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STYLE & CULTURE | L.A. CENTRIC MARY MCNAMARA

Atwater Village: Paint it hip

November 05, 2002|MARY MCNAMARA

The grand opening of a paint store in Atwater Village is a difficult event to categorize in social calendar terms. It does not, for example, rate paparazzi. But there was actually quite a lot going on, symbolically speaking, at Jill's Paints on its inaugural Saturday afternoon. Worlds collided, alliances solidified, the urban landscape changed and Barry Diller wasn't anywhere near the joint.

Billed as a high-end paint store with an emphasis on old-fashioned service, Jill's Paints starts off with a pretty high David and Goliath factor. Proprietor Peg McCloud runs Jill of All Trades, a well-known, mostly female paint crew working in Silver Lake and its environs. She decided to open her store when Baker's Hardware, a landmark just off Los Feliz Boulevard, closed earlier this year.

For one thing, she needed a place to buy the Benjamin Moore paint she favors, and the next closest vendor was on La Brea. For another, she thought people were getting pretty sick of wandering like lost souls through the humming fluorescence of mega-stores like Home Depot. And finally, she figured that if her friend Kim Dingle could open Fatty's, a successful coffeehouse in Eagle Rock, then she, Peg, could open a successful paint store in Atwater Village.

Which is where the symbolism goes beyond consumer trends and into the choppier waters of tribe, because, like Eagle Rock, Atwater Village is one of those borderline neighborhoods, perpetually on the cusp of "hot."

At the recent grand-opening of Jill's Paints, the crowd pretty much divided at the door. Inside, a Silver Lake-ish crowd -- women with Joan of Arc hair, men in good thrift-store sports jackets, state Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg -- ate stuffed chicken breast and spicy orange shrimp amid the paint cans.

Outside, at tables set up for the event, the doyennes of Atwater Village held court. Betty Bartlotta, owner of the venerably colorful Club Tee Gee, accepted the first marguerita she had drunk in a year, flanked by Laura McLaughlin, advertising manager for the Atwater Village Residents Assn. newsletter, and Barbara Lass, a director of the association. Though none was around in the early early days, when Walt Disney and Tom Mix had studios here, they've all lived here for 30 years or more.

Like any good barkeep, Bartlotta can capture in a few words what many an urban sociologist would need a book contract to explain. "When I moved here, you had to wait for someone to die to buy a house," she says. "It was a retirement community. Then the immigrants came and there were a lot of empty stores on the boulevard. Then the gays moved in, and they take such good care of their houses. Now it's the Silver Lake crowd."

"We are definitely moving forward," says McLaughlin, who is a bit more overtly boosterish than her friends. "There are so many eclectic places to go. There are two bakeries on the boulevard now. We've got a new Cuban restaurant, a real cafe and the yoga place."

The "boulevard" is Glendale Boulevard. The mile of it that rises from the L.A. river before ducking beneath the train overpass is the heart of Atwater Village. It is a wide street--divided by a tree-studded median--and while it does not have the groomed look of gentrification, it is not as shabby as it was even three years ago.

Pampered Birds, the pet store in the former movie theater, is no longer the only colorful facade on the block. In the last year, half a dozen new establishments have joined longtime tenants like the Tee Gee, the Racket Doctor, Dave's Accordion Lessons, the Dutch American Bakery and Osteria Nonni restaurant.

"There are new places opening up all the time," says Bartlotta. "We had Huell Howser out here a while ago," she adds, her no-nonsense mien brightening at the mere pleasure of saying the name.

"We've had a couple of people come over from Silver Lake," adds McLaughlin, including Silver Lake Video and the two-chair Stardust Salon, which provides everything from a wave and set to a tri-colored Mohawk.

All of this might sound like small potatoes to denizens of consumer meccas like Santa Monica or even Larchmont. But for years now, Atwater has jockeyed for position on the next-hip neighborhood list. For years, residents have watched their neighbors in Silver Lake and Los Feliz complain like world-weary prom queens about the downsides of popularity -- oh, the parking is just impossible, and the wait at La Belle Epoque.

For years, people like Bartlotta and McLaughlin have waited and hoped, holding their breath as things seemed just about to turn -- home-grown Out of the Closet went citywide, the Bigfoot Lodge was anointed by the arbiters of club-chic, Osteria Nonni continued to draw crowds from all over the city, even the river got a make-over.

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