Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Year in Highland Park

i can barely believe that at this time last year i was deep in the throes of The Escrow From Hell, a painfully disorienting six weeks that would turn me into a broke but happy homeowner in Highland Park, California. to be honest, i hadn’t spent extended amounts of time in the area save for a few parties and meetups with friends. i liked the area well enough every time i did visit, probably because it reminded me of Van Nuys, the little neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley where i grew up, which was also full of taco trucks, carnicerias and cute little houses.

when it came time to buy my cute little house, i wanted to move to Silver Lake but knew i could never afford it so i set my sights farther east. i had heard rumblings that Highland Park was supposed to be the next “it” neighborhood as other aging hipsters, also priced out of Silver Lake, were moving in and gentrifying, lured by its affordable houses and proximity to the Gold Line.

i had also heard about problems in the area, particularly with the Avenues Gang, with some people even advising me to “stay out of that ghetto.” it made me wonder whether Highland Park really was a ghetto, whether i would be shot at daily when stepping out to gather my mail. i knew that it didn’t seem ghetto during the many weekends i spent house hunting in the area. i didn’t see anyone brandishing a gun or shooting up in the street, nor did i see any homeless people. i saw working-class families mostly, having cookouts and birthday parties for the kids with those inflatable ball pits in their front yards.

sure, i did notice the graffiti and an unsavory-looking character or two, but didn’t think much of that as i see graffiti and unsavory characters everywhere in Los Angeles. to be safe, i drove through the area at night several times, waiting for bullets to whiz by my head. but all that whizzed was ranchera music. definitely not my favorite but after having spent four years living in west hollywood, where techno is blasted out of every apartment, i figured ranchera might be a nice change. still, i saw no chalk marks in the street, not even a panhandler or a prostitute.

but of course living in an area is the only way to know it, and now, after having lived here for almost a year, i’d like to say i understand why people would think Highland Park is a ghetto, but the truth is i don’t understand. i’m sure there are headlines people can point to, but it’s easy (and lazy) to find a headline that can damn pretty much every part of Los Angeles because bad shit happens all over the city, even in the “good” parts where people are quick to tell you that “these things don’t happen in this neighborhood” when they are interviewed on the evening news about the fucked up shit that just happened in their neighborhood.

i saw these people countless times in the coverage of my friend Alexander Merman’s murder in his (north of Montana) Santa Monica condo last year. and in the supposedly nice part of West Hollywood where i last lived, a man was stabbed to death at the park i took my dogs to every weekend. and Highland Park is not without its problems. indeed, there are nights when i see the ghetto bird circling overhead and copper cabs whizzing down the boulevard, presumably after the unsavory characters, whom i still see. but i accept this as the reality of living in a metropolis like Los Angeles, where safety just isn’t a guarantee.

as far as i can figure, the people who badmouth Highland Park and drive through it nervously with windows rolled up and doors locked are just petrified of Mexicans, which is stupid considering that LA is half Latino. personally, i’d rather live in an all Mexican neighborhood than all anything else, including white. my Mexican neighbors don’t knock on my door asking me to turn down my music, nor do they hassle me whenever a leaf from my tree falls into their yard. as a homeowner, the thing i want most from my neighbors is this type of healthy distance, where we respect each other’s space and stay out of each other’s business. here, i have that.

but Highland Park is more than Mexicans and taco trucks. in fact, most of the homeowners on my block are white. there’s a married couple the same age as Mo and i, middle-aged hippies who host barbecues and blast Jefferson Airplane, a retired UCLA professor and the widow of novelist Hubert Selby Jr. (she rocks). and in the blocks surrounding my house, i see black families, asian families and even gays.

it’s this kind of diversity that attracted me to the area. there is a real sense of community here, with folks looking out for one another, looking after one of another in a way i had never experienced as a renter. there are neighborhood councils and clubs, local weeklies devoted to covering the happenings in just Northeast LA, and cool events like monthly art walks and annual festivals.

plus, it’s populated by cozy mom-and-pop eateries, which means better food and no ugly strip malls full of Red Lobsters, Gaps and Applebee’s. (though the cheddar biscuits at Red Lobster are pretty good.) and for those times when i do need to pop into the Gap to buy some tank tops or hit up Crate & Barrel to buy a proper patio set, Old Town Pasadena shops are just a hop and skip away.

Highland Park is also super duper old — 123 years and counting — so it’s not uncommon to find 100-year-old craftsman houses that are just stunning. Edwardian, Victorian, Queen Anne and Eastlake styles are all represented here. this is a historic district after all, so it’s full of landmarks galore: Judson Studios, the Lummis House, the Southwest Museum (the first museum in Los Angeles), the oldest freeway in California (the 110), even soda-pop stop Galco’s (founded in 1897), which sells such hard-to-find, novelty sodas as Fukola Cola.

not as old, but equally as cool is the Audobon Center in gorgeous 400-acre Debs Park, which is the only building in Los Angeles to function fully off the grid. Mo and i took a tour of it after we first moved and i must say that their countertops, crafted entirely from sunflower seeds, were quite cool. and of course there’s the wonderful Gold Line that stops in Highland Park — a farmers market held in its parking lot every tuesday — which has changed my entire outlook on being a commuter in Los Angeles.

there are plenty of things to love about this area, and each day i live here i am thankful that i do. it’s a neighborhood that suits my sensibilities perfectly, unlike a gross place such as Brentwood, which still tops my list of LA neighborhoods i would never want to live in. (beverly hills is pretty ungodly, too.) i suppose those towns suit some people — the type who would call Highland Park a ghetto? — but for me, they are just vapid capitals with zero culture that give LA its ugly reputation as a city full of plastic and pretense, a reputation any local will tell you is unfair and untrue, simply because of the existence of neighborhoods like mine, where you'll see street vendors selling hot dogs and fresh fruit instead of anorexic pill poppers with fake tits and inflated lips.

so when an opportunity to document my beloved area arose, courtesy of a local blogger (Walter) who conducts a Highland Park photo survey each year, which he kindly opened to readers like me, i jumped at the chance and spent the last week of 2008 armed with my trusty G10, snapping away at everything i saw. the result can be seen in the flickr slideshow below. or you can view it with captions and commentary via my flickr photostream.

also worth checking out are the 555 photos Walter took for the survey. his informative captions provide insight into the area that is unmatched. reading them will make you smarter.

for me, doing this survey was fantastic, not only because it gave me a great reason to shove my camera into people’s faces and blind them with my flash, but also because it allowed me to explore my new community in a more thorough way. after doing so, i can conclusively say that Highland Park is where i plan to live for many more years, if not forever. it possesses just the right blend of flavor, quirks and grit that, when taken together, are the very definition of what Los Angeles means (to me). plus, the tacos are kick-ass. (hullo, La Estrella!)

the graffiti i can do without, but i hear it used to be far worse and that the whole area has been turning cleaner, kinder and gentler over the years. a stronger police presence is helping it move away from being the gang and graffiti stronghold that gave it its ghetto reputation. everyone who’s lived here longer than i have has confirmed that Highland Park is changing. it’s gentrifying. cute shops and bars are starting to pepper the main boulevards, with more slated to open in the coming year. i feel like i’ve moved here at just the right time — after the first starbucks but before the first yoga studio.

i see great potential in this neighborhood and only hope that i can contribute to its growth in some small way, even if it’s just by standing on the sidelines, beaming with pride, my heart at ease with the knowledge that i’ve found the right home for it. but if the day comes that i step onto the boulevard and see street vendors with fake tits and inflated lips, i will move in a heartbeat.


Anonymous said...

Gentrification is wrong

Arcie said...

Milla, I'm 2 days shy of 9 months of being a HP homeowner. I loved your blog and can relate 100%. You captured so much of what I experienced and what essentially drew me to this neighborhood..... I couldn't have said it better myself. Thank you for putting my thoughts and feelings into words.

Milla said...

thanks, Arcie! hope to see you around the neighborhood.