Where Immigrants Once Mingled

After World War II, when Japanese Americans were sent home from internment camps in Wyoming and Arizona, many found their lives had changed in untold ways. For Kenji Tanaguchi, his return to Boyle Heights — an immigrant community east of the Los Angeles River — was colored by what was no longer there: his family had returned to Japan, and he was left to fend for himself.

But when he walked into Bill Phillips (né Isaacs) Music Co., he immediately felt a kinship with the older Jewish man behind the counter. The young man told Phillips he’d like to sell appliances to the Japanese American community in the San Fernando Valley, and Phillips, in a spontaneous act of friendship, came forward to help: "Okay, you can buy your appliances from me."

Televisions were just starting to take off, so Phillips gave Tanaguchi a new TV set to hawk as well. Pretty soon, Tanaguchi was helping out in the store. One day, he said to Phillips, "I can’t be going out in the field all the time when I’m getting older; I want to start a sporting goods store."

"How much money do you have?" Phillips asked.

Tanaguchi showed him his wallet.

"Okay, give me your money and I’ll get you a store."

The store turned out to be Phillips’ own.

For four years, you could walk past Phillips Music Co. on busy Brooklyn Avenue and look into the large plate glass window to see TVs and guitars, sheet music and fishing poles. Tanaguchi’s sporting goods store was set up on the east side, while Phillips used the rest of the store for his instruments and appliances. It was a friendly atmosphere, where a diverse crowd gathered to talk politics and art, and where Phillips mentored young musicians.

You might think a Jewish businessman and a Japanese American salesman would have nothing in common, but after 50 years, Tanaguchi still talks with admiration about Phillips, who passed away many years ago.

"What we had in common was trust. Right away [Phillips] said, ‘I need help, watch the store.’ I never took anything from him. He gave me advice, told me what to do. He’d say ‘Let’s go fishing.’ We trusted each other. Trust is everything."

Judging by today’s headlines, trust is hard to come by. But the lessons of the new exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) teach that when neighbors trust one another, a community thrives.

"Boyle Heights: The Power of Place," opening Sept. 8, shows that never before in the history of Los Angeles had so many diverse groups mingled together in one neighborhood without animosity. Life wasn’t perfect, but people had a common shared identity, said Stephen J. Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society.

"Fundamental to understanding the whole Boyle Heights project is that all these groups lived side by side," Sass said, "even though they came from very different circumstances and backgrounds — Eastern European Jews, Russian Molokans, Mexicans, Japanese Americans, African Americans. They landed in Boyle Heights by the sheer fact that they were immigrants and not necessarily wanted in other parts of the city."

Even the Los Angeles Times wasn’t interested, Sass said, never covering anything east of the Los Angeles River, other than crime. "People didn’t know that what existed in Boyle Heights was a rich and vibrant neighborhood, as it is today, where people struggled for a small piece of the American dream."

In that struggle, people learned to rely on one another. Artifacts and photos in the JANM exhibit tell the story: neighbors saved a Japanese American home from being sold during the war; a group of Jewish mothers demanded that African American children be allowed to swim in the public pool; factory workers fought side by side.

"The Boyle Heights exhibit shows the specialness of each culture, while also showing what they shared together in the immigrant experience," Sass said. "This wasn’t a time where there was a lack of conflict — the Zoot Suit riots, the deportations of Mexicans, the interning of Japanese Americans, the Jews long history of discrimination — but everyone was in this together.

"My hope is that the exhibit will be a jumping-off point [for discussion] and will challenge all of us: How do we recreate this experience today, that period of warmth and caring among neighbors, where you could get ahead by being thoughtful of other people? How do we respond to the issues that face our own neighborhoods and city today? How do we continue to create history together?"

The exhibit is organized by geographic intersections, using street names and thematic guideposts to show the relationship between the past and present, said JANM’s Sojin Kim, who along with Darcy Iki, curated the exhibition. "We had two different approaches we could have taken. One was chronological … and one was more conceptual, to attach it to geography and the neighborhood, [using] intersections as content, because it was what we were trying to do — create connections, create a dialogue among people who live there now and who lived there in the past."

The museum, along with its partners — the Jewish Historical Society, Roosevelt High School, the International Institute and Self Help Graphics & Art — worked collaboratively for two years, holding various community forums and collection days to find relevant photos and artifacts reflective of the 120-year-old community (although the 1930s through the 1950s has the most play), and to gather stories from past and present residents.

The museum’s focus for Boyle Heights was to work with community institutions as well as seek out first-person perspectives. "In terms of our history, from our very first exhibit 10 years ago, our process has been to work with the community sharing our resources, and empower the people in those communities," explained Audrey Sing Lee, JANM’s director of special projects.

"Once the idea is boiled down, we identify partners to work together; in the case of Boyle Heights, these were people who hadn’t necessarily worked together before … but we hope, will continue to have a relationship."

"[JANM] was amazing," Sass said. "They could have rammed the idea of Boyle Heights down people’s throats, but instead, they chose to work with everyone in a collaborative process, even though it was more cumbersome. The process of collaboration for the exhibition mirrored the community of Boyle Heights: people living and working together, sharing a history, but having differences. The collaboration was not without bumps, but among the people that participated there was a shared commonalty. It was a community that took its first steps on L.A. soil together."