January 19, 2020

Revitalizing Our Past and Future in Pico-Union

Among these earlier settlers were many Jewish families, who, notinterested in joining the growing ersatz shtetl up in Boyle Heights,built their graceful homes in the tony new district.

“That area was for the more affluent families — it wasn’tworking-class like Boyle Heights,” says Steve Sass, president of theSouthern California Jewish Historical Society. “It was the place forthe acculturated and upwardly mobile.”

Among those attracted to the area were Asher and Hanna Hamburger,who owned the city’s first department store — the Hamburger People’sStore, along 8th and Broadway — and the Morris Cohen family, thecity’s first garment makers and whose descendants later founded theveritable fountainhead of the California sportswear industry, Cole ofCalifornia. The district also saw, in 1909, the construction of theoriginal Sinai Temple, Los Angeles’ first conservative synagogue,and, in 1928, Kolting House, the Hamburger family-financed home forJewish “working girls.”

Today, few Jews live in this area, now widely known as Pico-Union.Most of the residents are Latino working-class families, many fromCentral America. Many of the old homes and buildings still exist, butlargely because economic progress and investment long ago passed bythis district. The synagogue is now a Presbyterian church, and theold Hamburger Home still services poor people, but under non-Jewishauspices.

Although the Jewish residents and places of worship havedisappeared, Jews remain involved, both directly and indirectly, inthe economic life of the struggling district. Many Pico-Unionresidents work in Jewish-owned garment factories either in theimmediate area or nearby in the fashion district. And, of course,Langer’s, the landmark delicatessen, still serves up the traditionalspecialties from its location on Alvarado and 7th.

But the Jewish involvement extends far beyond borscht andshmattes. After seeing many of their friends die in the 1973Yom Kippur War, two Israelis, Jerry and Ron Azarkman, left thePromised Land for the arguably safer climes of Southern California.Not knowing much about Los Angeles, they started selling electronicsgadgets — the business they had done back in Israel — door to doorin Pico-Union.

“I didn’t know English or Spanish,” says Jerry, from his officesat the corner of Olympic Boulevard and Union Avenue. “But I felt verycomfortable with Spanish-[speaking] people because they wereimmigrants too. They were welcoming and warm.”

Being from the “Holy Land,” he says, was a big help with many ofPico-Union’s devoutly Christian residents. Slowly, the Azarkmansbuilt a major retail operation, offering credit — much like some ofthe earliest 19th-century Jewish Los Angeles merchants — to theLatino customers, who often could not get any from mainstreambusinesses. By the early 1990s, their company, La Curacao, had becomeamong the largest retailers in the district.

Not that it was easy. In the 1992 riots, which devastated much ofPico-Union, La Curacao burned to the ground, along with millions ofdollars in merchandise. The Azarkmans considered pulling out, butthey decided to rebuild. “One thing that swayed us,” Jerry Azarkmansays, “is that we couldn’t leave our employees.”

So instead of retreating, the Israeli businessmen advanced,eventually purchasing the two office towers on Olympic (they have alarge La Curacao showroom on the bottom floor) and opening a secondfacility in heavily Hispanic Panorama City. Today, the two storesdraw more than 100,000 credit-card-carrying customers. They now enjoysome of the highest per-square-foot sales in Southern California.

But the Azarkmans’ dreams for Pico-Union extend beyond La Curacao.With their Olympic towers as their base, they dream of turning thearea into something of a “Little Central America,” much along thelines of the adjacent and sprawling Koreatown. In this effort, theyhave enlisted many Central American consulates, lawyers and businessgroups, including the El Salvador Chamber of Commerce.

Gena Levy, longtime president of the El Salvador Chamber, saysthat there are several Jewish businesspeople in her group. For onething, she reminds us that, in the years before the Holocaust, ElSalvador accepted upward of 35,000 European Jews, saving them fromthe concentration camps. In the ensuing generations, many of theserefugees became prominent Salvadorans in commerce, the professionsand the arts. But with the turmoil that struck El Salvador in the1970s and 1980s, some of these Jews migrated again — this time, toLos Angeles.

Today, these merchants, along with the Azarkmans and Jewishgarment manufacturers , are playing an important role in turningaround Pico-Union. Signs of progress may be rarely noted in thepress, but local business people recognize them — less graffiti,improved homes, new markets and shops.

Jews throughout Southern California, notes Sass, should realizethat they, too, have a “stake-holder interest” in the revitalizationof a district so intertwined with both our own past and our city’sfuture.

Joel Kotkin is the John M. Olin Fellow at the PepperdineInstitute for Public Policy.

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