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Elysian Valley : Frogtown Holds Bucolic 'Secret' Minutes From Downtown L.A.

March 08, 1987|PENELOPE McMILLAN | Times Staff Writer

Some call it Frogtown, a nickname derived from the day many years ago when thousands of frogs came up out of the river and covered the streets like a blanket.

Its real name is Elysian Valley, but either way Richard Woodard--like most Los Angeles residents--had never heard of it. When a house there was listed for sale eight years ago, the graphic designer found himself alongside the Los Angeles River in a yard filled with orange, fig and avocado trees.

Amazed by its country flavor, he bought it outright. "I didn't even go in the house," Woodard recalled.

Elysian Valley, however, is not in the country but just outside downtown, about 2 1/2 miles north of Los Angeles City Hall. A peanut-shaped pocket of land wedged between the Golden State Freeway and the Los Angeles River just across the freeway from Elysian Park, Frogtown is, its residents say, "a well-kept secret."

A three-mile-long community of 7,500--traditionally Anglo and Mexican, with an increasingly Asian population--Frogtown is almost invisible and, despite its central location, rather inaccessible.

It cannot be seen from the freeway because of a wall built by the state Department of Transportation to block noise, and it cannot be reached except through its north and south ends, via Riverside Drive or Fletcher Drive.

Rule 1 for living in Frogtown, Woodard found, is learning to give good directions to visitors. "One guy got lost three times trying to find it," he said one morning after crawling through a hole in the fence along the river to take a walk.

Longtime residents learn to spot lost drivers, crawling up and down the streets that dead-end at the river, said Mollie Rodriguez, who has been there 27 years. "I'll be in my yard and say, 'Can I help you?' " she said, "and they'll scream, 'How do I get out of this place?' "

Due to its isolation, Elysian Valley is "like a little country town," said Lucy Mesa, a resident for 30 years. "We have potlucks and all that. We know each other, and we look out for each other."

The community as a whole has not greatly changed from its beginnings more than 60 years ago, when small bungalows, many with gabled porches and wood siding, began to replace the Mexican-, Japanese- and Chinese-owned truck farms. The soil, residents say, is still very rich and grows almost anything.

"We kids picked blackberries for a penny a box," recalled 87-year-old Beatrice Stapel, who moved there in 1908 with her parents. "When we picked 25 boxes, we got 25 cents and could take the Red Car (former Los Angeles streetcars) to the beach."

Stapel, whose father raised chickens, was one of four students who made up the first graduating class of Allesandro Elementary School in 1914. Many early residents, she said, worked at the Southern Pacific railroad yard directly opposite Frogtown; they just walked across the river to get to work.

Now, there are half a dozen churches, three small markets, two elementary schools and a gas station within Frogtown's environs. According to the 1980 census, the area is 59% Latino, 22% Asian, 18% Anglo and 1% black. It is part of the City Council's new 1st District.

Crime averages about two burglaries a week, the lowest in the northeast area, police said. The local Latino gang--called Frogtown, of course--is small and inactive, by most accounts, except for graffiti writing.

The unofficial mayor is Richard Adams, who heads the local community organization. His wife, Virginia, is known locally as "Mrs. Frogtown."

For nearly 20 years, the Adamses have successfully fought to keep the residential area zoned for low-density housing, so as to prevent high-rise apartment construction, and they have organized Neighborhood Watch crime prevention programs on all 44 blocks of Frogtown.

They consider gang graffiti the main local problem, and they regularly lead brigades to paint it out.

Officially, Elysian Valley is part of the city's Silver Lake-Echo Park community planning area, said Sal Salinas of the city Planning Department. But due to the Golden State Freeway, which cut through the area in 1962, it is not similar to either of those communities.

"It's pretty well separated," Salinas said.

Homes in the north end coexist with small factories, bus yards and various light industries such as electrical, plumbing or air-conditioning contractors. The area developed long before modern zoning requirements, Salinas said, "so there's no buffer" between industrial and residential areas. The south end is entirely residential.

Some of Elysian Valley is pretty, though a lot of it is not. Many streets are narrow and charming, with large overhanging trees. But ramshackle houses with peeling paint and broken screens are just as common as the carefully tended homes with manicured yards.

Like any small town, several of its habits are predictable.

In the mornings, yellow-and-white delivery trucks from the Four-S bakery, a large wholesale bakery started there in 1927, wend their way to the freeways. Most of its 430 employees live in Frogtown.

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