Men slowly arrange scattered clothes into a makeshift tent on the front steps of 126 N. St. Louis St. A few windows in the building’s powder-blue facade are broken; an old chimney stains a sliver of the north wall black.
Today, the anonymous building is one among thousands that dot the Los Angeles cityscape, but in the 1930s and 1940s, the Vladeck Center was the secular heart of Jewish Boyle Heights. The building was a base for the Workmen’s Circle and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, as well as the founding location of the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC).
The Vladek Center’s history was unearthed last year, half a century after most of Los Angeles’ Jewish community moved west, when the city began moving forward with plans to demolish the building for an expanded Hollenbeck Police Station. Getting the city to alter course seems a tall order, but the planned demolition has attracted critical attention.
Preservationists and Jewish groups want to spare the building for cultural reasons. Separately, community activists have accused the city of cutting legal corners while displacing low-income residents.
“No one is opposed to a new police station,” said Ken Bernstein, director of preservation issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy. The Los Angeles Police Department “has very substandard facilities in Hollenbeck Division. I think what our groups are trying to achieve is a Hollenbeck Station project that also spares and enhances one of Boyle Heights’ defining social-cultural landmarks.”
These days, the two-story building is part church, the Templo Ebenezer Asambleas de Dios, and part residential halfway house. A world away, the building’s original namesake, Baruch Charney Vladeck, was a prominent socialist, New York City alderman and manager of The Forward newspaper.
The city first learned of the building’s Jewish past in the midst of planning for the $28.2 million Hollenbeck Station project, when environmental regulations required determining whether construction would damage any environmental, cultural or historic resources. In late 2003, consultant Portia Lee of the firm, California Archives, began investigating on behalf of the city.
“It looked like a Hispanic church, but I got this clue about its Jewish history from the building permit, [and] I could tell that it certainly hadn’t been built as a church,” Lee told The Journal.
By scrutinizing old Workmen’s Circle newsletters, Lee learned that during the 1930s, Jewish labor organizers met in a different building on the same site. That structure was removed to make room for the Vladeck Center.
“They either moved it onto the site or constructed it in 1940,” Lee said. The building’s distinctive Art Deco flourishes, reminders of another age, caught Lee’s eye. “I’m inclined to believe they moved it onsite, because it looks to me like a much earlier building, but I don’t know that,” she said.
Lee tracked down experts in Los Angeles Jewish history to uncover the Vladeck Center’s story, including Ken Burt, a JLC historian whose paid job is political director for the California Federation of Teachers. Burt compared Vladeck to a more well-known East L.A. Jewish landmark — the Breed Street Shul.
“Ken Burt said the most important thing,” Lee recalled. “‘Breed Street Shul is the religious side of the history, and the Vladeck Center is the secular side.’ That did it for me. Then I knew I could stand up before anybody and say this is an extremely important building.”
Lee suggested alternatives to demolition, such as using the building for a community center. However, that would require reconfiguring construction plans, which call for a parking structure on the Vladeck parcel, and Lee’s opinions failed to sway the city or the LAPD.
In the arcane language of urban planning, the city pushed for a “mitigated negative declaration,” a middling level of environmental review that likely would hasten demolition.
Simultaneously, based on Lee’s recommendations, the city’s Bureau of Engineering submitted the Vladeck Center to the L.A. Cultural Heritage Commission for consideration as a city monument. The building’s defenders accuse the city of using the submission as a gambit, hoping that a quick rejection of historic status would clear the path for an even quicker demolition.
But several well-directed letters from the JLC, the Jewish Historical Society and an attorney representing the L.A. Conservancy persuaded the city to authorize a full environmental impact report.
Meanwhile, the intervention from Jewish organizations helped draw attention to another aspect of the police station project, the impending demolition of about 60 low-income housing units in the surrounding neighborhood. Boyle Heights resident and attorney Miguel Flores accused the city of ignoring a California Environmental Quality Act regulation requiring environmental review before any public purchase of private property.
The current environmental impact report remains in draft form 18 months after land purchases began, and all the tenants, Flores said, already have been forced to move.
“I think people were misled,” he said. “I went to several community boards, such as the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council, and some people weren’t even aware the project was going on at all. I found the whole process very mysterious.”
The city has defended its actions as appropriate, while acknowledging some uncertainly on timing. City attorney spokesman Jonathan Diamond said the law is unclear about whether environmental review needs to take place in advance of land purchases.
“There are differing opinions within the city,” Diamond said. “The extraconservative advice would be, ‘Yes, just do it,’ but there is a question about whether it is, in fact, a necessity.”
Flores responded by citing Title 14 of the California Code of Regulations, which states, in part, that “with public projects, at the earliest feasible time, project sponsors shall incorporate environmental considerations into project conceptualization, design and planning.” The regulations also stipulate that “CEQA compliance should be completed prior to acquisition of a site for a public project.”
Flores added, “The city was negotiating with property owners, and those owners left people in the dark. Finally, they found out because they had a 90-day notice to vacate.”
The entire neighborhood sits in the district of Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, who is running for mayor against incumbent James Hahn. In an interview, Villaraigosa said he joins the community in fully supporting the police station project, which, he said, is badly needed.
“While I’d like to see the restoration or adaptive reuse of that building [the Vladek Center], it might be difficult to save it,” Villaraigosa said.
For his part, Flores is working to obtain compensation for evicted families, many of whom lost rent-controlled apartments and now live in quarters that are both more cramped and expensive.
Until June 1, the city is accepting public comment on its environmental impact report. After that, the city can move forward with the project — with or without saving the Vladek Center — pending City Council approval.
Salvaging the affordable housing seems a lost cause, but the Vladeck Center “has a large auditorium and a kitchen,” said consultant Lee. “One of the police [officers] told me, ‘We really like to do outreach.’ They could take the property and reuse it for whatever they want to do.”
Because the building lies on the periphery of the proposed Hollenbeck expansion, sparing it from destruction could be doable.
“It just looks like there are lots of ways to keep that building in use,” she said.