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Pico-Union tour traces historical immigration patterns

March 22, 2009|Teresa Watanabe
  • A group walks through the diverse Pico-Union neighborhood of Los Angeles, passing ornate houses and a Gothic Revival-style church. The area was originally developed between 1880 and 1930 as a chic suburb for oil barons and others, including European and Mexican immigrants.
A group walks through the diverse Pico-Union neighborhood of Los Angeles,… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

Within the walls of Angelica Lutheran Church, a rich medley of stories traces the layers of history and ever-shifting demographics of the Pico-Union district of Los Angeles.

Sepia-hued photos show the church's founding congregation of Swedish immigrants, blond and bedecked in flapper fashion of long coats and cloche hats, as they lay the cornerstone for the imposing Gothic Revival building in 1925. Six decades later, Swedish American congregant Evelyn Price offered the first citizenship and English classes to scores of refugees escaping war in El Salvador and Guatemala, and the church housed many of them as part of the city's sanctuary movement, according to the Rev. Carlos Paiva.

Today, the church on South Burlington Avenue continues to embrace the neighborhood's new arrivals while maintaining its original religious traditions and architecture -- handmade stained glass windows, for instance, and elaborate wood carvings of the Last Supper and other motifs. The congregation still holds its Swedish Christmas service, known as Julotta, but also offers services in Spanish, English, Korean and Kanjobal, an indigenous language of Guatemala and Mexico.

Pico-Union's colorful social history and architectural treasures are presented in a new walking tour unveiled Saturday by the Los Angeles Conservancy, a historical preservation organization. The tour marks the conservancy's expanded effort to reach out to the neighborhood's largely Central American community by weaving tales of their immigrant journeys into the area's architectural history.

One of the buildings on the tour morphed from a Methodist church to a hotel to a Central American refugee center. After the 14th Street building was abandoned and taken over by drug addicts and homeless people, a community organization purchased it in 1999. Today, the building houses the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California, which offers education, health services, economic development and leadership training to day laborers and immigrant families.

"The buildings are here as touchstones to the past and present," said Linda Dishman, the conservancy's executive director. "But the important thing is that the stories continue as the buildings become home to new cultural organizations and families."

The Pico-Union district, bordered by Olympic Boulevard, the Harbor Freeway, the Santa Monica Freeway and Hoover Street as defined by the conservancy, is one of the city's most architecturally diverse communities. It was originally developed between 1880 and 1930 as a chic suburb for oil barons and others, including European and Mexican immigrants.

Some of the homes on the tour reflect that early European influence -- particularly the stately mansions on Alvarado Terrace, which were developed by Scottish immigrant Doria Deighton Jones, and on Bonnie Brae Street (Bonnie Brae means "pleasant hill" in Scottish Gaelic).

As conservancy tour guide Annie Laskey led a group down Bonnie Brae, several participants gawked at the enormous homes featuring corner turrets, large porches, stained-glass windows and ornate wooden carvings.

"This fabulous home really does look like it belongs in Disneyland," Laskey said of the Marley-Stone House, a French Chateau-style residence painted lavender and light blue.

As Los Angeles developed railroads and trolley cars to connect the central city with the beaches and beyond, many Pico-Union residents moved west, according to Los Angeles City Councilman Ed Reyes, who represents the district. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the area experienced its biggest demographic shift when the federal government designated Pico-Union as a receiving community for thousands of Central American refugees.

The neighborhood continues to evolve, Reyes says. Following well-established immigration patterns, second and third-generation Salvadoran Americans are leaving Pico-Union for the suburbs. More Korean residents are moving in as the adjacent Koreatown neighborhood expands. And the area is now drawing white yuppies and college students as well, according to Paiva, Angelica Lutheran's pastor.

A mural featured in the tour captures the neighborhood's multicultural mix, portraying the flags of several nations, including the United States, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Greece.

"The issue here is how do we collaborate and share the space we have," Reyes said. "That, to me, is the beauty of this area: the coexistence of communities."

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teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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