Organizing and Redlining

This blog post is the first in a series of posts that I’ve titled Red Boyle Heights. The series will focus on people and events in and around the community from the mid-1920s to the late 1930s. The Red refers to two unique aspects related to Boyle Heights during that era.

In the 1920s and ‘30s, Boyle Heights was home to a robust, left-wing political scene. But during that period Los Angeles newspapers and law enforcement officials continually viewed Boyle Heights as the city’s stronghold for subversive “Red” politics.

Second, during the 1930s a New Deal program to assess home loan risks used a redlining map to indicate undesirable, high-risk neighborhoods. Largely because of its multi-ethnic makeup, Boyle Heights, and its unincorporated L.A. County neighbor of East Los Angeles, was colored entirely red. This will be covered a little further later in this post.

The Jewish enclave that thrived in Boyle Heights from the late 1910s until the end of WWII was a diverse and vibrant working-class community. While most Jewish residents were not self-described communists or Marxists, there still prevailed a sense of community collectivism that supported progressive ideals like labor reforms, worker’s unions, racial justice, equal rights, cooperative enterprises, and government relief for the needy.

But those who were involved in the insurgency movements against the Russian tsars brought with them experiences in organized insurrections and a Marxist vision of a more just and fair society through revolutionary change. This first post will provide a brief overview of how Boyle Heights came to be, for a period, Red Boyle Heights.

Boyle Heights map published in the Eastside Journal, Sept. 19, 1938. The white rectangle to the right is Evergreen Cemetery. Courtesy of

Beginning in the late 1700s during the autocratic regime of the Russian tsars, most Russian Jews were confined to the impoverished western region of the Russian empire called the Pale of Settlement. Russian Jews living in the Pale were primarily Yiddish-speaking, Ashkenazi Jews living in small towns called shtetls. In the late 1880s, many of their shtetls were targeted with a series of violent and deadly pogroms carried out by anti-Semitic mobs, including by Russian authorities.

In response to the pogroms, East European Jewish intellectuals who were attracted to Marxism and other forms of socialism allied with the region’s Jewish working class in 1897 to create an insurgent movement called the General Jewish Labor Union of Lithuania, Poland, and Russia, or also known as the Jewish Revolutionary Labor Bund. The strategy of the Bund was to coordinate public protests and organize worker’s strikes among Russian Jews, as well as recruit Bund members for clandestine activities like operating printing presses, setting up self-defense committees, sabotaging communication lines, or helping comrades escape from jail.

The aim of the Bundists was to mobilize the collective power of Jewish labor as part of a wider movement within Russia to establish a class-free Marxist society where workers would “share ownership of the means of production.” They also wanted to live in a society where the nation’s various ethnic groups could openly practice their ancestral traditions and rituals rather than relinquish them through assimilation. However, after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the Russian Communist Party declared the true liberation of the proletariat could only be achieved by a Russian-coordinated global revolution that would transcend class and nationalism.

After the failure of the Russian Revolution in 1905, the wave of Jews leaving the pogroms and poverty in Eastern Europe only increased. For those involved with the Bund, it was also a chance to escape a prison sentence or a possible execution. Arriving in America, many of these immigrants eventually settled in the larger cities along the East Coast. Work was usually laborious long days for piecemeal wages in unregulated mills, factories, and sweatshops that included consumption-plagued workers and the routine use of child labor.

But these immigrants also organized and took to the streets to protest. Veterans of the European labor uprisings, these Jewish immigrants would eventually establish the beginnings of the socialist-oriented, Yiddish-based trade unions and mutual-aid collectives that would contribute radical potency to the American labor and free-speech movements in the first half of the 20th century. The emerging Yiddishism advocated by most Jewish progressives at the time generally referred to a non-religious, socialist-oriented expression of Jewish identity, with the Yiddish language and East European folkways of the Jewish working class as the common bond among diasporic Jews.

A notable participant in the movement’s early years was garment worker Clara Lemlich Shavelson, who was born in Ukraine in 1886 and arrived in New York City in 1903. Appalled by the working conditions in the garment industry, she joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), an industrial union founded in 1900 by Russian socialists working in the so-called needle trade. Eventually becoming an influential organizer and consumer advocate in the New York City area, Shavelson was also a long-time member of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA).   

In 1909, Shavelson gave an impassioned speech in her native Yiddish in front of a multi-ethnic group of union cohorts, calling for a strike and demanding changes in working conditions. The next day almost 20,000 workers filled the streets of New York City, marking the beginning of a two-month-long strike. Known today as the Uprising of the 20,000, it’s seen by labor historians as one of the key events that helped radicalize the American labor movement.

Clara Lemlich Shavelson around 1910. In 1913 she married union activist Joe Shavelson who died in 1951. The photo of young Shavelson is from the New York Times obituary series, Overlooked No More (2018). On the right is Shavelson on the grounds of the Jewish Home for the Aged in Boyle Heights in 1968. Courtesy of the CUNY Digital Timeline Project – Clara Lemlich Shavelson 1886 – 1982.

In 1968, at the age of 82, Shavelson moved to Los Angeles to be a resident of the Jewish Home for the Aged in Boyle Heights. During her time there she encouraged the nursing staff to unionize and convinced the facility not to purchase grapes as a show of support for the United Farm Workers Union. In 1974 the Jewish Home for the Aged relocated to a new facility in the San Fernando Valley suburb of Reseda where Shavelson died in 1982.

Around the time of the Uprising strike, a wave of East European Jews from the East Coast was moving to Los Angeles for better economic opportunities. And for those suffering from tuberculosis, improved health under warm, sunny skies. But the image of Southern California as a balmy, health-restoring paradise of wide-open spaces (in subdivided lots ready for purchase!) was mostly a product of an aggressive booster campaign by Los Angeles business promoters. The goal was to attract tourists, investors, and skilled tradesmen, but they were also eager to attract a large pool of cheap, union-busting labor to maintain the city’s open shop (no unions) status. The first East European Jews to arrive in Los Angeles, some as early as the late 1880s, mostly settled around Central Avenue and Temple Street in the downtown area. But by the 1910s, succeeding waves started to move to Boyle Heights and the nearby unincorporated hills of City Terrace.

In the Los Angeles Herald issue of 6/3/1906, Boyle Heights was was still promoted as a “Favorite Residence” for the city’s affluent class. A photo featured the Boyle Heights home of Canadian-born George Chaffey,. In the 1880s Chaffey and his brother William founded the San Bernardino County communities of Etiwanda, Upland, and Ontario (named after his home province) and also helped establish Chaffey College. Courtesy of the California Digital Newspaper Collection

The Boyle Heights area was originally populated by the Gabrielino Tongva people and later named Paredón Blanco (White Bluff) by the Rubio and Lopez families during the Mexican period (1821-1846).  In 1875 Boyle Heights was officially established by a group of investors headed by William Workman. The name was in honor of Workman’s Irish-born father-in-law Andrew Boyle, who purchased the land in 1858 from the widow of Esteban López. With an elevated view of the emerging downtown area from its eastside bluff near the Los Angeles River, Boyle Heights eventually developed into a popular suburb for the city’s newly affluent class. These prosperous residents were originally migrant mid-westerners, but a few of the capitalists who also helped develop Boyle Heights included several Jewish immigrants, mostly from Germany, who became important members of the city’s business and philanthropic establishment.

When the industrial district just across the Los Angeles River began to expand during the 1910s, these affluent residents started moving to newer suburbs throughout the Los Angeles region. Excluded from these new streetcar suburbs because of racially restrictive covenants mandated by homeowners’ associations, other city residents who were regarded as racially non-white or “too ethnic” viewed Boyle Heights as a place where they could rent or buy a small modest home. Additionally, their jobs were also nearby because it was close to the industrial corridor. Consequently, these factors made sure that through the mid-century, Boyle Heights would be the most multi-racial, multi-faith immigrant neighborhood in Los Angeles, home to working-class Russians, Armenians, Poles, Ukrainians, Italians, Greeks, Basques, Mexicans, Blacks, and Japanese.

1939 area description by the Home Owners Loan Corporation for Boyle Heights. Courtesy of the website, Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America.


In 1933, the banking and mortgage lending industry helped establish the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) under the federal government’s New Deal program. The HOLC used a color-coded map system to assess mortgage-lending risks in residential areas, with green best, blue desirable, yellow in decline, and red hazardous. This New Deal program simply codified the commonly used industry practice of using race and ethnicity as crucial factors in determining neighborhood appraisals and investment risks.

In 1939, a HOLC risk report described Boyle Heights as “honeycombed with diverse and subversive racial elements,” and “doubted if there is a single block in the area which does not contain detrimental racial elements,” thus compelling HOLC to redline the entire neighborhood. In contrast, the city of Beverly Hills was rated green and approvingly highlighted for its “homogeneous population,” while assuring prospective home buyers that “the area is highly protected by deed restrictions.”

1939 HOLC map indicating levels of loan risks in residential areas throughout the Los Angeles basin. Boyle Heights and the unincorporated L.A. County area of East Los Angeles (Boyle Heights is to the left of the straight black line) are within the blue circle I added. Courtesy of the website, Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America.

As previously mentioned, East European Jewish immigrants started moving to Boyle Heights in larger numbers during the 1910s, making them the single largest immigrant group in the multi-ethnic neighborhood, but at 40% they never comprised the majority population. Establishing a significant cultural and commercial presence centered around the Brooklyn Avenue corridor by the early 1920s, Boyle Heights would be home to the largest Jewish suburb west of Chicago until the end of WWII. 

Among the many East European arrivals to Boyle Heights were former Bundists and other political leftists – communists, socialists, anarchists, and Labor Zionists. As veterans of the insurrection movements in Russia, as well as participants in the East Coast labor unions and the suffrage movement, many were still committed to the promise of revolutionary possibilities. Their activism created a robust and diverse leftist movement in Boyle Heights that helped drive many of the community’s cultural and political enterprises, including organizing several Yiddish-based trade unions and cooperatives initially established on the East Coast.

Workmen’s Circle School, class of 1934-1935, at 918 Evergreen Avenue. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

One of the most significant Yiddish-based organizations was the Workmen’s Circle (Arbiter Ring in Yiddish), a socialist collective formed by Bund veterans in New York City in 1900. Known for providing the families of the unemployed with financial assistance and burial services, they also sponsored and operated folkshuls – community centers for a variety of socialist-aligned activities like lectures, reading groups, benefit dances, and most commonly, after-school programs. Women were welcomed to become full members, and adherence to a particular school of socialist thought was not mandatory.

In 1908, a charter was granted to establish the first Los Angeles branch of the Workmen’s Circle (WC) in the downtown area. By the 1910s the WC relocated to Boyle Heights, first to a building at Brooklyn and Soto Streets, then to a house on Evergreen Avenue in 1930. They eventually moved to the newly built Vladeck Center at 126 N. St. Louis Street, where several leftist organizations had already been meeting when the lot was occupied by a former phone company building. Dedicated in 1940, the new center was named for former Bundist and union organizer Baruch Charney Vladeck (1886 – 1938) a long-time manager of the socialist-oriented Yiddish newspaper, The Jewish Daily Forward.  

The former Valdeck Center in Boyle Heights, established by socialist members of the local Workmen’s Circle in 1940, as it looks today. Although most of the building was demolished in the mid-2000s, a coalition of Latinx residents and Jewish preservation activists were able to preserve approximately 20 feet of the original front portion of the building. Photo courtesy of Google Maps.    

Another school of socialist thought in the early leftist scene in Boyle Heights was advocated by the Labor Zionists, who sought to fuse their goal for a Jewish state with their Marxist ideals. In 1906, a group of Labor Zionists formed one of the first Yiddish-based organizations in Los Angeles called the National Radical Club. First established in downtown Los Angeles, they eventually relocated to a large house at 420 N. Soto Street in Boyle Heights in 1920. In 1923 the house was replaced with a newly built community center that was known as the Soto Street Folkshul, becoming a local hub for a variety of socialist and progressive organizations. By the late 1950s, it functioned as the Carpenters and Painters Union Hall for Mexican American workers up until the mid-1980s.

Top photo is the original structure for the Soto Street Folkshul at 420 N. Soto Street. Photo is from the digital copy of the Yiddish monthly, Zunland, September 1925, courtesy of the Internet Archive website. The photo below is the current view of the building that replaced the old structure in 1923. Courtesy of Google Maps.

But all these sundry socialist organizations, as well as competition for valuable but limited organizational resources, were also causes for division. Should the movement be driven by left-wing nationalists working towards socialist-oriented state reforms? Or by Marxist internationalists agitating for a global revolution that transcends the nation-state? At the intersection of political ideals, identity, and even support, or disillusionment with Soviet-style socialism, these conflicting, but sometimes overlapping ideological views would be a source of intense political factions and fierce arguments among Jewish radicals throughout the 1920s and 30s. And the Boyle Heights leftist scene would reflect that tumultuous period. Spirited debates within the Jewish left, usually in Yiddish, were common events that attracted attentive crowds on the street corners and in the trade union halls surrounding the Brooklyn Avenue corridor, the “Main Street” for Jewish Boyle Heights. 

But their zeal for political activism would be matched by some of the most powerful and well-organized business interests in Los Angeles. Joining city government allies, the police department, and the powerful Los Angeles Times, they fiercely fought to maintain Los Angeles as one of the most entrenched “open-shop towns” (no unions) of any major city in the country. During the depression years, it resulted in violent actions against eastside leftists by the LAPD’s notorious Red Squad unit on the tear gas-filled streets of Boyle Heights and the downtown Los Angeles Plaza area. Some of these events will be highlighted in upcoming blog posts.