the proposal to change the name of Brooklyn Avenue to Cesar Chavez Avenue, aren't you?" he correctly surmised.


History is at the center of the discussion over whether the street's time-honored name should be changed to Cesar E. Chavez Avenue to honor the leader of the United Farm Workers union, who died April 23.

At a hearing last week at Hollenbeck Junior High School, supporters of the name change said Chavez would be judged as a major 20th-Century figure and a symbol in the struggle for equality for all Americans, not just Latinos. Councilman Richard Alatorre, who grew up near Brooklyn Avenue, said: "I think (the proposal) is proper not only to recognize him as a labor leader . . . but also for the sacrifices he made for a cause that he believed in."

Outnumbered, the opponents--who said the name change would be too costly for small merchants--countered that Boyle Heights' place in history as the onetime center of Los Angeles' Jewish community was at stake if the change went through. "Don't obliterate" L.A.'s Jewish history, urged Stephen Sass of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California.

But I wanted a different prospective, so I called Workman, a teacher of social studies and history. I could detect the pride in his voice as he talked about Boyle Heights and his grandfather, William H. Workman.

Coming to Los Angeles from Missouri with his father in 1854 as a boy, Grandpa Workman found himself in an L.A. that was a tiny pueblo. When he died in 1918, the grandson said, the region had more than 1 million residents.

Workman, who served for a time as L.A.'s mayor and city treasurer, was a giant in spurring L.A.'s growth. He helped import water from the north. He devised a streetcar system for the Eastside. "He was a man who really saw tomorrow in Los Angeles," Richard Workman said.

The development of Boyle Heights may be his greatest accomplishment. In 1876, he began subdividing the bluffs east of the L.A. River. Married to the daughter of Andrew A. Boyle, who built the first brick home on the bluffs, William Workman turned the area into L.A.'s first suburb. He called it Boyle Heights in honor of his father-in-law.

To attract newcomers from the Midwest and East, he named some of the streets after places familiar to them. There was Chicago Street, St. Louis Street, Cincinnati Street, Michigan Avenue, Indiana Street, Brooklyn Avenue.

He persuaded the widow of a prominent businessman, Edward Hollenbeck, to donate land for a park, which still exists today and carries the family name.

But after William Workman's death, prominent Jewish leaders in Boyle Heights joined others in pushing for name changes. The German-sounding name Hollenbeck, for instance, gained favor over the name Boyle, of Irish Catholic stock.

So, the police station became the Hollenbeck station. A school for those preparing for high school became Hollenbeck Junior High. The library on Chicago Street was named for Benjamin Franklin--a decision that still has Workman family members scratching their heads.

But there would be no Hollenbeck Heights. The main opponent of that was Arthur Boyle Workman, a brother of William Workman, who also was a civic leader. As the president of the L.A. City Council, he saw to it that the family name would stick.

"He wasn't about to change that," Richard Workman said.


History can be seen differently, depending on one's point of view. No doubt, William H. Workman had his share of enemies who didn't believe in his vision of Boyle Heights or L.A.

As the saga of this community shows, changing the name of important places and institutions is part of L.A.'s history--one that heralds those who stopped momentarily to leave their mark in time. Renaming the street for Cesar Chavez, which is a wonderful idea, is in keeping with that tradition.

The history of La Brooklyn will always be the same regardless of its name.

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