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A Shelter in the Center of the Universe : Park La Brea: 176-acre apartment complex is a neighborhood within the Fairfax district, offering security and reliability.

August 08, 1993|ELLEN MELINKOFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Melinkoff is a Los Angeles free - lance writer

I never imagined myself living in the largest apartment complex west of the Mississippi--4,253 units, Park La Brea, at 3rd and Fairfax--and loving it.

I had lived in the neighborhood around Park La Brea for 20 years and often cut through the maze of streets, pooh-poohing the place as I drove. It looked so staid. So boring. So beige. A uniformity that bordered on militaristic. A landscaping that clearly valued well-manicured over lush.

But I had to admit, the location was nice. A center-of-the-universe feeling (well, at least halfway between Hollywood and Beverly Hills). Across 6th Street from the County Museum of Art and across 3rd from the Farmers Market. A mile from Beverly Center. Lots of little mom-and-pop stores in the neighborhood.

When I sold my house and had to face querulous landlords and noisy neighbors again, I decided to rethink the place. I began to see Park La Brea as a sheltered workshop with an efficient, impersonal landlord and strict rules that kept everyone quiet--not just me. Finally I saw how this rigidity could work to my advantage. I could also have my own patio--not just a ledge cantilevered over an alley but a real patio.

The 176-acre complex is a neighborhood within a neighborhood (the Fairfax district). There are really two Park La Breas inside the gates: the towers and the garden apartments. Each has its charms. The towers have larger living rooms, a New York feeling and great views. The garden apartments have patios, grassy courtyards and lovely sycamores (and not-so-lovely olive trees). Their residents share miles of walkways and private streets, recreational facilities and a smug sense of having beaten the system: finding a livable, likable apartment in a great location.

It feels more like living in a small town than an ant colony. The garden apartments are set around spacious courtyards. There's a huge sycamore outside my bedroom window; I love to watch it bud and green up and then go bare. I wake up to birds calls instead of neighbors revving their engines.

Marietta Carter, a make-up artist in the film industry who lives in a three-bedroom garden apartment with her fiancee, said she "feels like I'm living in a house with both a front and back door and a patio." She's introduced herself to everyone in her courtyard and likes the way neighbors watch out for each other. "We're in our own little world here," she said.

Park La Brea's little world goes back more than 50 years. In 1940 the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. started to build garden apartments beginning at Fairfax Avenue and working eastward. Construction was halted at the beginning of World War II but got going again when Met Life pledged to rent to defense workers. After the war, as real estate prices soared, the wisdom of an all-garden-apartment complex was questioned. The master plan was reworked to include 18 13-story towers at the east end of the site. There are 1,499 garden apartments and 2,754 tower units. Forest City Enterprises bought the complex in 1985.

The rents, according to Jerry Baum, a longtime resident as well as the recently retired community relations director, "have always been a bit higher than the neighborhood. In 1960, I was living in a one-bedroom tower apartment on the 11th floor and paying $129. One bedrooms in the neighborhood then were going for $90-$95." Today, Baum's apartment rents for $920. One bedrooms rent for $715-$940; two bedrooms, $1,000-$1,150; three bedrooms, $1,390-$1,690.

In the 1940s and early '50s, Park La Brea was Anglo heaven. Baum recalls a rather "snobby" manager who managed to fill 4,000-plus apartments mostly with "her kind of people." Two of the towers were set aside for Jews; even when there were vacancies in other areas, Jews were put on a waiting list for the designated towers. Baum remembers being stonewalled in his early attempts to rent here. "She didn't like my last name," he said. "But the fact that I was working at I. Magnin at the time won her over."

Families with children were confined to their two towers and to garden apartments on the periphery so that other tenants would not have to put up with children at play.

Nikki Dana and her husband, Cecil, have raised their two children, Joe, 15, and Colin, 8, in Park La Brea. "When we moved here in 1979 to a two-bedroom," she said, "we were the only family in our courtyard and it wasn't all that comfortable." Now they're in a three-bedroom in another courtyard that includes several families. "It feels much more relaxed and very homey," she said.

"'Different courtyards have different personalities," Dana said. Some courtyards have informal tag football sessions while, in others, not an errant toe steps on the lawn thanks to self-appointed watchdogs who report all infractions of the numerous regulations.

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