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North Hollywood Arts District: An Insider's Guide

Academy of Television Arts & Sciences
Academy of Television Arts & Sciences
Tanja M. Laden

In the 1972 BBC documentary Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles, the film's titular late British architectural critic lectures a class of USC students:

"Come the day when the smog doom finally descends, when the traffic grinds to a halt, and the private car is banned from the streets, quite a lot of craftily-placed citizens will be able to switch over to being pedestrians and feel no pain."

One L.A. enclave that's a growing embodiment of Banham's original observation is North Hollywood. As early as ten years ago, NoHo was just another semi-industrial suburb in the San Fernando Valley -- the kind of place out-of-town actors and other would-be industry-types moved just because it had "Hollywood" in its name. While it still attracts the same types of people for the same reasons, North Hollywood has since come a long way. Today, NoHo is a full-fledged, well-developed neighborhood with everything a person needs within walking distance, and we wanted to find out why it's grown so fast.

Nancy Bianconi at the Millennium Dance Complex
Nancy Bianconi at the Millennium Dance Complex

Much of North Hollywood's recent growth can be attributed to the editor of NoHoArtsDistrict.com, Nancy Bianconi -- a New York transplant who's been living in California more than 40 years -- and her daughter, the site's social-media guru and web content manager -- a native Angeleno who goes simply by Lisa B.

Bianconi began working on the revitalization of the NoHo Arts District around 2000, when she helped produce a large-scale festival in conjunction with the opening of North Hollywood's Red Line station. It drew nearly 500,000 people over the course of a single weekend, so with support from the Community Redevelopment Agency, she immediately enlisted her daughter to help develop NoHo's fledgling arts community, and in 2003, they launched NoHoArtsDistrict.com. We asked the mother/daughter duo to give us the who, what, where, when, and why North Hollywood is the place to be -- finally.

North Hollywood Arts District: An Insider's Guide
Wiki Commons

An informal study of the town's demographics revealed that 50 percent of people living in NoHo's newer apartment buildings are under 30 years old, a large percentage of whom are actors, singers, dancers -- basically, anyone involved in the performing arts. But there are also the longtime residents and people from other neighborhoods who come to see theater shows that find themselves wandering the pedestrian-friendly streets of the recently revitalized NoHo Arts District.

"It's a really nice mix of people," Bianconi says. "That's the other thing that's really unique, because we have so many international students."

As Lisa B. puts it, "Our neighborhood is not about buildings...it's about the people," to which Bianconi adds, "No matter what economic downturns we're experiencing, [the people] hang on and stay."

North Hollywood Arts District: An Insider's Guide
Tanja M. Laden

What: Bianconi calls North Hollywood "a bohemian enclave with a twist of yuppiness," one that she says has the highest concentration of operating theaters in a single square mile, outside of New York.

It all started with the El Portal Theatre, which was built in the 1920s as a vaudeville house that soon became a movie theater, a soup kitchen, a movie theater again and more recently, a casualty of the 1994 Northridge earthquake. The El Portal has since reopened with recent shows like Divorce Party: The Musical and Modrock.

"This started to become a theater town back in the early '90s, when Actors Forum moved in," Lisa B. explains.

Audrey Marlyn Singer founded Actors Forum in Hollywood in 1975, but after the venue was sold, she and her husband Mike Singer bought a building on Magnolia Boulevard in 1994. Not only is Actors Forum still around today, but other theaters have also popped up in NoHo, including avant-garde enterprises such as Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre and California Institute of Abnormalarts.

"The district has always been known as a theater district, but it's also now being known as a dance district," says Bianconi, who tells us there are currently seven dance studios in the same single square mile as the theaters.

North Hollywood Arts District: An Insider's Guide
Tanja M. Laden

"Our flagship of dance, here in the district, is the Millennium Dance Complex," says Lisa B. "They are a real commercial studio and have probably hosted every celebrity that we know -- from Beyonce and Michael Jackson to Justin Timberlake."

Bianconi recalls, "I was walking down the stairs at the Millennium [a few] months ago and this little boy goes, 'Hi!' Then this girl said, 'Did you touch him?' I had no idea what she was talking about. Then she said, 'That was Justin Bieber!'"

According to Bianconi, the Millennium Dance Complex -- North Hollywood's oldest dance studio -- has been a major force in helping NoHo grow into an international arts training center.

North Hollywood Arts District: An Insider's Guide
Tanja M. Laden

Most of NoHo's acting classes happen on Wednesdays. Thursdays through Sundays are popular nights for theater productions and live music, as well as gallery-openings at any one of the three main local galleries: NoHo Gallery LA, Cella Gallery and Gallery 800, a non-commercial gallery operated by the Art Directors Guild, exhibiting everything from a juried art show by the Valley Water Color Society to photography by members of the Art Directors Guild. (There are also ad-hoc exhibitions at local theaters, stores, and restaurants, as well as some public art.)

Finally, there's the NoHo Arts District Farmers Market every Saturday, and thanks to the Metro, you can actually walk around North Hollywood, especially since the Red Line operates until 2:00am on the weekends.

North Hollywood Arts District: An Insider's Guide
Tanja M. Laden

Bianconi says that that on any given day, one might catch a group rehearsing a monologue, sometimes in costume, both in studios and out on the streets, or hear a vocalist practicing scales while watching a bunch of guys hauling their equipment to one of NoHo's many recording studios.

NoHo Arts District gives year-round tours of North Hollywood, so contact them if you're interested in learning more about the area.

Meanwhile, Lisa B. recommends taking the Metro and heading to the Federal Bar, a gastropub with live public events that's a good place to start exploring NoHo.

"It's kind of a little bit of a camaraderie," says Lisa B. says of the NoHo Arts District. "It probably wasn't like that in the beginning, but now it is... It's got a neighborhood feel. You're going to feel at home."

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