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Tracing the historic margins of Los Angeles

A 'street historian' takes the curious on tours that wind through the immigration patterns of Boyle Heights and Monterey Park. Mickey Cohen on one block, ginseng tea on another.

August 28, 2013|By Kate Linthicum
  • Irit Eliyahu, center, and Don Solomon, right, observe Chinese tea being poured at Wing Hop Fung in Monterey Park during a stop on an Esotouric Bus Adventure immigration tour.
Irit Eliyahu, center, and Don Solomon, right, observe Chinese tea being… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

A tour bus pulled up outside of a sun-baked strip mall in Monterey Park and 30 sightseers stepped out.

They had come to behold Wing Hop Fung, a sprawling tea and herb emporium that moved here several years ago from Chinatown to serve the growing population of Chinese immigrants living in the San Gabriel Valley. With its barrels of dried ginseng and jasmine tea tastings, the store exemplifies the area's "complete transformation" from a one-time white suburb, tour guide Richard Schave explained.

It was the last stop on Schave's bus tour of immigration patterns in Monterey Park and neighboring Boyle Heights. Except for the air conditioned coach, it had little in common with more typical tours of celebrity homes and Hollywood landmarks, promising instead to explore "the hidden histories of L.A.'s melting pot."

Last weekend's expedition included visits to the Breed Street Shul, a Byzantine Revival synagogue built in the 1920s to serve the area's then-blooming Jewish community, and Roosevelt High School, where 40 years later young Chicano activists staged walkouts to protest what they viewed as substandard education for Latinos.

Schave, who wore a fedora hat and carried a gold pocket watch, calls himself a "street historian." Much of the information he shares on his tour is gleaned from interviews with people who live in the neighborhoods.

He delights in telling little known histories, like that of the Molokans, a Christian sect of Russian immigrants that settled in Boyle Heights at the turn of the 20th century, and in highlighting incongruities. A few blocks after pointing out the Boyle Heights apartment where the infamous gangster Mickey Cohen once lived, Schave nodded at a colorful stretch of Cesar E. Chavez Avenue now settled with Latino-owned businesses.

"You can get trans-fat free masa on this block!" he said.

Schave was raised on the Westside but has always preferred the diverse neighborhoods on the city's eastern edge. He fell for Boyle Heights at age 15, when he and some teenage friends were served beers at a Mexican restaurant here.

He gives this tour twice a year with input from his wife, fellow historian Kim Cooper.

Their company, Esotouric Bus Adventures, offers other obscure tours, including one that visits the landmarks of L.A. author Charles Bukowski's life and fiction, and another that traces the final days of Elizabeth Short, the victim in the unsolved 1947 Black Dahlia murder.

The recent Eastside outing started in the downtown arts district, then crossed the Olympic Boulevard bridge, where a group called Mothers of East L.A. held protests in the 1980s to fight a proposal to build a prison in Boyle Heights, Schave explained. He highlights similar histories of activism in the Chinese immigrant communities.

Schave, a committed preservationist, peppered his monologues with insults of local politicians he thinks aren't doing enough to protect the architecture and history of the neighborhoods. As the bus traveled through the Wyvernwood Garden Apartments, a leafy residential community where some residents are fighting a plan to replace it with a dense housing development, Schave raised a fist in the air and shouted: "We are Wyvernwood!"

His audience didn't seem to mind. Tour-goers included out-of-town visitors and locals who said they were drawn by curiosity about the neighborhoods.

Kenneth Cassell, who lives in Michigan but has a vacation home in Long Beach, said he wanted to know more about some of Los Angeles' oldest neighborhoods. "Everything is so modern in L.A.," he said. "You start to go east and the history starts to get really historic."

Others had personal connections.

At Evergreen Memorial Park and Crematory in Boyle Heights (which Cooper nicknamed "nevergreen" because it looks like the lawn is rarely watered), teacher Carey Winograd wandered around with a camera.

"I remember passing here and getting very scared," he said.

Winograd used to drive by the cemetery as a kid in the 1960s on his way to services with his family at the Breed Street Shul. The temple, now boarded up and fortified with razor wire, is one of the only reminders of the Jewish community, which packed up and headed west in the decades after World War II. The neighborhood is now 94% Latino, according to an L.A. Times analysis of census data.

Schave described a similar transformation in Monterey Park, where he gave a tour of El Encanto, a Spanish Colonial villa built in the 1920s that was supposed to be the focal point for a planned community that would rival Beverly Hills. According to Schave, the developer included a racial covenant to keep non-whites out.

The building plan stalled during the Depression. Now, more than 80 years later, El Encanto is surrounded by blocks of businesses that advertise in Chinese.

But not everything has changed, like the Venice Room, a darkly lit lounge in Monterey Park that opened in the 1960s. When Schave and his tour trooped inside, a couple of patrons looked up, then went back to watching a game.

The back room, where patrons can cook their own steaks on an open grill, was decorated with elaborately framed pictures of the Venice canals. The owner is an immigrant from Italy.

"This place has been sealed in amber since 1968," Schave said.

After taking some questions, he told the group there was time for a quick round. Ten minutes, he cautioned, and then it was back on the bus. There was a tea ceremony at Wing Hop Fung waiting.

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

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