When Phil and Marie Meltzer began house hunting in 1987, they wanted an affordable neighborhood close to downtown Los Angeles.
Phil, a self-employed recruiter for data processing and software companies, and Marie, a fine arts saleswoman, missed the urban ambiance of Chicago, their former home. They wanted a house that was close-in and near freeways.
Above all, they wanted a house with character that would fit their modest budget.
Their search led them to Atwater Village, an older, blue-collar community that some realtors call "the poor man's Los Feliz," where for $120,000 they bought a two-bedroom 1920s Spanish-style house with cathedral ceilings, hardwood floors, red tile roof and large garden.
They like the ethnic diversity of the area, and that they can walk to nearby stores and restaurants. "I try to recruit everyone I meet to the neighborhood," Marie Meltzer said. "Three of our friends have bought houses here."
It's a Sleeper
"Atwater Village is a sleeper," said Joe Wilson, an associate broker at Fred Sands Los Feliz. "It's (one of) the last affordable districts that is close in. Because it's surrounded by Los Feliz, Silver Lake and Glendale, Atwater is an area that should continue to go up."
Tree-lined streets, steepled churches and specialty businesses along Glendale and Los Feliz boulevards, the area's major arteries, give a first impression of small-town ambiance.
But as you explore more deeply, you may also see mom-and-pop ethnic markets, pushcart vendors selling fresh-fruit Popsicles and an occasional graffiti-spattered wall. A carefully painted home with manicured garden may face an unkempt house or small apartment with cars parked on the front lawn.
Clearly, Atwater Village is a neighborhood in flux.
"We felt like pioneers when we moved here," Jenny Smith-Moore, a children's book illustrator and artist, said.
House Was a Mess
"Two years ago, when we bought the house, it was a total mess," said her husband, David, a fine-art photographer and instructor at The Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design.
"The house was dirty inside, and the yard needed to be cleaned up. There were chicken coops and weeds everywhere. The neighborhood didn't bother me too much because I had lived downtown in a loft before we were married. I like the ethnic diversity."
The Moores bought their two-bedroom English cottage for $119,000 in a probate sale. They stripped wallpaper from the walls and varnish from the moldings, had the oak floors pickled, and tore out linoleum from the bathroom to reveal the original mosaic tile in good condition.
In the kitchen they removed several layers of linoleum and painted the pine sub-flooring white to remind them of flooring in the loft.
Scrimping and Saving
"When we bought our house in 1986, we felt a little at risk," said Steven Peterman, a writer-producer for television's "Murphy Brown."
"We had been scrimping and saving for a house. We didn't have family who could give us a down payment, so we had to look for a place we could buy by ourselves. Atwater was one of a limited group of choices. It's gotten to be more chic, with young couples moving in and nice shops and restaurants opening. . . . "
"I'm happy with the diversity of the neighborhood," said Siri Ludwig, a physician and associate professor at USC Medical School. Ludwig and her husband, Eric, a graduate student, allow their three children to play out front. They feel safe walking to shops and the library on Glendale Boulevard.
A spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department's Northeast Division said Atwater has a relatively low crime rate. Residents do worry about several local gangs, and many band together to paint out graffiti.
Worry About Crime
Virginia Scott, whose family moved to Atwater in 1922 when she was a baby, remembers a time when children could safely play outdoors at night.
"I worry about graffiti, crime, bars on the window and vandalism, but the neighborhood hasn't changed to a point where I'd want to move," she said.
Unlike many Los Angeles neighborhoods, Atwater Village has clear boundaries--Fletcher Drive on the south, the Los Angeles city line on the north, the Los Angeles River on the west and Glendale to the east.
According to brokers, the area between Los Feliz and Glendale boulevards is considered the most desirable because there are fewer apartments. Houses--English cottages, Spanish-style residences with tile roofs and craftsman bungalows--are listed from $199,000 to over $300,000.
Prices Vary Widely
Between Fletcher Drive and Glendale Boulevard, small apartment buildings with two to eight units are found next to single-family houses or lots with two houses. House prices here range from $185,000 to $195,000.