Atwater Village popped up on my radar soon after I’d moved to Los Angeles in 1999. My roommate with a job had found us an apartment just across the Los Angeles River in Silver Lake (Ivanhoe tract, to be exact) but we all frequently headed across the river — usually to soak in the booze and kitsch at the Bigfoot Lodge, or the booze and popcorn (and secondhand smoke) at The Roost. As we passed through the shaded side streets I was struck by the varied and whimsical architecture of the appealingly small homes. At the same time I was unnerved by the frequent sound of gunshots. One night I even saw two young men gunned down on Brunswick.
The Atwater that I explored with frequent companions Diana and Una, and new acquaintances Leien and Perias, has changed a good deal in the last ten years — in many ways for the better, in other ways arguably for the worse. We were also accompanied on part of the exploration by our friend and Atwater home owner, Kristina. The next day I came back to explore the neighborhood’s southern and northern ends on my own.
Although the recent and sudden arrival of brunching, bushy-bearded lumbersexuals and the tattoo-and-toddler set might in some ways resemble an invasion, Atwater has for thousands of years attracted wave after wave of cultures which have in some cases been absorbed into the local population, and at other times displaced them.
The first people to settle along this fertile floodplain along of the Los Angeles River were most likely the ancestors of the Chumash, who arrived in Southern California at least 13,000 years ago. Some 3,500 years ago, the ancestors of the Tongva arrived from the Sonoran Desert in the east, named the area Halemenput and remained there in large numbers until the arrival of the Spanish in the 18th Century.
Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo claimed all of California for the Spanish Empire in 1542 after having landed only at San Diego and San Miguel Island but it wasn’t until 1768, when Gaspar de Portolà commanded an overland expedition through the area that the Spanish Conquest really got underway. Reduced in number by disease and warfare and enslaved in the name of religious conversion, the Tongva were patronizingly renamed “Gabrielinos,” after the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel in nearby San Gabriel. Jose Maria Verdugo, a retired soldier who’d served in the Portola-Serra Expedition, was rewarded for his service with the a grant of the roughly 150 square kilometer Rancho San Rafael.
The new nation of Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821. Verdugo maintained ownership of the rancho until his death in 1831, at which time it was left to his surviving son, Julio Antonio Verdugo, and his daughter, María Catalina Verdugo. After the United States defeated Mexico in the Mexican-American War, the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ensured that preexisting land grants continue be recognized by the land’s latest conquerors, and the rancho thus remained in Verdugo hands.
In 1858, the Verdugos gave a portion of their rancho to an attorney named Joseph Brent as payment for his legal services, after a drought had reduced the profitability of their cattle operation. The portion afterward changed hands several times, eventually to a land surveyor from Ohio named William Carr Belding Richardson, who bought if from its then-owner Samuel Heath in 1868 for $51 and named it Rancho Santa Eulalia.
In 1871, the WCB (as he apparently like to be known) left his son Elkanah in charge of his ranch and Richardson the younger replaced the ranch’s sheep with dairy cows and orchards. In 1873, WCB donated six and a half hectares of land to Southern Pacific Railroad on which to build a train station, which the railroad named Tropico Depot, and the construction of which was completed in 1887.
By 1888, a community had arisen around the station, also known as Tropico although soon tracts likeMinneapolis and Kenilworth appeared on maps of the area. In 1900, WCB donated another portion of his land to Pacific Art Tile Company, which provided another source of employment and thus another incentive to buy a home in the area. Further enticements came after WCB donated land for the construction of aPresbyterian church and a schoolhouse. The Tropico Tract was subdivided in 1902 and the following year, mostly Japanese farmers leased much of the land to growing strawberries, specifically a variety named Tropico Beauties. After a severe frost, however, wise farmers adapted by diversifying their crops.
Construction of a local train line began in 1903 when L.C. Brand‘s Los Angeles & Glendale Electric Railway began laying track on land also donated by WCB. The railway soon became part of the Pacific Electric Railway and green cars were replaced with red. In 1908 the local line was extended to Burbank and thus became The Glendale-Burbank Line (the other terminus was in Downtown Los Angeles). The only other way into the Tropico from Los Angeles was over the wooden bridge along Tropico Road (now Los Feliz Boulevard).
It was also in 1908 that a comic strip called Toonerville Folks about the misadventures of the Toonerville Trolley debuted and people began referring to streetcar suburbs like WCB’s as “Toonervilles.” Later the name would be adopted by one of Atwater Villages gangs. 1908 was also the year WCB passed away, at the age of 93, and he left his remaining land to his sons Elkanah, Omar, and Bert.
What’s now Atwater Village was annexed by Los Angeles on 28 February 1910 — part of the East Hollywood Addition. The remainder of Tropico incorporated as its own city the following year, and was then annexed by Glendale in 1918, where Tropico is a neighborhood. The Los Angeles side was re-subdivded as Angelus Park, Walnut Grove, and Atwater Park in 1912. Atwater Park was named after Harriet Atwater Paramore, whose husband had purchased the land from WCB and on which they cultivated poppies.
The land below Brunswick and Larga remained an undeveloped until berms were constructed to hold back the temperamental waters of the nearby river. The rest of the area was mostly developed after 1921 and ‘22, when Glenhurst Terrace, Hollydale Gardens, and Glendale Manor were subdivided. Although today there are few homes remaining from the 1910s a good deal of the Atwater’s homes date from the 1920s and ‘30s and there’s at least one home dating from a few decades earlier; according to city records, the home at 4021 Baywood Street was built in 1890.
Much of Atwater retains a convincingly rustic character. Although prior its channelization the Los Angeles River regularly and dramatically changed course, emptying into either the Santa Monica or San Pedro Bay. However, the San Fernando Valley watershed has always flowed between the San Gabriel Mountains and Verdugo Hills into the Atwater area, carrying and depositing fertile soil and seeds with it. Famed Church Brampton-born botanist Theodore Payne moved from the UK to Atwater Village and beginning in 1922 operated a nursery on Los Feliz Boulevard.
In 1925, when the Atwater Park Community Improvement Association lobbied the city for a new library and the neighborhood witnessed the construction of several commercial buildings including the Markowitz Building, the Saunders Building, and the Shugart Building. That year, too, all of the streets were paved and street lights were installed. Floods, which had destroyed the wooden bridges connecting the community to the rest of Los Angeles in 1915, were finally conquered that year too, when the first of the modern bridges was built. First was the concrete tee beam Tropico Bridge (later renamed Los Feliz Boulevard Bridge), built under the supervision of HP Cortelyou and which also opened in 1925.
The Merrill Butler-designed, concrete tee beam Fletcher Drive Bridge opened in 1927. It was followed by The Victory Memorial Viaduct (later renamed the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge when as a nation we apparently decided we’d honored World War I veterans for long enough), which opened in 1929. It too was designed by Merill Butler and its striking concrete arch design and large hexagonal light posts distinguish it from his other bridges, as does, unfortunately, its distinct unfriendliness toward cyclists and pedestrians.
A small scale version of the viaduct can be seen at Disney California Adventure and the real-deal appears in the film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit. That fiction film’s Toontown streetcar system was clearly a reference to the Pacific Electric Railway, although the real life train was derailed not by corporate conspiracy by the understandable public unwillingness to fund a privately-owned (and increasingly run-down) transit system operated by an extremely wealthy, anti-Labor industrialist. Of course, had it been taken over by a genuine public transit operator and modernized Los Angeles would possibly have one of the greatest public transit systems in the world but instead the line was shut down in 1955 and dismantled… although it is commemorated in a mural, Revisit the Red Car, painted on one of the train bridge’s old supports by Rafael Escamilla in 2004 — with assistance from Roxanne Salazar and Tom Hinds.
Much more accommodating to walkers is the Sunnybrook Pedestrian Bridge, built in 1932, and as suggested by its name, off-limits to motorists. Another more pedestrian friendly bridge, the La Kretz Crossing, is currently planned for construction for a budget of $6 million ($5 million coming from Morton La Kretz) and which will provide access to Griffith Park (one of the world’s largest urban parks) not just for walkers and cyclists but for horses and their riders too.
In 1938, a devastating flood led to the channelization of the Los Angeles River. However, due to pressure from upswelling groundwater, the portion which forms Atwater’s western edge — the Glendale Narrows — is soft-bottomed and therefore more resembles a teeming riparian jungle than a lifeless, cement drainage ditch. As with the other three soft-bottom portions, the narrows attract a variety of fish, mammals and bird. In the Narrows one can see American coot, American white pelican, black phoebe, black-necked stilt,cinnamon teal, double-crested cormorant, great blue heron, great egret, greater yellowlegs, killdeer,mallard, northern shoveler, red-winged blackbird, rock pigeon, snowy egret, spotted sandpiper, and the non-native Muscovy duck — all of which seem to be under the spell of the so-called Atwater Bird Man who feeds and thus leads them.
Sometime before 1941, the 650-seat/single screen Atwater Theatre opened at 3130 Glendale Boulevard. It was owned and operated by Harry Owens, a Nebraska born songwriter and Tiki culture figure who was the former music director of The Royal Hawaiian Hotel “Sweet Leilani” and filled the Atwater Theatre with Hawaiian murals and motifs. It operated at least until the mid 1950s and is the former foyer is now home to Pampered Birds. The back is currently occupied by a photography studio.
At least as early as 1966, people began referring to Atwater as Atwater Village. In 1986, Atwater was officially renamed Atwater Village. In 1991, the members of Beastie Boys established G-Son Studios on Glendale Boulevard and across the street, Bong Load Records launched the same year. Han Cholo, Mad Decent Studios, R-Rock Enterprises, Teenage Riot Records, and X-Large followed, as did a tribe of young males in workwear and gas attendant shirts who made Atwater Village an epicenter of a certain scene.
The ’90s style alterna-bros seem to have been absorbed into the local population although they still stand out with their emblematic wallet chains. The new Anglo pioneers, although they too have appropriated aspects of working class style (albeit working class style of the 1890s-1930s), seem different from the previous wave — less interested in Atwater’s unique character than in its potential to be transformed to cater to their fauxhemian, pretindie tastes.
In 2012, real estate blog Curbed LA proclaimed Atwater Village the “neighborhood of the year” and described it as a “river-adjacent brunch zone” but from what I’ve seen, this aspect of Atwater is almost completely confined to a short stretch of Glendale Boulevard and a few nearby outposts whilst much of the rest of the neighborhood seems surprisingly little changed from the Atwater I first visited, albeit without the insane level of gang violence with which it was formerly plagued.
The southernmost portion of Atwater Village, located between Glendale Boulevard and the Glendale Freeway (the 2) is home to the original Atwater Park subdivision, the borders of which were formed by Glendale, Larga Avenue, Silver Lake Boulevard, and the train tracks. It’s dominated by DWP’s Receiving Station G, which was energized in 1954 and the buzz of which can be heard throughout much of the area. Most of the modest homes and apartments appear to have been built around the same time as the receiving station and the area is home to the small, fairly tranquil (aside from the buzz) Glenhurst Park.
There are few commercial spaces in the vicinity — Yuritzi’s Beauty Salon and Vince’s Market, the latter which was opened in 1939 by Joseph and Mabel Caravella and is likely the oldest business in all of Atwater. Across the street from both businesses is Atwater Avenue Elementary School.
Nearby in this southern section is a newer creative complex, Atwater Crossing, which is home to a restaurant at which we stopped for a spell — Momed — as well as the Atwater Village Theatre, which is itself home to Ensemble Studio Theatre Los Angeles (EST/LA) and Echo Theater Company.
Also of interest in the area — at least to those who worship Quentin Tarantino — is Lance’s (played by Eric Stoltz) home where Vincent (played by John Travolta) took an overdosed Mia (played by Uma Thurman) in the 1994 film, Pulp Fiction, located at 3519 La Clede Avenue. A more traditional house of worship in the area is Atwater Park Baptist Church, built in 1949.
Heading north to Glendale Boulevard, one does start to notice the neighborhood’s neophytes. On foot Glendale is much less pretentious than its reputation suggests. There are still regular old gas stations, liquor stores, and fast food chains like Boba Loca and Starbucks. Coral Reef, El Canonazo Market, Hugo’s Tacos, Sepan Chicken (and banquet hall), Tacos Villa Corona, all continue to exist as they have for years — as far as I know without regard for those with self-diagnosed sensitivities to MSG, gluten, soy, or wheat. Glendale Boulevard is also home to the Atwater Branch Public Library, The Ecclesia Gnostica, and one of the last two dive bars in Atwater, Club Tee Gee.
I like some of Glendale Boulevard’s newer places too — although they’re almost always more expensive than their longer-established neighbors. 55 Degrees Wine, Link-n-Hops, and Crispy Crust occupy the old Atwater Ranch Market, the mural of which remains with faded letters advertising American, Latino and Filipino food.
55 Degrees Wine makes good use of its basement to infuse charm into an otherwise almost supernaturally soulless building. Its neighbor, Link-n-Hops, pays respect to Atwater’s 1990s/909er influx by blasting the kind of music that Playstation eXtreme sports games utilized. The interior of Viet Noodle Bar might look like the inside of anti-vaccine daycare center and the air doesn’t register to my nose as at all Vietnamesey — but the food is tasty enough.
Jacknife Records & Tapes, which sells audio cassettes, eight-tracks, and reel-to-reel tapes, might sound unbearably precious but both it, you’ve got to give some respect to them for managing to carve a micro-niche for themselves and remain in business for several years now. The eastern outpost of the Westside‘s Alias Books — Alias Books East — sells books, which though some would argue is another obsolete format certainly doesn’t bother me. Any time a business describes their inventory as “curated,” my hackles rise but I’ll overcome my distaste for pretense and check them out in the future.
Glendale Boulevard the street is ridiculously wide, formerly having accommodated multiple lanes of traffic, angle parking, and until 1955, the Glendale-Burbank train line. Recently they managed to finally add some bicycle lanes whilst still leaving more than enough room for cars and a light rail line — which they might want to consider bringing back although Metro‘s 92 and 201 lines also serve the avenue.
Just off the street is another of the neighborhood’s older institutions, the large Holy Trinity Catholic Church, built in 1925. After poking my head into a service and inhaling the smell of burning frankincense and myrrh (which conjures in me thoughts of Ethiopian food and not Catholic services), we stumbled upon the wreckage wrought by someone who should probably not rely on automobiles to get around.
Although actually located in the southern half of Atwater Village, Los Feliz Boulevard seems to mark or sort of northern border for Atwater Village newbies and the street’s character is less suffocating than its celebrated neighbor to the south. Back when the slackers and stoners were recording music on G-Son and Bong Load, Los Feliz Boulevard was home to Echo Sounds — which 2Pac treated audiences of Yo! MT Raps to a tour of and where, in 1999, Kurupt‘s bodyguard Dwayne “Draws” Dupree was murdered after a recording session on the rapper’s Tha Streetz Iz a Mutha.
Next to the Los Angeles River is the Los Feliz Municipal Golf Course, which opened in 1947, and in 1996 was featured in the film Swingers. Although I’ve played one game of golf there, I’ve more often enjoyed watching free films there as part of Atwater Movie Nights Under the Stars.
Across the street is a park known officially as “Bond Area” but which has a local nickname which I, despite having uttered in the past, can no longer recall. Last year, Bruce Chan, Victoria Vu, I, and other members of Bruce’s Buddies observed Holi there before heading, covered in colors, to India Sweets & Spices — an Indian market and cafeteria which occupies a space formerly filled by the rough and tumble Pro Billiard Club.
Los Feliz Boulevard is also home to the aforementioned Bigfoot and still-there-but-much-changed Roost as well as neighborhood establishments like Giamela’s, Sun Hai Inn, my local Del Taco, and Los Feliz Liquor. The owner of the later, Garbis Sarkissian, passed away earlier this year but is memorialized in mural form on the store’s wall.
Newer establishments along Los Feliz Boulevard include the The Griffin (occupying the site formerly filled by La Strada) and The Morrison Pub. I’ve been to the Griffin many times and to the Morrison only once — to observe Burns Night with friends, the consumption of scotch, and the drunken recitation of verse written by the Ploughman Poet.
Speaking of Scotland, just up the street on Los Feliz Boulevard is the Tam O’ Shanter, one of the oldest restaurants in Los Angeles and one at least nominally Scottish although looking more like a Hollywood version of Olde England (and designed by a set designer, Harry Oliver). The Tam O’ Shanter was opened by Lawrence L. Frank, Walter Van de Kamp, and Joe Montgomery in 1922 as Montgomery’s Country Inn. In 1923 it was re-named Montgomery’s Chanticleer Inn. Finally, in 1925, it was re-named The Tam O’ Shanter Inn. In 1935 the Tam O’ Shanter introduced “car service deluxe” which meant waitresses served auto-obsessed patrons who would rather dine in their shiny automobiles then inside the charming British hyper-reality. In 1968 the name of the restaurant was again changed, this time to The Great Scott, which it remained known as until 1982, when it became simply The Tam o’ Shanter.
Across the street from the Tam O’Shanter is a large shopping center which occupies the site on which Pacific Art Tile Company was established. Later the lot was home to Gladding, McBean & Co., which manufactured ceramic tabletop and tiles. The plant was closed in 1978 and is now home to a Best Buy,Costco, Toys R Us, and several chain restaurants but there is still tile manufacturing in Atwater Village, thanks to Mortarless Building Supply Company, and many of their tiles can be seen in “all the best homes.
Increased environmental awareness and renewed interest in the Los Angeles River has lately resulted in improved community access to it and plans are currently underway to revitalize the 82 kilometer long waterway and adjacent greenway. As the river is revitalized, most seem to agree that it will be great to see chain-link fences come down, cement torn up, and the return of the river to a more natural state. On the other hand, many are worried that private businesses and four story condos will spring up, once again cutting off the riparian communities from their rivers.
In 2012, the North Atwater Creek Restoration and Park Expansion project was completed, a green space through which which waters from a 25 hectare watershed pass and are filtered before entering the Los Angeles River.
Atwater Village’s two largest parks, North Atwater Park (the largest park in the neighborhood) and Chevy Chase Park (the second-largest) are both located along Atwater’s mostly-commercial corridor, Chevy Chase Drive.
Chevy Chase and the old Walnut Grove Tract are home to a few noteworthy churches, including Cristo Rey Church (built in 1923) and House of Faith (built in 1939), as well as several small shops — some of which are barely wider than the span of my arms (hello Lydia’s Beauty Salon).
La Azteca restaurant has been serving Atwater at least since 1993, is cash-only, and open for breakfast and lunch only.
Other businesses along this quiet pleasant stretch include Discount Carpet Center, Boone’s Market, MG Market, and the affordable (cash only) and highly-regarded La Villa Café.
When I passed it by La Villa the advertised specials were empanadas and pupusas. If this were on Glendale Boulevard I’d fear that they were made with quinoa flour and topped with kale curtido but although this is inarguably Atwater, it’s not the Atwater promoted by boosters and the only other Anglos I saw were apparently homeless day-drinkers hanging out in Chevy Chase Park.
North of Goodwin Avenue, Atwater Park is almost exclusively industrial, dominated by warehouses (and home too to the sort of New Formalist Choong Hyun Mission Church).
Near the truncated Colorado Street Freeway (a less than one-kilometer remnant of the old 134) one can walk in the shadow of a huge Ralphs Distribution Center, beside booming and belching Baxter, and near the large Los Angeles-Glendale Water Reclamation Plant.
The oldest warehouses in the area date from the 1940s and several are somewhat surprisingly attractive examples of Late Deco architecture. Amongst the warehouses and factories, there are a couple of businesses. Although the all-nude strip club, The Gentlemen’s Club, looks pretty industrial from the outside, according to the business, the interior has the vibe of a “European style chateau.”
The northernmost extreme of almost-Glendale Atwater is home to Golden Road Brewing, which is as cavernous and cozy as a megachurch and is often as loud inside as a train station — but for beer lovers its the beer, not the ambiance which matters — and at any time there are about 68 varieties available.
GETTING THERE AND STAYING THERE
Atwater Village is served locally by Metro’s 92, 180/181, 201, and 603 buses and it is accessible via Metrolink’s Antelope Valley and Ventura County lines as well as Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner train. There is one lodging house in Atwater Village — Los Feliz Hotel, although despite its name the latter is more accurately described as a motel, and despite its great neon sign from 1950, apparently has little else to recommend it for the lodgers requiring more than an hour or less than a week’s accommodation. Perhaps consider staying nearby, with a friend, or consulting Airbnb.
ATWATER DINING AND DRINKING
Other restaurants in the neighborhood include Indochine Vien and Thank You For Coming — both of which I’ve patronized and enjoyed. Thank You For Coming is a sort of Utopian, collectively-run food and art space that is home to an artist-in-residence program and operates its own radio station, KTYFC. Other restaurants in Atwater include Baracoa Cuban Cafe, Bigmista’s Barbecue, Bon Vivant Market & Cafe, El Buen Gusto Restaurant (recommended by my friend Marya), Canelé, El Flamin’ Taco, Los Feliz Cafe, Thai Thai Restaurant, and The Village Bakery and Cafe.
Atwater is also home to the Los Angeles Atwater Village Certified Farmers’ Market, which launched in 2005 and takes place on Sundays from 10:00 – 13:00. The boutique market, Atwater Village Farm, is also worth a mention and if pricier than their chain supermarket rivals, more lovingly stocked and staffed. Atwater Village also hosts the Atwater Village Beer, Food & Wine Festival. The only bar in the neighborhood which I haven’t yet visited is Atwater Village Tavern.
ATWATER COMMUNITY ORGANIZATIONS
There are several community organizations serving (or designed to serve) the Atwater community including Taking the Reins (an equestrian organization whose goal is to help young Angelenas develop confidence and leadership skills), Friends of the Los Angeles River, the Atwater Village Historical Society, Atwater Village Neighborhood Council, and Friends of Atwater Village.
FURTHER READING & VIEWING
Books include Sandra Caravella, Luis Lopez, and Ann Lawson’s, Atwater Village (2001). Episode one (“Atwater”) of Huell Howser’s series Our Neighborhoods, 2002, is worth viewing. Websites worth a look include Atwater Village News, Atwater Village Now, and Atwater Village Newbie.
Until the next neighborhood!