Editor’s note: Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board member Rudy Martinez returns again with another multi-part post on the fascinating history of Boyle Heights and the east side, covering the development of what evolved into today’s Cedar-Sinai Medical Center. We start with this first installment about the East Los Angeles location of the Kaspare Cohn Hospital, which became Laguna Park and then, fifty years ago this month, Ruben Salazar Park, in honor of the Latino journalist killed by a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy during the Chicano Moratorium protests of 1970. Each Tuesday, we’ll continue with Rudy’s excellent telling of the history of the Cohn and Mt. Sinai facilities as essential to the Jewish presence in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles for much of the 20th century. – Paul R. Spitzzeri
Today, most people in Los Angeles might have at least a passing familiarity with the renowned Cedars-Sinai Medical Center which has been operating (in both meanings of the word) in west Los Angeles since 1955. Initially established for the Jewish residents of Los Angeles as the Kaspare Cohn Hospital, it began providing health care to tuberculosis patients in a Victorian-era house in Echo Park in 1902, before moving to a newly built, and a then-impressive two-story medical facility, in 1910.
But the not-for-profit facility, and the first hospital under Jewish auspices in Southern California, was not built at the current Cedars-Sinai location, but instead, in East Los Angeles. Specifically, this was on a parcel on Whittier Boulevard that eventually became Ruben Salazar Park, a Los Angeles County park recognized today for its own historic legacy from events that took place a half-century ago this summer. But it took decades, and the eventual consolidation with another former eastside Jewish hospital, and its nearby clinic in Boyle Heights, before the Kaspare Cohn Hospital would emerge as the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
Located at 3864 Whittier Boulevard, Ruben Salazar Park, or just Salazar Park to eastside residents, sits one block east of Indiana Street, which divides the city’s Boyle Heights neighborhood from the unincorporated county area of East Los Angeles. On August 29, 1970, the park was the site of a violent clash between anti-war protesters and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies at the conclusion of a protest march known as the Chicano Moratorium, the largest protest march in the history of East Los Angeles.
Later that day, Ruben Salazar, the award-winning Los Angeles Times columnist, and news director for the local Spanish-language TV station, KMEX, was killed instantly while sitting inside the Silver Dollar Bar on Whittier Boulevard when he was struck in the head by a tear gas canister fired by a deputy who took a position just outside the curtained doorway of the tavern. A coroner’s inquest ruled that Salazar “died at the hands of another;” however, neither the deputy who fired the tear gas canister nor anyone from the Sheriff’s Department was held criminally responsible. In September, just after Salazar’s killing, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to honor him by renaming what was then Laguna Park, Ruben Salazar Park.
The preceding illustrates that the history of a place is not always fully recalled in an old structure or a monument, but is sometimes found buried beneath layers of time, so to speak. While the events surrounding the historic 1970 Chicano Moratorium at Salazar Park are generally well-known, this post focuses on peeling back the years to the early part of the 20th century, focusing on the lesser-known history of that land. A place that claims a historic legacy for both the Jewish and Mexican American communities of Los Angeles, while also serving as one of the principal sites where the early development of modern medicine and institutional healthcare in Los Angeles emerged. So, in the words of a popular eastside musical refrain, let’s take a trip down Whittier Boulevard.
During the early twentieth century, numerous ailing consumptives—a common term for people with tuberculosis at the time—were leaving parts of the midwest and east coast for the supposedly healing climate and warm sunshine of Los Angeles, a reputation largely perpetuated by local booster literature. The more affluent could afford lengthy stays at “consumptive sanatoriums” but impoverished immigrants and the working poor, which included Jewish transplants from the east coast, could only rely on the meager resources of the city’s dedicated, but somewhat haphazard, network of charity agencies, leaving many to die alone with little care.
In 1901, former El Monte resident, Jacob Schlesinger was the president of the Hebrew Benevolent Society of Los Angeles, and also a member of a cadre of successful and mostly German-born Jewish merchants and bankers who supported several local Jewish-aid institutions. Wealthy and often integrated into Los Angeles upper society, they generally did not deal directly with the poor, Yiddish-speaking eastern-European Jewish immigrants arriving in Los Angeles except through their philanthropic support. But Schlesinger decided it was time for the city’s elite Jewish families to establish a sanatorium for the destitute consumptives that were overwhelming the local charity institutions.
He found a sympathetic ear in that of Kaspare Cohn, president of the Kaspare Cohn Commercial and Savings Bank, a downtown institution that is now Union Bank. Born in Loebau, Prussia (now Lubawa, Poland) in 1839, Cohn arrived in Los Angeles in the late 1850s. One prominent example of his many business endeavors was the purchase of the sprawling ranch property of Italian immigrant Alessandro Repetto in 1886. With several other prominent Jewish investors, including Harris Newmark (his cousin), and Isaias W. Hellman, one of the founders of Boyle Heights, they developed the area into the town of Newmark, later changing the name to Montebello.
Schlesinger’s mandate was to establish a no-charge sanatorium for consumptives, supported entirely by ongoing contributions from the city’s Jewish community. In 1902, Kaspare Cohn bought a two-story house in the Angelino Heights tract at 1443 Carroll Avenue, a street now renowned for its beautiful row of restored Victorian-era houses, and donated it to the Hebrew Benevolent Society of Los Angeles for the proposed sanatorium. The house was already occupied by the Wooley Sanatorium, which advertised “for treatment and cure in ten days of Opium, Morphine, Cocaine, Whisky, and similar habits.”
Named the Kaspare Cohn Hospital, the facility was dedicated on September 21, 1902, with 12 beds, two nurses, and two rotating doctors. But two years later, nearby residents started complaining about the potentially infectious patients convalescing in their neighborhood. On May 4, 1904, the Los Angeles Times reported about a city council-approved ordinance prohibiting the “maintenance of hospitals with patients suffering from contagious or infectious diseases, except in a 200-acre tract of a hill in Elysian Park. The ordinance was primarily aimed at the Kaspare Cohn Hospital, a benevolent institution maintained by charitable Hebrews.” The “200-acre tract” referred to the Barlow Sanatorium, which also opened in 1902 in Chavez Ravine. By 1905 the Kaspare Cohn Hospital arranged to have its tuberculosis patients transferred to the Barlow Sanatorium while it continued to operate as a general hospital.