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Mayberry, Shmayberry

Dave Gardetta last wrote for the magazine about four longtime plant collectors

Early last summer, after moving to Eagle Rock with her family from Los Feliz, Patricia Neal went looking for a good cup of coffee and instead found an empty storefront at the corner of Eagle Rock and Colorado boulevards. It turned out there was no good coffee in Eagle Rock--like everyone else in the little town last summer, Neal drove to the Starbucks in Glendale for her cup--but the storefront, she thought, held possibilities.

Neal had lived through the revitalization of Los Feliz during the 1990s, had watched as clubs and organic restaurants and coffee houses and Madonna moved into her neighborhood and changed its tone--mostly for the better, she believed. “Suddenly,” she says, “there were platforms for the community to meet in at night.”

Neal thought she had landed in Mayberry when she arrived in Eagle Rock. There were little kids on scooters everywhere and men confabbing over crab grass on front lawns, and someone on her block walked over and presented her with a box of See’s candies the day she arrived. (Her first day in Los Feliz, the city presented her with a parking ticket).

It was pleasant, but, standing in front of the wind-swept storefront on that summer morning, Neal thought maybe Mayberry needed a platform of its own. She imagined a coffeehouse where people could hang out, surrounded by thought-provoking signs that read, “Where’s your future going?”

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Patricia Neal looks out of place in Eagle Rock. She has geek-chic black glasses like the ones Web designers wear in TV ads, clunky shoes that are cute on her, and a dress style that is best described as “casual futuristic.” In short, she looks like everyone in Los Feliz. A lot of people these days think she looks like the future of Eagle Rock, and on that subject she is not casual.

“This place has real possibilities,” Neal says, as if we were sauntering through a fixer-upper. “It just takes a want and a need and an entrepreneurial drive to get it done.” Neal gets excited when she talks about the future--her voice rises and her body appears to be coming undone. “Right now, the feng shui of Eagle Rock is just not working for me. There are a lot of creative people moving here, but there’s also an old-school mentality. There aren’t any places for people to go when they leave their houses. And there’s no consistent design. Definitely, the feng shui of the area is not working for me. Except for Swork.”

Swork is the name of Neal’s new coffeehouse, which she opened in the empty storefront on Colorado Boulevard and that now blinks out like a bright sign advertising where Eagle Rock’s future may be going. Suddenly, there are three platforms to find good coffee on Colorado Boulevard. Besides Swork, artist Kim Dingle and her partner, Aude Charles, have opened Fatty’s, a cafe and newsstand, and there is a sunny French bakery that serves little croissants and cafe au lait named Beaujolais Boulangerie.

Coffee has come to Eagle Rock just as it landed in Los Feliz a decade ago, making some people wonder if Eagle Rock will be remade into a Left Bank across the L.A. River by hordes of hipsters fleeing high rents, or at least become something more like Glendale.

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Can such a thing happen in a town where 99% of the people have never heard of the Dust Brothers, Sofia Coppola, the Fetish Club or Fred 62, who don’t know that a lunch pail can be a purse or that a good park is one where you actually let the dogs in?

Certainly the signs are there. “The last time I heard, home prices here were rising at around 16% annually,” says Eric Toro, who sells real estate in Eagle Rock. “But that isn’t stopping the artists and people in the Industry who are fleeing Los Feliz’s housing market--right now there aren’t enough homes here to fill the demand.”

“Fifteen years ago, a few activists here planted the seeds for what is just beginning to happen,” says Jeff Samudio, a partner at Design Aid Architects who has lived in Eagle Rock all of his life and worked as an activist to change it. “But to see people actually investing in the neighborhood now? Most of us really thought that would never happen.”

*

BUT SHOULD IT HAPPEN? IT MAY BE THAT EAGLE ROCK WON’T tip all the way, that it will remain one of those rare American neighborhoods where the pleasure of living comes from the frisson of social groups rubbing up against each other. San Francisco’s Mission District was like that 10 years ago, as was New York’s Williamsburg neighborhood and Los Feliz itself. Now they’re theme parks for young urban professionals.

That’s what longtime loyalists like Samudio would like to stave off in Eagle Rock. “One of the great assets of Eagle Rock right now is that it’s this incredible social soup of people from various ethnic backgrounds, economic levels and social experiences living closely together,” Samudio says. “The makeup of my block is professionals living next door to garment workers and janitors. But now that we’ve had some success you can see that trend is already reversing--not necessarily gentrification by a certain ethnic group but by an economic group that is taking away the variety we have here today.”

Neal says that on her block alone there are “six houses filled with people who have just moved over from Los Feliz,” and if you spend any time in the parking lot of the town’s Trader Joe’s, you can’t help noticing a marked increase in pierced noses, pink hair, tattoos and Audi A4’s. There’s even talk inside Eagle Rock’s Beautification Committee of creating a dog park to help answer the needs of the town’s new immigrants.

Neal doesn’t consider pink hair and A4’s as something to fear. She is a true booster--the only person I have ever met who described a boulevard specific plan as “really cool"--but negotiating her business was a trial. “I had a great business plan, a great track record, a brochure, and the landlord had a guy who hadn’t paid a dime of rent in seven months, and he was asking me if I knew how to run a business.” She says it didn’t make her feel any better when, after signing the lease, she found out that her parking lot had been officially designated as “the most underused parking lot in the city of L.A.,” or that the publisher of the local paper refused to carry paid advertisements for her coffee bar. “He was screaming at me over the phone that Eagle Rock already had a coffee place--the doughnut shop. Then he hung up on me. I was, like, ‘I’m going to have pastries, OK?!!’ ”

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These are all examples, Neal believes, of Eagle Rock’s “old-school mentality.” “The town is comfortable not feeling pushed.” Yet there is something deeper at work behind a community with the city’s loneliest parking lot. If you didn’t know better, you would think the city of L.A. had designated Eagle Rock an “espresso-free zone,” if not a “new-restaurant-bakery-music outlet-bar-bookstore-theater-clothing store-free zone.”

“Look--people really want to get hipper,” Neal told me last January, just before Swork opened. “Once my place gets going, this town will be hopping.” She stopped talking momentarily to futz with her ringing cell phone, decided not to answer it, appeared to hold her breath for a beat, and then finally blurted out, “On the other hand, the whole thing could blow up tomorrow.”

WHEN YOU GROW UP IN EAGLE ROCK, AS I DID IN THE 1960S and ‘70s, and live most of your life there, one day you eventually come around to asking yourself, “What is wrong with this place?” Described, the town can sound almost bucolic. It is not a recent subdivision shot into blank space and ringed by shopping centers, but a true small town sitting on the northeast tip of L.A.'s thumb, surrounded by oak hillsides and scrubby mountains. There are bungalow neighborhoods as large and as intact as Pasadena’s Bungalow Heaven, and entire blocks of early-century architecture that has allowed working-class families to settle next door to middle-class and upper-middle-class families. The town has a harmonious blending of Latinos, Filipinos, Pacific Islanders, Asians and Anglos, and there is even a small college sitting at its heart. Tim Sanders, who taught at Occidental College for 28 years and was president of the local homeowners association, believes that “Eagle Rock is a gem of a community, one of L.A.'s small college towns. It could be easily recognized as one of the great places to live.”

So what’s wrong here? Sparkplugs and hair spray, mostly. There are two commercial boulevards in Eagle Rock: Colorado Boulevard, which runs east to west, connecting Pasadena and Glendale, and Eagle Rock Boulevard, jutting into Colorado midtown like the base of a “T” and then trailing off to the south toward Elysian Park. Together they provide almost four miles of commercial frontage, which at the moment is filled with no less than 35 of Eagle Rock’s 80 auto repair and parts shops, and 24 beauty and nail salons. A stranger visiting Eagle Rock for the first time could only conclude that its men share some genetic flaw when it comes to picking functional cars, and that the town’s women must rush out the door each morning as soon as Regis goes off the air to have their bodies lacquered in hair spray and nail polish.

From the street, the place reads like a strange commercial experiment gone awry. Slotted between its garages and salons sit stores that never open, or open one day a month, or a half-afternoon a week. “We have stores that have crazy hours or no hours at all,” says Hilary Norton Orozco, who worked for Richard Alatorre when the former councilman represented the area. “I couldn’t tell you the hours of the local pharmacy or gift shop--I’d say they’re based on a small-town gone-fishing policy.” There are the strange stores that appear for a few months or so, places like The Human Hair Store or the House of Hermetic, the latter looking as if it were run by a posse of OG Wiccans. There are the odd mixed-use businesses, like a “realty-coffee-vintage clothing-specialty gifts store” that lacks only hours, or the “rattan furniture-car parts-photo development-gift shop,” where you can buy a carbon-fiber front hood for your Honda while developing a 30-by-40 color print on a Lexus-sized Kreonite KCP-26 developer. Dingle, the co-owner of Fatty’s, jokes, “We decided early on that all of our seating should be constantly for sale because that’s Eagle Rock style--selling multiple products out of one storefront.” And, finally, there are the empty storefronts, the blank businesses that go unfilled for years, seemingly lacking retail or landlord interest. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made five calls on a commercial lease in Eagle Rock and never gotten a single call back from a property owner,” says Toro, the real estate agent. “It’s like they just don’t want to rent. I’d call that very interesting.”

A family psychologist would describe Eagle Rock’s business community as “dysfunctional"--a great hurt was visited on it in the past. Yet up until the 1960s, the town thrived like Bedford Falls. There were famous restaurants like the Martha Washington and the Green Frog; L.A.'s first supermarket, the Model Market; clothiers and haberdasheries like Kilty’s and Cortland’s; stationery stores and bookshops and malt shops and jewelry stores; two theaters, a supper club, a miniature golf course and a nursery. Colorado Boulevard functioned as the only route directly connecting the San Fernando Valley to the San Gabriel Valley, its traffic a boon to store owners.

Then, in 1962, the highway came through in the form of the 134 Freeway. Outsiders bypassed Eagle Rock’s business district and forgot about the little town; locals soon jumped on the freeway to shop at mega malls that had sprung up in Glendale and Pasadena. When we think of small towns killed off by superhighways, usually the scrubby parts of the country come to mind, places where the fish hatcheries and Bates Motel are found. But here in the middle of Los Angeles, just minutes from City Hall, a little town with Midwestern roots was killed off by the highway that bypassed it.

A son of Eagle Rock such as I, growing up in the commercial decline that followed, could feel as haunted by the past as Norman Bates. The town brims with the sunny potential of becoming a self-contained community on the South Pasadena model, full of architectural charm and smallness and wandering side streets and greenery and defined borders. Yet a shadow hangs over the village, something lurking behind the shuttered windows of The Human Hair Store that might explain why the town’s two arterial routes half resemble the main drag leaving Checkpoint Charlie.

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It might be, says Sanders, that “Eagle Rock has always sat on a knife’s edge, never able to come together and view itself as a community.”

*

A LOT OF TIME IN EAGLE ROCK IS SPENT IN AN ONGOING BATTLE WHOSE field includes much of northeast L.A.: the fight to block schlocky commercial and residential development that has sullied the architectural character of the city’s upper-righthand quadrant over the last 20 years. That struggle has as much to do with keeping out ugly buildings as it has to do with Eagle Rock’s attempt to catch notice from the city, the fight’s subtext.

“Even the city has acknowledged that this area has been abandoned as a dumping ground for distressed or run-down architecture,” says Jeff Samudio, who, perhaps more than any other participant involved in the town’s recent struggles, has been formed by two decades of allegorical conflict. When Samudio was just 18, after he had graduated from Eagle Rock High School and begun attending USC and purchased his first home in Eagle Rock, he received a shrill phone call from a local housewife. Kathleen Aberman’s only message was, “They’re tearing down the buildings!” The buildings in question were a string of historical storefronts along Colorado Boulevard. Just the night before, the owner had promised to a room of 200 residents through his attorney, ex-councilman Art Snyder, that he would not tear them down. By the time Samudio reached the site, the bulldozers had arrived, and so had the LAPD. Poor Kathleen Aberman was pacing nervously across a storefront roof, holding the shovels at bay.

“For years Eagle Rock has felt overlooked by the powers of the city, whether it be the councilman’s office or the mayor’s office itself,” Samudio says. “It has to do with being part of the city’s 14th District, which is long and irregular and gerrymandered out of so many competing areas of North and East L.A. All through Richard Alatorre’s reign, and even Art Snyder’s before him, you would have thought the 14th was the Great East L.A. District. Actually, it was the Great Eagle Rock District because there was a constituency here that was mostly middle class, ethnically diverse, and who were placing councilmen in office every year. Yet the mandate has always come from the Eastside, leaving Eagle Rock feeling like a poor stepchild.”

This, then, is the well of hurt sitting behind every Eagle Rock fight over development or lack of. When Aberman was finally arrested, and the historic buildings beneath her feet razed to make room for a mini-mall, Eagle Rock felt not so much betrayed by a developer as abandoned by an uncaring parent--the city. When the log cabins and gaping cement animals of the town’s miniature golf course were leveled for another mini-mall, Eagle Rock felt abandoned again; the same when a historical shopping district was taken out for a third mini-mall.

On either side of the town, Glendale and Pasadena were busy converting their historical boulevards into commercial assets. What was the city of L.A. doing for Eagle Rock while the little town helplessly watched outsiders disassemble it piece by part? Five minutes down the 110 Freeway, L.A. was channeling literally billions of dollars into a subway and a sports stadium and a music center to remake a part of the city where almost no one lived. By the time the local bank was about to be razed to make room for a McDonald’s, a woman named Joanne Turner--who was mostly known for wading out into dangerous traffic to weed Colorado Boulevard’s grassy medians--had finally had enough.

Turner is a tall, big-boned woman with blue eyes, shortish hair and milky-white skin that flushes when she works hard or gets worked up, which is often. She is more Erin Brockovich than Julia Roberts, and certainly in Hollywood she would be cast as the strong-willed, raw-knuckled farmer’s widow, staving off the creditors and coyotes to save the farm. In a sense, she has made Eagle Rock her acreage. She is currently the president of TERA, the residents association whose genesis can more or less be traced back to Aberman’s rooftop arrest. As president she is tireless and well known, and respected and disliked by many. When she thinks of Eagle Rock’s future, she sees “Los Feliz as an area to model our vision on--full of boutiques and funky clothing stores and good sit-down restaurants and an art gallery or two.”

Turner built her reputation five years ago on McDonald’s. After reading a letter from the local Chamber of Commerce president supporting the franchise, she found herself thinking, “The local chamber has no vision for this community--there’s no business vision out there at all.” It didn’t help that the letter had called homeowners who supported a new specific plan to improve the boulevard “anti-anything.” “All I could think was that this town already had almost a dozen fast-food restaurants,” Turner says. “And if McDonald’s came in that would be the beginning of the end of us ever turning Colorado into a pedestrian-oriented boulevard.”

Turner wrote her own letter--it is six pages long and single spaced--in which she went after the town’s 80 auto repair shops, its liquor stores, “unsightly parking lots collecting trash and transients,” blank billboards, fast-food restaurants, half-abandoned mini-malls and a “reactive” Chamber of Commerce whose solution to all this was a McDonald’s. She walked the streets for three weeks, handing out her letter and taking a formal survey--it turned out that people overwhelmingly wanted a bookstore in Eagle Rock, not another fast-food franchise. Eventually she won; McDonald’s went elsewhere. (Turner’s victory wasn’t shared by independent booksellers; a Blockbuster moved onto the contested site.)

One night I visit a Chamber of Commerce mixer inside The Capri, a little Italian restaurant with checkered tablecloths. I sit down with the chamber’s current president, Kachik Saradjian, who apparently still carries the torch of his predecessor and who tells me that McDonald’s is exactly the kind of business that would bring shoppers into Eagle Rock. “People see McDonald’s and they follow,” he says. “It has the glamour that adds visibility to a neighborhood.”

He also has a few theories to explain Eagle Rock’s 30% business vacancy rate, and why locals are not gracing the doorways of the town’s 80 auto shops and 24 beauty outlets, its Human Hair stores and businesses with mixed or no hours. “One reason is that some trees here look terrible and give the impression the place is abandoned,” he says. “Another is the speed limit on Colorado, which is 35 mph and too dangerous for people to safely slow down and park.”

He did say there is a parking problem, which sounded true, and one morning I stop into the president’s chambers--which sit directly beneath current councilman Nick Pacheco’s field office--to talk about parking. “Parking is a real situation here,” Saradjian tells me. He says he is about to write a letter to the city. “In that letter I want to address the issue that the city should take a strong position for parking structures.” Since it seems obvious that as president of the chamber Saradjian can simply walk up the eight stairs to Pacheco’s office and sit down with field deputy Linda Herbert to talk over the problem, I ask him if he has considered taking the trip.

“To be honest,” he says, “on the specific issue of parking I have not thought of having that discussion.”

*

IF YOU SPEND MUCH TIME IN EAGLE Rock these days you come across an awful lot of rumors and half-truths swirling through the little town, all in one way or another pointing to a pressing insecurity that Eagle Rock is feeling over its future. For instance, I was told that the fact Trader Joe’s had opened a store on Colorado Boulevard was a good sign for the future; the little market has actually been there since 1973. I was told Starbucks had recently purchased property on Colorado Boulevard, or maybe it was Figueroa Boulevard, and that its appearance was imminent. This also proved untrue at the time. I was told that Los Feliz restaurateur Fred Eric was turning the old Bob’s Big Boy into another Fred 62, that he had just bought a local bar, that he was seriously considering a conversion of the shuttered Eagle Theater into a cabaret. Each of these rumors, it seemed, had their own subtext, but all were about the same thing: Which way would the town tip and what would be the effect?

The subtext of the Trader Joe’s rumor was good--its populist aisles of international foods would bring in the right blend of people. The Starbucks rumor was a bad omen--a sign that MallAmerica’s chain stores might soon colonize Colorado Boulevard. And the Fred Eric rumor . . . well, the truth of the Fred Eric rumor has everything to do with what you think of Fred Eric.

There has been no bigger booster of Eagle Rock in the city press during the last year than Eric. For a man who took two Los Feliz restaurants--Vida and Fred 62--and turned them into theatrical spaces for the new community to play out its themes, Eric seemingly has even more to say about the little town 10 minutes to the east.

One reason is that he lives in Eagle Rock. It was a move Eric made after home-shopping in the Hollywood Hills, after which he visited Cuba and decided he no longer wanted to live in the Hollywood Hills, which led to his driving through Eagle Rock one day, looking at the hand-painted business signs that just made him feel good, which led to the purchase of his home. A sparsely decorated 1921 Craftsman with all sorts of interesting Asian deely-bobs in it, it is more think tank than home. On the day I visit Eric, I learn that the rumors have fallen short: Not only has he considered buying the old Bob’s Big Boy, a bar on Colorado and the Eagle Theater, but he also is looking at a doughnut shop “to do a doughnut thing"; the 99 Cent Store on Eagle Rock Boulevard “to do a luncheonette called The Nighthawk Diner"; the 50-50 Bar or Johnnie’s Bar “to do a community bar"; the Pillar’s clothing store “to do something"; and the Pat & Lorraine’s restaurant “to do a Mediterranean-like flat bread kind-of-vegetarian Moroccony-feel thing.” These are just eight reasons Eric is viewed locally as an impresario-in-waiting.

Eric also has theories to explain Eagle Rock’s current straits and future potential, but because he’s the person who also told me about Trader Joe’s, you have to take his theories with a grain of something. For instance, he thinks a current positive sign is “the girl across the street who I don’t know what she does but she wears all black and stays home all day and we’re getting a lot more of that.” His future theories are more interesting. In them, Eagle Rock is cast as the Ultimate Option. “What I perceive is that the people in Pasadena can’t go to Old Town anymore because it’s a congested mess, people in San Marino have no place to go, Glendale is not classy enough, and everyone in Los Feliz is already moving here.” Eric says he realized that everyone in Los Feliz was moving out when an Eagle Rock restaurant owner painted his establishment green--the Fred 62 color--and “300 people came up to me in Los Feliz and said, ‘Oh, you’re opening a restaurant in my neighborhood.’

“Eagle Rock will become the outlet for all these people. When a Fred Eric kinda thing goes in here, all the more people are going to move out to Eagle Rock. I actually think it’s a nicer neighborhood than Los Feliz--like walking onto the Pleasantville set. But no matter what happens, you’re never going to see Madonna moving here. We just don’t have the real estate.”

*

LIKE A WARM FRONT PUSHING AN air mass before it, Los Feliz’s climbing housing prices are driving an exodus of hipsters eastward toward Eagle Rock. Five years ago, the average cost of a two-bedroom house in Los Feliz was $220,000; today it has risen to $350,000, while the cost for the same house in Eagle Rock is still under $200,000. More than Patricia Neal or Fred Eric or a potential dog park, the rising rent on a Los Feliz apartment and the attractive mortgage of an Eagle Rock house may have the largest influence on Eagle Rock’s potential transformation into a Left Bank.

If Los Feliz does decamp for Eagle Rock, it will reverse a long-standing housing trend of the last two decades. One of the biggest misconceptions I heard from Eagle Rock’s new immigrants was that it was a place from which no one ever moved away. In fact, in the 1980s and ‘90s, thousands of whites did move away, so that today Eagle Rock resembles a Midwestern town that has been placed inside Guadalajara, which in turn has been fit into Singapore, which in turn has been set squarely inside Manila. The town’s remarkably even mix of race and class is paradoxically cited as the reason its business district so consistently fails--the area is too complex to market to.

White flight into Eagle Rock--that is, whites fleeing rocketing Westside real estate prices--would at least surmount that hurdle. We already know they’re looking for good bakeries and espresso bars and funky boutiques and some variation of California cuisine. Yet it would also displace large sections of a diverse community, knocking out the foundations of the rarest of American towns. Places like Eagle Rock and Williamsburg and the Mission District and Los Feliz have all had those perfect moments when the dream is shared by all. But that only lasts as long as it takes for success to displace those who can’t keep up. And this is perhaps the real story of Eagle Rock--a shining example of a heterogeneous American town that could not realize a business community to complete itself.

The last time I see Patricia Neal she is not nearly as upbeat as she seemed in the weeks preceding the opening of her coffeehouse. Swork has been open for some months, to seemingly good business, and during our visit a constant stream of people moves in and out of Neal’s high-concept, casual-futuristic interior. It is hard to imagine the start-up failing; the unterrestrial hiss of Swork’s milk steamer provides a constant background ambience. Still, Neal worries over the effects of potential developers with no aesthetics, and fellow retailers lacking initiative, and the poor feng shui of Eagle Rock. “You walk into other businesses along this street,” she says, “and the first thing you do is trip over something.”

I walk across the street, step into a Peruvian restaurant called The Bricks, and nearly trip over two children watching a blaring television that sits in the foyer. Unlike Swork, The Bricks is deserted and looks as if it has been so for some time. It is not hard to see why. The Bricks is not high concept--it is a cavernous room filled with metal-and-vinyl chairs sitting on a floor that seems held together in places by strips of gray duct tape. Its windows are open to the boulevard, and the aural wash of traffic noise competes with the blaring sound of cartoon violence to fill the dark room.

The Bricks is owned by a middle-aged Peruvian immigrant named Lupe Costa, who freely admits that, like many business owners in town, she has a hard time coaxing residents through her door. “It’s true that people who live here go out of the city to find what they need,” she says. Unlike Neal, Costa does not have a background in design and marketing; she has a background in potatoes. The Peruvian diet includes more than 300 different types of potatoes, and as Costa goes over her menu with me--potatoes with honeycomb tripe, dried potatoes with chile peanuts, boiled potatoes topped with savory cheese--my attention wanders around the room. With a long bar running its length, this is a space I imagine a Fred Eric succeeding in.

Costa shows me her hands. She has worked so hard through her life that her fingerprints have worn off. “Those hands made it tough to become a citizen,” she says. As hard as she has worked her restaurant, she knows she can lose it and find herself replaced by one of Eagle Rock’s new immigrants with backgrounds in marketing and design.

“Keeping this restaurant open-- it’s very [hard],” she says. “But I’m 55 years old. I don’t have time to do something else.”


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