The iconic Canter’s Deli has anchored Fairfax Avenue since moving there in 1939, following the wave of Jews who left Boyle Heights and moved west. For anyone who’s lived in LA for a long time, Fairfax Avenue was the center of Jewish community. But now, like so many of our neighborhoods, Fairfax is changing. It’s becoming a new center for another community…while still hanging on to the old one. You can see it in the businesses and the people on the street, says Isaac Engelberg in his lengthy new essay,“Sneakerheads” at Canter’s Deli: Uttering the G-word on Fairfax, recently published in the Los Angeles Review of Books blog. In the essay, the young author, who grew up with the notion of Fairfax Avenue as the center of Jewish life in Los Angeles, examines how new businesses are bringing life back to the street and changing his notion of the dreaded “G” word (“gentrification”).
“A walk down the street reveals the pulsating energy at hand, where old Jews, young skaters, and artists share the street. Fairfax in 2018 is abuzz with the same foot-traffic I imagine it had in the 50s and 60s.
No longer does the street shut down for major Jewish holidays as it did before “takeover”, but the semblance of Jewish life is present. Many landlords are of the tribe, and new residents, however knowingly, pay homage to the Jewish society that once controlled the street. At Jon and Vinny’s, a restaurant on the strip, chefs use lentils and tahini sourced from Sami Makolet (an Israeli grocer), kaiser rolls from Schwartz Bakery. Even young Orthodox individuals are shopping at these skatewear shops, creating a generation wholly influenced by Fairfax’s transition. For Jewish businesses still in operation, the mixing of culture has been good for profits and in many cases has kept their business — and their history — alive.”
It’s eclectic, to say the least. Canter’s Deli has adapted by offering fusions of traditional Jewish dishes (think avocado schmear). New development, retail, and dining has brought reinvigorated life to the street, creating a unique fissure of culture for an only-in-L.A. kind of identity. The loss of Jewish culture manifests explicitly — klezmer music replaced by Kendrick — but the terms of community still exists.
Those who now call Fairfax home are young, collectively diverse, and have an amalgam of identities stitched together by the street itself. Really, it’s not sneakers that bond them — it’s Fairfax.
Engelberg is a sophomore at the University of California, Berkeley, majoring in geography and history. He has written for the Jewish Journal and the Berkeley Political Review and is a Los Angeles native. The “Sneakerheads”essay was published on August 7, 2018…and might jog some of your own memories of Fairfax Avenue.