Area Given Boost as Interest In Arts Community Revived

By CHRISTOPHER KEOUGH
Staff Reporter

The burgeoning arts community in Highland Park, nestled along the banks of the Arroyo Seco northeast of downtown, has a familiar feel to it.

Its roots are more than a century old and throughout the last 18 months there has been renewed interest in the galleries along Figueroa Street, the heart of the community.

There has also been greater attention on the area's retail scene.

Founded as Garvanza in the 1880s, Highland Park caught the attention of landscape painter William Lees Judson in 1893. Judson began to nurture the area's creative community in 1901 by founding the College of Fine Arts as an extension of USC. It joined the main campus in 1921.

But progress of another kind hit the community hard. The Arroyo Seco Parkway now the 110 (Pasadena) Freeway opened in 1940, diverting traffic around the community and precipitating a decline of the business district centered along Figueroa Street. The loss of traffic was compounded by post World War II suburban flight.

Now, a combination of public and private sector initiatives large and small have started to resuscitate the business area. And the arts community has started to re-emerge.

Leading the private initiatives is the Highland Park Art Trek, a self-guided tour of the fine arts offerings along Figueroa Street and York Boulevard that kicked off earlier this month. The first annual tour, sponsored by a committee of participating venues and City Councilman Nick Pacheco, was held on a recent weekend. In addition to six art galleries, a tattoo parlor, a weaving studio, a bowling alley-turned rock club and a hair salon were included on the tour.

It's a way for the community to return to its roots as an arts center, said Nicole Possard, president of the Highland Park Heritage Trust.

"We sort of think we started it," she said. "A lot of people think Venice was the first artists' colony, but we were first."

That start, she said, came when Clyde Browne (a relative of pop singer Jackson Browne, according to the Pasadena Heritage Oral History Project) built an artist colony in 1915.

"We've had that thread all along, but it waxes and wanes throughout," she said. "We've had arts as our history."

Public profile

The biggest contribution, both in terms of dollars spent and luring new business to the area, has come from the public sector.

Max Vasquez, president of the Highland Park Chamber of Commerce, said the city has spent $5 million in lighting, sidewalk improvements and refurbishing the distinctive fa & #231;ades of stone from the Arroyo Seco.

Another key component of the revival has been the Avenue 57 station of the Gold Line, one of the stops being built by the Los Angeles to Pasadena Metro Construction Authority as part of the rail connection between downtown and Pasadena. The station is projected to be completed in July 2003.

There are already signs that the station, which has been under construction since summer 2001, has already had an impact.

Smart & Final, Sav-On Drugs, Food4Less and a McDonald's are under construction along the Figueroa corridor within blocks of the station.

Figueroa Street once was a bustling retail destination with such anchors as Ivers Department Store, Sternburger's restaurant, See's Candy, Fosselman's Ice Cream and Highland Park Hardware, according to Andrew Barrera, program manager of the Northeast Los Angeles Business Assistance Center in Eagle Rock. The suburban malls and rejuvenated urban retail strips such as Old Pasadena lured shoppers away and the region quickly declined beginning in the 1970s, Barrera said.

Today, Figueroa is populated with hair and nail salons as well as taco stands and street vendors. The vacancy rate is low, Barrera said, but the small businesses offer only low wages. Barrera is working to attract and retain higher-end retail and said he welcomes the chain stores with their higher wages and better quality goods and services. He said he is not against local small businesses, however, and runs a loan program and business consulting service.

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