The history of Boyle Heights is an example of the promise — and peril — of American progress. In her great new documentary East L.A. Interchange, premiering Saturday at the Downtown Film Festival, filmmaker Betsy Kalin whisks us through this fascinating past. In the 1920s and '30s, much of Los Angeles forbade non-Caucasians from owning a home. Boyle Heights welcomed the outcasts: broke Okies, new Russian immigrants, second-generation Japanese, all on the same block. For a few lively decades, it was the definition of diversity: Jewish kids grew up trilingual in Yiddish, Spanish and English, black kids knew Russian, Japanese kids charmed their neighbors into giving them fresh tortillas, and everyone was allowed to rock a cool zoot suit.
Thanks to World War II, this oasis of integration dried up: The Japanese were shipped to internment camps, costing Roosevelt High School a third of its students. Jewish families were allowed, or rather pressured, to move to the Valley. And then the leftover's leftovers were sliced up by city planners who razed 2,000 houses to erect a knot of freeways that cast the close-knit community in shadows. You can see how today's residents were forged into local activists.
Kalin buttresses her doc with boldface names such as The Black Eyed Peas' will.i.am, who ditched Boyle Heights as soon as he could afford it and now is hungry to return and reinvest in his childhood 'hood. But it's the longtime residents, some born in Boyle Heights back in the 1920s, who give the documentary life, as well as Kalin's outstanding archival footage, which resurrects a neighborhood we only thought we knew.
EAST L.A. INTERCHANGE | Downtown Film Festival L.A. | Regent Theater, 448 S. Main St., downtown | Sun., July 26, 3 p.m. | dffla.org