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Park La Brea apartments' complex identity

The 'largest housing complex west of the Mississippi River' once held mostly whites of a certain age. But like Los Angeles, things have changed. And even the old-timers like it that way.

October 02, 2012|By Matt Stevens, Los Angeles Times
  • Park La Brea resident Katie Shin, 5, center, leans against her father, Sebastian Shin, while friend Manasuini Perumalla, 2, left, and an unidentified boy play on the grounds of Los Angeles' Park La Brea. At 4,247 apartments, management still touts it as the largest housing complex west of the Mississippi River, but the passing decades have brought many changes.
Park La Brea resident Katie Shin, 5, center, leans against her father, Sebastian… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)

With a cockatiel perched on her shoulder and her brown hair flowing nearly to her waist, Patricia Morison looks elegant and at ease beneath a portrait of herself.

The former Broadway star of "Kiss Me Kate" and "The King and I" stares out her ninth-floor window at the rest of Park La Brea. She is 97 now and, having lived in the same tower for more than 50 years, is one of the last representatives of the demographic that once dominated the apartment complex.

"It was more homogenous, I have to say. Most of the population was actors, actresses, artistic folks and businesspeople on the top floor," says Morison, who negotiates her flat with the aid of a walker. "There were never any children."

Photos: Park La Brea has changed, much like the city that surrounds it

Indeed, over the years, she has watched Park La Brea swing open its gates to change, much like the city that surrounds it.

"Life goes, life changes," Morison says. "But you could say that Park La Brea has made a home for me, and I've made a home in Park La Brea. It's not an apartment. It's my home."

Built in the Fairfax corridor, the complex is steps from some of L.A.'s favorite cultural icons. To the south is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and its new Resnick Pavilion. To the north, the venerable Farmers Market and its neighboring outdoor mall, The Grove. A little farther are the to-die-for shops along Beverly Boulevard and Melrose Avenue and the famed Canter's Delicatessen, on Fairfax.

With 4,247 apartments, management still touts Park La Brea as the largest housing complex west of the Mississippi River.

Many Angelenos will tell you — with a sense of pride — they once rented here. Yet, although the architectural layout remains as intricate as ever across 160 acres, census data spanning four decades leave no doubt about the change.

In 1970, whites made up about 95% of the nearly 7,000 residents, more than half of them over age 65. By 2010, with nearly 12,000 residents, only 44% were white and only 8% overall were over 65. Asians now make up the second-largest ethnic group, at 41%.

These days, the complex is a tapestry of skateboards and scooters, of tai chi and Jacuzzis. Sleek 15-foot-high light boxes mark one edge of the property on 6th Street; and inside, the grays, creams and golds of the taller buildings play off the Southern California sky.

::

Louise Downes glows when she talks about the bathroom wallpaper with its splashes of pastel yellows, oranges and greens. She put it up herself 35 years ago.

Downes, who turns 98 this month, hasn't lived here as long as Morison. She quickly adds, however, that she had to wait months to get her coveted garden apartment. That was in the late 1970s.

It's past 8 a.m. now, time for her biweekly tai chi class. "Vamanos!" she says, scampering down the steps.

Because she walks the concrete paths every morning, Downes is witness to the shifting human landscape. The sounds of Spanish, Korean, Japanese and Hindi point to the change that longtime residents say has accelerated in the last few years.

A former schoolteacher, Downes has mostly embraced it, spending her Sundays teaching English to a 28-year-old South Korean woman who lives in the area.

But she has gripes, too. She misses the old Park La Brea rules.

"If your deck furniture stood out over the walk here, they would let you know," Downes sniffs, glancing at a neighbor's greasy hibachi grill. "If you got messy and had a pile of magazines out here, they were tough on you.

"You behaved here. You were expected to be a gentleman and a lady. This was truly, truly upscale." She lets out a sigh. "I walk through now and think, 'What a mess.'"

::

A recent morning is a study in contrasts.

At the tai chi class, Downes and a dozen or so seniors line up near one of the outdoor fountains, cautiously rotating their hips and kicking the air.

A block away but still inside the complex, a 24-year-old Swedish student sips an iced mocha at a cafe table, her MacBook's pink case gleaming in the sun. Behind her, a 30-year-old African American stand-up comic paces in a spacious park area rehearsing his routine.

A few steps away, half a dozen Indian mothers rock their babies as their older children tear around a grassy knoll on scooters at break-neck speed. Toward 6th Street, voices bellow from the pool and Jacuzzi where a group of 20-somethings is lolling.

"Once we start living here, we love this place," Varsha Lohade, one of the mothers, says. "We bond with each other, and that bonding is most important to us."

The original Park La Brea concept in 1939 called for three blocks of two-story apartment buildings. Construction began on Fairfax and moved eastward in 1941, until World War II intervened. After the war, with an influx of veterans to the L.A. area, the master plan was reworked to incorporate 13-story towers. The 18th and final one was completed in 1952, but tenants started renting in the towers the year before.

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