In a time when countless heavily bankrolled initiatives appear aimed to “disrupt” the technological and financial status quo, it is almost counter-intuitive to declare that the original hub of innovation in Los Angeles has long been a working-class neighborhood, one which has been the home of immigrant communities of the past and present.
Yet, Boyle Heights has long been the historic incubator of progress. Los Angeles has long been the home of entrepreneurs, who were prompted by their need to become ingenious, resourceful, and innovative to provide for their family and set roots in the city.
For the go-getters who have settled in Boyle Heights, their innovations were rooted in their own cultural traditions combined with their new Angelenos experiences. Their innovations brought forth new socially conscious business practices, cuisines, musical forms, among many other entrepreneurial inventions. Immigrant Angelenos also created novel practices and methods, a sort of entrepreneurial toolkit. Future generations of Boyle Heights continue to learn, adapt, and add their own skills and approaches based on their own particular challenges.
Among the historical examples of Boyle Heights as an incubator for progress, we can list the enterprising Jewish and Russian businesses located along Brooklyn Boulevard before the 1940s. One of these storefronts would be home to the original location of Canter’s Deli. The Deli would decades later define late-night dining in Los Angeles. Along the same strip, we would find Phillips Music Store, a store that brought together a multi-ethnic, multi-racial group of musicians who broke down segregated barriers with their presence and sounds.
These inter-ethnic alliances soon move beyond the rehearsal and concert halls, and into politics. At the onset of the 1950s, Boyle Heights would also become an incubator for multi-ethnic political coalitions when Jewish American business owners, African American civil rights organizers, and Japanese-Americans residents worked together to elect Mexican-American Edward Roybal into the city council.
In the succeeding decades, Boyle Heights has continued to be an incubator for progress in multiple areas: politically as the epicenter of the Chicano Movement in the 1960s and 1970s, the 1980s and 1990s grassroots efforts to improve the neighborhood led by mothers and community members. In the 21st century, community members have advocated for more welcoming use of public space by and for the community. In the entrepreneurial aspect, the eloteras, tamal vendors have long revolutionized the meaning of so-called “street food,” and brought up delightful flavors, which now dominate the critics' conversation on L.A. food.
These vendors, alongside brick and mortar businesses owned by Latinx families, are the heart of the entrepreneurial Boyle Heights. Businesses like Candelas Guitars or the store and gallery Espacio 1839 among others. Their presence and survival during this pandemic represent progress, not just for themselves, but as a testament to the distinctive role, which Boyle Heights embodies to foster progress in the past, present, and future of Los Angeles.
Photograph Courtesy of Michelle Vasquez Ruiz
William “Bill” Phillips was an entrepreneur for over sixty years in Boyle Heights, founder, and owner of Phillips Music Store, an institution on Brooklyn Avenue that catered to the changing musical tastes of Boyle Heights youth. Born in New York City in 1910 to two immigrant Jews, Phillips joined the U.S. Navy at age fifteen after being bored in high school. Because of their exceptional music ability, the Navy sent him to music school and then had him serve in a 17-piece Navy band as a drummer for ten years. He married his wife, Anna also from Boyle Heights upon his release in 1935. They lived in her childhood home on New Jersey Street.
In 1935, Phillips joined the all-white segregated musicians local 47, playing swing dance music in downtown Los Angeles. That same year he opened a music store, Phillips Music Company, with an advertising slogan, “The House of Quality,” selling 78 rpm records, sheet music, and big band wind, percussion, and especially brass instruments. Since five other music stores had gone bankrupt in Boyle Heights at the start of the Great Depression, Phillips enjoyed a full market share and a network of Navy bands aboard ships buying from him. To pay the rent, Phillips also gave fifty-cent lessons to neighborhood youth, especially young budding musicians from Roosevelt High School, such as singer Andy Russell, Lionel “Chico” Sesma, Paul Lopez, and Edmundo Martinez “Don Tosti” Tostado. These and many others would go on to play in twenty-piece jazz big bands in the era, playing both popular English swing tunes and Latin music. 95 percent of Phillips’ employees were Mexican-American.
As Jewish families and businesses began to move out of Boyle Heights after World War II, Phillips stayed in City Terrace, keeping the business firmly planted in Boyle Heights. In 1949, when Edward Roybal won his seat on the L.A. City Council, Phillips, along with Jack Berman, prominent Eastside theatre owner, chaired a neighborhood committee to elect him as the first Mexican-American on the city council in the twentieth century. As the store got bigger in the late 1940s, Phillips moved the store to the commercial strip on Brooklyn Avenue in 1950 and began also offering electrical appliances and televisions. When Kenji Taniguchi returned from the Manzanar internment camp, Bill offered a corner section of the music store to him, rent-free, for the sale of his sporting goods merchandise, enabling him to launch Kenny’s Sporting Goods. The majority of Phillips’ local customers were Mexican-Americans, who came in for Latin dance music, but also appreciated jazz, R&B, classical, Mexican folk, Cuban mambo, and Yiddish swing. In 1955, Phillips moved his family to the Westside, even as he commuted every day to Boyle Heights to manage the store.
Bill Phillips would continue to manage the store well into his eighties and into the 1990s. In 1960, Roybal asked Phillips to be a co-founder of the Pan American National Bank, along with several other ventures. Bill Phillips' two twin sons would become a psychiatrist and a sociologist, Bruce becoming the leading Jewish demographer of Los Angeles. Throughout his life, Bill Phillips was dedicated to the Boyle Heights community, supporting local musicians in any way he could. Bands such as Los Lobos claim that shopping at Phillips Music Store was a key influence on their career.
Twin brothers Scott and Randy Rodarte of Ollin remember going there to test-drive the marimbas and eyeball the guitars. "You couldn't jump on the drum set, but you could definitely shake things around," recalls Randy Rodarte. "The way it was set up, you could get lost in a corner. Because [owner Bill Phillips] had huge racks of sticks and mallets. You could grab a book and just sit somewhere and just go through it. It was cool."
Historic Profiles in Traditions of Innovations
Photograph by Tom Kravitz, Valley Times Collection, 1965
Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library
“I wouldn’t like to be thought of as either a surgeon or a banker, but as a member of my community.” —Francisco Bravo, M.D.
Dr. Francisco Bravo
Francisco Bravo, a physician by training, embodied the entrepreneurial, political, and activist spirit of Boyle Heights. Following in the footsteps of previous generations of Boyle Heights residents he was committed to supporting community members with their fledgling business and advocated for the multi-ethnic, neighborhood of Boyle Heights in City Hall.
Bravo studied medicine at the USC school of pharmacy and at the Stanford School of Medicine. After receiving his medical degree in the early 1940s, Bravo enlisted in the U.S. Army and during World War II served as a lieutenant colonel medic in the Pacific theater.
After the war, Bravo became one of the first Mexican American doctors to serve Boyle Heights and the greater East Los Angeles. He established his own practice —which would eventually become known as the Bravo Clinic— originally located on 736 South Soto street, near Whitter Boulevard.
As the Los Angeles Police commissioner in 1961 and later president of the commission in 1965, Bravo advocated for the end of police abuse in Mexican American communities.
In 1965 Bravo, along with other Boyle Heights businesspersons, founded the Pan American National Bank. Bravo recognized that the multi-ethnic communities of Boyle Heights, Belvedere, and East L.A., were underserved by the majority of banks. As a financial institution, the Pan American Bank sought to serve and lend to the Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles residents who at the time were primarily Mexican-American, Japanese-American, and Jewish-Americans. After his involvement in the Pan-American Bank, Francisco Bravo delved into ranching and farming in the Inland Empire and Imperial Valley.
Bravo's presence in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles spanned several decades. He established and maintained a scholarship program for high school students interested in studying medicine. After his death at the age of 80 in 1990, Bravo was recognized for his efforts and contributions in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles with the naming of the Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School located in Boyle Heights, next to the L.A. County + USC Medical Center, which opened in September 1990
of Art and Entrepreneurship
Photograph by Paola Jaime, Las Fotos Project, 2021
“Boyle Heights is a living poem…it’s in the air, it’s in the smell, it’s in the music that you hear, it’s what you feel when you walk by these stores. That is Boyle Heights.”
—Nico Avina, co-owner of Espacio 1839
Espacio 1839 is a contemporary version of an entrepreneurial community incubator, such as Phillips Music Company, which for decades has fostered generations of entrepreneurs and artists in Boyle Heights.
It is all of the following: a retail store, a bookstore, a gallery space, a radio station, an art workshop, and an inclusive community space. This multi-purpose enterprise opened in 2011 at its current location inside a storefront on First Street, close to Mariachi Plaza. Yet, Espacio 1839 is built on the legacy of earlier stores and galleries started by co-owners Myra Teocintli (Vasquez) and Nico Avina. The couple first started a silk-screening business in the closet of a record store close to East Los Angeles College in the late 1990s. They called this first venture “Industrias Ilegales.” The name resisted media assertions that the 1990s Latina/o/x Eastside was a deindustrialized and economically barren area. Moreover, the addition of “ilegales” referred to the entrepreneurial ethos of Latina/o migrants, even when many of them lack migratory authorized status, in addition to the business’ tenuous right to the space in the back of the record store.
Industrias Ilegales soon moved to a space of its own on the corner of Fourth and Mott streets in the mid 2000s, renamed to Teocintli Gallery. Decades before, the space had been used as a political campaign headquarters, including the Edward Roybal re-election campaigns. Teocintli became a community space for Boyle Heights and greater East L.A. residents, where they bought books, exhibited their artwork, congregated, and organized. This as Nico and Myra, the co-owners of Teocintli, acknowledged the history and legacy of the storefront as a community space for gathering and activism.
After four years in the Fourth and Mott location, Teocintli was forced to close due in 2009 at the height of the Great Recession, which disproportionately affected Latina/o/x communities and compromised the co-owners' ability to keep the store/gallery open.
In 2012, Nico and Myra, among other folks, opened Espacio 1839 at its current location. They envisioned it as a continuation of Teocintli: a retail space for the offering of books, culturally relevant and politically conscious merchandise, and a communal space for sharing and exhibition of diverse forms of art. Today, Espacio 1839 endures as a well-established cultural boutique that promotes community building by providing a platform for local artistic talent.
“We see ourselves being here as long as possible, Espacio being here is occupying space and in times of gentrification that is one of the essential things: to occupy space and holding ourselves to the community accountable.” – Myra Teocintli and Nico Avina.
Radio Espacio - connate vision of Marcos Amador Radio Sombra. Radio Espacio wishes to archive oral histories, allow local playwrights to broadcast their work on the radio.
Some shows have achieved national recognition. Myra shared that they exist because there are not many spaces that highlight the voices of people of color or provide access to a safe space and technology to transmit these stories to their community.
Junt-Arte Workshops - a play on words as juntarte is Spanish means “to join” when separated junt - arte (means art) and this describes the intention of the FREE workshops held on Wednesday evenings that are designed for a coming together of participants to join in art-making. This is a space for working residents to utilize art as a de-stressor. Art is therapy.