My L.A. Neighborhoods
By Louise Lapin-Haines
Copyright © 2003. All Rights Reserved
Do not Copy photographs without permission.
Part 1: My Grandpa’s Boyle Heights and The Beautiful Breed Street Shul
I like to say that I am an illegitimate native Californian. Although I was born in Chicago in 1917, I was but eighteen months old when my parents moved here. Dad rushed with mom and me to his mother’s bedside in Boyle Heights, but alas, we were too late. Grandpa, Adam Lapin, lived on Britannia Street with my aunt Celia, his youngest child, in a lovely wooden house with a hospitable veranda that ran the entire front. He was an Orthodox Jew and a member of the beautiful Breed Street Shul.
This Shul enjoyed the sponsorship of the motion picture moguls. They ordered beautiful murals for the front wall. I remember the polished, handcrafted, raised wood platform and the enclosed railing of the bimah, and the lustrous balustrades of the second story women’s balcony. Two generations of movies about the life of Al Jolson were filmed within this wonderful temple. The first talking picture was The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson (Asa Yolson) and it was the first movie filmed in the Breed Street Temple. The modern television version of the same story (1959) with Jerry Lewis, the great Al Jolson impersonator, was also filmed there.
The Breed Street Shul was at 247 N. Breed Street off the main streets. Brooklyn Avenue was the important business street…home to delicious scents of pickling liquid from the kosher pickle barrels outside the grocery on the sidewalk and the historic Canter’s Delicatessen and bakery.
After a while the Jewish people prospered and began moving westward: to the West Adams District and the Fairfax neighborhood, to Ocean Park Beach and Venice Beach. Even Canter’s Delicatessen and Solomon’s Book Store moved to Fairfax Avenue.
In time, there was barely a Minyan (ten members) left at the Breed Street Shul. Then the days came when a few of the west moving members would spend their Shabbos in Boyle Heights to make the Minyan. They would come the previous Friday so they would not have to travel in vehicles on Shabbos. They felt duty bound to make the continuity of prayers possible in the Breed Street Shul: to create the Minyan. But no one lives forever and in the end, they could no longer form a Minyan.
I remember reading about The Los Angeles Jewish Historical Society president, Stephen Sass, who yearned to save this beautiful, but shabby, dying Temple. He pleaded with the elderly rabbi of the Breed Street Shul, year after year, to let him convert the property to a Jewish Historical Museum. But the aging rabbi was most stubborn. He felt that to rescue the dying building by restoring the Shul buildings from the filthy clutter and mess that neglect had sentenced it to was somehow irreligious, and converting the two buildings to a dignified destiny in a no longer Jewish community was not to be considered. He could not allow anyone to change the usage of the holy buildings. In his advanced age, he was unable to protect the Shul from vicious vandalism and its use by drug addicts, and he could not find a way to save the two buildings. He insisted that he owned the two buildings and that he held the deed, and he could not be persuaded to convert to a different Jewish format. How he could stand by helplessly and observe the defacement of the Shul is difficult to comprehend. He was a good soul but in my opinion his resolution of the fate of the Shul was terribly foolish.
This tango went on year after year and the beautiful buildings suffered in agony
Over the long years of neglect, vandals ripped out all the brass objects, such as the donor plaques on the wall to be sold by the pound, and gang members would break into the two buildings to do their drugs and smash the religious treasures; they threw their discarded drug needles on the dirt encrusted, muddied floors. They broke the stained glass windows. This vicious destruction was very much in evidence to the people who toured the old original synagogues.
Once on a tour, I observed on the wall a brass donor plaque with the name of my maternal grandmother’s first cousin, Jenny Shana Feder who had been president of the Shul. Her son, Robert Arthur, a prominent motion picture producer probably was one of the Hollywood people who had done so much for creating the beauty of the Shul. The next time I went on the Jewish History tour, to my sorrow, I observed that Jenny Feder’s nameplate had also been stolen.
Finally the venerable old rabbi passed away. He had made no plans for the Shul after his demise. The property with no heirs passed to the control of the city of Los Angeles. Now a historical landmark, the buildings are closed. They await reconstruction and will be converted to use for the current citizens of the area, the Latino community. In that way, the beautiful Breed Street Shul will return to serve the community.
Part Two: Inglewood, California
My earliest memories are of Inglewood.
My parents, Morris Sheftel Lapin and Sarah, purchased a sweet little white cottage on a corner on Pimiento Street. The street was named for the pimiento or pepper trees, which like soldiers, seemed to be marching down the center of the of unpaved, dirt road. Their foliage was lacy, their fruit were red pepper berries, and their trunks were gnarled and lumpy. My brother, Raymond*, and I loved to climb them and play pretend ”Black Pirates,” in the fashion of the dashing Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., husband of “America’s Sweetheart,” the beautiful Mary Pickford.
I was the only girl among two brothers and six cousins. My eldest cousin, Leonard Kleeger, born 1915 in Boyle Heights, used to shepherd us kids to the Saturday serial movies: Raymond, Sydney David, Paul, and baby Billy Velvel Kleeger, as well as me and my two brothers Howard and Raymond Lapin. The movies I most vividly remember are the one about the modern people who tangled with dinosaurs in Lost World and Douglas Fairbanks who would move about in incredible actions in The Black Pirate. From that time on, we (the group of cousins) always played at being pirates. It seemed so romantic to us.
Inglewood was a bucolic town. Mama kept a brood of chickens in the backyard near her grove of walnut trees. Our next-door neighbor tethered his goat on his front lawn, perhaps in lieu of a lawn mower. I remember ancient Mr. Kraft’s candy store across the street from the school. When one entered the front screen door, a bell above the door would announce the customer, tinkling merrily and magically. I think it was also a grocery store because I remember this old man delivering groceries on his two-wheeled bicycle. As far as we knew, the only other Jewish family was that of Nimoy, the tailor.
Our daddy was quite up-to-date because he bought a model “T” Ford, a horseless carriage. In those early days, the automobile salesman would take his customer on a ride around the block to explain the mystery of how to handle this magical steed. On returning to his office, it was the auto salesman who then awarded his client a driver’s license! On one Sunday outing, Daddy had some kind of an accident and I was bumped out of the back seat and landed on the running board, near the right rear wheel. On another Sunday, on an outing to Venice Beach, we were cruising down Windward Avenue toward the sea, when a policeman popped up in our vision, with his arms outstretched, to signal us to come to a stop. This surprised and flustered the new driver. Evidently my dad forgot which was the brake because we gently cruised directly at the officer, toppling him. He got up; apparently unhurt, except for his dignity! The very angry officer climbed on our running board (a step which made entering the vehicle easier). In surly fashion, he directed Daddy to the police station by the Grand Canal. We got off easy...only had to pay a fine.
In 1924, as I recollect, a Japanese citizen of Inglewood overheard his next-door neighbors screaming. He phoned the police. The head night marshal rushed to the rescue, alone, on his two-wheeled bicycle! The victimized next-door neighbors were of Italian extraction and were making their own wine for sacramental purposes. But as this was the era of the Prohibition, it was illegal to have liquor. This family was being punished for this crime by our local Ku Klux Klan garbed in their white bed sheets and white pointed hoods. The night marshal arrived and there was a shoot out. One of the Klansmen was killed. When the heroic night marshal unmasked the Klansmen, he found to his horror that the night marauders were the crew of the day marshals! Was this solitary hero rewarded? No, he was fired and the important businessmen of Inglewood got up a defense fund for the Ku Klux Klan!
This certainly jolted our tranquility. With the threat of the Klan, our family no longer felt, as a popular song of the day promised, that this was our Little Grey Home In The West. Daddy sold our home and we moved to exotic Venice, California.
*Raymond Lapin grew up to be a multimillionaire and the second president and chairman of the board of Federal National Mortgage Association, familiarly known as FANNIE MAE. President Johnson appointed him. He was the creator of, and again president and chairman of the board of, the Government National Mortgage Association, or GINNIE MAE. It was my brother who took FANNIE MAE out of the government and into the public sector of the economy.
Part Three: Venice
Abbot Kinney was the founding father of Venice, California, by the shimmering blue-green Pacific Ocean. He admired Venice in Italy and its unique canals in lieu of paved roads. He recreated the serene beauty of the canals and designed them so they were all connected, with a main link to the sea. His plan was to enable the sea to flow in and out with the tides. My impression was that despite his plans, there really was no tidal effect in the canals. Over the years, the canals became stagnant.
There was at least one graceful gondola moored in one of the canals. It was a black, slender, and graceful boat, canoe-like, with a tall, stylish stem at one end that was topped with a few horizontal short sticks like keys on a violin. The boatman in charge was called a gondolier and he would stand up in the boat, using a long oar to steer it. My brother Raymond was a boatman too. He found a discarded section of a telephone pole. It floated and became our raft. Venice lent itself to an adventurous childhood.
We used to go down to the beach of gleaming white sand dotted with many huge beach umbrellas and dive into the surf. There were no surfboards in those days. We learned to ride the waves on our own. We were the surfboards. Mom never accompanied us to the beach as she never learned to swim and she did not approve of tanning one’s complexion, for hers was always so beautiful and fair. Mom had no idea how treacherous the sea can become. We used to swim out and catch a wave and ride it into shore. On one occasion, I observed the wave forming way out on the horizon and growing bigger and bigger, a monstrous sized wave as it approached the shore. I was unafraid because if a wave was turbulent, I knew from experience that all I had to do was to dive beneath it where the water was always serene and safe. But this time it was neither serene nor safe underneath. I was thrown around and around and upside down and my head was banged down onto the sandy bottom and my bathing cap, which was fastened under my chin with a strap, was ripped off my head. I was terrified without control over what the tide was doing to me. I was flotsam, just like a lifeless twig. The water shoved me closer to the shore and when I finally was washed in, the water was shallow enough to get my feet on the sandy bottom. I hopped desperately toward the safety of the beach where the white sand was clean and warm and comfortable. I never told Momma and I never again felt that I knew what to expect of the sea. I never trusted it again, but I still enjoyed riding the waves when they were serene.
Windward Avenue was the main street that led to a little alleyway. Spanning the boulevard above the street level were covered rooms and this was named the Bridge of Sighs after the one in Italy. For in our imagination, convicts passed through these arches and that was where they were last heard from or seen before disappearing into the bowels of the dungeon. The original of this edifice actually led to a Venetian prison, and the arched enclosed little bridge crossing was where prisoners sighed before disappearing into the bowels of the prison. Our teachers made history seem like fun. They inspired us by helping us find the hidden talents in our little souls and motivating us to learn.
There was a magnificent public bathhouse on the sand in Venice. A second bathhouse one mile north in Ocean Park featured the Moorish style of architecture. It resembled a mosque with its domed roofs, reflecting the Arab conquest of Europe. The Venice bathhouse had floor to ceiling pillars holding up the roof. These pillars framed each of the huge plate glass windows in the front of the building. On the front of each pillar was a gigantic sculptured plaster bathing beauty wearing an old fashioned bathing suit, with skirt and knickers reaching down to the model’s knees and a ruffled tam bathing cap, and with dark long stockings and bath shoes painted on the legs and feet of the giantesses. Inside was the “plunge,” as we called it, a huge Olympic size pool filled with ocean water heated to a pleasant temperature. There was a fountain island in the pool made of marble and mosaic white tile. It was mushroom-shaped, with tiled seating areas all around. We would hoist ourselves onto the surrounding seat area and enjoy the warmth of the fountain splashing on our backs. This was so relaxing. If we wished to go out on the beach to tan or to nap, or to swim in the sea, we could obtain a purple mark stamped on our upper arm as a signal that we had already paid our entrance fee for the day. We could go in and out all day.
Just south of the plunge building was the entrance to the Venice amusement Pier and Noah’s Ark, rocking to and fro with a huge figure of a whale resting in the sea in front of the ark. This small ship was a fun house. Mrs. Noah was seated at the side of the boat fishing. She rocked to and fro and pulled her fishing pole up, hoping she had succeeded in catching a fish. Her long skirt fluttered in the sea breeze. She held up her pole with a lone little fish dangling at the end of her fishing line. There were many kinds of animated figures on and in the little ship. The little ship, itself, was rocking. Some of the animals with their heads poking out of the portholes were weaving back and forth. The giraffe rhythmically weaving his long neck from side to side and out of another port hole, an elephant was wagging his plump head and twitching his massive ears and waving his long trunk. There was a deer peering out of another porthole. Son Shem was also fishing off the side of the craft and Mr. Noah was peering steadfastly out of an upper porthole, up near the roof of the ark, keeping a stern eye on the others, or perhaps peering to see land. There up the gangplank a stream of cold air would blow the skirts of the female passengers up. Upon entering the Ark, passengers found themselves in a confusing maze of mirrors, wandering from one trap to another. The mirror rooms were illusions and the whole puzzle reminded me of Alice in Through the Looking Glass, when she remarked to the red queen, “The faster we go, the further back we are.”
The amusement pier had a carnival atmosphere. If we observed a lack of customers at any of the game playing booths, like the wooden bottles waiting to be attacked by baseballs, or darts waiting to be thrown to burst balloons, we would shrewdly dicker with the proprietor, “Hey, Mister, if you let us play free, we will draw a crowd.” And it always did draw a new crowd. We were “carni” kids and playing for free was called being a “shill.” It always worked. We little sophisticated kids looked down on people dumb enough to pay to play. The joy of playing without paying was our pay. We thought of those who paid to play were naïve because we never wasted our money on the games.
At the very end of the pier was a ride comprised of a sort of boat that slid down a watery wash board-like hill. There were the little red electric cars, which we deliberately rammed into each other, and there was the carousel with beautifully carved merry-go-round horses rising up and down as the band played on. We preferred the horses on the outside row so that we could try to catch the brass ring for a prize. And there was the traditional roller coaster. I went on it just once and its roughness made me seasick. I never tried it a second time. There was also a gigantic green dragon that circled down round and round, and we slid down inside the dragon, circling round and round till we hit the bottom. Then there was a circular whirling platform. The object was for all to huddle in the center together until we were hurled off one by one by centrifugal force. In retrospect, this sounds more like torture but we thought it was great fun. A miniature railway circled the quaint little village of Venice. So you see, our little village was an early version of Disneyland.
At the foot of the pier, there was a ballroom where we danced to the bands of the Golden Era like that of Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, and Benny Goodman. In Ocean Park there were two more ballrooms. Then there was the grand ballroom on the Venice Pier and one on the Ocean front pier. We were certainly fortunate. I say this despite the fact that we were poor for we grew up in the midst of the great financial depression and the massive unemployment of the nineteen thirties. We may have been poor but we did not know it as everyone else in town was just as poor, but we were never hungry.
An important event occurred in 1933. We were enjoying our Easter week vacation from school, when a major earthquake struck. The Venice High campus was home to many beautiful two-story buildings. To me, the buildings seemed like a romantic reconstruction of castles. The force of the quake caused many cracks to develop, and our beautiful buildings were condemned. We had to attend school, temporarily, in large army tents. The sides of the tents were raised to provide ventilation, giving us the opportunity to converse with students in adjoining tents; it was not the ideal environment.
But it was lively, especially during the annual football game against rival Inglewood High. Marauding Inglewood students, armed with green paint, raided the Venice High Campus. They painted a huge, green “I” on the capitol pillars in front of our administration building; and a green brassiere on the statue of former student Myrna Loy. The statue was part of a trio of larger-than-life classical sculptures by the head of our art department. In later years, parts of the statue were broken or vandalized, repaired, and then destroyed again.
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