Just downstream from the spot where the L.A. River takes a hard right near the Los Angeles Zoo is a broad floodplain that was, in the late 1800s, a scene of almost Arcadian beauty. The river, alive with trout and salmon, flowed through rolling green fields and spring-fed marshlands teeming with waterfowl and amphibians.
This pastoral paradise would not last long, sandwiched as it was between the rapidly growing cities of Los Angeles and Glendale. Soon, a trolley trestle was built to ford the tempestuous river (which would sweep more than one bridge aside during one of its raging winter fits), connecting the two cities via the Glendale and Los Angeles Electric Railway. The first subdivisions in what would become Atwater Village began to appear.
As neighborhoods of pleasant, modest homes began to rise on the eastern banks of the river, commercial districts grew along Tropico Boulevard (now Los Feliz Boulevard) and on either side of the trolley tracks running down Glendale Boulevard. Many of the homes were built for the workers who staffed the LADWP substation or toiled in the railroad yards.
Disney animators regularly drove from Silver Lake across the new Hyperion Bridge to eat at the Tam O’Shanter, helping to mark Atwater as a destination in its own right, rather than just a place trolleys passed through.
The unruly river was now hemmed in by development and spanned by costly bridges. When the inevitable happened and the river burst its banks in the great 1938 flood, causing over $680 million in damage to homes and infrastructure, the decision was made to channelize the river.
More concrete came with the construction of the 5 freeway, which paved over the valley’s springs, and the 2, which cut Atwater off from Frogtown to the south.
Even with all that change, Atwater Village has kept much of its character, which helps explain its popularity today. The tidy little houses that are within walking distance from Los Feliz and Glendale Boulevards are now highly sought after by home buyers looking for an urban lifestyle that’s a little more laid-back than Silver Lake’s or Echo Park’s.
A river runs through it: The river — once thought of as an eyesore — is now a popular spot for fishing, kayaking and biking, and the sandy-bottom stretch through Atwater, with its trees and wading herons, gives just a hint of the scenic beauty of the old L.A. river. There is talk about letting it revert to a wilderness state in places, meaning the river may once again rule the narrows.
Thriving on the riverside: Atwater has a rich mix of businesses along Glendale Boulevard, with hip new bookstores existing right alongside ancient fixtures like Club Tee Gee.
Bar crawl: For those who enjoy a nightcap (or two), Los Feliz Boulevard offers some of the city’s best watering holes. From the Roost on the divey end to the Tam O’Shanter on the high, Atwater has you covered.
Stuck in the middle again: Anyone who has sat in rush hour traffic on Los Feliz Boulevard is feeling the lingering effects of removing the Red Car trolleys 50 years ago. Now cut-through traffic has to do just that: cut through.
Atwater Village has seen a significant spike in interest the last few years, said Kurt Wisner, co-owner of Courtney and Kurt Real Estate, which has its offices in the neighborhood.
“It’s been an interesting transition for Atwater. Before, people would say, ‘I’m looking in Los Feliz or I’m looking at Silver Lake and I might consider Atwater,’” he said. “Now people are saying, ‘I only want Atwater.’”
He noted that many homes are modest in size, so interested home buyers may need to prepare themselves for a major remodel.
“Watch your fair share of home fix-up shows, because more than likely, the home you’re going to get is going to need a little bit of work and possibly an expansion in the future,” he said.
In September, based on 18 sales, the median price for single-family home sales in the 90039 ZIP Code was $822,000, up 5% year over year, according to Corelogic. The median price for condominiums, based on two sales, was $558,000.
Within the boundaries of Atwater Village are Glenfeliz Boulevard Elementary and Atwater Avenue Elementary, which scored 813 and 781, respectively, out of 1,000 in the 2013 Academic Performance Index.
Nearby schools include Theodore Roosevelt Middle, which scored 820, and Washington Irving Middle, which had a score of 729. John Marshall Senior High scored 757.