The Rev. Jim Friedrich moved there because it “was the only place that didn’t seem to have this air of unreality about it, that was within a reasonable range of affordability.”
Kathy Hanks moved there from Fullerton with her husband and their then 5-week-old baby because “the drive was a killer and the things we like to do were up there.”
Steve Johnsen “looked in all the normal places” and then moved there with his wife and daughter because “we fell in love with our house.”
“There” is Highland Park, an older community of rolling hills covered with distinctive single-family houses, halfway between downtown Los Angeles and Pasadena. The largely Latino area is undergoing re-gentrification, an influx of younger homeowners with higher income levels.
“Two years ago, people wouldn’t even get off the freeway to look at homes here,” says Bill Raftery, a realtor with Uptown Properties.
“Now, with the preservation movement--there are some 30 historic register homes where once there were only five--combined with the affordability and the need for people to move back into the city, we’re getting a wave of people.”
Looked in Other Areas
Friedrich, 44, is one of the new wave of residents transforming the once-sleepy community. An Episcopal priest at St. Augustine by-the-Sea in Santa Monica and president of Cathedral Films in Agoura, a religious media company, Friedrich looked in Topanga Canyon, Pasadena and Santa Monica before settling on top of a hilltop in Highland Park.
A renter in Studio City for the past 16 years, Friedrich paid “something over $250,000" for his first home, a 2,200-square-foot house built in 1905 that only needed light detail work.
“My street has stability and residential stillness, the block is kind of an anchored neighborhood,” he said. The area is “close to everything but tucked away. . . .”
Kathy Hanks also bought an old house. Since moving in last October, Hanks, 31, an analyst with the Los Angeles County Treasurer’s office, said she and her husband, Michael, 32, a finance analyst in the county’s Chief Administrative Office, are busy “restoring the period fixtures, redoing plumbing and electrical while working around our new baby.”
Both wanted to end the commute from Orange County to their downtown jobs.
Rent Out Apartment
“We heard about the great bargains here,” Mike Hanks said, “and next thing we knew, we were signing on the bottom line. We both fell in love immediately” with the 86-year-old, four-bedroom, two-bath 1,800-square-foot Craftsman-style house.
The house cost $230,000; a one-bedroom apartment out back helps them meet the mortgage.
The only problems so far: Their car has been broken into and they have to go to the San Fernando Valley to find large discount home fix-it stores.
But these are small concerns. Kathy Hanks said they “really love L.A.” and love not having to make “that killer commute.”
The Hankses’ experience with their car is typical, according to Northeast Division Police Sgt. Mike Nichol. “The major crime is theft from autos (radios, etc.). Highland Park has the second-lowest crime rate in our division, after Silver Lake,” he said.
And, outside of an outbreak of gang violence in 1985, “crime in Highland Park usually remains about status quo,” Nichol said. The local gangs “are still there, but pretty quiet.”
An Early Suburb
Like Mt. Washington on its western border, Highland Park in the early 1900s became one of the first suburbs of Los Angeles, home to a new middle class and a large contingent of artists and writers attracted to the hills and canyons.
There was a significant religious component as well: Monte Vista Street has many churches that were built a half-century ago as well as one of the earliest synagogues in Los Angeles.
The coming of the Arroyo Seco Parkway--now known as the Pasadena Freeway--signaled the beginning of the area’s decline. North Figueroa Street, which had become a strong commercial district in the 1930s, was bypassed by potential customers on their way to and from Los Angeles and Pasadena. Highland Park settled into its sleepy ways.
It remains a community in search of a center. Two landmarks have gone under in recent years: The Northeast Division police headquarters on York Boulevard was moved to Atwater (the two-story brick building, vacant since 1983, is now a popular film location used for its old-fashioned jail cells and booking room).
And Iver’s department store on Figueroa Street closed in 1984 after 71 years at the same spot, leaving a large vacuum. The once-proud family-owned store is now a mini-mall, and there is no large or well-known store to anchor the 10-block-long shopping strip along North Figueroa Street between Avenues 50 and 60, Highland Park’s main drag.
The cultural attractions are scattered, but well worth searching out:
The Southwest Museum houses the nation’s greatest collection of American Indian artifacts; Heritage Square is a collection of one-of-a-kind 19th- and 20th-Century houses moved to a vacant field next to the Pasadena Freeway.
Another is El Alisal, the home of Highland Park’s most famous resident, Charles Lummis, a pioneer in the preservation of Southwest architecture and artifacts and founder of the Southwest Museum (1914), who walked to California in 1885 from Ohio to become the first city editor of The Times. Lummis died in 1928.
Steve Johnsen, 36, a free-lance graphic designer, said the cultural attractions are just one of many reasons that he and his wife, Pearl Beach, a free-lance illustrator, moved to Highland Park with their daughter in late 1986.
“Highland Park has a small-town atmosphere in the middle of this huge city,” Johnsen said. “We’re five minutes from downtown, and it feels like we’re miles and miles away. We love the culture here, the people--it’s a colorful community.”
Realtor Bob Taylor of Harnsberger & Associates. showed the couple around the area; they had never been there. Taylor said they were among the first trickle of young professionals moving into the community.
“Steve and Pearl were among the ‘pioneers,’ ” Taylor said. “As artists, they were very open to my showing them interesting houses. It’s fun to show newcomers the hidden treasures here.”
Johnsen and Beach had looked in Laurel Canyon, the La Brea area, Silver Lake and Echo Park before finding their house, which Johnsen describes as a “charming little place built from stone from the arroyo, very unique.”
The 1,500-square-foot two-bedroom, one-bath house, built before the turn of the century and located on what became known as “Professors’ Row,” because it housed educators from Occidental College in the 1920s, has since been declared a cultural monument.
Prices Have Climbed
Johnsen says the house had a beautiful garden and the exterior “was pretty clean--what can you do to stone?” They are restoring the interior room by room; the bedrooms are finished, the bathroom is next.
Like much of Los Angeles, Highland Park house prices have gone up dramatically, particularly in pockets like the Pine Crest area bordering pricey South Pasadena, some sections north of York Boulevard, and the area near Avenue 64 on the Pasadena border.
Last summer, prices broke through the $200,000 ceiling; this spring it is not uncommon to see houses listed at or near the $300,000 mark. Not surprisingly, hillside homes with a view and/or the quiet woodsy ones generally command the most money.
There are also a few expensive exceptions, including the magnificent Queen Anne-style hilltop home purchased by Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Mike Gage on El Mio Drive for nearly $450,000 a year ago and a huge turn-of-the-century charmer on Figueroa Street currently listed for $525,000.
Even so, the area remains affordable. Classified ads in a recent issue of the Highland Park News-Herald & Journal, the local newspaper, showed a number of houses for sale for under $200,000, including a small group of “starter” homes near $125,000.
Dan Pilgreen, who has a chiropractic practice on Avenue 64 and who moved a year ago from Sherman Oaks to Glassell Park near the Highland Park border, is investing in two houses in Highland Park because “the area is just so prime.”
“Prices here are cheap compared to most places and there are wonderful homes available,” Pilgreen said. “I think York Boulevard--with its proximity to Pasadena, Glendale and downtown--could be the next Melrose Avenue.”
Pilgreen, who is rebuilding one of his Highland Park houses, a large, two-story, three-bedroom clapboard house that was damaged in a fire, thinks the area is “severely undervalued.”
But even though prices are climbing--helped by the preservation movement and proximity to major work centers--the area remains one of the last affordable housing markets in Los Angeles.
For long-term residents and newly moved-in yuppies alike, the goal now is to restore Highland Park’s former luster, to make it as grand a place entering the last decade of the 20th Century as it was at the beginning.
AT A GLANCE
1988 estimate: 53,564
1980-88 change: 16.6%
Median age: 30.4 years
White (non-Latino): 26.3%
Per capita: 8,775
Median household: 23,256
Less than $15,000: 31.5%
$15,000 - $30,000: 32.0%
$30,000 - $50,000: 24.2%
$50,000 - $75,000: 9.3%
$75,000 + : 2.9%