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."

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