Thursday, February 28, 2013

Photo Essay: Breed Street Shul, Unsafe for Entry

The Congregation Talmud Torah is a landmark in East LA's Boyle Heights neighborhood, which once housed a thriving and growing Jewish population along Brooklyn Avenue in the early 1900s.



It was known as the largest synagogue west of Chicago, and was always packed for gender-segregated services.



But in the years after World War II, in the mid-20th century, the Jewish population began to disperse to other areas of LA...



...moving their Jewish delis, bakeries, and even hospital to neighborhoods like the Fairfax District and Beverlywood.



Attendance to the synagogue declined over the decades that followed, and as new freeways sliced Boyle Heights up and cut it off from the rest of LA, the Hispanic population grew in the late 20th century (with Brooklyn Avenue being renamed Cesar Chavez Avenue in 1995), and eventually the synagogue on Breed Street - known to locals as the "Breed Street Shul" - closed because of expensive seismic retrofitting requirements to make the unreinforced masonry earthquake-proof.



Exposed to the elements, the main brick building - both inside and out - deteriorated greatly...



...but the smaller building in the back became occupied by a gang in the 1980s, its every wall tagged with graffiti...



...which has been remarkably cleaned up...



...with the walls returned to their original paint color, the original wood doors and cabinets retained, and the structure restored enough to be reopened as a community center.



The main building, however, escaped spray paint-wielding taggers but received a different sort of tag: a red one, deeming it unsafe for entry.



The windows in the shul have been replaced, and it's clear that some cleanup has happened...



...but there are still traces of the gangs of pigeons that once took over the synagogue...



...and the destruction they left behind.



Still, heavenly light pours through the stained glass windows...



...giving a feeling of exultation for visitors of any faith, gentile or Jew.



The seats are all stacked to one side...



...the benches on the other...



...revealing bits of the original floor peeking out.



Still, the pigeons left quite a residue behind...



...which must be scrubbed...



...before anyone can take a seat in there again.



Like many restoration efforts, the Breed Street Shul Project - a non-profit organization - faces budget challenges and seeks donations to help them finally complete the seismic retrofitting necessary to reopen the shul.



The main building is not going to fall down if you visit...



...unless there's an earthquake.



Then, maybe.



There aren't many Jews left in Boyle Heights, so the Breed Street Shul Project plans to rehabilitate the historic shul to reopen it for purposes that meet the diverse needs of the various populations of the neighborhood.

Although it is technically unsafe to visit, monthly tours are held for curious visitors, would-be worshippers and LA-loving historians. Just be sure to sign the waiver.

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Saturday, February 23, 2013

Photo Essay: Rockhaven Sanitarium, Closed to Public, Interior

I grew up with a profoundly mentally disturbed mother.

We spent a lot of time as young kids, squirming in the waiting room of her psychiatrist's office while she tried to hash out the details of her own childhood. As I look back, I think she should have been hospitalized, or, at times, committed to some kind of facility. With constant threats of suicide - specifically, drowning herself in the bathtub - she was a danger to herself and, as we found out, to both of her children.

I'm surprised we made it out of there alive.

But all the while, she refused to admit her own craziness, and instead turned the diagnosis back on us, sending me to a psychiatrist of my own as early as the age of three, and refusing any sessions that my multiple therapists asked her to attend.

Even when her own brother, to whom she always seemed somewhat unnaturally attached, died in a hospital, strapped to a bed, under the grip of schizophrenia, she didn't seem particularly alarmed.

Meanwhile, I questioned my genetic mental legacy, and wondered what synapse-firing fate would befall me as I grew older.

Outside a place like Rockhaven Sanitarium, the last standing sanctuary for the mentally ill in the Crescenta Valley just outside Los Angeles, it doesn't seem like such a bad place, if one is to be sent away.



But upon entering the hallways which once housed facilities for electroshock therapy, water therapy, and massage therapy...



...I became emotionally distraught.



There are no existing signs of such medieval torture therapies...



...especially since the sanitarium only just closed about seven years ago...



...and had been operating as a modern facility, mostly for the elderly and demented in its latter days.



But the decor and the equipment had probably not been changed or upgraded in decades, as evidenced by mysterious stains on the carpet...



...the shadows which nearly engulfed the light eeking through the curtains...



...and the tiny closet windows, which provided a potential escape route to captive patients like Marilyn Monroe's mother.



The vacant rooms are surprisingly undisturbed, with some personal effects carefully placed...



...but the hallways are empty.



Many of the rooms are not.



They smell of age, loneliness and abandonment.



The energy is not one of convalescence...



...but of deterioration.



Once you arrived at Rockhaven Sanitarium, it was unlikely you would ever leave.



And while some might complain about being "on the outside looking in," these patients were permanently on the inside looking out...



...watching life pass them by...



...unless someone came to visit.



Termites have now gotten to many of the windows, some of which are covered, their glass cracked.



The old, walk-in refrigerator holds no cold food...



...nor any kitchen personnel.



The burners do no cooking.



And, except on rare occasion...



...nobody ever comes in to visit anymore.

And no one ever got out.

Related Post:
Photo Essay: Rockhaven Sanitarium, Closed to Public, Exterior

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Friday, February 22, 2013

Photo Essay: Rockhaven Sanitarium, Closed to Public, Exterior

I have been called "crazy" by one of my assistants and one of my bosses, both lovingly.

My parents thought my temper tantrums when I was three were a result of some kind of mental illness, so they sent me to a child psychiatrist. It turns out I was almost blind and, as an educator postulated some ten years later, intellectually gifted but unable to articulate myself, both resulting in screaming and rolling around on the floor.

The psychiatrist told my parents I had a lot of anger.

They were probably both right.

Even a hairdresser told me my hair was crazy the other night, unsolicited. Just because my hair doesn't hold curl doesn't make it crazy.

But whether the crazy was inside my own head or not, I have struggled with a lot of crazy in my life, bouncing between therapists, looking for love and friendship more than a diagnosis. Still, I've always thought I might end up at a place like Rockhaven Sanitarium, a sanctuary for female mentally ill patients.



Rockhaven, located in the Crescenta Valley, and owned by the City of Glendale, is closed to the public now...



...so I probably won't end up there per se...



...but perhaps someplace like it.



Rockhaven was founded in 1923 by Agnes Richards, a nurse who, upon returning from World War I, was appalled at the poor treatment of mentally ill patients at other facilities.



In the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, she found a rock house (eventually destroyed and replaced) which would become a haven for patients with all sorts of disorders...



...until it shut down in 2006, the last operating sanitarium of the Crescenta Valley, an area once full of them.



In the end, most of its patients were of the older variety, suffering from dementia.



Rockhaven provided a gorgeous - and once isolated - setting for them, in a relatively sprawling campus of Spanish Revival buildings (many of which were subsequently purchased by Richards for the ever-growing expansion of Rockhaven)...



...full of statues...



...and fountains...



...but also intricately landscaped gardens...



...which were painstakingly maintained until the end.



Next door to the main house, "The Rose" was a cottage for some of the sanitarium's more affluent residents...



...an example of one of the properties acquired and added to the sanitarium's facilities...



...whose entire structure was actually rotated to face inwards towards the gardens rather than outwards towards the street.



The pathways are relatively simple now, much of the landscaping having been lost without the resources to maintain it.



In fact, most of the maintenance of the property is done now by volunteers...



...who try to protect it from intruders and vandalism...



...as well as do a bit of painting...



...arrangement of furniture, and whatever other simple upkeep necessary...



...until the budget comes through to fully restore it.



The hope is that it will be turned into a public park (instead of, say, condos, or worse yet, demolition)...



...to open it to the public once again...



...since the sanitarium once welcomed visitors of all sorts, from singing chorales...



...to shoppers interested in purchasing the crafts created by its residents as part of their art therapy.



But now, it is protectively locked...



...and many of the uneven walkways are protectively blocked.



The outside of the sanitarium is peaceful...



...recalling the healing powers of sitting in the sunlight...



...and breathing in the mountain air.



But right now, it's not entirely safe to wander around, with many water pipes and electrical and gas lines running along the exteriors of the structures...



...and many more repairs to be made.

From the outside, Rockhaven Sanitarium doesn't seem like such a bad place to be sent, to live out one's final days.

But from the inside, you can understand why some of its residents - including Marilyn Monroe's mother, who famously tried to commit suicide and escape - wanted to get out.

Stay tuned for photos of the interior of Rockhaven Sanitarium.

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