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A landmark effort to save forgotten historic sites

An attorney's saving of a Jewish site in Boyle Heights may lead to a survey aimed at preventing inadvertent destruction of city's past.

April 02, 2007|Charles Proctor | Times Staff Writer

The Vladeck Center, where Los Angeles' Jewish community once gathered to form labor unions and teach Yiddish, sits in a transformed neighborhood with Mexican restaurants and murals of mariachi musicians and Spanish conquistadors.

The two-story structure, a touchstone of Jewish culture and history in the middle of Boyle Heights, bears cracked windows and chipped, faded blue paint.

Three years ago, it was slated for demolition to make way for the new Hollenbeck police station. But now it may receive a face-lift, thanks to a million-dollar settlement between a local lawyer and the city of Los Angeles.

Miguel Flores, who lives down the block from the Vladeck Center, sued the city in January 2006, alleging it had violated the California Environmental Quality Act. The city was supposed to have conducted a review of the impact the Hollenbeck station would have on the neighborhood before it began the project; Flores contended the city did the review only after work was underway.

Faced with Flores' lawsuit, the city agreed to build the station without demolishing the center. The settlement, which the City Council approved unanimously last week, will put $1 million toward acquiring and restoring the center and $50,000 toward several community groups of Flores' choosing in Boyle Heights. The money will come from Measure Q, a public safety bond passed by voters in 2002.

Flores, who said he would not reap any money from the settlement except to recoup work expenses, said he hoped the case teaches the city it cannot always have its way in poor, predominantly minority communities that might lack the political muscle to fight.

"This project set a dangerous precedent for the city as a whole," said Flores, who works at a Pasadena law firm. "I wanted to send a message that this will not be tolerated for future developments and that they have to follow the law."

Joseph Avila, chief of staff for Councilman Jose Huizar, whose district includes Boyle Heights, said the city made an "honest mistake." The environmental law creates "a very complex process, and someone didn't dot the I and cross the T properly in the sequence of activities," he said. "Obviously, [Flores] had a valid enough point that we had to settle."

The dust-up over the Vladeck Center isn't the first time Jewish landmarks on the city's Eastside have been threatened -- or worse -- by development. Last year, for instance, the decades-old Soto-Michigan Jewish Community Center in Boyle Heights was razed, without notice to the community, to erect a new Social Security Administration building, a move that prompted outrage from Jewish activists.

The destruction of the Soto-Michigan center and the near-leveling of the Vladeck Center led Huizar to introduce a motion last month to survey all the historical landmarks in the city, starting in Boyle Heights.

"A lot of people said, 'My gosh, why would we do that?' " Avila said about the Soto-Michigan center incident. "Well, sometimes people get an instruction, and they don't know what's a historical building and what isn't."

The survey, he said, should solve that.

Buildings of importance to the Jewish community are scattered across Boyle Heights, a testament to the estimated 75,000 Jews who lived there from the 1920s to the 1950s.

The Vladeck Center -- named for Baruch Charney Vladeck, founder of the Jewish Labor Committee -- was built in the 1940s and served as a Yiddish school and gathering point for labor unions, an area of common ground for the neighborhoods' Jewish population and its then-fledgling Latino one.

During those decades, Jewish and Latino women in Boyle Heights who worked side by side in fruit canning factories commiserated over the peach fuzz clinging to their clothes, said Stephen Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California. Notes from early meetings of the painters union were in Yiddish and later meetings were documented in Spanish, a reflection of the region's rapidly growing Latino population.

The Vladeck Center "ultimately built coalitions between the Jewish community and the Latino community," Sass said. "It was this laboratory for what we call multiethnic and multicultural relations."

More than 50 years later, when the city's plans to build the new police station threatened to eliminate the center, a similar coalition of Jewish labor and Latino neighborhood groups rallied to save it.

"We didn't want subsequent generations to not know what happened in this community as far as labor unions are concerned," said Cookie Lommel, executive director of the Western region of the Jewish Labor Committee.

Flores, whose family immigrated to Boyle Heights from Mexico when he was 5, filed the suit after he learned the city was going to acquire and demolish the center and several apartment houses to make way for the police station. Flores said he supported building a new police station but took issue with the way the city did it.

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