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Demolition of Cultural Icon Spurs Anger

Civic leaders express dismay after the former Soto-Michigan Jewish Community Center in Boyle Heights is razed without notice.

March 16, 2006|Lynn Doan | Times Staff Writer

Picture the scene as members of the Jewish Historical Society, making their monthly bus tour of Boyle Heights, rolled up to one of the highlights: the former Soto-Michigan Jewish Community Center, a revolutionary hub of multiculturalism in the 1950s.

Imagine their surprise when, instead of the Raphael Soriano-designed landmark, they pulled up in front of an empty lot.

The center, a beloved remnant of Jewish life on the city's Eastside, had been razed -- without any warning to community leaders -- to make way for a new Social Security Administration building.

"Obviously it was very disturbing, very distressing," said Steve Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society. "We were all shocked."

The discovery saddened and outraged Jewish and neighborhood leaders and touched off a round of finger-pointing. Councilman Jose Huizar, whose district includes Boyle Heights, called for an investigation.

"We were all pretty shocked that it just came down without us knowing," said Robert Jimenez, president of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council. He said the council received numerous calls from distraught residents as news of the demolition spread.

"We usually get notice about these things," Jimenez said.

City and federal officials are blaming each other for the lack of notice.

The city routinely gives notice of demolition projects to neighborhood groups. But because the federal government is leasing the land, Bob Steinbach of the city's Building and Safety Department said, local officials thought the city had no jurisdiction over the project.

But Peter Zepeda of the federal General Services Administration said the city should have required the property owner and the developer to go through the city's usual demolition permit process.

"Just because they are leasing to a federal agency doesn't mean they're exempt," he said.

Zepeda added that his office had notified Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's staff that the Social Security branch in Boyle Heights was looking for a new location but acknowledged that he did not provide further details or follow up when federal officials settled on the privately owned community center site.

Federal officials signed a 20-year lease on the site, and the property's owner then hired a developer to prepare the land and construct the new building.

Normally, construction projects must get city approvals, at the very least building permits and sometimes zoning changes and other reviews. But because this was a federal project, city officials thought they had no jurisdiction.

Steve Doctor, a San Diego-based general contractor responsible for the demolition, did not return telephone calls Wednesday.

The Soto-Michigan Jewish Community Center was built in 1934 by the Federation for Jewish Charities to serve a blossoming Jewish community in Boyle Heights. Built in the architectural style known as California Modernism, the two-story building provided space for children's and teenagers' activities.

After World War II, Boyle Heights began changing into a more diverse community. Japanese, Jewish, Mexican and African American residents came to the center to celebrate events together.

The center closed in 1959 and the building was sold. Today, Boyle Heights is predominantly Latino, but a few traces of its Jewish roots remain.

"The center was a place where multicultural politics began," said Aaron Paley, president of Community Arts Resources in Los Angeles. "This demolition isn't just an issue about Jewish history. It's an issue for the entire neighborhood."

Despite its historical and cultural significance, the center was never named a historic landmark -- a label that might have helped prevent its demolition.

Huizar said he was "deeply concerned" that the building was razed without his knowledge.

"Boyle Heights is a unique community with many historically significant sites and landmarks," Huizar said in a written statement.

"Adequate and appropriate community outreach should be conducted when projects are proposed."

Meanwhile, site preparation for the new building continues. On Wednesday, demolition workers were hauling away loads of concrete and dirt.

"The community has been very disrespected," Sass said.

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