LOS ANGELES, March 22 (JTA) — Someone has demolished a significant part of Los Angeles Jewish history — and the unwitting culprit is Uncle Sam. The Soto-Michigan Jewish Community Center, the focal point of the Jewish community’s social and political life in the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles from the 1920s to the late 1950s, has disappeared under the wrecking ball. Aaron Paley, president of Community Arts Resources, was leading a Jewish heritage tour of Boyle Heights earlier this month when he was shocked to find an empty, bulldozed parcel of land in place of the two-story building. The JCC not only served Boyle Heights when it was the liveliest “shtetl” in Los Angeles, it also was an architectural landmark. It was designed by Raphael Soriano, a Sephardi Jew from Rhodes, who defined the architectural style known as “California modernism,” characterized by the innovative use of prefabricated steel and aluminum. How could a 10,000-square-foot complex disappear practically overnight, without municipal authorities, neighborhood organizations, conservancy groups and local legislators knowing about it? No structure in the city can be demolished without a permit from the Department of Building and Safety, but an initial search by an official turned up no such permit. However, further research revealed that the site had been leased by the United States government to construct a new Social Security office building. Federal projects are exempt from local requirements, such as obtaining a demolition permit or notifying neighborhood residents and officials. The unannounced federal acquisition blindsided not only the Boyle Heights Neighbors Organization and civic groups like the Los Angeles Conservancy, but even the office of City Councilman Jose Huizar, which is notified of any building changes in its district. Huizar is demanding an investigation of the transaction by municipal authorities. No one was more shocked at the demolition than renowned architectural photographer Julius Shulman, 95, who grew up in Boyle Heights and persuaded the JCC board in the 1930s to hire the inexperienced Soriano as architect for the new building. “How in the world could they do this?” he said. In the 1930s and ’40s, there were some 10,000 Jewish homes, with 35,000-40,000 residents, in Boyle Heights on the east side of Los Angeles. After the end of World War II, a steady migration took the Jewish population to the Fairfax area, Beverly Hills, Westside and San Fernando Valley. With the declining number of Boyle Heights Jews, especially young ones, the JCC closed its doors in 1958 and sold the building as a community center for the expanding Latino population. In its heyday, the Soto-Michigan JCC was known both for its firebrand leftist politics, which drew the ire of Communist-hunters, and its pioneer outreach to other ethnic communities. Its annual Friendship Festival brought together more than 12,000 Mexican, Japanese, black and Jewish youths, historian George Sanchez wrote. Despite the efforts of preservationists, the destruction of historic and cultural monuments in Los Angeles continues, and the Jewish community seems as indifferent as the rest of the population, said Stephen Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California. But the problem of saving historic sites is a huge one in a city of 460 square miles. “We have in Los Angeles some 800,000 legal parcels, and only 800 are classified as landmarks,” said Ken Bernstein of the L.A. Conservancy.
Tom Tugend is JTA's Los Angeles correspondent. A veteran journalist, he also writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the London Jewish Chronicle.