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Ready for its close-up

September 14, 2006

HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN A NEIGHBORHOOD makes the turn from "up and coming" to "old news"? Not 10 years ago, Echo Park was a hotbed of gang violence and street crime. Today, depending on who you ask, the hilly neighborhood northwest of downtown has either already gentrified itself into over-mortgaged oblivion or is one Starbucks away from tipping over into a full-blown bourgeoispolis. Either way, the gangland reputation is now largely unwarranted, unless you count the packs of tattooed hipsters who drown their days in soy chai lattes at cafes such as Chango on Echo Park Avenue.

Echo Park seems perched on the brink of national discovery. The new indie movie "Quinceanera," in which the streets surrounding Sunset and Alvarado play as big a role as any of the actors, was a festival hit and is now in national release. Jennifer Lopez recently signed a deal with FX Networks to develop a sitcom called "Echo Park," which, according to Variety, will take "a comedic look at the world of yuppie, Latino and hipster" cultures within the neighborhood. And next month, crime writer Michael Connelly publishes his 17th novel, titled "Echo Park."

In "Quinceanera," the gentrification of one neighborhood serves as a backdrop to a coming-of-age story. Its portrayal of Angeleno class and racial tensions is far more nuanced than the overreaching, Oscar-winning "Crash," which pretends L.A. is a singular entity rather than a collection of distinct neighborhoods.

Echo Park's spirit of radical progressivism (the area was once known as Red Hill because of its socialist leanings) predates the gang violence that still makes some Westsiders reluctant to travel east of Glendale Boulevard. The neighborhood has always been a haven for artists, not to mention the original headquarters of the film industry. Today, the Echo Park Film Center, a cinema collective next to the Downbeat Cafe on Alvarado Street, may look to some like a bastion of hipster imperialism, but its free classes and honor-system equipment-lending policy attract aspiring filmmakers from all walks of life.

"I was on a panel once discussing gentrification," says Paolo Davanzo, founder and executive director of the film center, "and a woman said to me, 'I used to hate you guys. I walked past your place for years and just saw you as gentrifiers. But that was because I didn't know what you were doing.' " Davanzo and his partner, Lisa Marr, consider "Quinceanera" "a love letter to Echo Park" but "a little too romantic" about the Latino experience and, considering it was directed by real-life Echo Park newcomers, a little too self-loathing on the part of gentrifiers, who come across as myopic, design-obsessed interlopers.

"Some friends of mine in Europe saw it and said, 'What a nice place to live!' " said Marr. "But the definitive Echo Park movie has yet to be made."

Et tu, Jennifer Lopez?

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