California Fool’s Gold — Exploring Highland Park

This blog entry’s focus is the Northeast Los Angeles neighborhood of Highland Park.

As mentioned already, HLP is in NELA. Its neighbors are Pasadena to the northeast; Garvanza, Hermon, and South Pasadena to the east; Montecito Heights to the south; Cypress Park and Lincoln Heights to the southwest; Mt. Washington to the west; and Eagle Rock to the north.

Roberto Reies Flores‘s Highland Park Tongva mural – The People of the Earth


For tens of thousands of years the landscape was predominantly rolling hills and grasslands with wild grapes, clematis, sycamore, California live oak, willows, and black walnut trees growing along the Arroyo Seco, a seasonally dry creek fed by springs. The ancestors of the Chumash arrived in the Los Angeles at least 13,000 years ago. The Hahamog’na band of Tongva arrived from the Sonoran Desert to the east about 3,500 years ago.


The many springs in the area allowed for the establishment of Sparkling Artesian Water (later Sparkletts) in 1925, Yosemite Waters in 1926, Indian Head Water in 1928, and Deep Rock Water.

After the Spaniards conquered the Natives, they made it part of Rancho San Rafael. It was subsequently part of Mexico until the US won the Mexican-American War and took over. The founding of Pasadena in 1873 created the need for new transportation routes connecting it to Los Angeles. In 1876, the Sierra Madre Stage Coach began ferrying passengers through the area. Settlers began to arrive around what’s now Highland Park shortly after, establishing the communities of Sycamore Grove, Garvanza, York Valley, Annandale, Hermon and others.


The intersection of Figueroa and New York Street in the 1880s

In 1885, the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Valley Railroad built the first wooden trestle bridge across the Arroyo Seco where Avenue 64 crosses the Arroyo Seco Parkway. The same year, developers Albert H. Judson and George W. Morgan bought a land which in 1886 they subdivided as the Highland Park Tract. That year, William Lees Judson and his three sons established the Colonial Glass Company and the Pasadena Street Railroad established a horse-drawn trolley line through the area. Development followed, although by 1888, the land boom had gone bust. The area early on began to attract bohemians and bandits, resulting in a brothel/road house springing up in Sycamore Grove. Highland Park was largely spared from the real estate bust and both it and Sycamore Grove were annexed in 1895. Garvanza was annexed in 1899.Today, Sycamore Grove and Garvanza — along with districts like York Valley — are usually viewed as sub-districts of Highland Park rather than separate communities, although all have very distinct atmospheres.


The California Cycleway

In 1900, a section of the bicycle tollway, the California Cycleway opened, designed to connect Pasadena to Los Angeles (although it never extended past Avenue 57). Highland Park’s cycle-loving spirit continues with the Bike Oven, the Eastside Bike Club, the Arroyo Seco Bicycle Path, and the ArroyoFest Freeway Walk and Bike Ride, which in 2003 closed the 110 freeway to cars for one night.


El Alisal (image source unknown)

In 1898, Charles Fletcher Lummis began constructing his home, El Alisal, in Highland Park. Lummis had in 1885 walked from Chillicothe, Ohio across the West, publishing his account in 1892 as A Tramp Across the Continent. Lummis was notorious for his love of parties and the “noises” he threw attracted such high profile figures as environmentalist John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt. In 1896, he founded the West Coast‘s first historic preservation society, the California Landmarks Club. He was also fascinated with America’s indigenous people and in 1907 founded the Southwest Museum of the American Indian in adjacent Mt. Washington, Los Angeles’ first museum.


Built in 1904, the Ziegler Estate was designed by Charles Hornbeck and Alfred P. Wilson with elements of both Queen Anne and Craftsman architectural styles. In the 1950s, Carl Dentzel, then director of the Southwest Museum, purchased it as a potential addition to the Southwest Museum Complex. (Nowadays it’s a daycare center.)


In 1919, Edward M. Hiner moved to Highland Park from Kansas City, Missouri. Today, the Hiner Home is inhabited by actor Troy Evans (principal George Wolchezk on Twin Peaks!) and steel artist Heather McClarty, who graciously let us into their beautiful home and shared stories and pictures. In 1928, Hiner also built a music studio/rehearsal building behind the home which came to be known as Sousa’s Nook in reference to its occasional guest, John Philip Sousa. His music school eventually outgrow the modest building and Hiner went on to found the music department at Los Angeles State Normal School, and later UCLA.


The day after Sycamore Grove became part of Los Angeles, the “sporting club” there was razed and the land became a park. Sycamore Grove Park was dedicated in 1905. By 1910, it was a popular filming location. In 1922, Hiner began conducting bands at the Sousa-Hiner Bandshell. Each of the yearly “state picnics” held there was dedicated to a state back east where Highland Park residents had immigrated from. The heyday of the park was in the 1920s and ’30s. They had Sycamore Grove Days and the annual celebration of the Wigwam Club. There was also a pond and stream fed by the Arroyo Seco that was covered in the 1930s as flood control.


Since at least the founding of the Colonial Glass Company, Highland Park has been known for its art scene. In 1906, the Painters’ Cub was established by locals artists and included members of the Garvanza Circle: Elmer Wachte, Fernand Lungren, Granville Redmond, Hanson Puthuff, and Maynard Dixon. The Arroyo Guild of Craftsman was established in 1909. Today, Highland Park retains its artistic reputation, in part due to Avenue 50 Studio, Future Studio, Mor York Gallery, the Judson Studios, Kristi Engle Gallery, Monte Vista, Outpost for Contemporary Art, Rock Rose Art Gallery, and THIS Gallery.


L.A. Police Department Station No. 11, built in 1925, is Los Angeles’s oldest police station. The events that inspired the film Changeling in part took place at that station. In 1973, the Symbionese Liberation Army attempted and failed to blow it up with a bomb. Today, it is also a museum, with a collection of older police cars, displays dedicated to Dragnet, the North Hollywood shootout, and more.


One of the oldest and most beloved institutions of Highland Park is Galco’s Soda Pop Stop, which carries over 450 kinds of bottled beverages, both common and exotic. Galco’s was established in the Olympic Area (now Koreatown) in 1897 and later moved to Little Italy (now Chinatown) before settling at its current location in 1897.


Highland Park Theatre first opened in 1925 as a one screen theater with 1,450 seats. It was designed the previous year by Lewis Arthur Smith. The theater boasted an orchestra pit, a stage for vaudeville acts, and large ceiling frescoes. In 1963, it was the last operating cinema in Highland Park and began showing Spanish-Language films and, later, porno films. In 1974, Highland Park residents picketed the cinema and they stopped showing the pornos and added children’s matinees. It was unfortunately divided into a triplex in 1983. It was declared a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in 1991. The sign, with more than 750 incandescent light bulbs, was restored and re-lit in the late 1990s through a collaboration of the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Neon Program and the Targeted Neighborhood Initiative Program.


Even older than the Highland Park Theater was the Sunbeam Theatre, a 1,296 seat theater built in 1914. It was purchased by the owners of the the Highland Park Theater and closed to remove competition. After that it was re-purposed for a variety of businesses. In the late 1980s, part of it was utilized by the theater group, Outback Theater. The space is still occasionally used for events. I went to a booty bass party there about five years ago. Nowadays the building is also home to one of the last remaining typewriter stores, the U.S. Office Machine Company.


Inside the Franklin Theatre today

The 895 seat Franklin Theatre opened in 1936. The building opened in 1922 as an auto shop. By 1929, it was a Chevy dealership. In 1934, it was converted to a market. After that, it operated as a theater at least until 1951. In the early 1990s, its parapet and towers were removed. In 1994, it became protected and was included in the Highland Park Historic Preservation Overlay Zone.


Even though Highland Park boasted considerable charm, the development of Midtown in the 1920s and ’30s siphoned away residents. A large Jewish community remained for a time. The Highland Park Hebrew School Association began there in 1923 and built the Spanish Colonial Revival-style Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Echo Park in 1930. Today it is the second oldest synagogue in Los Angeles still operating (after the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Midtown’s Wilshire Center neighborhood). In 2006, Highland Park was still home of more than ten percent of the recognized historic-cultural monuments in the entire city.


The Arroyo Seco Parkway (State Route 110) opened on 30 December 1940; its original six-mile section was the first freeway in the west. In the 1950s, many of Highland Park’s vacant Victorians and Craftsman homes began to be demolished to make way for gas stations, laundromats, stucco boxes and parking lots. A group of local activists established Heritage Square, a park in Montecito Heights designed to save old homes. By the 1960s, the development of the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys further increased the pace of the exodus from Highland Park.


By the middle of the 1960s, the population of Highland Park was largely Latino. By the mid 1970s, it was overwhelmingly so, although it never homogenized to the degree that most of the Eastside did. It was during the late 1960s and early ’70s that Latino street gangs began to flourish, in part emboldened by the rise in Brown Pride fostered by the Chicano movement as well, perhaps, by the depletion in positive male role models resulting from Latinos’ disproportionate numbers drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. The Avenues (Avenidas), who began as a protectionist social club in the 1940s, evolved into a street gang whose main criminal activity was dealing heroin. Highland Park (HLP 13) and NELA began in the early 1970s.


Some of the population always had a healthy respect for the neighborhood’s historic importance and in 1984, large tracts of the district were set aside for historic preservation under Los Angeles’ pioneering Historic Preservation Overlay Zone ordinance (the same year that Forever 21 was founded in Highland Park as Fashion 21). Today, Highland Park’s ethnic and racial make-up is roughly 72% Latino (mostly Mexican and Salvadoran), 11% Asian, and 11% white (mostly Germanic).


ACLA began in Highland Park, For the last seventeen years, they’ve worked to transform orphaned, urban land into community-directed art parks. Their first was La Tierra de la Culebra art park in Highland Park. They also host local bands the first Saturday of every month in events known as Midnight Picnics. In July, Xicano Records and Film puts on the annual Farce of July. There’s also the Highland Park Recreation Center, the titular Highland Park, and Garvanza Park. An undeveloped area adjacent to the 110 and underneath the Santa Fe Arroyo Seco Railroad Bridge (now used by the Gold Line) is colloquially known as NELA Park after the local gang who claims it.


Highland Park has a fairly vibrant underground music scene. Highland Park is mentioned in the Monolators“Eagle Fighting Zebra.” The bands Bodies of Water, Fol Chen, Seasons, Random Patterns, Crooked Cowboy & the Freshwater Indians, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Mellowdrone, and Go Set Go all represent Highland Park’s rock music scene. The Highland Park punk scene produced A.D. Do, FCDN Tormentor, and Hawaii’s Hardcore.

Though born in Germany, Jackson Browne grew up in Highland Park in the Abbey San Encino, a home built by his grandfather. Peanut Butter Wolf’s Stones Throw Records is currently located in Highland Park. Wombleton Records is the newest record store in the neighborhood.

Although it hasn’t happened for the last two years, maybe in the future they’ll revive the Highland Park Music Festival.

Bands from surrounding communities (and occasionally other countries) often come to Highland Park to play at the American Legion Hall and Mr. T’s Bowl. The building in which Mr. T’s is located originally opened in 1929 as a garage. In the 1940s, it was a bowling alley, having likely been converted in 1935. In 1966, it was purchased by Joseph “Mr. T” Teresa, a son of an Italian immigrant who owned a nearby liquor store. Mr. T set up a buffet area and hired big bands to entertain the bowlers. In the 1980s, the lanes closed. In the early 1990s, promoter Jac Zingers started Fuzzyland, which made its home at Mr. T’s. On Thanksgiving Day in 1994, Zinder was killed in a car crash in Silver Lake and Fuzzyland ended. By then, the music and dancing had spilled over into other nights, including karaoke. Mr. T once told me I had a lovely voice after tackling a Smokey Robinson & the Miracles song. He died at 87 on 22 June 22, 2003 but Mr. T’s remains Highland Park’s preeminent live venue.


Besides Mr. T’s, there are several spaces for night owls, including Highland Park Billiards. If you just fancy a bar, however, there’s also Dusty’s, the Hermosillo, Marty’s, Johnny’s, Little Cave, and The York.


Several films have been shot in part or in their entirety in Highland Park, including La Bamba, Better Off Dead, Biker Boyz, Caddy Shack, The Cell, Closer, Cutter’s Way, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, H.O.T.S., Karate Kid 2, Yes, Man, Grease, Reservoir Dogs, Slums of Beverly Hills, Tuff Turf, Up in Smoke, and parts of the television series 10-8: Officers on Duty, NCIS, MacGyver, and Roseanne. Feminist filmmaker Susan Mogul lived in Highland Park, which sometimes played a co-starring role in her autobiographical works, such as 1993’s Everyday Echo Street: A Summer Diary.


For a neighborhood of its size and character, it may be somewhat surprising how relatively few non-chain options there are. However, it is cool how the Jack in the Box looks so Highland Park. They should do that with all chains and neighborhoods. The non-chain joints include Antigua Bread, Antojitos Guerrero, Café de Leche, Las Cazuelas, El Chapin, Chico’s, Cinnamon Vegetarian, Classic Burgers, El Arco Iris, El Pescador (a local chain), Fiesta Fast Food, Folliero’s, Good Girl Dinette, Huarache Azteca Restaurante, Italiano’s Pizza, Mariscos Estilos D.F., Mariscos Sinaloa, My Taco, OK Chinese, Penny’s Burgers, El Pique, Salvador Divino, Taco El Michoacano, Tacos La Estrella, Troy’s Burgers (another local chain), Via Mar Seafood, and Villa Sombrero.


If you’re still not convinced, Highland Park also offers Motorcycle Night in October, the Route 66 BBQ Fundraiser, Mr. T’s Bowl Mardi Gras, Ebell Club Silver Tea, NELA Art Nights, and has a community garden, Milagro Allegro.

Thank you to my traveling companions Autumn Rooney and Maryam Hosseinzadeh on this blogventure. Your knowledge and company were invaluable!

Support Eric Brightwell on Patreon

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubi, the StoryGraph, and Twitter.

16 thoughts on “California Fool’s Gold — Exploring Highland Park

  1. The Arroyo Seco Neighborhood Council and the City of Los Angeles call the finger of territory south of Avenue 50 and Avenue 49 a separate neighborhood known as Sycamore Grove.

    Liked by 1 person

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