Travel: L.A.’s unassuming Highland Park

LOS ANGELES – Ask any Angeleno about the hippest neighborhood in Los Angeles, and chances are you’ll hear Silver Lake. But ask a real hipster, and you’ll probably hear Highland Park. Or you won’t, because they don’t want any more people moving there.

Picture rolling hills, charming Craftsman homes and palm trees in the year-round Southern California sun. Its main drag, York Boulevard, is lined with attractive eateries, spacious art galleries and quirky shops. And best of all, it feels like a neighborhood. Unlike the rest of the city – a massive, sprawling tangle of freeways – people actually walk and bike in this pocket of northeastern L.A., a 10- to 20-minute drive from Pasadena, Silver Lake and downtown.

Indeed, York Boulevard even got a nod from Conde Nast Traveler, who called it the “new coolest street in L.A.” this past fall.

Locals aren’t big fans of all the titles and comparisons, even though they traffic in them, too. One predicted York Boulevard would become similar to Melrose Avenue, the infamous shopping destination in West Hollywood. Several called Highland Park “the Silver Lake of 10 years ago,” back before the neighborhood east of Hollywood saw its profile and real-estate prices spike dramatically.

James Graham, owner of Ba, a French bistro on York, went a step further, comparing the place – perhaps hyperbolically – to Paris.

“People are sitting outside, and that’s something you don’t really see in L.A,” he said. “It’s something you certainly didn’t see here 10 years ago – doors were shuttered everywhere.”

York Boulevard was once considered a wasteland of auto shops and crime. Now it’s a hub of activity with craft beer bars, independent shops and a well-attended monthly art walk. New businesses are coming in and the extant community – predominantly Latino and working class – is still adapting to those changes.

So even though it may seem obvious, there is a “bad word” here. A word that business owners – especially newcomers – hate to use, including Molly Dutton, a 25-year-old transplant from Brooklyn. She opened Old York, a cute boutique with new and vintage women’s clothing, in December.

“I came here because,” she paused, hesitated and regrouped. “I really don’t want to say it’s gentrifying, but it’s gentrifying.”

Another “bad word” in Highland Park? Hipster.

Just go to Cafe de Leche, an upscale coffee shop at York and Avenue 50. The lime green tables on the sidewalk are almost always populated with attractive 20-somethings, many sporting asymmetrical haircuts, jean jackets and leopard-print leggings.

Inside, access the cafe’s free WiFi and prepare to be met with multiple nearby networks that use the word “hipsters,” preceded by a certain four-letter expletive.

“There is certainly some simmering discontent here,” said Edmundo Rodriguez, owner of Elsa’s Bakery on York. “The question is, what’s causing it? And how do we deal with it?”

Neighborhood changes

At the turn of the 20th century, Highland Park buzzed with commercial and cultural activity. Occidental College, where a young Barack Obama would later study, opened, as did Charles Lummis’ Southwest Museum. The neighborhood became an epicenter for artists and intellectuals, many of whom helped inspire the Arts and Crafts movement.

California’s first freeway – the Arroyo Seco Parkway, which connects Pasadena with downtown L.A. – was completed in 1940 and unintentionally ushered in changes to Highland Park.

The neighborhood became a “drive-over” plot of land, and many residents moved to newer neighborhoods now accessible by freeway. White flight was in full swing, and Highland Park, by the 1960s, had transformed largely into a working-class Latino enclave.

By the early 2000s, Highland Park was changing again. Young, creative types were getting priced out of au courant Silver Lake, so they moved further east, where renovation-ready Craftman homes could still be found at affordable prices.

Yim Tam first came to the neighborhood in 1979 at the age of 5. She teaches at the predominantly Latino Franklin High School, where students often complain about the gentrification on York Boulevard.

“They don’t feel welcome,” Tam said. “My students see a lot of Caucasians at Cafe de Leche and they think it’s a place for white people. It’s alarming.”

It’s not just Cafe de Leche. It’s shops, it’s the art galleries, it’s the fusion restaurants. Tam reminds her students that Highland Park has always been a melting pot, a place for immigrants. But there wasn’t always a street for people to walk around and be seen. And the neighborhood has been plagued over the years by gang violence.

Before recently buying Elsa’s Bakery – a mainstay on York for more than 40 years – Rodriguez was a school administrator in the area. He agrees that the streets haven’t always been safe.

“I drove through here enough times to know it was a community at risk,” he said. “More and more were moving out of here because they couldn’t deal with it.”

Many residents cite The York, an industrial gastropub with gourmet hamburgers and craft beers on York Boulevard, as the symbol of change in the neighborhood. It opened in 2007, followed by several art galleries. In 2008, Cafe de Leche started serving customers. Those businesses set anchors on York, and the designer shops and alternative bookstores followed.

Now, with a plethora of spruced-up homes near attractive businesses, real estate prices are skyrocketing. There are legitimate fears that locals are being priced out of Highland Park – Tam is one of them. She recently purchased a house in Pasadena for nearly $200,000 less than similar homes she could find in Highland Park.

But Tam said she loves the changes, even though they pushed her to live even farther east. Residents no longer have to hop on the freeway to enjoy a nice night out, and she appreciates that most of the business owners are residents with ties to the surrounding community.

For example, Graham has lived in Highland Park for 11 years. He lived through the ups and downs and leapt at the chance to open a restaurant a short walk from his home two years ago.

“I could have gone to Silver Lake where there’s already a great economy or Beverly Hills and, with the right concept, probably could have made a lot of money,” he said. “But all of a sudden, there was this enthusiasm here, and I wanted to be a part of it.”

The new York

While the pros and cons of gentrification are clearly a continuing conversation, many of Highland Park’s restaurants and shops are worth visiting in part because they feature the neighborhood’s unique personality and tensions.

The journey to Highland Park – and York Boulevard in particular – from a base elsewhere in L.A. makes for a pleasing day trip. Consider parking your vehicle near in the residential streets near Avenue 50 and York Boulevard and then taking a stroll.

Nearby Ba, for example, is a gorgeous restaurant. Its baroque, Marie Antoinette-inspired aesthetic would fit nicely in any trendy, urban neighborhood. Graham’s wife and designer Julia Latané is still adding touches to the decked-out space. There’s a chandelier of wine bottles and a peaceful patio for weekend brunches. The bathroom walls wear a modern pattern hand-drawn in ink.

It looks like a hipster’s paradise, but that’s not Ba’s main clientele.

“My restaurant has connected really well with the older Latino homeowners, and a lot of people starting families and going on date night,” Graham said. “I’ve gotten nothing but love from the neighborhood, from the people who have always been here. They stuck with the neighborhood when it was struggling, and now they get their duck cassoulet.”

Next door to Ba, Elsa’s Bakery is another example of the new York Boulevard. It’s been around for more than 40 years, but new ownership brought a facelift. A year ago, Elsa’s looked like a drab mini-mart – it sold milk by the gallon and instant noodles on the side. Now it’s a cafe with free WiFi and bright lavender walls.

But Rodriguez kept the baker, who has been churning out impeccable pan dulce for 39 years. The buttery biscuits, guava empanadas and other Mexican pastries beckon to all walks of Highland Park life – longtime residents, newcomers and students from nearby Occidental College. Rodriguez and his son, Mario, greet familiar faces in Spanish and English alike.

“I’m only worried that York could become unaffordable to regular people,” Rodriguez said, citing Venice on the west side of L.A., a once-dumpy town where you can now window-shop for $800 purses.

And there certainly are pricey, beautiful shops on York – though nothing that extreme. Instead, you see inspiring interior design and furniture hubs, including Meridian Mercado Diseno, a retail and studio space with elegant yet affordable designs, and Platform, a constantly changing gallery and store with all kinds of unique objects for the home.

Bookworms can look to Pop-Hop for lovingly curated fiction, art editions and indie zines or Thank You for comic books and alternative graphic novels that bridge art with literature. For vintage shoppers, check out Urchin for affordable, funky finds, or Old York for a clean, classy hunt.

Across the street from Elsa’s Bakery’s $1 treats, Scoops dishes out artisan ice cream in flavors that change daily – Sweet Potato Burnt Sugar, Pistachio Rosewater, Salty Dulce de Leche and Jasmine Tea Honey were some notable creations, and a healthy serving of two flavors goes for $3. Next door, Donut Friend serves $5 DIY designer doughnuts.

Doughnut with goat cheese, strawberries, basil and balsamic syrup, anyone?

And the old Latino hangouts aren’t going away – at least not yet. A couple of blocks away, Huaraches Azteca is filled with locals chowing down on $3 huaraches (meat, cheese and red onion on fried masa). A couple doors down, Jugos Azteca sells a variety of made-to-order juice blends: pineapple, grapefruit, beet, celery, carrot, ginger, etc., for $3 for 16 ounces.

Sitting in a corner is Haroldo Soto. Eighteen years ago, Soto settled in Highland Park after immigrating from Guatemala. He said he enjoys the neighborhood’s evolving identity, especially its mix of old and new.

“This place is special,” he said.