Boyle Heights: Neighborhood Sites and Insights
First Monday

Boyle Heights: Neighborhood Sites and Insights, A Multicultural Community Partnership Initiative of the Japanese American National Museum by Audrey Lee-Sung


Why Boyle Heights?
Final Thoughts




The Japanese American National Museum ( is the first museum in the United States expressly dedicated to sharing the history and culture of Americans of Japanese ancestry. Through the building of a comprehensive collection of material culture and developing a varied program of exhibitions, educational activities, public programs and publications, the National Museum tells the story Japanese Americans to a national and international audience.

The mission of the Japanese American National Museum is to promote understanding and appreciation of America's ethnic and cultural diversity by preserving, interpreting and sharing the experiences of Japanese Americans.

As a cultural history institution, the National Museum has always recognized the link between history, culture and community. The Japanese American community of Los Angeles exists in relationship to many other communities. The National Museum therefore, cannot operate in isolation. In order to explore fully what it means to be Japanese American in contemporary society, the National Museum must probe the broader issues of ethnic and racial identity, family and home, and neighborhood and community. With its rich diversity of ethnic groups, religions, and races in Los Angeles, we are continually reminded of the necessity of becoming increasingly inclusive in our definition of community.

One of the ways in which the National Museum has met this challenge has been to develop a wide variety of partnerships and collaborative programs.

The National Museum has established itself as a leader in working collaboratively to develop innovative educational programming. The focus on the process of collaboration as much as the final products of the project contribute to our early success.

Launched in the summer of 1999 "Boyle Heights: Neighborhood Sites and Insights" extends earlier partnership models to cross disciplinary, generational, ethnic, and religious lines to examine a dynamic neighborhood that epitomizes the ongoing evolution of multicultural America. This initiative is a collaboration between the Japanese American National Museum and diverse community organizations in the Boyle Heights neighborhood.

Our partners include the

  • International Institute of Los Angeles
    - a social service agency in Boyle Heights established in 1914. The Institute is grounded in a history of promoting multicultural understanding and cooperation, and delivers comprehensive social services and works to promote leadership training for community empowerment.
  • Jewish Historical Society of Southern California
    - established in 1952 and operated almost entirely by volunteers. For the past 18 years the Historical Society has worked to preserve and present Jewish history in Southern California through its educational and community leadership programs to preserve their institutional history, record oral histories, and offer tours of the sites of the city's early Jewish settlements.
  • Self-Help Graphics
    - a community-based visual arts center which over the past 25 years has emerged as the leading visual arts institution serving the Chicano/Mexican community of Los Angeles.
  • Theodore Roosevelt Senior High School
    - a public high school located in Boyle Heights. Established in 1922, the changing student population has reflected the transformations of the neighborhood's residential demographics. For instance, in the early 1940s Roosevelt students organized over 30 ethnic societies. During World War II, the school lost one-third of its population as a consequence of the forced removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast and the enlistment of young men into the armed forces. Today the school has a student population of approximately 5,200 over 98% of whom are Latino.

The Boyle Heights project also includes an advisory group of scholars and community experts.



Why Boyle Heights?

Situated just east of Little Tokyo, where the Japanese American National Museum is located, Boyle Heights has long been a gateway for newcomers to the city. From the 1920s to the 1950s it was Los Angeles' most heterogeneous neighborhood, serving as home to large concentrations of Jews, Mexicans, and Japanese Americans, as well as Russian Molokans, African Americans, and people of Armenian, Italian, and Chinese descent. Today the neighborhood is primarily Latino, and it continues to serve as a port of entry for a number of the city's immigrant groups.

The project focuses on neighborhood life as a complex whole, rather than on discrete ethnic groups, and it underscores multicultural and multigenerational interaction and exchange. The particular and unique characteristics of Boyle Heights will be explored through the communities, local organizations and first person perspectives of its residents - past and present - with the twofold aim of assessing both local significance and the broader social dynamics and processes of change typical to other American urban communities.

This project utilizes a variety of formats to record, interpret and disseminate neighborhood stories, resulting in tangible products that emphasize sustainability beyond the project's completion. These include community presentation and forum, photo collection day, oral history project, high school research project, major exhibition, neighborhood program lecture series and symposium, and Web site. Additionally, the initiative hopes to provide an adaptable framework for approaching neighborhood history through collaborative partnership that has the potential for both national impact and replication.

Through our public programs and the exhibition, we encourage people to make connections between Boyle Heights and the dynamics of the communities with which they identify. Our initiative creates opportunities for people of diverse ethnic and generational backgrounds to learn about one another's experiences and histories, recognize how these converge or diverge, and consider their lives in contexts that extend beyond their immediate neighborhood, ethnic or social groups.

The exhibition, which is currently in development, will premiere in Los Angeles at the Japanese American National Museum in March 2002. Within the exhibition visitors may use a computer terminal to explore the project's Web site which will include materials from the exhibition as well as links to partner organization sites. For instance, visitors may browse an index of all oral histories collected as part of the project as well as their transcripts. They may also scroll through exhibition photographs and access the interpretive labels.

In addition, we hope to make available through the Web site the Roosevelt High School student media project that explores contemporary youth perspectives on the relationship between the neighborhood's past and present.

We are able to consider digital components to the Boyle Heights Project as a result of ongoing digital initiatives conducted through the Hirasaki National Resource Center of the Japanese American National Museum. Through a number of current collaborations and ongoing projects, the Hirasaki National Resource Center staff have catalogued and digitized selected collections, making available item-level records through workstations in the National Museum resource center via an internet server. Additionally, the National Museum will be providing access to these collections through partnerships with several union database projects sponsored by the California Digital Library. These projects include the Online Archive of California and Museums and the Online Archive of California (which was supported by IMLS). As a contributor to the California Digital Library, the National Museum will submit item-level electronic cataloging records from the collections management database, encoded archival description finding aids and associated digital images of collection items for the widest possible dissemination of information about these artifacts. The encoded finding aids will be fully searchable with the item records linked to the digital images for online viewing. Users of the California Digital Library projects will have the flexibility to search only within the Japanese American National Museum's collections or across all participating institutions with Japanese American holdings.

Museums and the Online Archive of California (MOAC) Project was developed to investigate the problems facing public users of museum collections. The MOAC Project has proposed to solve this problem by creating a prototype virtual museum archive that integrates standardized finding aids for museum and library special collections into a single source, thus providing access to collections held by archives, museum, and libraries throughout the state of California. What makes this project unique from other Online Archive of California projects, is that the finding aids will be generated from information captured by museums to describe museum collection. Collections management databases will be the source of much of this information.

The Japanese American National Museum is participating along with eight other institutions in the MOAC Project. Through this project the National Museum is receiving technical assistance in standardizing our content and digital imaging so that it is consistent and interoperable within the California Digital Library. The way in which we continue to make information available on-line for the Boyle Heights Project will be modeled after our pervious online work.



Final Thoughts

A central part of the Boyle Heights project is the development of sustainable partnerships. We hope that the efforts initiated in this collaboration will continue in the activities of all the partnering organizations, who may continue with the project outcomes or adapt aspects for use in their future programming. Above all, we hope that the partnership experience will promote lasting intercultural relations and linkages between participating organizations and communities. We expect that by working together, the partners will reinforce each other's involvement in Boyle Heights. Our shared expertise and information will assist us in developing our own respective programs and help us to work with other communities in the future.

For a more detailed description of the Boyle Heights project, "Boyle Heights: Neighborhood Sites and Insights," please visit the IMLS Web site. Our proposal is posted as a sample under the National Leadership Grants for Museums program, under Museums in the Community. For additional information on the Japanese American National Museum, please visit our Web site, End of article


About the Author

Audrey Lee-Sung is the project director at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles for "Boyle Heights: Neighborhood Sites and Insights" and oversees all operational aspects of the project, including partnership development.



Three key staff have been involved in this project and contributed to this paper. They are:

Darcie Iki is co-curator for the project and shares responsibility for research, collections and conceptualization of the exhibition content and script. Ms. Iki is also coordinating the oral history interviewing and developing the audio installations.

Sojin Kim, Ph.D. is co-curator for the project, and along with Ms. Iki, shares responsibility for research, collections and conceptualization of the exhibition content and script. Dr. Kim is also involved with partnership development.

Cameron Trowbridge is director of the Hirasaki National Resource Center and Collections of the Japanese American National Museum. Mr. Trowbridge is responsible for managing digital access initiatives, reference and licensing services, collection development and special projects.

Editorial history

Paper received 5 March 2001; accepted 16 March 2001.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2001, First Monday

Boyle Heights: Neighborhood Sites and Insights, A Multicultural Community Partnership Initiative of the Japanese American National Museum by Audrey Lee-Sung
First Monday, volume 6, number 4 (April 2001),

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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