Residents in two small pockets of Highland Park have been working nights and weekends in a gritty organizing campaign to hold off the development they fear is about to deface their prewar suburban communities with rows of apartment ghettos.
They are going about it the only way that offers any reasonable chance of success--pure hard work. That includes inspecting and cataloguing hundreds of homes, walking door-to-door to talk to their neighbors, writing and distributing dozens of flyers, keeping an eye on paper work in several city departments and giving their evenings up to the community meetings.
Their goal is to bring the two neighborhoods under the protection of a relatively obscure city mechanism called the Historic Preservation Overlay Zone. An HPOZ, as it is called for short, is created by an ordinance of the Los Angeles City Council. It declares an area as one of historic, architectural, cultural or aesthetic significance, and, essentially, grants its residents the power to decide for themselves how to keep it that way.
The power lies in a five-member preservation association invested with the right to review changes to any structure within the zone. The association can write design standards to ensure that any new building or remodeling project is consistent with the qualities of the neighborhood.
Only three other Los Angeles neighborhoods have so far gained that status, and each one of those has some quality that makes it stand out. The first, for example, was Angeleno Heights, Los Angeles' oldest suburb. It contains the city's most outstanding collection of privately owned Victorian houses.
Highland Park holds a spottier claim to historic, architectural, cultural and aesthetic significance. Most of its homes were built before World War II. Their original makeup varied from a few genuine Victorian, Craftsman and eclectic revival mansions to many working-class models that incorporated the influence of those same styles.
Many of the original homes are in decline, many have been altered to their detriment and many have already fallen to past building booms.
A real estate agent who supports the plan captured the equivocal standing of Highland Park when he said, "It was the Los Feliz of Los Angeles when the West Adams area was its Beverly Hills."
There are approximately 375 structures in the two areas outlined by the Highland Park groups. They are quiet communities, on either side of Figueroa Street--one near Avenue 50, the other a few blocks north near Avenue 60.
Decades of isolation from the rapid urban changes beyond Highland Park have left a legacy of apathy concerning the values of the many homes that remain surprisingly intact.
The area's city councilman, Richard Alatorre, has said he would support the HPOZs if the organizers can show substantial support among the residents in the two areas.
That makes apathy--more than political resistance--the real opponent of the HPOZ campaign.
The results of one of the community meetings, held Tuesday night, suggest that it's not going to be an easy victory.
The meeting was held in the Highland Park Ebell Club, a 1913 structure that has been declared a historic cultural monument.
The purpose was to build spirit among residents of the two areas. Organizers carried invitations by hand to residents of every building in the two areas and mailed them to absentee landlords.
Fewer than two dozen people showed up. Charlie Fisher, one of the leaders of the HPOZ campaign, gave them a quick pep talk. He said an HPOZ would raise property values, encourage renovation, reduce crime and build a sense of community.
Then Ed Hunt, a landscape architect who helped set up one of the city's other HPOZs, described the benefits his neighborhood, Melrose Hills, has derived.
"My impression is the property values are accelerating rapidly, the pace of restorations is accelerating rapidly, the crime problem is very much under control," he said.
Hunt showed slides of beautiful homes with new paint jobs and rich gardens.
To illustrate the spirit engendered by the HPOZ, Hunt showed several shots of the work of The Green Thumb Gang. That, he said, was the neighborhood's name for its worst crime problem, a group of vandals who struck at night, planting trees in the parkways after city officials cited rules that prohibited their neighborhood's landscaping plans.
His talk clearly excited the few people who were there to hear it. They went away as new recruits for the HPOZ.
Then, in the empty hall, half a dozen HPOZ leaders stacked folding metal chairs against a wall and debated strategy among themselves.
Richard Barrons, who comes from the southern area, said some members of the group want to walk the neighborhood with petitions.
But he fears the issues are "a little more complicated than I would want to sign a petition for on my front doorstep."
His choice is to hold a ballot. But first, there must be more meetings until the community is sufficiently aroused.