The eccentric neighborhood of Highland Park sits in a compact valley stretching between downtown L.A. and Pasadena, along the Arroyo Seco. Once a bucolic arts colony, it's now a cross-cultural inner-city neighborhood on the rebound. Dotted with bungalow courts, Craftsman bungalows and Mission Revival homes, it's best known for housing such venerable institutions as the Southwest Museum (L.A.'s first) at 234 Museum Drive (free wild sage in the ethnobotanical garden), El Alisal, 200 E. Avenue 43 (the rustic stone and adobe home hand built by Southwest founder Charles Fletcher Lummis) and the Audubon Center at Debs Park at 4700 N. Griffin Ave., located amid 282 acres of native woodlands and grassy fields.
A WEALTH OF CULTURE
If highbrow history put the neighborhood on the map, its deeply ingrained affection for the arts extends even to vacant plots. Behind the Craftsman-style Arroyo Seco library at 6145 N. Figueroa stands a beloved 1995 Luis Becerra mural (above, right) presenting a potent image equating library cutbacks with censorship. And in the wake of the '92 riots, artist Trisha Ward and community volunteers created La Tierra de la Culebra at 240 S. Avenue 57. Reclaiming an abandoned lot, they dedicated it to the Shoshoni people (the area has a notable Native American population) and transformed it into a quirky art park with a 450-foot-long stone and pique tiled snake.
AND CHICKEN BOY, OF COURSE
To maximize the artistic possibilities, schedule an excursion for the second Saturday of any month, when the numerous galleries band together for after-hours shenanigans ( www.nelaart.com). But whenever you go, The Outpost -- a sort of "visitors bureau" for art tourists -- is a good place to begin. Founder Julie Deamer might point you in the direction of spots like Future Studio, the home of Chicken Boy and his parents Stuart Rapeport and Amy Inouye. Inside their bright green gallery, peruse monthly shows and shop the Chicken Boy gift store (Chicken Boy magnets, Chicken Boy-as-Elvis posters and . . . old snow globes from Connecticut). The nearby Avenue 50 gallery has been championing local artists, many of them Latino, for over a decade. At the tip-top of Figueroa is the Judson Stained Glass Studio, housed in a whimsical 1910 white-shingled workshop. Here David Judson, great-grandson to founder William Lees Judson, still oversees production of stained glass masterworks. His gallery is open daily to the public.
North Figueroa and York Boulevard used to serve as a prominent commercial hub. These days, not so much, but intimate storefronts still hide treasures. Should you require a bust of Nefertiti, a figurine of a Chinese nobleman or the ability to operate a shuttlecock, look no further than garage-sale-meets-weaving-studio Pets With Fez (5123 1/2 York Blvd.). Banajan -- a master craftsman, instructor and sometime Smithsonian consultant -- is a fanciful raconteur who learned his craft from his Assyrian Kurd father.
A WORLD OF FOOD
A number of fragrant bakeries perfume the main thoroughfares, but of special note is Antigua Bread at 5703 N. Figueroa. Recently opened by three denizens on a quest for a good cup of joe, Antigua boasts a full kitchen as well as homemade pastries like the sweet and savory pan gusano. Neighborhood pub meets East Coast style at The York (5018 York Blvd.), the place to get an heirloom tomato and burrata cheese salad and a microbrew. Cinnamon (5511 N. Figueroa) just brought canelazo (a robust South American cinnamon tea) and tasty vegetarian sopes to the community. Galco's Soda Pop Stop (5702 York Blvd.) sells an orgy of over 500 specialty sodas (i.e. Mint Julep and Manhattan Special) and 450 off-the-beaten-track beers. The father of owner John Nese (below) opened the place in 1955, when Italian Americans reached a critical mass in Highland Park. The deli counter is still open, serving old-style sandwiches.
GET YOUR FREAK ON
For 39 years and counting, miscellaneous bands and good-natured crowds have patronized Mr. T's Bowl, a sweetly seedy dive with a bartender named Manny who likes to kiss hands. The former bowling alley gets reanimated for special occasions. Vets admitted free.