Elysian Valley : Frogtown Holds Bucolic 'Secret' Minutes From Downtown L.A.

Times Staff Writer

Some call it Frogtown, a nickname derived from the day many years ago when thousands of frogs came up out of the river and covered the streets like a blanket.

Its real name is Elysian Valley, but either way Richard Woodard--like most Los Angeles residents--had never heard of it. When a house there was listed for sale eight years ago, the graphic designer found himself alongside the Los Angeles River in a yard filled with orange, fig and avocado trees.

Amazed by its country flavor, he bought it outright. "I didn't even go in the house," Woodard recalled.

Elysian Valley, however, is not in the country but just outside downtown, about 2 1/2 miles north of Los Angeles City Hall. A peanut-shaped pocket of land wedged between the Golden State Freeway and the Los Angeles River just across the freeway from Elysian Park, Frogtown is, its residents say, "a well-kept secret."

A three-mile-long community of 7,500--traditionally Anglo and Mexican, with an increasingly Asian population--Frogtown is almost invisible and, despite its central location, rather inaccessible.

It cannot be seen from the freeway because of a wall built by the state Department of Transportation to block noise, and it cannot be reached except through its north and south ends, via Riverside Drive or Fletcher Drive.

Rule 1 for living in Frogtown, Woodard found, is learning to give good directions to visitors. "One guy got lost three times trying to find it," he said one morning after crawling through a hole in the fence along the river to take a walk.

Longtime residents learn to spot lost drivers, crawling up and down the streets that dead-end at the river, said Mollie Rodriguez, who has been there 27 years. "I'll be in my yard and say, 'Can I help you?' " she said, "and they'll scream, 'How do I get out of this place?' "

Due to its isolation, Elysian Valley is "like a little country town," said Lucy Mesa, a resident for 30 years. "We have potlucks and all that. We know each other, and we look out for each other."

The community as a whole has not greatly changed from its beginnings more than 60 years ago, when small bungalows, many with gabled porches and wood siding, began to replace the Mexican-, Japanese- and Chinese-owned truck farms. The soil, residents say, is still very rich and grows almost anything.

"We kids picked blackberries for a penny a box," recalled 87-year-old Beatrice Stapel, who moved there in 1908 with her parents. "When we picked 25 boxes, we got 25 cents and could take the Red Car (former Los Angeles streetcars) to the beach."

Stapel, whose father raised chickens, was one of four students who made up the first graduating class of Allesandro Elementary School in 1914. Many early residents, she said, worked at the Southern Pacific railroad yard directly opposite Frogtown; they just walked across the river to get to work.

Now, there are half a dozen churches, three small markets, two elementary schools and a gas station within Frogtown's environs. According to the 1980 census, the area is 59% Latino, 22% Asian, 18% Anglo and 1% black. It is part of the City Council's new 1st District.

Crime averages about two burglaries a week, the lowest in the northeast area, police said. The local Latino gang--called Frogtown, of course--is small and inactive, by most accounts, except for graffiti writing.

The unofficial mayor is Richard Adams, who heads the local community organization. His wife, Virginia, is known locally as "Mrs. Frogtown."

For nearly 20 years, the Adamses have successfully fought to keep the residential area zoned for low-density housing, so as to prevent high-rise apartment construction, and they have organized Neighborhood Watch crime prevention programs on all 44 blocks of Frogtown.

They consider gang graffiti the main local problem, and they regularly lead brigades to paint it out.

Officially, Elysian Valley is part of the city's Silver Lake-Echo Park community planning area, said Sal Salinas of the city Planning Department. But due to the Golden State Freeway, which cut through the area in 1962, it is not similar to either of those communities.

"It's pretty well separated," Salinas said.

Homes in the north end coexist with small factories, bus yards and various light industries such as electrical, plumbing or air-conditioning contractors. The area developed long before modern zoning requirements, Salinas said, "so there's no buffer" between industrial and residential areas. The south end is entirely residential.

Some of Elysian Valley is pretty, though a lot of it is not. Many streets are narrow and charming, with large overhanging trees. But ramshackle houses with peeling paint and broken screens are just as common as the carefully tended homes with manicured yards.

Like any small town, several of its habits are predictable.

In the mornings, yellow-and-white delivery trucks from the Four-S bakery, a large wholesale bakery started there in 1927, wend their way to the freeways. Most of its 430 employees live in Frogtown.

Ed Baker, the "cat man," takes morning walks down Worthen Street to feed a colony of stray felines by the river fence, and Mexicans pushing carts full of fresh fruit walk the streets of the north end.

Groups of Asians stand at the bus stops on Riverside Drive, waiting for the No. 97 bus to Chinatown. Old Chinese men, long retired, are heading for the benches in Chinatown's main square where they will spend the day. A 67-year-old Japanese woman waits to take the bus to Little Tokyo for shopping.

Among them are newcomers: a Filipino man who says he has been in Frogtown two months, a couple from Burma who have lived there for three, and two Chinese men from Vietnam who speak no English.

No matter what day it is, the Adamses, who met in Elysian Valley and have been married 45 years, get calls from around the neighborhood.

Residents tend to know what is going on in Frogtown. One day a caller says a man has hung himself, and his neighbors report that he had been upset because his wife had left him.

Another day, on her regular drive through the community, Virginia Adams spots some new graffiti. "That wasn't there yesterday," Mrs. Frogtown says sharply. By the next morning, she has painted it out.

On Tuesdays, senior citizens meet at the city-run recreation center for bingo. Many have lived in Frogtown most of their lives and say they originally moved there because it was affordable.

"We were very poor," said Gladys Walker, who along with her husband rented a home in Frogtown for $15 a month during the Depression. "You could buy a house down here for $1,000." Eventually, she added, they saved and bought five, which they rent out.

She hoped her children would live there, but they refused, she said. "There isn't one of them that would live down here. They call it Dogtown."

Today's newcomers are predominantly Asian, attracted to the area for the same reason Walker once was--price. Chinese buyers have concentrated in the southern end of Elysian Valley, which is closest to Chinatown, and the school populations reflect this. Allesandro School in the north end is 82% Latino, while Dorris Place School in the south has changed in the last three years to 53% Latino and 41% Asian, school officials said.

While wealthier Chinese immigrants prefer areas such as Monterey Park, South Pasadena or San Marino, lower-income, first-time buyers--often Chinese-speaking refugees from Vietnam--choose Frogtown because "Price-wise, it's cheaper," said Terry Seto, owner of Seto Realty in Chinatown.

When new listings in the area come in, Perla Bantolo of Asian American Realty said, "Eighty or 90% of the calls we get are from Chinese." Homes that sold for about $60,000 10 years ago now average $80,000 to $100,000.

Old-timers in Frogtown say they are pressured by Asian immigrants to sell. "I can't go out in my yard but what they aren't stopping me (to sell), just begging," Gladys Walker said, annoyed.

The long-standing close relationship between the Anglos and Latinos in Frogtown does not extend to the new Asian residents, who sometimes face hostility from established residents. "There's a lack of communication," community leader Richard Adams explained, because of language barriers and cultural differences.

Frogtown's older residents say they do not want to leave. The weather is better, for one thing, 72-year-old Dessy Kiser noted. "There's kind of a draw, maybe from the river," she said. "In the summer, all over they'll say, 'It's so hot,' but when my daughter comes in from Granada Hills, she brings a sweater."

And they have memories of major local events--retold in capital-letter tones, such as the "Sliding Mountain," the "Big Flood," and the "Frog Invasion"--that are part of Frogtown's lore.

The Sliding Mountain, for example, was a million-ton avalanche that fell from the hills of Elysian Park onto Riverside Drive in late 1937, knocking down a bridge and several businesses. That event put the community on the front pages of local newspapers and briefly it was a tourist attraction.

The Big Flood, the largest of many before the Army Corps of Engineers retooled the river into a flood-control channel, was the result of torrential rains in the spring of 1938. No one remembers homes being lost in the neighborhood, but they do recall the adventure of the time.

"We used to go out into North Hollywood and watch houses fall off into the river," Clark Kiser, 75, remembered. Then he and friends would jump in their cars, race back to the river banks at home, and watch the same houses float by Elysian Valley.

The Frog Invasion occurred one spring day in 1954 when frogs came up from the river by the thousands, spreading all over the streets and yards. No one seems to know why it happened. Many say some still appear, to the delight of small children, every spring.

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