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.

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