An urban pioneer's new claim

When Jim Priest moved from North Hollywood to Echo Park almost 20 years ago, his friends told him he was crazy. Echo Park was too dangerous, too "urban," too out there. Nowadays, when he tells people he's relocated to Lincoln Heights, as marginal a neighborhood now as Echo Park was then, they all nod, tell him that's cool, they know a bunch of artists who just moved there too.

Priest isn't sure if this is a good or bad thing, because the artists were how it all started back in Echo Park, ravens of "revitalization," which, eventually, and inevitably, priced him out of the renter's market.

So he actually wasn't thinking "urban revival" when he moved with his two children into a hillside bungalow in Lincoln Heights. He wasn't considering the symbolic weight of the new Gold Line stop there, didn't know about plans to turn a nearby industrial building into lofts or about the money the city has lately spent on new sidewalks, streetlights and trees.

All he knew was that the Echo Park duplex he had rented for years had been sold -- for such a boomtown profit that he can't even muster criticism of his landlord for selling. So he had to find a new place to live, and Echo Park was out.

"Couldn't touch it," he said. "I was paying $800 for a two-bedroom and everything was at least double." This is the peril of being on the cutting edge of shifting real estate values -- sometimes, you get cut right out of the neighborhood.

Priest is a tall, solid guy who seems on good terms with reality, so he did not panic. He considered his options. "I thought about the loft thing," he says. "I'm a pretty handy guy, I figured I could get a 1,500-square-foot loft going for about a dollar a foot, build some walls, turn it into a three-bedroom."

He looked around loft-riddled downtown and discovered that the cutting edge had come and gone in downtown too. Most of the spaces were too big -- 3,000 square feet or more -- and many weren't even lofts. "They had fireplaces, they had chandeliers," he says, laughing. "They weren't lofts, they were big, trendy, faux lofts."

When he saw an ad for a three-bedroom house in the Recycler, he jumped at it. The neighborhood didn't thrill him -- there are bars on every window of the houses near his, and two business-like pit bulls on the porch one door down.

Like most downtown-adjacent neighborhoods, Lincoln Heights had its heyday, just not in living memory. In the early 1900s, when it was still known as East Los Angeles, Lincoln Heights was a fairly fashionable residential area. It was renamed for Abraham Lincoln High School, which was built in 1914 on Mission Avenue and still has the original sign proclaiming it a "day and evening" school.

The neighborhood, which has been trying to catch the gentrification wave for a while, boasts a few attractions -- Lincoln Park is as lovely a city oasis as Echo Park, the San Antonio Winery and the Brewery Arts Complex offer history and culture, and the Art Deco high school now all but levitates under a coat of new golden paint.

For the most part, however, Lincoln Heights remains the sort of shade-deprived urban neighborhood where chain stores still fear to tread. Priest, who knew Echo Park when crack vials still littered the walkway around the lake, was so uneasy he began with a month-to-month lease. But after a few weeks, he began to reconsider.

"Everyone here is really nice," he says. "They came and introduced themselves, brought us baked things. You won't find that in the suburbs."

Or, he says, in Echo Park these days. "People used to be friendly there," he says. "Now they're all hipper than thou. Of course," he adds, with a laugh, "it could just be me. My anti-capitalist attitudes."

It is difficult for a renter in Los Angeles to maintain true anti-capitalist attitudes these days -- in the neighborhoods where mortgages once looked like rents, rents now resemble mortgages. Being cool enough to stake a claim in the next hip 'hood has become a local obsession, but many of those who help establish an area as desirable inevitably get the boot somewhere between the opening of the Brazilian cafe and that of the high-end cheese shop.

And the difference between profiting from your instincts and suffering because of them is capital.

"After all these years, I realize it really is all about who's got the bread," says Priest. "If you're in the club, great. If you're not, you are out of luck."

Raising two kids on his own, Priest could not afford to buy in Echo Park, though he's still kicking himself for not pulling it together to purchase a run-down little place in Highland Park a few years ago. "I thought I could do better," he says. "But the market

Now he finds himself telling his kids to "learn how to earn," to make home-owning an early goal. "I hate it, man, but that's the reality now."

Many people now are saying that Lincoln Heights could become The Next Silver Lake -- or rather The Next Mount Washington, which currently holds The Next Silver Lake title. Priest doesn't know about that, but if it's true, he hopes everyone holds off until he gets the money together to buy something.

He likes the neighborhood -- the meat markets and fruit stands, the fact that his kids can hop on a bus to Union Station where they catch the subway to Hollywood High, the 10-minute proximity to downtown, even the Luna Motor Court, a motel a few blocks away that looks like something out of a photographic history of the auto club. Sure, there's the sound of traffic, a few used car lots and plenty of ambient razor wire, but Priest believes that city living often involves, well, city living.

And looking out of his back bedroom window over a few streets' worth of rooftops, Priest has a view of an undeveloped hill, burnt gold by summer, dotted with trees and scrub.

"Look at that," he says. "It looks like Thousand Oaks used to look when I lived there 30 years ago. Back then that was the frontier. So who knows what's going to happen next?"

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