Echo Park went from gang land to art center in just a few years

Only a few years ago, Echo Park Avenue inspired "Mi Vida Loca," a popular art-house film about gangs, guns and drugs.

Today, the same corner that was the movie's focus is a thriving arts community, with three art galleries and a host of new outlets arriving soon including a fourth gallery and a clothing store opening this month and a coffee shop in the works.

Meanwhile, the formerly gang-infested brick apartment building upstairs has been transformed into a hip place for "urban pioneers" who like the new hardwood floors, the cheap rents and accessibility to a diverse Echo Park neighborhood.

How did the turnabout happen? As it turns out, it was a combination of community involvement, commerce and local government.

Most people familiar with the neighborhood credit the shutdown of a notorious nightclub in the mid-'90s as the true beginning of the renaissance. The Suku Suku nightclub was the site of at least three murders and a dozen shootings in the early to mid-'90s. Once the night club was closed, the area was poised for improvement.

"If your car was stolen you could probably find it at Suku Suku," said Susan Borden, secretary of the Echo Park Improvement Association. "Once that bar was closed, it made a tremendous difference. The whole area quieted down."

Borden also credits the formation of a neighborhood watch group in 1991 with making the area measurably safer. She said better lighting has been another key. "When Jackie Goldberg first became our council member, one of her first goals was improving the lighting on Echo Park Avenue. It doesn't sound like much, but lighting is a big part of security," Borden said.

Add to that the intensive crackdown on gang-related crime by the police department's CRASH unit, and over a three-year period the gangs that made the neighborhood notorious moved away.

Catalysts of change

About four years ago, Irving (Butch) Berliner and his family bought a 44-unit apartment building and the row of shops underneath at the intersection of Echo Park Avenue and Morton Street. The building was infamous for its drug and gang activity, and the Berliners' first order of business was to clean up the apartments before focusing on the stores below.

"It was bad, believe me it was bad," Berliner said. "We just kept after the people in the building; we watched and kept an eye on the people in the building. There were a couple of people who were lookouts, whose kids would run down and deliver drugs to people in the street. One lady had three kids doing that, so we reported her to Child Protective Services. It took a while, but we were able to clean it up."

Jesus Sanchez moved into the neighborhood about 15 years ago and stayed away from Echo Park Avenue for many years. "All you would hear is gunshots. About three years ago, I bought a house around the corner from the gallery, and that intersection was in my face," he said.

A little over two years ago, Sanchez noticed the Berliners were fixing up the dilapidated apartment building and he started investigating the shops with the "For Rent" signs in the window. For $300 a month, Sanchez was able to realize his dream of opening an art gallery. "I thought it was safe enough at that point to open the gallery there. Once we got there it became even safer. People knew no one would break into their car," he said.

A few months after Ojala opened in May 1998, Aaron Donovan and Patti Castillo opened Delirium Tremens, another art gallery. At about the same time, Robin Blackman and her husband opened a photography gallery named fototeka, after a gallery they visited in Cuba.

Rapid turnaround

It was not the Berliners' intention to start a thriving arts center on the strip, but the family is thrilled.

"We lucked out with the art studios, and now we're geared toward an artsy type community," Berliner said. "It's great, now we want to put a coffee shop in one of the units and provide parking for the tenants in the building."

Other less artsy merchants who have been on the corner for years decided to stay through all the changes.

Aramis Vartanianas has owned the Magic Gas station on the corner since 1986. Vartanianas had the choice to leave the neighborhood a few years ago when he realized he had to upgrade all of his pumps, tanks and electrical lines. He opted to stay, mostly because of the positive changes he was seeing. Vartanianas spent close to $300,000 to upgrade his station.

"I wanted to move before upgrading. Right now I'm glad I didn't," he said. "The neighborhood has changed a lot for the better. In every way it's cleaner and it's much safer than before."

The Berliners have recently purchased a 5,000-square-foot building down the block and plan to fill it with more artists and studios, as well as using its 50 parking spaces for the apartment building's tenants.

With all the changes, the area now has the lowest rate of reported crime in the LAPD's Northeast division, with about half the reported crime of Eagle Rock and Atwater Village to the north and Los Feliz to the west, according to Ron Emler, who lives in the neighborhood and was instrumental in starting the local neighborhood watch group.

"You look all over now, people are out walking with their dogs and their kids you didn't see that four or five years ago. Property values have doubled," Emler said. I was ready to move in 1993. Now I wouldn't even think of it."

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.