The padlock swinging from the gate suggested that there was once something special in this place, something to keep, something to guard. But whatever magic there might have been was long gone by the time Frankie Firme arrived this week, stepping through a hole in the fence into weeds so dense they muffled the bustle of his beloved East L.A.
In the back of the lot, arsonists had gotten to one abandoned shack and gang bangers to another, peeling back its corrugated walls to paint their hieroglyphics inside.
That introduction, shouted by an East L.A. band called Thee Midniters, was the opening of the instrumental song "Whittier Boulevard." In 1965, cruisers, low-riders and brown-is-beautiful pioneers made the song an Eastside anthem -- and cemented Whittier Boulevard itself as a defining pathway in the development of Latino Los Angeles.
Today, at long last, the boulevard is getting a face-lift.
It would be a stretch to call it a revitalization project because much of the street -- a 16-mile thoroughfare stretching from downtown Los Angeles through Montebello, Pico Rivera and Whittier and into the northern tip of Orange County -- was never much to look at.
Still, tens of millions of public and private dollars have begun filtering in along the boulevard, targeting unkempt medians, crumbling curbs, abandoned lots. There are dozens of condos, apartments and houses going up, and officials have hatched plans for nearly a dozen mixed-use projects in coming years, with European-style, street-level shops and restaurants below homes.
If it all falls into place, it will be the largest civic commitment to the boulevard since the first asphalt was poured. Perhaps the boulevard -- long maligned and neglected but arguably as important to El Movimiento as any school walkout or farmworker rally -- is finally getting its due.
Rebuilding the boulevard will be a daunting task. Evidence of that is everywhere.
It's in the bathroom of a McDonald's near Atlantic Boulevard, in East L.A., where competing gangs have put graffiti on the door, floor, walls, sink, soap dispenser, toilet seat and toilet paper dispenser.
It's down the street at the Golden Gate Theater, glorious when it opened in 1927 and now empty, stripped of its ornate facade and browned by age and smog.
It's in the city of Whittier, near Whittier Boulevard and Colima Road, where development is so uneven that there is a sex-toy shop next to a children's furniture store.
It's in the abandoned lot that Firme walked through this week. In the early 1960s, he said, the lot was one of a handful of hot spots where a new culture was developing around the twin pillars of Chicano music and cars.
It might not look like much now, he said, but back then one of the little buildings on the lot -- the one since torched by arsonists -- was home to a thriving bootleg business that churned out tapes and eight-track recordings of Chicano bands. They included Thee Midniters -- two E's in "Thee" to avoid litigation with The Midnighters -- Cannibal & The Headhunters and The Premiers.
The other building was a makeshift garage. Cruisers brought in cars to get them souped up, sometimes with "cherry bombs" -- a reverse muffler of sorts that gave cars a loud and illegal brap-brap-brap sound -- or by lowering the bodies of cars nearly to the ground.
Those who could not afford to lower their cars in a garage did it the old-fashioned way: by driving with chunks of concrete in their trunks.
Every weekend, cruisers would gather -- many of them at a staging area around Calvary Cemetery in East L.A. -- and then "take a trip down Whittier Boulevard."
Similar cultures existed elsewhere, of course. Here, though, cruising meant far more than a mere distraction. Firme noted that when he was young, his father -- a butcher -- could not secure financing to buy a new car because of his ethnicity. So fixing up older cars became an exercise in pride. A nice car represented freedom, and promise.
"The whole thing was about mobility," said Carlos Montes, 60, who cruised back then and went on to become a prominent Latino leader and activist. "You might live in the barrio -- but you had a car."
East L.A. getting a long-overdue face-lift
Millions are being spent in the area along Whittier Boulevard that in its heyday was a center of Latino pride and activism.
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