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."

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