Over the past few years, Boyle Heights has emerged as ground zero for the battle over the heart and soul of Los Angeles. As gentrification transforms the rest of LA’s cityscape and sends property values skyrocketing into the stratosphere, the historical Mexican-American community has drawn the battle lines and said ¡no pasarán! But more than a deep-rooted ethnic community, it turns out Boyle Heights holds a very special place in the historical development of Los Angeles. Before the 1960s, it was actually one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the country, with Mexicans, Japanese, African-Americans, Russians, Armenians, Italians, and the largest Jewish community west of Chicago living and working side by side in the neighborhood’s 6.5 square miles.
A new documentary from director Betsy Kalin uncovers this history and documents the neighborhood’s battles with redlining, a lack of political representation, and a massive freeway construction that carved up the neighborhood and led to a mass exodus of residents to suburbs like the San Fernando Valley. Entitled East L.A. Interchange, the non-fiction feature shows how the Jewish residents who remained in the area joined hands with their diverse community and battled for multiculturalism and coalition building in the midst of great upheaval. From there Kalin turns her camera on the present, where the same community steps up to face a new and more nefarious challenges in the form of environmental pollution, broken immigration policies, and of course, gentrification.
To tell her story, Kalin has enlisted a deep roster of Boyle Heights natives including will.i.am and Danny Trejo, who also happens to narrate the documentary. The trailer shows how East L.A. Interchange employs a pretty conventional mix of talking-head interviews, archival material, and street footage to tell the story of a neighborhood that somehow embodies all the contradictions and struggles of America’s urban communities over the last fifty years. We only hope that in 10 years this documentary is viewed as a victorious battle cry and not an elegy for a lost community.
East L.A. Interchange plays on May 22nd and 24th at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. Check out the fest’s website for details. It plays SF DocFest on June 5th and 9th at the Roxie Theater. Get tickets here.