When Victor Abraham's friend Stan bought a troubled gas station on the corner of Echo Park Avenue and Morton Avenue in early February, everything seemed to be broken. Defunct credit card scanners irked customers on a daily basis, all the snacks inside the mini-mart had expired and the dysfunctional pumps were so old that replacement parts were no longer being manufactured. The place screamed makeover.
And yet when Stan, Abraham and Abraham's brother, Leo, replaced the equipment and renovated the station, "Some guy came in and actually told us that, 'No no no no, this is not good. The old thing was better!'" Abraham says, bewildered as to why anyone would prefer busted pumps to gleaming new ones.
But the backlash didn't truly begin until the men took down the faded white, blue and orange Magic Gas sign and rebranded the station with bright red paint and a slick new name and logo: Echo Fuels.
"People were so offended. ... Everybody was, like, in an upheaval," explains Susina Bakery & Café owner Jenna Turner, who, together with Fix Coffee owner Marc Gallucci, purchased Chango Coffee, across the street from Echo Fuels, in early January. "We were bummed," she added. Turner even joked with Brent Harris, who works at the convenience store next door, about renaming Chango "Magic Coffee."
"I just hated that change over to that bright red," says Erin Tavin, adding that her boutique, Tavin, a few doors down from Chango, has been abuzz in recent weeks with complaints and comments about the loss of Magic Gas. "Aesthetics mean a lot to me, and I thought it was so much more old-fashioned looking before, and I loved that."
Most Angelenos encounter the city through a windshield, elevating idiosyncratic local signage like Magic Gas and Happy Foot/Sad Foot, on Sunset Boulevard at Benton Way, to sacrosanct icons of the daily commute. But what happens when time passes, businesses fail, owners sell and the signs come down?
In Echo Park, apparently, whatever was there before is always better than whatever is on the way. In the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, most residents relish the drop in crime but remain suspicious of its consequences, greeting new businesses and building projects with defensive trepidation. Locals are eager to moan and wax philosophical on the end of an era, as signaled by the gas station's name change.
"It just felt like 'magic' corner, 'magic' little area here. It just felt perfect, you know, like a nice little nook," Lucas hair salon owner Lisa Mayer says.
At first, the owners of Echo Fuels didn't see what all the fuss was over. "The [Magic Gas] sign was in a horrible condition," Abraham explains. "Winds came by and it was really bad, so we changed it."
Harris ventured over to the station shortly after they took down the sign to offer some neighborly business advice: Put it back up.
"[The owner] just hemmed and hawed about it for a while. He just, like, rubbed his face," Harris says.
Two days later, a concession: The sign was back up but in a less prominent position. And, of course, the station itself is still officially called Echo Fuels.
According to Ken Shapiro, an affable Eastside real estate agent who set up shop across from Magic Gas five years ago, a number of new business owners and major real estate developers have misread the community in their efforts to cash in on its rising hipness. Case in point? The reviled 36 three-story condos currently under construction by the ginormous firm D.R. Horton on the other side of the intersection.
And so one of the biggest problems with the gas station's polished redesign is that many people assumed the property had been purchased by, gasp, a chain like 76 or Shell, whereas Magic Gas "looked like some neighbor decided to put up a gas station, like a lemonade stand," according to Shapiro.
Turner and Gallucci's acquisition and renovation of Chango Coffee has provoked similar alarm. (Shapiro opined that they should have installed butcher-block countertops instead of granite to make the place seem less corporate.) Though Turner said they're considering a name change, she "didn't want to, you know, change it too quickly," as locals were already in a slight panic over whether she and Gallucci would transform the place into a Starbucks clone overnight.
In response to Turner and Gallucci's decision to whitewash the mural of badass chickens alongside the northern wall and commission another, also of badass chickens, commenter Mortonie wrote on popular local blog The Eastsider, "Those of us who were here before and will be here afterwards should exert our power and influence to keep change from becoming rape."
But no one wins in this futile and quintessentially hipster contest of who-can-be-the-most-authentic. Nearly all of the shops on the strip across from Echo Fuels have opened in the past five years. The intersection has been changing at a steady clip for years and years. The mural referred to in the comment above had only been there since 2008 -- Aaron Donovan's original chicken mural, completed in the late '90s, was destroyed in 2004, and there haven't been actual chicken coops on the corner for 20 years, though many still refer to this intersection as "Chicken Corner."
Not to mention the white, orange and blue Magic Gas sign in question has only been around since 2009.
Reached at her home recently, Jan Jung, the previous Magic Gas owner, said she wasn't even aware the new owners had changed the name, or that the property had finally been sold at all; the financial problems had given her such a headache that she had asked the bank to take over. Jung says she lost over a million dollars on the station over the past six years, mostly as a result of the mismanagement of the people she began leasing it to in 2009, Zina Mikayelyan and Art Bagousky, who seem to have been under investigation by LAPD in 2010. Jung claimed the two violated their contract with her by leasing the station out to someone else and stiffing her on rent, and it seems Mikayelyan at least had a history of fraud.
Ironically, the way Jung ran Magic Gas between 2006 and 2009, before she began leasing it out sounds most true to what the neighbors say they want now. "I really wanted to make an interesting, family kind of business," Jung says. She sold LA Mill coffee, put in a small stage for live music and planted flowers and a garden. Before Jung took over, the Magic Gas sign looked like this.
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Jung then designed this iteration of the sign, adding a metallic tiara of sorts and employing what she described as an "ivy-like" font to reflect the eccentric spirit of the name.
Sipping a Red Bull in the station's mini mart last weekend, Abraham outlined plans for the future of Echo Fuels: more greenery outside, more products inside, more improvements everywhere.
"People are afraid of change, but they'll get used to it," he says, chuckling a bit to himself. "I'm pretty sure they'll get used to it."