Diane Alexander loved the newspaper review she read about a Russian delicatessen in West Hollywood, so she wrote a letter inviting its owner to move his operation to Highland Park.
"He wanted to expand, and he was very interested in Highland Park," said Alexander.
But the owner decided he was not willing to sell his store to make the move.
Undaunted, she went looking for another business to invite. And another.
Alexander is part of a small but dedicated group of three Highland Park professionals that wants to revitalize the community from the inside out, hoping to bring in new businesses and spark a renaissance in the local arts community.
A former member of the Highland Park Chamber of Commerce, Alexander wants to upgrade the city's commercial areas. Her colleague, Hendrik Stooker, is senior curator of the Occidental College art department, and wants to keep the community's artistic heritage alive. Completing the trio is Matt Marchand, a marketing director who has become the editor of the group's newsletter.
Five months ago, they established the Arroyo Arts Collective to attract local artists and involve them in the process of changing the city. Their aims are very broad. On a practical level, the group wants to upgrade the shopping district and restore the city's older homes. It also hopes to attract more working artists to the city to make the city into a prominent arts colony.
But they're finding that it is difficult to be a grass-roots catalyst for urban redesign.
"We're taking what we have that is positive and trying to expand for a better community, not waiting for it to happen to us, but making it happen for ourselves," Alexander said. "It is building a community from within, building on our strengths."
Alexander's first target has been Figueroa Street, the city's main business corridor. Old homes and churches, side by side with discount shops and family eateries, line the four-lane street between York Boulevard and Avenue 50. But the discount stores are the prime focus for Alexander.
"There is just a profusion of $3 dress shops up and down the avenue," she said. "We were tired of listening to people complain, 'We have to go to Pasadena to buy anything.' We just got together to see what we could do."
Alexander decided the best way to go about changing Figueroa Street would be to try to attract a different mix of businesses from other cities.
"We are keeping track of storefronts as they become available, and contacting businesses that seem appropriate to Highland Park," she said. So far, none has come as a direct response to her invitations, but Alexander said she is still trying.
"I would love to see this become a restaurant row of international cuisine," she said. "Once we have that as a base, then other businesses can come in and survive."
"Coffeehouses," said Alexander. "That is one of the first things we need." She would also like to attract a more sophisticated motion picture theater to replace a local one which she said features "slasher" films.
Highland Park is a sprawling suburb, nestled between South Pasadena and Eagle Rock, about five miles from the Los Angeles Civic Center. A guild of artisans flourished there at the turn of the century and vestiges of that community can still be seen in the stained-glass makers of the Judson Studios. Today the neighborhoods are a collection of Victorian homes, modest Craftsman houses and a few apartment buildings.
"The nice thing about Highland Park is that it is like an urban village, just five minutes from downtown," said Alexander. "You walk down the street and you bump into friends."
Unfortunately, many people outside the area have a "totally wrong image" of Highland Park as a dangerous place, according to Stooker, who worked with Alexander to establish the collective. Stooker said the criminal element in Highland Park is minor, "but it gets a lot of publicity." He said he finds the image undeserved.
Stooker earned a degree in arts education from an art academy in the Netherlands and has done graduate work in art history at UCLA. Prior to his arrival at Occidental he worked at an art gallery in Beverly Hills and nursed a struggling gallery in Highland Park.
He became aware of Alexander's efforts to attract new businesses to the area and decided they might attract working artists too.
"There are hundreds of professionals in the arts living and working in this area," said Stooker. As more artists move into Highland Park it will reflect positively on the community, he said.
For Stooker, an important part of the collective's work is making residents aware of vintage homes in the area. "It's a historic neighborhood," he said.
Another goal of the Arroyo Arts Collective is to find people who are interested in the arts and who will invest in the Highland Park community. The members want to attract potential home buyers, tell them about the local history, then persuade them to refurbish their homes.