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Neighborhood Spotlight: Highland Park, enjoying boom times again, wears its past on its sleeve

Walkability, art and nightlife are among the area’s draws.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The steep, hilly countryside along the Arroyo Seco canyon was once as wild and untamed as the body of water that forms its spine.

When swollen by winter rains, the creek — typically an inconstant trickle — rages uncontrollably, sweeping all before it down to the Los Angeles River and out into the ocean.

That tempestuous seasonal waterway kept the arroyo settlements of the 19th century relatively disconnected from the city downstream, and the rugged terrain mostly unconquered.

In the 1880s, however, Highland Park and its neighbor Garvanza took advantage of the scenic isolation in different ways: Garvanza by developing as a resort town complete with a grand hotel and a train station on the famed Santa Fe Railroad, and Highland Park by becoming a destination for Angelenos traveling far away from the prying eyes of city authorities to partake in the wide variety of illicit activities on offer in the old Sycamore Grove.


Both burgs were independent, but by the late 1800s the city of Los Angeles, in a precursor of waves of annexation to come, was wooing them with the same irresistible offer of plentiful water and municipal services that it was pitching to communities up and down the arroyo.

A group of people wait for a band to perform at Permanent Records on York Boulevard.
A group of people wait for a band to perform at Permanent Records on York Boulevard.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

With annexation to the city came an end of Sycamore Grove as a den of iniquity following its transformation into one of the first municipal parks in Los Angeles, and the slow absorption of Garvanza into greater Highland Park.

With trolleys coursing up and down Pasadena Avenue (now Figueroa Street) and the eventual taming of the Arroyo Seco via channelization, Highland Park began a period of rapid development as a streetcar suburb.


On the eastern edge of the neighborhood, in Garvanza, an important center of the Arts and Crafts movement flourished, beginning with the relocation of the Judson Studios from downtown to its current location on Avenue 66, just south of York Boulevard.

The neighborhood thrived throughout the prewar period, when many of the landmarks that now define Highland Park — including the Highland Theater and the Highland Park Masonic Temple — were built. In the 1950s, the rise of the suburbs saw the beginning a period of transition for the neighborhood, with Highland Park becoming an important center of Latino life in Los Angeles.

Now, as the neighborhood’s Craftsman homes and walkable mix of commercial and residential projects have enjoyed renewed popularity, it is experiencing an economic boom. With a resurgent downtown just a few minutes away via the Metro Gold Line, Highland Park’s 20th century streetcar suburb beginnings are reasserting themselves more than 100 years later.