Gentrification: the Catch-22, venerated or hated, always welcome, but not entirely, is happening in Highland Park.
This hilly and picturesque neighborhood has a population that is approximately 72% Latino and has been seeing a shift in demographics and businesses for the last few decades. Most of this change is evident when looking at the rehabilitated facades of the residences clumped between the two major corridors that traverse through the neighborhood, York Boulevard and Figueroa Street.
The western end of York has drawn much more attention in recent years regarding the neighborhoods transformation, as opposed to Figueroa Street that neatly runs along the Arroyo Seco- and for a good reason. Anywhere east of Avenue 50 on either side of York Boulevard you will find gastropubs and fine dining restaurants, cafes, book stores and bars all strategically popping up next to the bodegas, party stores and Mexican eateries that have been serving the community for in many cases, dozens of years. At the moment, this diversity is a truly beautiful thing; people from all different cultures and backgrounds interacting with each other as they pass through the Boulevard shopping, eating and co-existing in the midst of an eclectic make-up of businesses- the hub of Highland Park’s urban gentry.
But how long is this going to last? Surely there has to be a turning point. Can the new businesses and the old continue to bourgeon side by side…?
I for one am not particularly optimistic about this.
So before it’s too late and all the beloved eateries disappear and are pushed out into the sprawling landscape from the increased rents that gentrification inevitably brings, I decided to eat my way through the neighborhood, consuming the best quesadillas, mariscos tacos and burritos, jugo’s, huaraches, ceviche, barbacoa and tacos de papa that this northeast locale has to offer. But first, as always, let’s take a look into the neighborhoods past to get a better understanding of why these current migration trends are happening today.
THE PAST: AN ARROYO SECO COMMUNITY
Nestled between Pasadena and downtown Los Angeles, Highland Park, and its various smaller neighborhoods, represents a direct link to the developmental and cultural history of Southern California.
Originally discovered thousands of years ago by the ancestors of the Chumash, the area was later settled by the Tongwa Band of the Shoshone, who were renamed the Gabrieleños with the establishment of the San Gabriel Mission.
For close to a hundred years, Don Jose Maria Verdugo, the Corporal Guard at the Mission, owned most of the land in the area of today’s Highland Park (then called Rancho San Rafael) until 1869, when the parcels of land were sold to the settlers that came from the Eastern states for new opportunities.
For a little over a decade, the Rancho was possessed by several different owners, but eventually ended up in the hands of George Morgan and Albert Judson who purchased the Rancho in 1885. A year later, the two men developed the Highland Park Tract that slowly turned into a sought after residential community, marking the beginning of Highland Park as we know it today.
In the mid 1890’s, the Pasadena Street Railroad merged with the Los Angeles Electric Railway to form the first interurban rail line in Southern California. The line transported passengers from downtown Los Angeles through Highland Park and Garvanza and into Pasadena.
With the arrival of the rail line, the Highland Park Tract flourished; despite various difficulties like removing illicit businesses, gaining access to utilities and maintaining support and protection from local police. Los Angeles, abundant with these resources, happily annexed the community into the City in 1895, creating what was the first true expansion of the soon to be vast metropolis.
With the establishment of Occidental College (originally located in Boyle Heights, moved to Highland Park in 1898) art societies followed, and soon the rustic community along the Arroyo became a hub for artists, intellectuals and was attractive to non-city dwellers who wanted to be close to the urban hullabaloo.
The prevalent Arts and Crafts and Plein Air Movements of the early 20th century (Arroyo Culture) celebrated a return to nature, material and craft, rejecting the impersonal nature of mass-produced goods. Today this is evident when examining the craftsmanship of the residences in the neighborhood that are composed of local materials, like Arroyo Stone (El Alisal) and through paintings by Marion Wachtel.
The communities artistic inclinations naturally attracted architects that brought to life residences that encompass nearly every architectural style popular from the 1880’s through the 1940’s: Queen Anne, Shingle, Mission Revival, Tudor Revival and Craftsman to name a few; transforming this hilly landscape where sheep once roamed into the first suburb of Los Angeles.
The completion of the Arroyo Seco Parkway in 1940 was heavily celebrated by the City. Though, the arrival of one of the nation’s first freeways had unexpected consequences for the neighborhood and its residents. After its completion, Highland Park entered a period of gradual decline, the area trapped between two distinct geographies and political powers. The Parkway, along with the floods of 1938 and the subsequent channelization of the Arroyo Seco shifted the sense of character in Highland Park from a suburban pastoral to a concrete inner city.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles’ vast street car system was systematically dismantled in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The end of the streetcar began a drift towards a more disconnected, automobile-centric city, one that favored a vast network of surface parking lots connected by freeways.
As early as the 1920’s, continuing into the 1950s, predominantly white residents of Highland Park began looking to other areas of Los Angeles for housing, such as Mid-Wilshire, which offered both new housing options and bourgeoning commercial districts. As one community moved out, new residents in search of cheaper rents transformed the face of Highland Park. Concurrently, real estate developers and property owners eager to maximize cheap rentals in the area started subdividing the large Victorian and Craftsman homes.
By the late 1960s and 1970s Highland Park was home to a large number of Mexican immigrant families, making it a second and third generation Mexican-American barrio.
At the same time, the area became the acme for emerging Latino art movements where public murals, street exhibition spaces and avant-garde performances broke into the popular imagination, gaining widespread local attention and, in the case of Chicano graphic and mural art, international exposure.
Until the late 1990’s, Highland Park and its neighboring communities: Cypress Park, Glassell Park and Elysian Valley (Frog town) experienced the rise of one of Los Angeles largest eastside gangs, Las Avenidas (The Avenues). The origins of Las Avenidas can be traced as far back as the 1950s from the tearing down of neighborhoods such as Rose Hill and Chavez Ravine, creating an influx of displaced youth joining the gang.
For the last two decades, Highland Park has been experiencing a movement of middle class white families coming back into the community and as a result, the efficacy of the neighborhoods social and economic landscape has naturally been altered. According to the United States Census Bureau, from 1990-2010, it was found that there has been an increase in the neighborhoods population by 15%, an increase in its residents educational attainment by 25%, an increase in median household income by 38% and an increase in property values by 59%.
This is big, it’s huge! So why is this all happening?
A GOOD NEIGHBORHOOD
According to author and activist Jane Jacobs, there are key elements to the success of a good neighborhood, its bonhomie and its ability to generate exuberant diversity. And as a result of this community’s new found popularity, surely Highland Park must be a good neighborhood?
First, the neighborhood must serve more than one primary function- often more than two. These functions must insure the presence of people who go outdoors with different schedules and are in the same place for different purposes- but are able to use many facilitates in common.
Highland Park’s diverse makeup of businesses truly draws both the diurnal and nocturnal. At all hours of the day, people flood the sidewalks as they commute to work, school, for entertainment and leisure. With the influx of new residents to the area, the community has seen even more bars, restaurants, clubs and taco trucks along the commercial thoroughfares, which inevitably attracts folks to the streets and sidewalks at the darkest hours of the night, creating a safer environment with more eyes on the street. What’s more, the neighborhoods parks are used for all sorts of different activities, by a diverse group of people, at all hours of the day.
In addition to that, there are more types of people coming into the neighborhood with Metro’s Gold Line, bringing about 42,000 riders per day through the Arroyo. The Gold Line has created a shared experience among the populace of varied areas, emphasizing the need for residents to coexist in public spaces, regardless of income or race. And this sort of indirect social engineering is creating a healthy, heterogeneous community in Highland Park that is absent in many other neighborhoods in the City.
With this comes the steady rebirth of the Arroyo Culture, present today like it was more than a century ago: like Plein Air artist Richard Willson, whose brush strokes captures the beauty and mystics of today’s Arroyo, and the Arts and Craft Movement expressed today through the Do It Yourself (DIY) sensibilities of the new generation of artists and cultural producers that live in the neighborhood.
Second, most blocks are to be short, streets & opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.
Los Angeles, unfamiliar with this concept, has remarkably made an exception in Highland Park. The neighborhood is full of meaningful blocks that are both perpendicular and structured to illogical and acute; providing active reasons for people to use them. The commercially zoned areas in the neighborhood, which in some cases are very much derelict, have become immanent opportunities for many of the recent transplants who understand the value of starting business on short blocks, those that are easily accessible from any part of the neighborhood. For example, James Graham, owner of Ba on York Boulevard, opened his restaurant in its current location simply to have the luxury of being able to walk to work.
Third, the neighborhood must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, a good proportion of old ones.
More than anything else, Highland Park has been extremely successful with this. During the 1980s, new housing developments were threatening to overrun the historic character of the neighborhood, generating a strong community interest in preserving and celebrating the history of the area. This in turn prompted the City to designate parts of the neighborhood into a Historic Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ) or Historic District in 1994; and historic districts are generators of economic development. One study found that over a twenty year period, housing located in Highland Park-Garvanza’s HPOZ value increased 26% more than properties located in adjacent areas that are not a part of the historic district.
This, along with the availability of affordable housing that in many cases are architecturally significant, the older buildings along Figueroa and York that are getting a second chance and the pull of the arts and culture scene in Highland Park have been the primary draw for the growing number of its new residents.
Fourth, there must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there. This includes people presence because of residence.
Los Angeles is not a concentrated city; it is a sprawled landscape with sporadic pockets of dense populations. However, Highland Park, one of the larger neighborhoods in the City at 3.5 square miles, has one of the higher population densities in all of Los Angeles with 17,000 people per square mile. This high concentration of people not only supports a diverse array of cultural specialties, but also establishes exuberant richness of differences and possibilities, many of these distinctions unique and unpredictable and all the more valuable because they are.
It is true that the new residents to Highland Park are creating a more diverse sense of place, which from my experience seems to be welcomed by most. Though to maintain this eclectic makeup of demographics and commerce, there needs to be winners in space from every background… Let me elaborate.
The winners in competition of space will represent only a narrow segment of the many uses that together create a good neighborhood, diversity and success. Whichever one or few uses that emerge as the most profitable in the locality will be repeated and repeated, crowding out the overwhelming less profitable forms of use- potentially those businesses (hole-in-the-wall restaurants) that are predominantly supported by the residents from lower socio-economic backgrounds; which in turn could have the effect to transform the neighborhood into a monotonous middle-class bohemia.
So to prevent this from happening, we must eat our way through the neighborhood, stuffing ourselves at the eateries that are not only integral contributors to the vibrant character of the neighborhood, but are also businesses that cook-up some of the best Mexican dishes in the all of Highland Park.
The following is a short rundown of just a couple of places that can be visited in one afternoon, with highlights of my absolute favorite dishes in the neighborhood and of course, accompanied with walking directions.
A NEIGHBORHOOD FOOD TOUR
Public transportation in Los Angeles is much more convenient than you think, jump on the Gold Line and head to Highland Park- exit at Marmion Way and Avenue 57.
Head south from the station and make a left (east) on Avenue 57, continue for about a block until you hit Figueroa Street. Make a right on Figueroa and continue down the culturally vibrant street and take note of the pristine buildings that are neatly erected side by side underneath the lanky Mexican Fan Palm trees that stand in a slightly apologetic manner from their failed attempts at creating shade. In the distance, you will notice Mount Washington popping up from the horizon, supporting hundreds of tiny boxes.
On the east side of Figueroa Street between Avenue 54 and Avenue 53, you will see a single story gabled structure that is home to a vast array of Mexican dishes, many of which derive straight from Mexico City. Metro Balderas, named after an underground train station in Mexico City has A-1 pambazos, carnitas tacos, gorditas and sopes that will justly satisfy your gustation. Though, whenever I go there, I like to get the quesadillas… not just any quesadillas, but ones that are filled with corn fungus [smut] or squash blossoms. The huitlacoche (corn fungus) is topped with Oaxacan cheese, creama, lettuce and onion and is held together with a thick, freshly made masa tortilla. Delicious in its simplicity, the huitlacoche is not only savory, but also has strong notes of earthiness.
Still hungry? Then you also must try the quesadilla flor de calabaza (saute of squash blossoms and vegetables). Made up with the same components as the aforementioned, although this quesadilla has a crunchier texture, is slightly acidic and is rewarding to both carnivores and herbivores alike.
Continue your way south on Figueroa Street and within a few short blocks, you will have reached your next destination: Via-Mar Seafood. Constructed directly in front of a single-family home, Via-Mar Seafood prides itself in serving top quality mariscos in connection to those found along the coast in Baja. Hold off on the ceviche here, we will get to that later.
This is the place to get your tacos stuffed with your favorite seafood, whether it’s fish, shrimp and octopus, grilled or evenly coated in a rich batter; you cannot go wrong. If you prefer your seafood with large flour tortillas, then opt for the scallop or shrimp burrito, where the juices of these fresh meats are enveloped together by the skillful hands of the burrito origamists…. The sweet smell of the ocean will never seem so close.
Backtrack half a block on Figueroa Street to Avenue 52 and make a left (northwest). You will now be traversing through the heart of Highland Park’s residential area and historic district. Continue all the way up Avenue 52 to Aldama Street and make a right. It is at this moment when passing through the eclectic neighborhood trying to differentiate all the different architectural styles and their alterations that you will get a sense of the warm, yet vibrant character that is Highland Park- a truly a beautiful thing.
Make a slight left on Holland Avenue and head three blocks north until you hit Irvington Place and make another left. Make a right on Avenue 52 and continue all the way until you hit the commercial corridor of York Boulevard. At last, you have made it. If you are full, make a left on York and check out all the new shops, cafes, bars and restaurants that were mentioned above (the hints of Highland Parks gentrification). But if you are here to eat, simply cross to the north side of York Blvd. and make a right (east).
The brightly painted Jugo’s Azteca is difficult to miss. If you are in the mood for some refreshing juice or smoothies, raspados (shaved ice), or bionicos (fruit salads) then this is the place for you. The unadulterated fruit and vegetables are blended together and come in dozens of different concoctions. Anything with ginger always manages to find a way to my heart, though on my latest venture, I had the #16 Antioxidante, which is a smooth mixture of raspberries, strawberries, grapefruit, orange and honey- a perfect energy boost to prepare you for the City’s best huaraches that are just seconds away.
About three doors down you will run into a shoebox building that houses the critically acclaimed El Huarache Azteca. This neighborhood staple has been serving the most addicting masa dish in all of Los Angeles for the last sixteen years, and although they serve other comforts from Mexico City, I recommend nothing other than their huaraches.
A huarache is an oblong, concave depression of fried masa in the approximate shape of a sandal that is layered with beans, your choice of meat, shredded lettuce, grated cheese and a Mexican cultured cream. Whether it’s topped with grilled asada, pastor, pollo, cabeza or lengua, you will not be disappointed. I do recommend first trying the “regular” huarache as opposed to those that come “wet” covered in a red or green salsa.
Try to pick up the warm, oily and slightly aerated huarache and eat it like a sturdy slice of pizza, or if that is too difficult, attempt to cut it with the flimsy plastic knife, but if that too doesn’t work, you might have to tear it. The way you get it to your mouth is not important, what is important is that you add some hot sauce from one of the bottles on the table and make sure that with each bite, you get a little bit of everything. Within seconds of breaking up all the components of this corn-flavored fare in your mouth, your new, yet capricious desire to move to this northeast neighborhood will have become, oh just a little stronger.
As you continue east on York Boulevard, you will slowly notice the corridor fall into a more derelict state, showing little signs of life, with the sporadic auto shops, liquor stores, gas stations and car washes.
Between Avenue 52 and 53, you will see two taco trucks lined up on the north side of the street, one in a parking lot; the other anchored on a concrete platform just up from the sidewalk. Here you will find tacos and burritos synonymous with any other mediocre late night taco trucks throughout the City. I suggest coming here after long nights of drinking at say: Little Cave, The York or Hermosillo.
Carry on York a few more blocks and as you pass Avenue 56 you will have finally reached your next stop: Mariscos Sinaloa, who serves the best ceviche in all of Highland Park. Housed in an old fast food joint (likely Taco Bell), Mariscos Sinaloa’s blue and white facade successfully dissembles itself as being much closer to the Gulf of California than it really is.
Before you walk inside to place your order, make sure you have brought along some Negra Modelo’s. If this is something you forgot, no problem; run over to one of the adjacent liquor stores, they will have just what you are looking for.
Having had many of the items on the menu, I suggest going for the ceviche de camaron (shrimp ceviche tostada) and the aguachile (shrimp marinated in chile lime juice). After placing your order, make sure you have a couple dollars left for the jukebox (an integral part of the experience) and pick some songs whose titles best resonate with you. As the music blasts from the speakers, have a seat outside and open your cold cerveza.
Soon, the lightly citrus cured shrimp will arrive on a flat crispy tortilla, somewhat diaphanous as it appears to still be curing, though just enough; and is mixed together with lime, tomato, cilantro and onion. Fresh, honest and simple ceviche- just how it should be. The aguachile might be your favorite dish of the afternoon: butterflied shrimp, cured in green chili and lime marinade that is topped with red onion, tomato, cucumber and avocado. This, along with a cold beer, the thunderous sounds of Son Jarocho and the nice Mediterranean climate, truly creates an atmosphere that is reminiscent of Sinaloa.
Feeling well, jump back onto York and continue to head east. In about one block on the southeast corner of Avenue 57 and York Boulevard, you will see Galco’s Old World Grocery, in a nonchalant rectangular building. Reward yourself by doing something risky and sprint across the boulevard and pick up an old fashioned soda pop.
Have trouble making decisions? Well, then, this could be your nightmare, as they offer hundreds of different colas, root beers, sarsaparillas, ginger beers and more, with no signs of any mass produced commercial brands.
Continue walking east on York, passing Figueroa Street, for about 7 bocks until you reach Avenue 63. On the south side street, in the back of a small strip mall, a large yellow sign will clue you in that you’ve stumbled upon your next destination. My Taco, owned and operated by the Garduno family since 1994, offers dishes from all different regions of Mexico.
I suggest getting the house special- the Barbacoa de Borrego. This lamb dish is marinated in a secret family recipe that is served with onions, cilantro, small corn tortillas and with a cup of hot goat consomme. Drizzle the consomme over the lamb and try not to rush as you assemble your taco. After your first bite, you will question if you have ever had barbacoa so good, barbacoa so flavorful and tender that it melts in your mouth…it is highly likely that you have not!
If you, like me, have an ojida while trying to assemble the small tacos, then stop; don’t try to be neat, use your tortilla and scoop up the chunks of juicy meat as you would with a piece of pita attacking some hummus.
My Taco also serves superb tacos de papa (potato tacos). A deep fried corn tortilla, stuffed with chunks of seasoned boiled potatoes, then topped off with tomato, lettuce, grated cheese and a little bit of guacamole. These explicit, yet deceiving tacos are an interesting creation. Your mind wants to believe that the smooth and silky texture (the potato) is some sort of mystery meat, reminiscent of whatever is filled between the tacos at Jack in the Box; “definitely not a vegetable, no- this must be meat.” Though, once reality settles in and you realize that the mush between the crispy shells really is a starchy, tuberous crop, it becomes that much harder to put down.
If you’ve gotten this far, then moderation has long ago been thrown out the window and I applaud you for your audacity. Unless of course, you have been strolling through the neighborhood consuming all of these dishes with those closest to you, which I do recommend, as the first rule of thumb.
As you trek back to the Gold Line and make your way south on Figueroa, the same street that not long ago was where the Pacific Electric Car once flourished, you will realize that Highland Park, like it has been for much of its history, is a neighborhood that is very much in transition. From the early Tongwa tribes to the Spanish Conquistadores, to the Anglo settlers to the Mexican Americans, to the influx of Central Americans to the flood of today’s middle class white families; no matter what ethnic or racial majority this neighborhood evolves into next, there is comfort in knowing that the residents of Highland Park pride themselves through their celebration and preservation of the neighborhoods rich and vibrant cultural past. And know, by venturing and gorging your way through this northeast Boehme, you too will become a crucial part in sustaining the historic character of Highland Park, an Arroyo Seco community, that so many have come to love.