A Working-Class Neighborhood With a Rich Past

Times Staff Writer

Few can agree where the place is going. For that matter, there's not even a meeting of the minds as to where the community of Echo Park is right now.

Some say that it is bounded by the Glendale Freeway on the north, the Pasadena Freeway on the east, the Hollywood Freeway on the south and Alvarado Street on the west.

Others put the boundaries at Riverside Drive on the north, Elysian Park on the east, Temple Street on the south and Glendale Boulevard on the west.

Some claim it's Effie Street on the north, Beaudry Avenue on the east, Temple on the south and Coronado Street on the west.

On Sunday, though, one group will show the rest of Los Angeles where Echo Park has been.

The first Historic Echo Park home tour will be conducted in the working-class community a mile north of downtown Los Angeles to demonstrate how parts of the area have come full circle.

The tour, called "Restored, Remodeled and Remade," will feature 10 homes built over a 120-year period whose owners have peeled away exterior stucco and scraped off layers of old interior paint to return them to their original luster.

Unlike other home tours around Los Angeles, this one won't feature fancy mansions or luxurious estates.

"The housing here generally reflects the modest nature of the neighborhood," Kevin Kuzma said. "The homes were built well. But they're not large."

Kuzma, an entertainment industry accountant, is president of the Echo Park Historical Society, which is organizing Sunday's home tour. It will be held from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and will start at the Barlow Hospital, 2000 Stadium Way. Tickets are $15.

The tour is an outgrowth of home restoration workshops offered to encourage Echo Park residents to resurrect their bungalows' original clapboard exteriors and replace aluminum window frames with wood.

For the past few decades, Echo Park has been a place badly in need of a little luster. Though not everyone agrees on the hilly community's boundaries, most acknowledge that the neighborhood has evolved from a colorful and sometimes chaotic past.

The area was little more than a dammed-up arroyo holding a 15-acre reservoir in 1888 when Angeleno Heights subdividers created the city's first suburb on a nearby hilltop. Echo Park is said to have gotten its name from a city park landscaper working at the lake whose voice bounced off the surrounding hillsides when he called out to his assistant.

Most of Los Angeles didn't really take notice of the place until 1907, when oil wildcatters drilling on surrounding hillsides leaked so much petroleum into the reservoir that the lake ignited and burned for three days in a spectacularly smoky fire.

The world began noticing Echo Park in 1909 when the Keystone and Bison film companies opened studios there and Mack Sennett used neighborhood streets as backdrops.

During the 1920s and '30s the area was a middle-class suburb of small cottages and Craftsman-style bungalows. The place was popular with workers who caught rides on trolleys along Glendale Boulevard and Temple Street to downtown jobs. A building boom after World War II peppered the area with apartment buildings. These days, fewer than half of Echo Park's 7,782 dwelling units are single-family homes.

For a time in the 1950s, Echo Park was dubbed "Red Gulch" because of blacklisted filmmakers and leftist artists and writers who lived there. By the 1970s it had become home to growing numbers of immigrants. Gangs and drug use were a major concern in the community in the 1980s and the early '90s.

Echo Park began a turnaround about a decade ago. Taking a cue from owners of Victorian homes in Angeleno Heights, residents began restoring their bungalows and cottages, stripping stucco from clapboard walls and converting duplexes back into their original single-family configurations.

"Houses here were never built to be opulent. The fact is Echo Park is not like other parts of the city where they have huge, huge houses," said Jim Schneeweis, a public relations executive who has spent four years restoring his 1923 bungalow.

"The whole focus of Sunday's tour is to point people in the direction of 700- or 1,000-square-foot homes and show that, in this world of bigger is better, the opposite is true in Echo Park."

Schneeweis said tour organizers were unable to accommodate all who offered to open their homes to visitors Sunday.

"People are proud to live in Echo Park. That wasn't always the case," he said.

Tour participant Christine Peters agrees. Her home on Vista Gordo Drive was advertised as being in Silver Lake instead of Echo Park when she bought it seven years ago.

"Not until about two years ago did Echo Park become in style," said Peters, a costume designer for movies and TV shows such as "Joan of Arcadia." Like others in the community, she said she appreciates the area's diversity and dwellings "that are real houses, not mansions."

Cinematographer Jamie Maxton-Graham is converting his Scott Avenue duplex back into a single-family home. He and wife Thi Nguyen were living in Sunland and looking for a more urban environment about a year ago when he says "we stumbled across" Echo Park.

He is about half finished restoring his home, which was built in 1907 and is one of those on the tour. He said that when he chipped away old paint and plaster he discovered that the structure was a virtual museum of Los Angeles' evolution from gaslight to electricity.

Historical Society member Cecilia Cabello, who rents an apartment in a restored, 1920s-style Echo Park building, said she is glad that the community has mostly managed to avoid "everything being torn down and big boxes being built." But like many, she worries that improvements to Echo Park will eventually price out some of those who contribute to the area's diversity.

"In the past few years it's become more gentrified. And I guess I'm adding to that by living here in a renovated apartment," said Cabello, who does community outreach work for the local Israeli Consulate.

Experts say Echo Park is likely to continue bouncing back.

"Echo Park has a lot of personality and snap, and an interesting housing stock that's not built on a grid," said Greg Fischer, a Los Angeles historian and a deputy to City Councilwoman Jan Perry.

Fischer -- who is an authority on original Los Angeles tract development and subdivision dividing lines -- said he is as confused as anyone over Echo Park's boundaries. But he's certain about its allure.

"Echo Park is inner-city suburban living," he said. "And it has an architecture you don't find in Westwood."

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