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Pooling local talent at the Frogtown Artwalk

Frogs are scarce, but artwork is hopping in this Eastside enclave.

August 23, 2007|Shana Ting Lipton | Special to The Times

In the spring of 1954, like a scene from the movie "Magnolia," Elysian Valley was teeming with frogs which had emerged from the Los Angeles River. Some say the so-called Frog Invasion continues annually. And so, in this urban fairy tale, the Echo Park-adjacent neighborhood has come to be known as Frogtown. This same moniker was adopted by a notorious local gang, leading some longtime residents to prefer the former, more paradisiacal appellation. Yet the arts community that occupies the small loft spaces in the quarter has taken to the loaded name. Its artists and artisans hope that the second edition of their Frogtown Artwalk this Saturday will bring the unusually diverse neighborhood together, even if it's only -- like the amphibians' alleged migration -- once a year.

"This is kind of a forgotten pocket of town," says architect Tracy A. Stone, the driving force behind the little-known Artwalk and a Frogtown resident since 2003. The largely Latino district -- which spans just a few miles -- has inadvertently been cordoned off from the rest of Eastside by the L.A. River and the 110, 5 and 2 freeways. "They like being off the radar," Stone says of the community's artists. A distaste for gentrification seems to be the linchpin holding together Frogtown's loft dwellers and its homeowners and renters.

Stone says she discovered the tucked-away region when she heard city planner Patricia Diefenderfer's presentation on rezoning the Elysian Valley's industrial buildings to allow occupants to apply to be artists in residence. The area, Stone says, had originally been residential but was industrialized in 1962 when the Golden State Freeway (I-5) was built. The artists started moving in during the 1980s. Stone got a variance -- thanks in part to signatures from her residential neighbors -- and now works at 2041 Blake Ave. (the area's tiny main drag). She lives in a loft next door that she has revamped with all the design panache befitting her profession. Farther down her street, the neighborhood's unlikely juxtapositions are evidenced by a resident's clothesline just yards from artisans operating heavy equipment in open-front lofts.

Transformations are a large part of what Frogtown is about. For this year's Artwalk, for instance, Gabriel Renz, an artisan who works in steel, is creating a motorized Thai riverboat on wheels so that he can ferry Artwalk visitors up and down Blake Avenue. In the same adaptive vein, the town's Elysian Valley Gateway Park will serve as the Artwalk's outdoor movie theater, screening two documentaries and a performance film relating to the L.A. River. Visitors can then slip out the park gate and walk along that very river on their gallery/loft tour of the area.

Last year's inaugural Artwalk, Stone and sculptor Steve Graziani say, ushered in more outside visitors and interest than local participation. Graziani was subsequently beset by e-mails via Craig's List from artists interested in setting up studios in the neighborhood. He has occupied shared loft space in Frogtown for seven years, and in all that time the Self-Realization Fellowship (a nonprofit society founded by the author of "Autobiography of a Yogi" that owns it and other properties in the area) has never raised his rent.

Graziani hopes the neighborhood will remain a sort of last frontier of artists' communities. "If you look at the Traction area [downtown], by the time the city puts up a sign that says 'Artists District' no artists can afford it," he says.

Frogtown may have been a well-kept secret for struggling working artists, but it's also home to some heavy hitters. Since David Dedlow, owner of the Framatic Company, the local frame manufacturer, set up shop in the neighborhood in 1985, he's come to know Frogtown as an off-the-map home for established creators like Frank Romero, Derek Boshier and Michael Todd. The latter, he says, "has been riding around the neighborhood collecting scrap metal like a homeless person for over 20 years. In fact, he's an internationally known artist."

Art "names" notwithstanding, the neighborhood has remained in obscurity, "a wildly underserved community to the shame of the city of Los Angeles," says Dedlow. He also believes part of the reason a disproportionately small number of residents attended the last Artwalk lies in the term "Artwalk" itself -- something of a given in certain parts of L.A. but still a relatively new concept in Elysian Valley. "This is a neighborhood of a lot of immigrant working-class families, and the first thing on their minds is not going to be MOCA," he says, adding, "but this informs the art too."

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