Diane Alexander loved the newspaper review she read about a Russian delicatessen in West Hollywood, so she wrote a letter inviting its owner to move his operation to Highland Park.
"He wanted to expand, and he was very interested in Highland Park," said Alexander.
But the owner decided he was not willing to sell his store to make the move.
Undaunted, she went looking for another business to invite. And another.
Alexander is part of a small but dedicated group of three Highland Park professionals that wants to revitalize the community from the inside out, hoping to bring in new businesses and spark a renaissance in the local arts community.
A former member of the Highland Park Chamber of Commerce, Alexander wants to upgrade the city's commercial areas. Her colleague, Hendrik Stooker, is senior curator of the Occidental College art department, and wants to keep the community's artistic heritage alive. Completing the trio is Matt Marchand, a marketing director who has become the editor of the group's newsletter.
Five months ago, they established the Arroyo Arts Collective to attract local artists and involve them in the process of changing the city. Their aims are very broad. On a practical level, the group wants to upgrade the shopping district and restore the city's older homes. It also hopes to attract more working artists to the city to make the city into a prominent arts colony.
But they're finding that it is difficult to be a grass-roots catalyst for urban redesign.
"We're taking what we have that is positive and trying to expand for a better community, not waiting for it to happen to us, but making it happen for ourselves," Alexander said. "It is building a community from within, building on our strengths."
Alexander's first target has been Figueroa Street, the city's main business corridor. Old homes and churches, side by side with discount shops and family eateries, line the four-lane street between York Boulevard and Avenue 50. But the discount stores are the prime focus for Alexander.
"There is just a profusion of $3 dress shops up and down the avenue," she said. "We were tired of listening to people complain, 'We have to go to Pasadena to buy anything.' We just got together to see what we could do."
Alexander decided the best way to go about changing Figueroa Street would be to try to attract a different mix of businesses from other cities.
"We are keeping track of storefronts as they become available, and contacting businesses that seem appropriate to Highland Park," she said. So far, none has come as a direct response to her invitations, but Alexander said she is still trying.
"I would love to see this become a restaurant row of international cuisine," she said. "Once we have that as a base, then other businesses can come in and survive."
"Coffeehouses," said Alexander. "That is one of the first things we need." She would also like to attract a more sophisticated motion picture theater to replace a local one which she said features "slasher" films.
Highland Park is a sprawling suburb, nestled between South Pasadena and Eagle Rock, about five miles from the Los Angeles Civic Center. A guild of artisans flourished there at the turn of the century and vestiges of that community can still be seen in the stained-glass makers of the Judson Studios. Today the neighborhoods are a collection of Victorian homes, modest Craftsman houses and a few apartment buildings.
"The nice thing about Highland Park is that it is like an urban village, just five minutes from downtown," said Alexander. "You walk down the street and you bump into friends."
Unfortunately, many people outside the area have a "totally wrong image" of Highland Park as a dangerous place, according to Stooker, who worked with Alexander to establish the collective. Stooker said the criminal element in Highland Park is minor, "but it gets a lot of publicity." He said he finds the image undeserved.
Stooker earned a degree in arts education from an art academy in the Netherlands and has done graduate work in art history at UCLA. Prior to his arrival at Occidental he worked at an art gallery in Beverly Hills and nursed a struggling gallery in Highland Park.
He became aware of Alexander's efforts to attract new businesses to the area and decided they might attract working artists too.
"There are hundreds of professionals in the arts living and working in this area," said Stooker. As more artists move into Highland Park it will reflect positively on the community, he said.
For Stooker, an important part of the collective's work is making residents aware of vintage homes in the area. "It's a historic neighborhood," he said.
Another goal of the Arroyo Arts Collective is to find people who are interested in the arts and who will invest in the Highland Park community. The members want to attract potential home buyers, tell them about the local history, then persuade them to refurbish their homes.
"Our main effort is communication; searching out and finding people," said Marchand. In just five months the mailing list for their newsletter has grown to more than 300 names, he said. "We just want to prove that there is a vital arts environment in the Highland Park area."
Marchand handles project development for Photo Ventures, a publishing company. For the last two years he has worked with photographer William Reagh to produce a calendar documenting urban redevelopment in the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles. Reagh's before and after photographs span five decades of architectural construction downtown.
Marchand said Highland Park needs creative people who can renovate existing structures and design new ones.
"The community is really ripe for it now," he said. "Highland Park really needs the talents of innovative architects to save it."
With the group's newsletter, Marchand is able to spotlight local examples of creative housing design. The January issue carried a story about the Aldama Duplexes. These multilevel hillside homes, with lofts and tall clerestory windows, were designed by architect Allyn E. Morris in 1961.
Because the collective is so young, it is hard to determine whether it has had much success in meeting its goals. It is clear that lower housing costs have induced some people to buy homes in the area. Whether many of the new arrivals are artists, and whether the group's activities helped attract them, is uncertain.
Crime in the central city was a big reason for Stephen Kafer's move to Highland Park, where he bought a house in 1985. He said thieves had broken into both his car and his studio in the Little Tokyo district of Los Angeles. Kafer is a sculptor who works in steel, glass and concrete. He has added a second story to his house, and now works out of his home studio.
"I was paying less to buy a house than it cost me to rent a studio," Kafer said. "I was getting real tired of all the concrete. It seemed much more reasonable to have a house with a yard. There is a nice rural feeling to the area."
Kafer offers some evidence that the collective is having an effect along Figueroa Street. Some new restaurants have opened and some commercial buildings are being renovated, he said. But a local real estate broker sees a different reason for the changes.
"I don't feel it has anything to do with artists," said Martha Marshall. "What is really coming in is the Asian influence. Any business you walk into on Figueroa now, you will find, is Asian owned and operated. They're the ones with the cash. I don't see at all that it is artists."
Alexander agrees that "there are huge numbers of Asians coming in from many countries." She said Highland Park is evolving into an international community with a broad mix of ethnic cultures.
Likewise, Marshall acknowledges the presence of artists, but said most of those she knows have been in the area since she moved there 25 years ago.
Marshall said the average home price in Highland Park is $214,000. "Most artists can't afford that," she said.
The core members of the collective remain optimistic about their work, even in the face of some frustration. Three people "can only do so much," Stooker explained. Thus far the three of them have paid for most of the group's activities and the newsletter out of their own pockets, he said.
One plan in the works would bring performances of the Los Angeles Bach Festival to Highland Park in October. And a landscape design contest proposed a mini-park on a triangular vacant lot near Figueroa. But neither plan has been finalized.
The collective has been very effective fostering a group spirit among local artists. It has sponsored a series of social gatherings and organizational meetings. Alexander said a December brunch brought together about 60 people.
Although change has been slow in coming, Alexander's efforts to reshape the Figueroa Street business corridor have not gone unnoticed. Heather Hoggan, who is president of the Highland Park Heritage Trust, said Alexander is making a difference.
"Figueroa has always been a tough nut to crack," said Hoggan. "I think change will come from what Diane Alexander is doing."