It recently came to my attention that a fellow L.A. Weekly scribe published a piece heralding Echo Park as the greatest of L.A.'s many fine neighborhoods. While I have nothing against Echo Park personally, and have spent many an evening cruising its colorful streets in search of entertainment and/or street parking, I can say with absolute certainty that my colleague Hillel Aron is dead wrong. L.A.'s greatest neighborhood, bar none, is Highland Park.
HP may not hold the crown forever, but this is surely its moment. Crime is down, and housing prices are up (it's actually the hottest market in the country, according to the real estate website Redfin). Rents are rising but still dirt-cheap compared with Echo Park or Silver Lake, siphoning off those 'hoods' artist and musician populations in ever-greater numbers. The York Boulevard corridor welcomes a cool new bar or vintage shop on an almost weekly basis. And Second Saturday, the neighborhood's monthly gallery night, is starting to rival Downtown Art Walk both in terms of crowds and number of participating venues (51 and counting).
Every week, the neighborhood co-stars in proud HP resident Marc Maron's excellent new IFC show, Maron. Guests on Maron's “WTF” podcast, which he still records in his garage, no longer begin their interview with a bewildered, “Where the hell am I?” If anything, they probably make a post-interview beeline down to Johnny's or the York so they can find some tattooed baristas to hit on.
But it's not just Highland Park's sudden trendiness that makes it L.A.'s most excellent enclave, though it's certainly a welcome change from the not-so-long-ago days when York and Figueroa were wastelands of muffler shops and dollar stores. What makes HP truly special is that, for all its burgeoning gentrification, it remains one of the few corners of L.A. that is truly a neighborhood. The folks who run Café de Leche live 'round the way; so does Elliott Caine, the “jazz optometrist” just a few doors down who played trumpet on Beck's Mutations. Walk into nearly any business on York and tell them which avenues you live between (me: 56 and 57) and you are instantly their new favorite customer. There's a sense around here that we're all playing for the same team, even when we disagree on what our next move should be (yeah, the jury's still out on that Figueroa bike lane).
Turn the page to find out how illegal fireworks play into Highland Park's supremacy
Then there's the deep sense of L.A. history you get living in Highland Park. We boast the city's largest historic district, the — say it with me now — Highland Park-Garvanza Historic Preservation Overlay Zone, whose 50-odd “Historic-Cultural Monuments” include Galco's Soda Pop Stop, perhaps the only place on Earth where you can buy bottles of Nehi Grape Soda and Monty Python's Holy Grail Ale under the same roof. Back in the early part of the 20th century, we were L.A.'s first bohemian enclave, home to maverick artists, scholars and architects of the day, whose influence can still be seen in landmarks like Judson Studios and the Lummis House. (For those of you too young to remember, bohemians were like hipsters, only their love of Native American couture, elaborate facial hair and fixed-gear bicycles was, like, a totally new thing at the time.)
Despite the recent white hipster invasion, Highland Park is still a predominantly Latino neighborhood — and happily, it's also home to the best Mexican food in the city. From the duck tacos at CaCao in nearby Eagle Rock to the huaraches at El Huarache Azteca to the lengua and carnitas at the legendary La Estrella truck, you can sample every corner of Mexico here at every price point and never have a bad meal. (The goldfish bowl-sized margaritas at El Sombrero ain't bad, either.)
And OK, if we're really going to get into a neighborhood pissing contest, let the record show that Highland Park, not Echo Park, has the city's most dazzling and dangerous display of illegal Fourth of July fireworks. Oh, you set them off over your nice big lake, Echo Park? That's adorable. We light that shit up in our driveways and then run for cover. And we're not talking M-80s, either. These are professional-grade pyrotechnics.
Oh, and one other thing: You can still find street parking here, even on a Saturday. For now. The day that changes, we'll happily hand the “best neighborhood in L.A.” crown to Lincoln Heights. I hear that place is the next Highland Park.