The first time I saw residential Echo Park/Elysian Heights I thought, this place has been forgotten. It was as if, when you turned north off of Sunset, you slipped over an invisible edge and drove into a small town, with a wide winding central Avenue and independent shops scattered from block to block. Only the later model cars served as calendar markers. The houses were old. There was a deco gas station, which hadn't functioned in decades, but which had stood in place, unconverted (it is now for sale). There was graffiti and houses with junk piles in their front yards. You could hear chickens, and there were goats.
Clearly there was not enough money here to tear down the old houses. It was the kind of place where buildings were adapted and re-adapted by small-business people who didn't get their financing from the bank. It reminded me of Memphis, Tennessee, circa 1988. The more money in a neighborhood, the more private its citizens, the less memory. Until recently, Echo Park could be described as Mexican-American and Cuban-American working class — despite the presence of the old-garde avant garde, who were here since the 1910s.
It is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. It is well-documented.
I won't bore you — and myself — by going into detail about rising real-estate "values"¯ and gentrification, a neighborhood in transition. Even the slowest-moving burg is always in transition (See: Heraclitus, stepping into the same river twice). But it's happening, and as much I would like to consider myself a case apart, I am part of it. It is no longer rare to see new model Audis, BMWs etceteras rolling along the narrow streets here. (I drive a slightly dented Jetta.) So many of the old bungalows have been re-built, palettes are changing, Europeans are renting, spec houses on tiny lots are going up.
It's the rebuilding that gets my attention most of all.
Unlike neighboring Silver Lake, Echo Park is largely a neighborhood of small cottages and bungalows — and many classic bungalow courts. Houses that often date from before the turn of the previous century. When we look to preservation, we are not just looking at style but scale. Very few big houses find a reason to be built here. Interestingly, this results in a perpetuation of the creative spirit of the neighborhood — the neighborhood is swarming these days with architect-residents, the majority of them young and hungry for projects, looking to preserve as well as reshape, with clients that don't have the budget or desire for a castle on the hill. People who actually like the neighborhood.
At its quarterly meeting on Saturday, the Echo Park Historical Society went modern with presentations that focused on brand new houses and apartments. (Disclaimer: I am on the board of the EPHS.) Among the presenters was Barry Milofski of M2A Architects who recently built a genuinely attractive HUD-sponsored building in Echo Park and Louis Molina of TM Works, which is based in Echo Park.
Molina and his partner, Laurent Turin, took a dilapidated firetrap wood shack at 1528 Echo Park Avenue and turned it into something elegant. Bright, modern-looking but respectfully in scale with the houses that surround it.
As Molina told the EPHS, the most sustainable structure is one that's already been built, because the base materials already exist, don't have to be moved.
As for respecting the neighborhood, Molina points to the land as his start source in his goal to create houses that shelter but are not "indoors spaces."¯ The specific breeze and sun conditions of Echo Park, the steep hills are his start points. He avoids creating front doors.
Note: as the EPHS was having its quarterly meeting, there was another gathering scheduled, less than half a mile away, that also dealt with the changing urban landscape in Echo Park. This meeting — as I understand -- addressed the concerns of many residents that low-income families are being priced out of the neighborhood.
It brings me to a question I asked myself as soon as I thought of diving into Chicken Corner¯: I love my neighborhood. I have lived here since 1995 (minus two years in Iowa). But what does it mean to love a place that I have known only ten years, a place that is changing rapidly and in ways I don't fully understand?
One thing I can say is that there is a lot of exciting energy here right now. New energy. There are several collective nonprofit organizations that have popped up since the turn of this century.
These include MachineProject.com, which seeks to make machines accessible to artists — it has a storefront on Alvarado; Echo Park Film Center, also with a storefront on Alvarado, has a microcinema and educational programs that help neighborhood teenagers make their own films; the Fallen Fruit collective — concerned by extension with environmental and public space issues, not to mention fallen fruit — has a presence in Echo Park.