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At the Crossroads of Change in Boyle Heights

By Amélie Petitdemange

Betsy Kalin took nine years to produce her documentary about Boyle Heights, a neighborhood in East Los Angeles and the result is a fascinating film titled “East LA Interchange.” Through interviews of inhabitants and footage of the neighborhood that Boyle Heights residents provided her, she reconstructs how this multicultural area was threatened by the construction of freeways in the 1950’s. Featuring now-famous Boyle Heights natives like actor Danny Trejo and musician, the film reflects on its past and its future which promises continued development and gentrification.

Boyle Heights was “the Ellis Island of the West Coast,” explains an inhabitant. Since many immigrants moved there, each of her neighbors were of different ethnicities: Japanese, African, Chinese, Spanish.

“Everyone could live here, it was the laboratory of democracy,” recalls another Boyle Heights resident with a large smile, defying the usually negative stereotype of a lower class, immigrant community.

Even if the neighborhood was seen as a dangerous ghetto to outsiders, Mrs. Yashima enjoyed this period of her childhood. “One day, I was hanging around in the streets, when I smelled this incredible perfume. Someone was cooking, and it smelled so good. So I found the house and stood at the front door. I probably looked like pathetic! But then the woman opens the door, and gave me a piece of tortilla. I was in heaven,” she remembers.

But in 1945, the construction of new freeways broke this harmony. It fractured the community and forced people to move. The subsequent pollution started to impact the population, a major concern especially since one freeway was erected right next to a school. Many protests were organized, but the project was too big to be interrupted. According to an inhabitant, “they wanted to build a new city, like New York City.”

In order to tell this story, Kalin conducted research for two years by interviewing people and asking for footage.
“It was hard, because people were poor there, and usually didn’t have cameras,” she recalled in a question and answer session at UCI after the film’s screening. With time and patience, she collected what she needed to portray a humanizing portrait of the neighborhood.

The film, which is really well documented through the cooperation of Boyle Heights residents, is a success in filmmaking techniques as well. Kalin succeeds at montage, a necessity for documentaries. In a well-crafted sequence, she cuts together old advertisements for the freeways and pictures of reality with sick kids coughing and people protesting in the street. The beauty of the images and of the contemporary music keep the viewer entertained during the hour-long film.

Despite being released in 2015, “East LA Interchange” finds new relevance today. California will vote on Nov. 8 on higher taxes to improve San Diego’s freeways. Kalin says that “the opponents to this project use the documentary as a bad example.” Her work is indeed partisan, but also well-researched and documented. She stands on the side of Boyle Heights inhabitants, and doesn’t necessarily represent the perspective of freeway development’s supporters. Boyle Heights, like many Los Angeles communities, is an intersection of diversity and change, as demographics continue to shift and urban sprawl perseveres, and Kalin captures its vitality.

Correction: May 2, 2019
An earlier version of this article depicted an image unrelated to Boyle Heights. It was a photo of the Judge Harry Pregerson Interchange with South LA’s 105 and 110 freeways. The photo now depicts a 1961 view of the East LA Interchange with the I-5 and I-10 freeways.