director-betsy-kalin

Betsy Kalin.

I wrote this story for the second issue of “Brooklyn & Boyle,” a monthly magazine about Art & Life in Boyle Heights and Beyond. It was originally published in December of 2008.

When Connecticut transplant Betsy Kalin was approached to make a documentary on Boyle Heights, nothing in her activist and filmmaking background had prepared her for the obstacles ahead: “Boyle Heights is the richest area that I’ve ever been in contact with,” Kalin confesses after two years of total immersion in the neighborhood’s history, past and current. “How do you choose one amongst the million great stories? That was the biggest struggle.”

Her starting point was photographer and entrepreneur Eric Waterman, who originated the project and produced it. “It has such resonance for him because his family is from Boyle Heights,” says Kalin. Even though Waterman’s parents left in the 1940’s and Eric was raised in the valley, his family would talk about Boyle Heights all the time and would often bring him back to visit. This is a story Kalin would hear time and again as she began researching the neighborhood. “People who lived in Boyle Heights in the 20’s are still going back and feel a strong attachment to it, and people who live there now share the same passion,” Kalin remarks. “I don’t hear people in my neighborhood say ‘I was raised in West Hollywood, what a great place!’ Why does Boyle Heights have this power that other neighborhoods don’t have?”

Kalin found answers in the friendships of 50 plus years featured in the film: Floyd Jeter, the first African American to receive a track USC scholarship in 1955, and his Russian Molokan neighbor Bill Novikoff; Marsha Vasquez, Momo Yoshima and Dian Harrison, three women activists who met at Belvedere Junior High School. Kalin even captures on camera 89 year-old Japanese American Cedrick Shimo‘s visit to his old home. Forced to leave their house after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Cedrick’s family was sent to internment camps never to return to Boyle Heights to live. Saul Ines, a 30-year old Mexican American Cal Arts student who now lives in the house with his parents, welcomes Cedrick home and the men instantly bond over their shared upbringing.

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Cedrick and Saul’s first meeting. Photo by Martha Nakagawa.


Titled FRIENDS IN COMMON, Kalin’s documentary tells the story of Boyle Heights’ multicultural friendships from the 1930’s to the present and how history affected its residents. From there, the film’s central theme evolved into a lesson in building community. “How come Boyle Heights was able to function as a multiethnic community before the word multicultural was even invented?” asks Kalin. “It wasn’t a community that was built on assimilation. It was a community where, if you were a Russian Molokan, you went to the Molokan church, but that didn’t preclude you from having friends from other backgrounds. Of course there was racism. It’s not like it was Utopia. I think there were 80 different nationalities at Roosevelt High School. We’re that diverse now but we don’t have that sense of community across backgrounds. I want people to look at these stories of friendships and yes these are friendships but they’re also representative of community. If these people hadn’t talked to each other, they wouldn’t have the richness that they now have.”

Kalin was also drawn to the film because of all the political activism that was going on at the time. “You had, among others, the Mexican revolutionaries, the Eastern European Jews who fled because they were Socialists, Communists, and Anarchists. These movements are all based in class, in working together, and in acceptance of people from different backgrounds.” Kalin stresses that these groups shared a history of persecution in their native countries and, after escaping to America, ended up in Boyle Heights because they were all forbidden to move to other neighborhoods by the racially-motivated covenants laws.

Touched by Boyle Heights’ power, Kalin is hoping one day to become one of its residents. “Walking the streets today you really get this amazing sense of community which is absent from a lot of places in Los Angeles.” But Kalin is also aware of the frictions between old and new immigrants. “Boyle Heights is an immigrant neighborhood that’s shifted its whole life and will keep on shifting. I’m just sad that a lot of people who live there now don’t know Boyle Heights’ rich history.”

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Bill Novikoff and Floyd Jeter.

FRIENDS IN COMMON is still a work in progress. The passionate director is looking for residents to loan her their home movies and photographs and she can still be seen filming in the neighborhood. “We have amazing footage of the East LA classic football game. It’s Garfield vs. Roosevelt High. 20,000 are in attendance for a high school football game. It’s incredible!” Past resident Floyd Jeter is seen on the bleachers beaming with pride: “It’s 2 different schools but one community!’

For more information on the film, go to http://www.bluemediawater.org . Betsy Kalin can be reached at itchybee@gmail.com.

Information on Kalin’s first documentary, “Hearts Cracked Open” about Tantra for women who love women, can be found at http://www.heartscrackedopen.com.

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Marsha Vasquez & Momo Yoshima. Photo by Betsy Kalin.

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