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Park La Brea apartments’ complex identity

With a cockatiel perched on her shoulder and her brown hair flowing nearly to her waist, Patricia Morison looks elegant and at ease beneath a portrait of herself.

The former Broadway star of “Kiss Me Kate” and “The King and I” stares out her ninth-floor window at the rest of Park La Brea. She is 97 now and, having lived in the same tower for more than 50 years, is one of the last representatives of the demographic that once dominated the apartment complex.

“It was more homogenous, I have to say. Most of the population was actors, actresses, artistic folks and businesspeople on the top floor,” says Morison, who negotiates her flat with the aid of a walker. “There were never any children.”

Photos: Park La Brea has changed, much like the city that surrounds it

Indeed, over the years, she has watched Park La Brea swing open its gates to change, much like the city that surrounds it.

“Life goes, life changes,” Morison says. “But you could say that Park La Brea has made a home for me, and I’ve made a home in Park La Brea. It’s not an apartment. It’s my home.”

Built in the Fairfax corridor, the complex is steps from some of L.A.'s favorite cultural icons. To the south is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and its new Resnick Pavilion. To the north, the venerable Farmers Market and its neighboring outdoor mall, The Grove. A little farther are the to-die-for shops along Beverly Boulevard and Melrose Avenue and the famed Canter’s Delicatessen, on Fairfax.

With 4,247 apartments, management still touts Park La Brea as the largest housing complex west of the Mississippi River.

Many Angelenos will tell you — with a sense of pride — they once rented here. Yet, although the architectural layout remains as intricate as ever across 160 acres, census data spanning four decades leave no doubt about the change.

In 1970, whites made up about 95% of the nearly 7,000 residents, more than half of them over age 65. By 2010, with nearly 12,000 residents, only 44% were white and only 8% overall were over 65. Asians now make up the second-largest ethnic group, at 41%.

These days, the complex is a tapestry of skateboards and scooters, of tai chi and Jacuzzis. Sleek 15-foot-high light boxes mark one edge of the property on 6th Street; and inside, the grays, creams and golds of the taller buildings play off the Southern California sky.

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Louise Downes glows when she talks about the bathroom wallpaper with its splashes of pastel yellows, oranges and greens. She put it up herself 35 years ago.

Downes, who turns 98 this month, hasn’t lived here as long as Morison. She quickly adds, however, that she had to wait months to get her coveted garden apartment. That was in the late 1970s.

It’s past 8 a.m. now, time for her biweekly tai chi class. “Vamanos!” she says, scampering down the steps.

Because she walks the concrete paths every morning, Downes is witness to the shifting human landscape. The sounds of Spanish, Korean, Japanese and Hindi point to the change that longtime residents say has accelerated in the last few years.

A former schoolteacher, Downes has mostly embraced it, spending her Sundays teaching English to a 28-year-old South Korean woman who lives in the area.

But she has gripes, too. She misses the old Park La Brea rules.

“If your deck furniture stood out over the walk here, they would let you know,” Downes sniffs, glancing at a neighbor’s greasy hibachi grill. “If you got messy and had a pile of magazines out here, they were tough on you.

“You behaved here. You were expected to be a gentleman and a lady. This was truly, truly upscale.” She lets out a sigh. “I walk through now and think, ‘What a mess.’”

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A recent morning is a study in contrasts.

At the tai chi class, Downes and a dozen or so seniors line up near one of the outdoor fountains, cautiously rotating their hips and kicking the air.

A block away but still inside the complex, a 24-year-old Swedish student sips an iced mocha at a cafe table, her MacBook’s pink case gleaming in the sun. Behind her, a 30-year-old African American stand-up comic paces in a spacious park area rehearsing his routine.

A few steps away, half a dozen Indian mothers rock their babies as their older children tear around a grassy knoll on scooters at break-neck speed. Toward 6th Street, voices bellow from the pool and Jacuzzi where a group of 20-somethings is lolling.

“Once we start living here, we love this place,” Varsha Lohade, one of the mothers, says. “We bond with each other, and that bonding is most important to us.”

The original Park La Brea concept in 1939 called for three blocks of two-story apartment buildings. Construction began on Fairfax and moved eastward in 1941, until World War II intervened. After the war, with an influx of veterans to the L.A. area, the master plan was reworked to incorporate 13-story towers. The 18th and final one was completed in 1952, but tenants started renting in the towers the year before.

The complex also has a dry cleaner, hair salon, movie theater and activities center. Rents range from about $1,400 for a studio to about $2,800 for a three-bedroom. Tenants can pay more for leases shorter than 12 months.

From the air, the 40-building design could be the work of a geometrician — an octagon on the west, a pentagon on the east, connected at the center by a giant square. The towers and apartments form X’s and L’s surrounded by greenery.

Downes recalls that in the 1970s her neighbors included two doctors, a dentist, an acclaimed music producer and an attorney. Back then, Park La Brea was widely seen as a magnet for the affluent but also for a certain age group — and gender. Downes says that’s when the complex earned the nickname Menopause Manor.

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The words spray-painted in white block letters on the walkway are meant to be seen.

NO SKATEBOARDS

Skateboarders draw some of the most frequent complaints from older residents, who don’t move so fast anymore.

In the past, Downes says with a disapproving tone, “Kids didn’t have those.” She points to the warning and visibly tenses as the sound of wheels roars toward her.

Yet it is the 20-somethings who seem to attract the most ill will, with their loud music, big parties and alcohol.

The surge in college-age adults is fed in part by Boston University, Park La Brea’s largest renter, which annually sends about 200 students here as part of an internship program. Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising and a number of other schools also work with the complex to provide housing for their students. Combined, the schools hold about 65 apartments, which are most often filled with more than one tenant.

Even after graduating, some stay. Like JT Vancollie.

This summer, she threw a party at her ninth-floor apartment to celebrate her 22nd birthday. There was liquor in her kitchen and beer pong on her dining room table.

Vancollie, an actress, wanted the party to be perfect — the music was blasting, the lights of the city spread out before her guests.

Three noise complaints and two warnings later, police ended the festivities. It was just before 1 a.m.

“That’s my only deterrent for Park La Brea,” Vancollie says. “There are so many people all around, they do hear you if you party.”

Yet she isn’t complaining. “I actually see myself here for a while,” she says.

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As Downes sees it, for every old friend lost to time, there is a new tenant who can become a friend.

Recently, 1-year-old Rion Daisuke and his family were here from Japan and lived next door. Downes relished reading with the boy and was particularly delighted one day when he ran toward her, gleefully shouting, “Louise!”

Zach Fishbain is another new friend. The 29-year-old entrepreneur was walking Patches, his fiancée’s dog, and Downes couldn’t resist leaning down to pet the animal. She won over Fishbain, who now seeks her out every few weeks, partly to make sure she is OK.

Gardener Jose Beas is a longtime friend.

“Señora Louisa! ¿Como está?” he calls out.

“How are you, my dear?” she replies.

In an aside, she says, “When my husband and I used to go on trips, he would take care of our yard. We’ve known each other for 34 years.”

“I don’t see you for a long time, señora. What happened?”

“I fell, Jose, on the walk by our house, I tripped.”

Beas, 65, grasps Downes’ bruised hand and begins rubbing it.

“Very be careful,” he says. “I love you.”

matt.stevens@latimes.com

Times data analyst Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.


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