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Is East LA's Giant Tamale Building Worth Saving?

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A debate over how, and when, to save an iconic structure.

East LA's tamale building
East LA's tamale building
LA Public Library
Farley Elliott is the Senior Editor at Eater LA and the author of Los Angeles Street Food: A History From Tamaleros to Taco Trucks. He covers restaurants in every form, from breaking news to the culture, people, and history that surrounds LA's dining landscape.

After recent successful conservation efforts for iconic buildings like Norms on La Cienega, there’s even more eyeballs on the fading architecture of Los Angeles. One of the most recent examples is a low-slung building along Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles that’s crafted to look like a single hulking tamale. Despite its humble shape and fading green paint job, the building has unwittingly landed at the center of a colorful dialogue about what it means to preserve a building.

The LA Times digs deeper into the 1920’s building, which ceased being an eatery in 1984 and now houses, at least in part, a beauty parlor. Nearby residents themselves are divided on whether or not to rally behind the building, with some calling it an eyesore and others embracing its quirkiness. The bigger issue, however, is the lack of resources available for anyone who would want to stand up for the fading storefront.

With some calling it an eyesore and others embracing its quirkiness

Only recently has LA County even considered taking up a more egalitarian approach to conservation, which would include a more open nomination process that would then be approved up the political chain. Should the ordinance pass, just about anyone within a given community could at least in theory set the wheels in motion for trying to keep a building from turning to rubble beneath the whims of a developer.

Of course it’s those same developers and already bogged-down bureaucrats who may not want to see such open availability for historical designation. Not only might it be bad for business, it’s easy to see how someone could leverage the power of a potentially costly preservation campaign against a developer sometime in the future, let alone clog up an already busy system with more requests than can be easily managed.

Still, it’s an interesting debate and one that gets to the heart of many recent restaurant preservation efforts. Should the County ordinance pass, it’s possible that the pale green tamal of East L.A. could soon become something of a landmark, whether all the locals want it to or not.