There’s a bend along the Los Angeles River in Elysian Valley’s Frogtown where you can see the Hollywood sign lording over the city, but Frogtown feels light years away from the glitz of LA.
The low key neighborhood, which runs parallel to a soft bottom portion of the LA River a few miles east of Hollywood, is a strange combination of residential living and converted industrial warehouse space. Egrets and blue herons hover around the water near trees that sprout through the river’s concrete flood channels, a reminder that the natural world always has the upper hand. Frogtown is an urban park that is at both times incredibly man-made and feral, like plugging your smartphone into the earth.
During one cool summer night here, a Mexican family sells tacos with beef from the roasted head of a cow under an awning off the side of their house. There is no sign, and customers are locals who order without looking at the hand written menu. They speak cordial Spanish and watch soccer.
Meanwhile, across the neighborhood, a former auto body shop now houses a trendy Mexican barbecue called Salazar, where the wait can hit two hours on the weekends. The clientele is totally different, busy-cool people with a take-all-my-money attitude who drink from rusted cups. The tacos are $4 each instead of the $1.25 charged by the local family. But their website is hilarious.
Frogtown is one whole contradiction occupying a weird gentrification grey zone where I can’t decide if it’s ugly or pretty, coming or going. These days it is a lot of things. It’s where the working class Asian and Latino communities mix with transient artists and interloping millennials who geotag their latest food experiences on Instagram. Bombed out factory space sprayed with gang graffiti abuts hoity toity coffee roaster La Colombe, where 9 ounce four-packs of triple-draft lattes sell for $12. Helicopter parents buy high-end pottery while homeless people line up to sell found items pulled from the river. A homeless encampment quietly existed on the outskirts of the neighborhood until everyone was recently evicted.
I’ve lived here for a little over a year and sometimes it feels like home. Sometimes I feel like an invader. Bracketed off by two freeways and a river bike path, Frogtown is less than a square mile in size—essentially an island unto itself. But whole worlds exist here. For years it was an insular community that only made the news for fatal shootings. It was mainly a manufacturing hub, a red-lined neighborhood that bottled pickles and repaired cars.
That’s all changing now due to a development explosion that is transforming the community. There’s a sandwich shop inside a tiny shipping container named Wax Paper that creates traffic problems on a quiet residential street on the weekends. In a riverfront bicycle cafe called Spoke, the absurdity of bike cliques plays out like the final scene in Anchorman when all the different TV stations collide, except with bikes. Then there is probably the most diverse and popular music cafe in the city, Zebulon. All of these places are accessed via the river bike path, Frogtown’s main artery.
But many locals don’t go to these new businesses. Just like any island, the natives are suspicious of visitors.
“Waze killed us, telling people to come through here,” said Leticia Lopez, referring to the nearby 5 freeway traffic that now gets routed locally through the neighborhood.
She still lives in the same 1920s era, ranch-style home that’s been in her family for almost 60 years.
“When my father first bought this house he remembers driving over frogs. A large amount of frogs were always out on this street,” said Lopez.
Frogtown got its name because the area used to be awash in frogs following rain, though that has changed due to droughts.
Lopez isn’t so much worried about the economic realities of gentrification. If you own a home, you’re golden. She worries about the gaudy post-modern homes popping up, and the unfriendly neighbors that come with them.
The interest in the area can be tied to the rediscovery of the river. Mention the LA River to many people and they’ll laugh at you. It’s had more of a reputation as the backdrop to blockbuster Hollywood movies than being an actual river. But it was the LA River that anchored the origin story of Los Angeles ever since the Tongva Native Americans settled in what would become the global city that it is today.
But due to flooding concerns in the late 1930s, the river was turned into a glorified concrete flood channel, and for decades people forgot it was a river. That all started to change when the poet Lewis MacAdams started Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOLAR) in 1986, which changed the way people thought about what the river could be. Years later, a multi-million dollar revitalization effort along this two-mile portion of the river has beautified parks and created new green spaces.
With that comes the concept of “green gentrification,” the idea that parks and green spaces are early signs of greater changes to the neighborhood. That can often be a bad thing, but it is important communities don’t let gentrification’s bad reputation taint environmental initiatives, according to Jon Christensen, a University of California at Los Angeles professor.
“The danger here is that the fear of green gentrification could lead to opposition to parks and open spaces in neighborhoods that are particularly poor. We know that the exposure to nature and the ability to be outdoors is good for people. These are neighborhoods that need more parks, need more access to nature and have historically not had that,” said Christensen, who researches environmental equity.
Gentrification is a hard thing to talk about. There are negative aspects like the expulsion of low-income communities. It also brings in jobs, safer living, and higher property values.
The problem is that nearly 60 percent of Frogtown residents are renters who are at the mercy of money-hungry landlords. According to Zillow, home values in Frogtown went up almost 22 percent in the last year. Some homes are selling for $1 million.
If displacement is addressed, then gentrification’s stigma will go away and allow for parks to thrive, said Christensen.
“The concern is real and we need to figure out how to address it. Because the danger is the fear of green gentrification could lead to stopping important environmental investments that these communities need,” said Christensen.
Marissa Christiansen, FOLAR’s executive director, said green gentrification is only an issue because the city of LA has an affordable housing crisis.
“Instead, we lack the policies and leadership we sorely need as a collective people to correct our affordability and equity issues. And so the long awaited progress towards correcting deeply entrenched environmental inequities – like access to parks and green space for our most densely populated and vulnerable neighborhoods – becomes the focus of a problem that is so much more insidious and complex than green space,” wrote Christiansen in an email.
“All the pieces are in place to figure out how to do this right, but there is not right now a coordinated approach in part because part of the way development is done generally in Los Angeles is very balkanized,” said Christensen.
But one group is trying to change that. LA ROSAH, the Los Angeles Regional Open Space & Affordable Housing Collaborative, is a collection of conservation and affordable housing advocates formed with the aim of helping existing communities progress during times of peak river beautification.
“We were faced with the impossible choice: do we fight for a cleaner and healthier environment, but put our families at risk of gentrification and homelessness? Or do we fight against any public investment out of fear of gentrification, which some communities in LA are doing?” said Sissy Trinh, who is involved with LA ROSAH.
The group will try to tackle both issues by advocating on behalf of tenants and for local hiring in publicly funded initiatives.
Meanwhile, development continues to explode in Frogtown. Bougie architect Frank Gehry has been hired by the city to help with the river’s updated master plan. Four separate housing/apartment developments are in the works, one that includes 100 single-family homes. Two housing complexes have already been built. A much needed bridge will connect Frogtown across the river to 41 acres off a former railroad yard the city purchased for $14 million. The plan is to erect a giant forest that will connect to two more adjacent parks and another parcel of land to serve as the linchpin of the area’s makeover. The idea is for the parcel, known as the Taylor Yard G2, to do what the High Line did for lower Manhattan.
Part of the sad irony is that FOLAR, the nonprofit that was the first to bring attention to the river’s revitalization, has stopped holding events at Frog Spot, its community events outpost along the banks of the river, because it is unable to compete with newer businesses. FOLAR has transitioned to holding events once a month at a nearby park.
“We all love the Frog Spot, so this was a hard decision. For four years the Frog Spot was an outdoor classroom, a music venue, and community gathering place on the River’s banks. We started it as a pilot project to provide increased community access to the river and its amenities.” wrote Christiansen.
“For all its high brow amenities, Frogtown still doesn’t have essential services like a post office. On the community app Nextdoor, resident Johnny Gallegos complained about infrastructure.
“The city is pumping all this money into the river, but yet our neighborhood has no library, adequate street lights. Police presence is minimal. Our area is being overdeveloped with no attention paid to parking or traffic problems,” Gallegos wrote.
But the community has made do before people started paying attention. On a couple of street corners stand what look like giant bird feeders stuffed with books. Frogtown calls it their library.