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Highland Park, Los Angeles: A Watchful Eye on Gentrification

When Megan Auster-Rosen, 39, began her house hunt 18 months ago, she knew she would have to make some compromises. A New York City native, she had spent four years renting in the Los Angeles neighborhoods of Silver Lake and Echo Park, which together form the City of Angels’s hipster epicenter and reminded her of Brooklyn.

But Ms. Auster-Rosen, a clinical psychologist, and her wife, Ava, a cinematographer, have hopes of starting a family, and were looking for room to grow. They found it by heading northeast, to the historic, racially diverse enclave of Highland Park, where they found a three-bedroom, one-bath bungalow that offered easy access to the sort of funky, foodie, fair-trade shops and restaurants they both love.

“We wanted something walkable, because we’re New Yorkers. And that’s what really sold us on this place,” she said.

Highland Park has twin main drags — York Boulevard and Figueroa Street — both stocked with third-wave coffee shops, artisan bakeries and pretty stores peddling vinyl and vintage handicrafts. In July 2018, the couple paid $749,000 for their bungalow, which is on a side street just minutes by foot from York. Figueroa Street can be reached by car in the same amount of time.

Ms. Auster-Rosen sacrificed one of the house’s three bedrooms for more open-plan living, knocking down a wall at the front of the home and creating a central living/dining space. She had the kitchen rearranged as well, and HVAC installed. There’s a converted garage she plans to turn into a granny flat for guests. Her dog, Tiny, an aptly-named Chihuahua who clocks in at about four pounds, appreciates her new outdoor domain. If and when a baby joins the family, there’s a spare bedroom waiting.

The home is flanked by churches, a fact that initially made Ms. Auster-Rosen wary. “We were like, are they going to be homophobic?” she said. “But in fact it’s been nice. We hear singing on Sunday mornings. We love our neighbors. And we just love having this much space.”

The neighborhood is in the midst of a renaissance, which has made it an affordable alternative for young professionals like Ms. Auster-Rosen who find themselves priced out of central Los Angeles. But its transition is complicated. Highland Park is historically Latino, and as housing prices have crept up, a slew of Spanish-speaking panaderias, bodegas and businesses have shuttered. But crime has also plummeted, bringing new parks, night life and vibrancy to streets that a decade ago were caught in the grip of Los Angeles’s notorious gang violence. Many longtime residents welcome the new sense of security while also bemoaning an erasure of the neighborhood’s long-held identity.

“Highland Park is the new Silver Lake,” said Alison Huddy, a Los Angeles native who runs the real estate team Home Sweet Huddy along with her husband, Jason. “In the ’80s and ’90s the sun would go down and, that was it — you locked your doors because there was so much gang activity … but now, you walk down Figueroa Street at night, and it’s so happening.”

As the makeup of the community has shifted, many of its newer residents — who skew young, white and college-educated — speak openly about their complex love for the neighborhood.

“The gentrification piece is stressful. If we had gone into a house where renters were going to be kicked out, I would have said, ‘I can’t buy this house,’” Ms. Auster-Rosen said. But she and her wife found a home that was being sold — at a tidy profit — by its owner of 15 years. The diversity around them sweetened the deal.

She especially appreciated that Highland Park hadn’t gentrified as much as Eagle Rock, the enclave’s northern neighbor. “In our neighborhood there are Costa Ricans and there are Mexicans. The family across the street is Korean. There’s always different music. I love talking to the neighbors who have been here for a long time.”

Highland Park is bordered on the south and east by the 110 freeway, and stretches west almost all the way to Eagle Rock Boulevard. Its northern border sits below Occidental College and the city limits of Pasadena.

Highland Park Bowl, located on Figueroa Street, is Los Angeles’s oldest bowling alley. It was established during Prohibition in 1927 and was beautifully refurbished in 2016, with its original wooden lanes still intact, sawed-off pin holders upcycled into delightful chandeliers, and handsome leather couches that serve as gathering points for house cocktails from its two horseshoe-shaped bars, as well as wood-fired pizzas and live music.

Most commerce is clustered around Figueroa Street and York Boulevard, or Fig and York, as the locals call them.

Many of its streets are filled with Craftsman-style homes and California bungalows. Some historic Highland Park homes date back as far as the 1880s; most were constructed in the 1910s and 1920s.

A construction flurry in the 1950s led to the razing of some of the district’s oldest homes, and today, nearly every block features a site that is under renovation and in the process of being flipped.

In 2016, Gerard Way, frontman for the band My Chemical Romance, sold his Highland Park home — a restored, six-bedroom, midcentury structure — for $1.158 million, marking the first-ever home sale in the neighborhood north of the $1 million mark. Today, there are dozens. The highest sale to date in 2019 was at $1.625 million.

This year through September, 255 single-family homes sold at a median price of $829,000, compared with 268 at a median of $800,000 during the same period in 2018, and 220 at a median of $630,000 during the same period in 2016, according to real estate appraisers Miller Samuel Inc.

“Highland Park fills a void,” said Jason Huddy, the real estate agent. He points to a specific profile of buyer — couples who are first-time homeowners, who either don’t have children yet or have one small child, and are currently renting in trendy neighborhoods like Silver Lake or Echo Park. When they start thinking about growing their families, Mr. Huddy said, they are likely priced out of places like Pasadena and Burbank, which each offer their own walkable downtowns and culture spots. Highland Park, he said, “is a shining beacon of awesomeness — where you can afford a house and you can still keep your identity.”

For JD Rocchio, however, a growing family isn’t a priority, but a strong sense of community is. The 32-year-old Los Angeles native bought his first home in Highland Park in December, a little more than two years after moving his business, Belle’s Bagels, from a pop-up spot inside a bakery on Figueroa Street to a permanent location on York Boulevard. He paid $720,000 for a two-bedroom, one-bath Craftsman-style house that he shares with his dog, Dusty, a hound/pit bull mix.

“There is an any town feel,” he said. “The number one thing I love about living here is you can just pop from store to store and you meet the people who run the businesses — their kids and wives are there, their family is eating in the corner. There’s a sense of connectedness.”

Highland Park is part of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest school district in the United States. Nine public elementary schools serve the neighborhood, as well as one magnet elementary.

Benjamin Franklin Senior High serves the area, with an enrollment of more than 1,600. In the 2017-2018 school year, 61 percent of 11th-grade students met or exceeded the state benchmark for college-readiness by scoring a 480 on the EBRW (Evidence Based Reading and Writing) sections of the SAT. In math, 35 percent met the benchmark score for readiness, which is 530.

Across the Los Angeles Unified School District, an average of 58 percent of 11th graders met their benchmarks in EBRW, and 35 percent in math.

Highland Park is home to a precious commodity in Los Angeles: a metro stop. The L.A. Metro Gold Line has a station just north of Figueroa Street, and can get commuters downtown in about 35 minutes.

On the city’s clogged freeways, the ride from Highland Park to the heart of downtown Los Angeles can take about an hour. A drive to the west side can be a much longer slog — as much as an hour and 50 minutes — but in off-peak hours, can take only 30 minutes.

Highland Park was settled along the Arroyo Seco river, a misnomer for a body of water and its canyon. Both the river and its canyon have been a transportation corridor for centuries; a railroad bridge built in the 1880s brought a faster link and in the 1940s, the construction of California Route 110 — a.k.a. the Arroyo Seco Parkway — brought the very first freeway to the United States.

Thanks to its location as a transit hub, Highland Park was one of Los Angeles’s first suburban neighborhoods. It was incorporated into the city in 1895 and soon became the epicenter of the Arts and Crafts movement — a fact still evident today in its homes with wide eaves and a handful of Victorian relics. Sandwiched between downtown Los Angeles and what was then the resort town of Pasadena, Highland Park became both a bedroom community and an artistic haven.

The neighborhood has a long and proud history of welcoming outsiders; in the 1970s it became a center of Chicano art collectives, and in the 1990s, it was the beating heart of the punk rock revolution.

The area has seen steady gentrification, with new shops and businesses opening and home prices on the rise, since the early 2000s.

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