It’s a sign of changing attitudes that there are no bars or restaurants in L.A.’s latest “most-talked-about” neighborhood. There are no grocery stores, no coffee roasters, no art galleries, no vintage clothing stops. In Frogtown, it's almost impossible to spend money.
“There’s no reason for people to come through here,” says Patricia Perez, a lifetime Frogtown resident. “You hear that?” she pauses to let the silence wash over the conversation. “That’s Frogtown.”
The tiny, 8,800-person community known colloquially as Frogtown suddenly is impossible to ignore. (Its official name, Elysian Valley, is rarely used.) Artists Shepard Fairey, Mark Grohjahn and Thomas Houseago recently opened studios there. Nomad Art Compound, a sort of hybrid print shop/commune, has established itself as one of the weirdest and coolest venues in L.A. Frogtown's annual arts festival, the Frogtown Art Walk, is extending its half-mile track to accommodate the thousands of Angelenos (and counting) that show up every year.
The blip isn't only about art. Last Saturday, Mayor Eric Garcetti unveiled the second phase of a $3.2 million transformation of Frogtown’s river-adjacent Marsh Park. Next to that park, overlooking the river, a luxury residential development named River House is midway through construction. Most significantly, Friends of the L.A. River (FoLAR), the successful nonprofit leading the charge to revitalize the L.A. River, has made Frogtown the poster community for the dream of a beautified river.
“The symbol of the L.A. River is the frog,” says Lewis MacAdams, the poet who founded FoLAR. He's sitting in Frog Spot, a riverfront café and visitor center (the L.A. River’s first), which FoLAR opened in the neighborhood along a stretch of the L.A. River Bike Path last month. The 69-year-old looks out over the bike path to the trees sprouting tall from the riverbed and smiles. “The red-legged frogs used to bury their eggs in the dirt of the river, but then we built concrete on top of them. Now we’re calling to them, saying we want them back.”
The Glendale Narrows — a lush, soft-bottom stretch of the L.A. River — runs through the neighborhood. Frogtown’s name comes from what used to be a seasonal infiltration of actual frogs from the river.
“In the mid-'80s, every season the tadpoles would hatch and try to get up the embankment of the river,” says local business owner and community activist David Dedlow. “If it was a cool, wet day, they would hop through the whole neighborhood. If the sun came out, you’d see thousands of crispy mummified toads.”
But the frogs don’t come anymore. Nor do the parades of bright red crawfish that used to march by the thousands past Frogtown once each summer. The river’s steelhead trout are gone, too; the last one seen was caught off Glendale Bridge in 1948.
Some blame pesticides; others, years of drought. Some say an influx of egrets and other invasive species are responsible.
Frogtown’s fate runs parallel to the river's. For a long time, with the river dying, the neighborhood was ignored, known only as a manufacturing hub and the violent territory of infamous Mexican mafia-affiliated Frogtown Gang.
“Ten, 15 years ago there was a shootout every weekend,” says one Frogtowner, who runs a taco stand out of his house. "The bullets would fly right past me, right into the walls of the house.”
Up next: How looming gentrification is mixing up the longtime neighborhood.
Frogtown's geographic isolation fueled the violence. The neighborhood used to be part of a vast, river-centric Latino neighborhood known as Chavez Ravine, but in 1960, the broader area was filled in to facilitate construction of Dodger Stadium. Back then, there was a small business district, with a movie theater and a grocery market that sold live chickens from a coop in the backyard. It was torn down to make room for the 5 freeway and cut off from the remnants of Chavez Ravine, which are now part of Echo Park.
Many of the displaced fled to a lip-shaped spillover zone bracketed by the 110 Freeway to the south, the 2 Freeway to the north, Interstate 5 to the west and the L.A. River to the east. This isolated pocket became Frogtown.
“Frogtown is an island,” Dedlow says, “and like any island, we have our own culture.”
In Frogtown, that's a laid-back, laissez faire industriousness. There are no retailers but the streets are packed with yard sales. There are no restaurants but tacos fry in front yards. A huge ice cream truck that sells nachos, candy and delicious lime-and-salt popsicles tinkles slowly through the empty streets. Many residents laud the virtues of the neighborhood watch. It's a community that supports itself in its own way.
The first contemporary artist-explorer to put down roots in Frogtown was Damon Robinson. He's a stocky, bearded, tattooed man who specializes in East L.A.-style, low-rider inspired calligraphy. He ran an art space downtown called Ghetto Mansion, but when ownership changed in 2007 he had to find a new space. He was just about to sign in another location when he walked into Frogtown.
“Frogtown was the last bastion of northeast L.A. that hadn’t been overrun,” he says. “It’s an anomaly in Los Angeles — this little tucked-in kind of enclave, off the grid.”
Robinson opened Nomad Art Compound, a sprawling warehouse that includes a bookstore, print shop, music venue, swimming pool and bedrooms for artists to rent. It quickly became the foundation stone of Frogtown's resurgence. A small population of artists has moved in and built a new community, one that lives in harmony with the old community simply because there aren’t enough artists to push anybody out. It's a unique, village-like atmosphere that for many feels like home.
“When I found Frogtown, I felt like I was back home in Seattle, which is like a DIY-focused, small business community,” says Bethany Brune, who lives in one of Nomad’s seven bedrooms and runs a small hair salon there, “It’s the only sense of community I’ve felt in Los Angeles in the seven years that I’ve lived here, and I’ve been searching for it the whole time.”
However, the arrival of art and altruism, while well-intentioned, has become a reliable signal of bad news for poor communities — ruthless capitalists always seem to follow hot on its trail. Frogtown seems destined to share the fate of neighbors Silver Lake, Echo Park, downtown L.A. and Atwater Village.
Parts of the neighborhood recently were rezoned from “manufacturing” to “commercial manufacturing” which makes regulatory room for high-density residences and retail (although it's still a difficult path lined with red tape, which explains the current dearth of apartments and stores). New gang ordinances were passed to ramp up enforcement. Gentrification is coming.
And it’s the classic gentrification pattern, which has become predictable to the point of comedy. The factories that once provided good working-class jobs are closing: Aero-Engines, one of the few FAA-approved prop engine manufacturers in the United States, reportedly will close its Frogtown doors this year. The Hostess Twinkie factory shut down during a 2012 worker’s strike and never reopened. The Bimbo industrial Bakery didn't make it past 2004.
They're replaced by art studios, so-called “sustainable” companies and nonprofits such as FoLAR. Good Eggs, the local/sustainable online food delivery service, opened in the old Hostess factory, effectively becoming Frogtown’s first grocery. High-end furniture maker Modernica moved its headquarters into the same building. Elysian, a fine-dining restaurant, opened in July in Atwater Village just steps from the Frogtown border, ostensibly becoming Frogtown’s first bona fide eatery. [This paragraph was corrected after publication. See editor's note below.]
Thus Frogtown has arrived at the classic "cognitive dissonance" stage of gentrification, where the artists responsible for popularizing an area vocally disinherit the very movement they created. “When it gets too commodified and too corporate and it’s just about the bottom line, not how to exist with the real historic people here, then it really becomes about money,” Robinson says. “And we know what happens next.”
Perez adds, “We know the people who live here won’t be able to afford it anymore. It’s particularly sad considering so many of the people here are the ghosts of Chavez Ravine.”
Perez acknowledges the inevitability of change. When the art walk first began, neighborhood kids shunned the “gringos” in “skinny jeans and bowler hats,” but Perez convinced them to participate and make it their own.
“It’s about the people who live here becoming more on board with the reality that they will soon have to face,” Perez says. "They need to become more of an influence in their city.”
The demand for "authentic" communities like Frogtown and the Arts District suggests that Angelenos, rich and poor, white and Hispanic, are sick of strip malls. The convenience and space promised by the suburbs turned into isolation and coldness, which nobody, in the end, wanted.
So the yearning for community has reached fever pitch, and we’re scrambling back to places with history and a reason for being other than profit. But every time we find somewhere good, it gets almost instantly commodified. An unique, community-oriented joint such as Handsome Coffee gets bought by Blue Bottle, Blue Bottle gets bought by Starbucks, everyone gets priced out and the whole process starts all over again.
“Silver Lake and Echo Park are done. They’ll just keep getting hipper and hipper,” Robinson says. “I’m glad Frogtown is getting the attention it deserves, but that’s the thing about a double-edged sword.”
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Can Frogtown be saved from being just another neighborhood in the long Angeleno tradition of the rich getting what they want and the poor having to live with it? Can a neighborhood be both community-focused and "cool" at the same time?
“It’s about balance,” says Robinson, the man without whom the Frogtown movement might never have begun. “It’s about paying close attention to how we co-exist.”
Editor's note: A previous version of this story contained inaccurate information about Good Eggs. While they have moved into the old Hostess factory, they have no plans to open a cafe on site. We regret the error.
Follow the writer on Twitter @Isaco525.