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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Viewpoints: What is next in Frogtown’s future?

Photo by Julia Meltzer

By Julia Meltzer

Almost 12 years ago my partner and I purchased an industrial building in a neighborhood known to locals as Frogtown but officially named Elysian Valley. A narrow strip of land between the 5 Freeway and the L.A. River, Frogtown contains  both industrial and residential properties.

We chose to live and work in Frogtown because it was the quintessential quiet, urban industrial neighborhood. And our street dead-ended at the L.A. River. At the time, our block had only one other resident, all of our neighbors were manufacturing or consumer businesses.

Over the last 12 years I have watched businesses on our block close, manufacturing move elsewhere, and the beginnings of what will be a revitalized L.A. River. Could our block offer a template for what is in store for Frogtown’s future?

A brief history

We purchased our building from Ben Hubbard, who ran a porcelain mold factory for 30 years. At the height of his business in the ’70s and ’80s, he employed 12 people and did business with customers mostly in California.

Ben, who is now 90 and lives in Glendale, told me recently, “The ’70s and ’80s were my best years in business. Around the early ’90s with NAFTA, my business started to slow down as jobs went to Mexico. Then by the end of the decade, most of the work had gone to China.” In 2002, he was nearing 80 and both he and his business were ready to retire, so he closed up shop.

Other neighbors on the block were an artist’s studio owned by sculptor Michael Todd, Ameco Heating and Air Conditioning, Index Tab Company, a metal fabricator, a mechanic, and Hostess Bakery.

The guys who loaded and unloaded HVAC units for Ameco had worked there for years, David at Index Tab manufacturers made index tab dividers for notebooks and had been in business for 30 years. Hostess Bakery, at its height, operated 24 hours a day and employed about 500 workers, with 150 working on each shift.

As the real estate bubble inflated between 2005 and 2007, so did our neighbors sense of possibility. Ameco grew and took over the lease on a building that had been empty at the end of the street. The owner of Index Tabs decided to take on a mortgage and purchase near the end of 2006.

The real estate bubble also led to the gentrification of Atwater Village—a new group of people were discovering the river. The Glendale Narrows, the beautiful soft-bottom section of the river, runs right past our street and through Frogtown. There was a growing sense that the river was more than just a concrete channel.

The Crash

The crash in 2008 changed everything.

In early 2009, Index Tabs and Ameco were hit hard by the downturn and both went out of business. Of the people on the block who were there when we moved in, only Michael Todd’s studio remains.

By late 2009 or 2010, all of the buildings that had once housed heating and AC units and margin tabs, were spiffed up, painted, and landscaped. Enter onto the block fabricators, oversized sculptures and recent art school graduates. The artist Thomas Houseago moved on to our street, purchasing three buildings in quick succession. He is one of the few artists who manage to enter into the upper echelon of the art world. Several other big-name artists, like Mark Grotjahn and Shepard Fairey, have opened studios in the neighborhood. Manufacturing businesses have given way to art studios.

In 2010 we moved out. We began hosting cultural events and maintained our offices in our building. We are currently in the process of permitting with the city to become a restaurant and event venue called Elysian. If all goes according to plan, we will be the first ever official restaurant in Frogtown.

Around the end of 2011, there was rumor Hostess might go out of business, leaving a full city block of buildings open for a future buyer. By the close of 2013, the former Hostess Bakery had a new owner. The 127,000 square foot property is now owned by Modernica Furniture, a business Frank and Jay Novak started 25 years ago.

I met with the Novak brothers several weeks ago to get a sense of their vision of the future of the north end of Frogtown. Jay Novak said, “What happens here will reflect Silver Lake, Atwater Village and the current essence that is Frogtown.”  Given that Silver Lake and Atwater Village have a very different essence then Frogtown, it is unclear at this point what this blended mix will come to look like.

For starters, the building will house their prop rental business which they are moving from their previous downtown location. They recently signed a lease with Good Eggs, a new company that is treading into the local-organic food distribution business.

They dream of The Ripple Street Diner filling the building that was once a day-old bakery shop for Hostess. “It will be a place where you can get a cup of coffee and fried eggs in the morning,” Jay continues, “but with some vegan options as well.”

To their credit, the Novaks are working with RACDB, a design and build company founded by Rick Cortez, who are also located in Frogtown and have been a strong voice for neighborhood preservation.

The Novak brothers know that the character of a neighborhood is a delicate thing and it can be exterminated if you do not treat it with care. Frank Novak lived in what is now known as “the Arts District” for years. Describing that neighborhood now, he characterizes it as more of a “lifestyle district” than an arts district. “Artists have all been priced out. Somehow the arts district is now self-conscious and it has lost something of its essence.”

Accepting that Frogtown is on the brink of change, the concern is how do you preserve its essence? I brought this question to Helen Leung, an urban planner who grew up in Frogtown and recently returned to live here and work at MÁS LA, “The character of a neighborhood is more than the built environment. The best change enables the diversity of people who have shaped the character of the neighborhood to be able to stay – whether it be low-income immigrant families or artists. There will always be some element of market forces that create change, both losses and gains. It’s inevitable. The key is to be able to leverage change in an equitable way. To do so, there must be a bridge between new and old.”

In Frogtown, there is a strong core group of people who are concerned about the direction the neighborhood might take. However, the power of developers and the rising cost of real estate along the river cannot be underestimated. The question is, can the people who are here now and want to stay, provide a foundational bridge between new and old?

A 2002 photo of a worker in a former Elysian Valley porcelain mold factory. The photo was taken shortly before the author and her partner purchased the building. | Photo courtesy Julia Meltzer and David Meltzer

The L.A. River Path | Julia Meltzer

Inside the former Hostess bakery now destined for other uses. | Julia Meltzer

Julia Meltzer is a filmmaker and director of Clockshop whose current program is Frogtown Futuro, a series of talks, screenings and artist projects about the L.A. River.  Click here for information on a Feb. 6 Renters’ Rights workshop and other upcoming events.

Viewpoints is where Eastsider readers can express their opinions, start a conversation and share ideas on neighborhood  issues,  problems and potential.

23 comments

  1. Thank you for this article. I was born and raised in Highland Park and have mixed feelings about the gentrification of the east side. For Mr. Novak to say Frogtown will reflect what happened in Silverlsk and Atwater two different communities is an example of outsiders coming into the east side with a lot of $$$&. Mt. Novak does not see the difference in history or the culture of these long established communities? Good luck Frogtown and hopefully you will you will not end up like Highland Park, full of hipsters with tattoos, drinking coffee,texting,totally self involved with no respect for the community which they’ve priced the rest of us out of.

    • Thanks for your comment. I think that the Novaks are sensitive to the issues in this neighborhood. Perhaps a little more than most property owners who purchase a large chunk of land and need to fill it with poeple who pay rent. I certainly understand your feeling about “hipsters”, however, we should all be careful about how that word gets used and to whom we assign it. It tends to be quite ubiquitous and doesn’t often take into account who people are and their intentions.

    • Communities change over time. Many mid- and lower-income people also lived in the beach communities on the Westside but have been priced out there by locals and transplants alike. Many of them have moved east and left the communities they and their families called Home for years, so they know what it is like to be economically displaced, too. That doesn’t make it right or wrong, just how things are.

      However, you only seem to hear complaining about “hipsters” and “gentrification” on the Eastside. Or thinly veiled descriptions of “white people” and their money. Please know that money does not come with a person’s race. There are low income white people as well who need a place to live.

      It is funny to note that years ago, many complained when minorities moved into their neighborhoods. It was just a ridiculous then as it is now. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    • Thanks for the great article Julia. It provokes a great discussion.

      I get really incensed by readers like S. Martinez claiming that there’s a “gentrification” (a word I really despise) of the East Side. People who believe that cities, communities, countries should stay the same are people with their heads buried in the sand. The evolution of a community is just that; it changes, evolves and welcomes new residents and business. Nobody owns a town, despite how many roots you claim you have. And to bash “coffee-drinking hipsters with tattoos” is really just doing exactly the same as what you’re complaining about. I’m not a hipster, but I think that that word gets bandied around carelessly (as Julia writes) and offensively. Let the coffee-drinking hipsters roll in please – they’re putting money into local businesses.

      People who are scared of change and don’t welcome evolving communities as progress are the same people who are holding us back. Change – whether it comes with coffee-drinking hipsters or families you don’t want living next door – is inevitable. You either accept it or you move forward. But please stop complaining.

  2. “outsiders”? communities change over time, “In the early 20th century, Highland Park and neighboring Pasadena became havens for artists and intellectuals who led the Arts and Crafts movement.[6]” There was a big Italian presence in HLP and Eagle Rock for example. Now it’s different. “Many locations in Silver Lake and Edendale/Echo Park appeared in these early motion pictures. For example the famous Laurel and Hardy short film “The Music Box” was filmed here, and many of the Keystone Cops chase scenes were shot along Glendale Blvd. Many of these early films are still showing at nearby theaters.

    Not only was area home to many of the early studios, numerous filmmakers actors, directors, etc. also lived in Silver Lake. These included Gloria Swanson, Laurel and Hardy, Antonio Moreno, and many others.”

    So it would seem that these neighborhoods are returning to their historical roots, before they were largely latino and the subject of “Mi Vida Loca” type scenarios. Stop the “hipster” bashing, it’s so tired.

    • There is a huge difference when people leave a neighborhood by choice then being pushed out by rising housing prices. Especially by new residents that type cast our lifestyle as ‘mi vida loca’ scenarios. Demonstrate courtesy to life time residents and you’ll be shown the same.
      Also, speaking of changing neighborhoods, try reading up on Chavez Ravine (now Dodger Stadium), Old Chinatown (now Union Station), Boyle Heights (during WWII), and Sonoratown. The working class has always been pushed out and we are just starting to push back.

      • I’m not buying comparisons to Chavez Ravine. When building a house in echo park I had long discussions with the next door neighbor in his 80′s who grew up in Chavez – his brother had been one of the last to be forcibly removed. He never expressed any resentment of the changes happening on his street – and when he died his children voluntarily sold to newcomers (white, Korean, Mexican, black, whatever…probably college educated). How this scenario compares to the previous injustice is beyond me.

      • Marina, I’m not a “new” resident of NELA and lived next door to a few folks who were in “Mi Vida”.
        You are the one creating this divide between locals/lifers and “newcomers/outsiders”. How well are you doing being friendly to new folks? This is a major metropolitan area, people are moving in and improving the neighborhood, investing in it, buying homes etc. The future is happening and you should embrace it.

  3. Hi Julie. I first lived in Frogtown 30 years ago, in the warehouse across from your space which is now an architect’s office, and have owned the green apartment building on the corner of Ripple and Gilroy for 12 years. Of course I’ve seen massive changes in the past 30 years and I’m currently excited but concerned about new ventures in the neighborhood. I’m wondering how much on site parking you are providing for your proposed venue? My tenant’s parking is already so severely impacted I am concerned about street parking for any new venue taking away what little they have.

    • Hi Hope,

      Nice to meet you here virtually. We have an arrangement with the new owners of Hostess to utilize their parking lot and we also have filed a petition with the DOT to change some of the parking restrictions on our block and adjacent blocks so that more street parking is available. We are happy to meet to discuss your concerns.

  4. I suspect that when they complete the LA River bike path through downtown, Frogtown will become a popular residence for people who can’t afford to live in the Arts District, but would love to be able to get there (or Chinatown, downtown, or Boyle Heights) by a short, pleasant bike ride.

  5. Thanks for taking the time to educate people a little on the neighborhood.
    I have had my workspace there for 10 years and I love it. Unfortunately my landlord has never wanted to sell. You were lucky to be able to buy a building when you did.
    There is never much available for sale and what has come up has been very expensive in the last few years. I don’t think there are any good deals to be had. Anyone who is a working artist has no chance of being able to afford the real estate there anymore.
    Im worried that the rents will quickly escalate (as the sale prices already have) and I’ll be priced out. It would be amazing if Modernica set aside a bit of workspace for local artists to rent for studios. Could be lucrative for them and keep art in the neighborhood.

  6. The East side (besides not really being East) is always evolving. I have lived in Silver Lake for 18+ years and have seen a lot of those changes. In my opinion it is part of the allure of the area. What I don’t get is the attitude that new people are invading the neighborhood. Outsiders? Silver Lake was a center forf rich actors, film makers and other creative types for over a century. This is not new. These people come to contribute to the neighborhood. They shaped it into what it is, just like the Latino community does, the gay community and all the other pieces of our community do still. Why do people act like our evolution is a rape? Silver Lake’s changes were not forced like the theft of Chavez Ravine.

    I miss the Sunset Junction festival, while it was unmanageable in the end, it always succeeded in its purpose of reminding us what the neighborhood was…a melting pot for all. It brought together the Latino families and the leather boys, the rich kids and the communists. Through it all I was always proud of my neighborhood.

  7. Great article Julia. Hope to see more.

  8. Great article, thanks for the contribution. It’s a shame the comment section on such a great piece of insight gets ruined by extremists who want to stereotype and label the eastside.

  9. Frogtown home of the infamous gang of the 80′ and 90′s. That’s how it got it’s name.

    • Frogtown got its name from all the frogs that used to be around before the construction of the 5 Freeway.

      Neighborhoods don’t get named for gangs. . Gangs get named for neighborhoods.

      Similar but different, Toonerville was named for a 1920s cartoon series about a trolley, a reference to the Pacific Electric line that ran through Atwater.

      • Thank you for making that clarification! It is an important one.

      • There were still plenty of frogs around after they built the 5 and 2. They didn’t begin to noticeably disappear until the 80s. However, only the gang members personally embraced and organized around the designation of Frogtown as their home. In fact, in the 80s, it was Frogtown veteranos who organized several neighborhood beautification efforts, which resulted in several murals that have been painted over with no regard for the work of the native sons who obtained the permits and relied on local talent to create them. As a result of these efforts, nobody knew where or what Elysian Valley was but everybody knew or learned what neighborhood was claimed by the notorious Frogtown gang, which continues to exist to this day, albeit in millennial form. Just like it’s wrong to stereotype”hipsters” and their intentions, it’s also wrong to whitewash the history of our neighborhood and erase the efforts and existence of imperfect native sons who nonetheless were born, survived, thrived, and died with “Frogtown” inked on their bodies. When tattoos were a declaration of origin and loyalties not a fashion statement. The restraint that these individuals have demonstrated while seeing their varrio name being co-opted by artists who would have never dared claim “Frogtown” just a decade ago is commendable and an indication that even the “worst” residents of Frogtown welcome positive change. They simply reject being pushed aside. As if their history never happened but it is that history that resulted in the “essential” identity that so many find appealing today and the varrio that many of us will continue to represent and defend with our own stories of resilience and success . . . Viva Frogtown.

  10. Nice recap of our neighborhood in flux, Julia. I remain hopeful that more newcomers will follow the lead of the Novaks in preserving the buildings and fitting a vibrant mix of new businesses into the existing fabric….in effect co-existing rather than dominating.

  11. I miss the FC KINGSTON building. Had no idea what they made/did, but every time I’d bike by I’d think “All that’s missing is U.”

  12. Great article. If you are living in an area that you suspect will be become popular and/or “gentrified” in the future, make sure you buy your place if at all possible. Then you can reap the benefits that you helped create. It pains me to hear about businesses etc. that have been in an area for many many years be priced out. It seems that in many (though certainly not all) instances, if you were able to be in business for many years, there must have been a way for you to purchase your building or one close by or something so that you have some equity in the game.

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