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Why Highland Park Is the New Echo Park

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Fri, Feb 3, 2012 at 4:45 AM

click to enlarge The corner of Figueroa in Highland Park
  • The corner of Figueroa in Highland Park
Over the last couple of months I've been doing a lot of what a writer does best -- hanging out in bars and listening to people talk. I live in Echo Park, and around these parts the bar banter is usually centered around one question: what's cool. In L.A., the answer to that changes as quickly as the cars speed down the 101.

Lately, a lot of people have been ragging on this fair barrio of mine. Guys with unwashed hair and paint on their jeans complain about how Echo Park is becoming too gentrified, too much like our now-grown-up neighbors in Silver Lake. (Shocking to realize it's been more than a decade since Beck was couch-surfing his way to stardom.) Someone actually complained the Gold Room isn't "dangerous enough anymore."

Eavesdropping on these often drunken conversations, one name keeps getting thrown around as a solution to the existential dilemmas of the ultra-hip. "I'm going to a house eviction party in Highland Park tonight." "That doom-surf-rock band Sandy Pussy is playing out in Highland Park tonight."

Highland Park is a primarily Hispanic community, and a 10-minute drive from Silver Lake on the 110 North, just short of Pasadena. A sleepy place with lots of trees and sprawling houses, it doesn't exactly feel like L.A. But that's the draw for those who are "over Echo Park." It's a place where bands like FIDLAR play wild late-night shows with none of the pesky constraints -- like not being able to play past 3 a.m. -- that come with a traditional venue.

Bigger acts have taken notice as well. Peanut Butter Wolf and the Stones Throw crew now host a biweekly party at Mr. T's Bowl. For five bucks you can go listen to DJs like Gemini Twin spin until the wee hours. Essentially, it's the anti-Hollywood.

And like any good L.A. story, this one is darkened with a bit of melancholy. On Tuesday, legendary Highland Park artist and musician Mike Kelley was found dead in his home by apparent suicide. Kelley was a Renaissance man, a founding member of the punk innovators Destroy All Monsters and a world-renowned artist whose style immortalized by the cover of Sonic Youth's Dirty Kelly.

In the 1980s his studio compound on the corner of Figueroa became an artistic mecca, the stuff of legend. His death could have a Cobain-like effect on the neighborhood -- tragedy often imbues a place with an energy irresistible to new artists who romanticize the pain their idols experienced, not to mention search out ways to re-create the tortured-artist environs.

Of course, the first rule of the cool new neighborhood club? You don't talk about the cool new neighborhood.

Oops.

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