They came here in waves. First the Italians, then the Filipinos, Mexicans, Ukrainians, Cubans, Southeast Asians and Salvadorans.With eagerness, they settled into the small bungalows, clapboard duplexes and boxy stucco apartments that line the flats and head up into the hills. This is Echo Park, one of the city's oldest and most diverse neighborhoods.
What's it about?
From atop the hills, there are sightlines to the ocean. The views include the twinkling lights of downtown skyscrapers, a sunset over Hollywood or purple mist rising above the San Gabriels. A few steep blocks away, trendy neighborhood shops, clubs, bars and restaurants, such as Taix and Brite Spot, enjoy a bustling business along Sunset Boulevard.
The population is largely Latino, as are many of the businesses and restaurants, but waves of newcomers are changing the mix a bit, and the neighborhood is becoming artsy and energetic.
"It's kind of cool to see the old Chinese man who's lived here for 30 years with the young hipster kid walking down the street to the coffeehouse," said four-year resident Cecilia Cabello, a political aide to the consul general of Israel.
"I love that you can walk," added Cabello, who lived in New York for nearly a decade. She routinely strolls down to Chango for nonfat lattes, to Masa for the Spanish burger, the manchego salad or the Cuban sandwich and to Rodeo for Mexican food.
Many homes have 1,000 to 1,400 square feet and two bedrooms and were built between 1910 and 1940, said Steve Stokes, owner of Echo Park Realty. Prices range from $395,000 for a 700-square-foot house "in need of major repair" to nearly $1 million for larger homes of more than 2,000 square feet high in the hills.
Residents, renters and owners love the eclectic architecture.
Graphics designer Holly Hampton moved in 2001 from an Echo Park apartment with a Batchelder-tile fireplace to her 930-square-foot house. She paid $387,000 for the two-bedroom bungalow built in 1923 and perched 53 steps above street level.
"When I started looking for a house, I just went on foot. I started walking every morning, and going up the staircase streets, down and around," Hampton said. "I've always had an affinity for older architecture with character."
Her house came with a studio apartment and four garages. She rents out three.
Good news, bad news
Parking is bad. Hampton pointed out that many people who live on the staircase streets, a steep cascade of concrete steps, have no place to park.
Her garage doors were sprayed with graffiti on the day Hampton got the keys to her new home. She immediately repainted them and said that, although there's a gang problem, she has never once felt afraid.
"Definitely crime has gotten better. There's not as much graffiti. There are many peaceful nights. Back in the late '80s, I heard a lot more [police] helicopters."
Violent crime is down 29% from last year in the areas, including Echo Park, patrolled by the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart division, according to an LAPD spokesperson. Yet a reputation for crime lingers.
Christine Peters paid $168,000 in 1996 for her 1,600-square-foot home perched on the highest elevation in the area, and surrounded by peace and quiet.
"People were always like, in the beginning, 'You live in Echo Park. Aren't you scared? They have gangs,' " she said.
"Yeah, they have gangs every place I've lived. There are gangs in Boston. It's a fact of life when you live in a city," Peters said.
"There are still gangs. There is still graffiti and there's still the occasional drive-by shooting," she added, "and yet the real estate has gone through the roof."
For Peters, living in Echo Park is about the convenience. A costume designer, she can get to Warner Bros. or Disney studios in 15 minutes and to the downtown fashion district and Santee Alley in less time.
That proximity to downtown, she said, is "why Echo Park has become very popular with the next generation of home buyers, because it's in; it's hip to be close to the city. Downtown is becoming attractive and appealing."
A civic activist and member of the Echo Park Neighborhood Council, Peters has worked to rein in developments inconsistent with the neighborhood and to preserve Elysian Park, which abuts her home and where she hikes every day.
Echo Park lies within the L.A. Unified School District. On the 2004 California Academic Performance Index, out of a possible score of 1,000, local school scores were: Logan Street School, 628; Elysian Heights School, 760; Mayberry Street School, 765; King Middle School, 633; and Belmont Senior High School, 514.