Frogtown: From Wilderness to Waterfront

By Deanna Kizis

Elysian Valley, or "Frogtown" as it's called by most, is isolated from the rest of Los Angeles like an island.

If you want to visit, you have to navigate your way in. You could take the I-5 or the 2, as Frogtown is bordered by both freeways, which surround it like a polluting, but protective, hug. Or you could take the bike path, which is a surprisingly gorgeous run from downtown along a naturalized portion of the Los Angeles river. But whatever way you choose, you'd end up on Ripple Drive, which acts as a main, if meandering, thoroughfare through the neighborhood.

But for such a small, isolated place, Frogtown suddenly seems to be everywhere. It features in season four of Jill Soloway's Amazon show, Transparent. It's all over Yelp, which will tell you that restaurants like Salazar usually have a two-hour wait and that Frogtown Gourmet Tacos has the best homemade tacos, slung from a grill that's set up in a resident's front yard on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Of course, Frogtown's also featured on real-estate sites like Zillow and Redfin, where flipped bungalows are on sale for north of $800,000.

The fuss is thanks to Frogtown's unique environs and eclectic micro-culture. The neighborhood's mix of industrial warehouses and California bungalows along the river give it a distinct visual feel, but it's the heady mix of residents and small business owners that's put Frogtown on everyone's Lyft map. Latino families, artists, factory workers, cycling enthusiasts, and musicians all co-mingle with the river's toads, great blue herons, and snowy egrets.

"We wanted a place where the location is a destination." - Peter Lemos of Wax Paper

When Peter and Lauren Lemos began the hunt for a location for their tiny sandwich shop, Wax Paper, they felt that Frogtown was a bit of a gamble. But in the end, the location became a huge selling point. The space, a block away from the L.A. River, feels delightfully unexpected, on a small, unassuming corner. "We wanted a place where the location is a destination," says Peter. "Where you feel like you are in on something special when you come." Two years later, Wax Paper is a neighborhood hub. Local workers on their lunch breaks, neighbors, and foodies all stop in for their now-famous sandwiches, which have an international influence thanks to Peter's Mexican heritage, and are delightfully named after public radio hosts. (The Terry Gross has roasted turkey, green chili aioli, radish jalapeno slaw, tomatillo vinaigrette, and pepper jack cheese.) Lauren says the community response to Wax Paper reminds her of growing up at the Pearl Harbor Naval Station on Oahu, where she says local people like her were excited to welcome a new restaurant to their out-of-the-way neighborhood — even if it was a Burger King.

But Wax Paper is anything but a chain, and the family business is an homage to Frogtown itself. The mural outside is by a local artist named Bill Lagattuta, the wood counters were made up the street by Treeline Woodworks, a bell comes from Mt. Washington Pottery, which is made in Frogtown (despite being named for another L.A. neighborhood). Next year, the Lemoses will open a second restaurant in the area. "We're calling it Lingua Franca, which means the common language," says Peter. "And in our case the common language is good food for good people."

"When I was little, Frogtown was like living along the edge of the wilderness." - Mia Doi Todd of Zebulon

In the 1900s, Elysian Valley was known as "Gopher Flats" and was home to railroad workers who worked for Union Pacific. Later came factories, including the Hostess Twinkie Bakery, the Bimbo Industrial Bakery, and Van de Camps. Musician Mia Doi Todd — who co-owns the recently opened Zebulon bar and concert venue in Frogtown — remembers the neighborhood's industrial days well. Her father, sculptor Michael Todd, moved there in the eighties after his studio downtown kept getting broken into. Later, she moved back to Frogtown after college and stayed for thirteen years. "When I was little, Frogtown was like living along the edge of the wilderness because of the river," says Doi Todd. She remembers the little toads that used to cover the streets in the spring after it rained. (Thus the "Frogtown" moniker.) There wasn't a bike trail at the time, she says, and Frogtown was gang territory. Although Doi Todd misses the graffiti that used to adorn the concrete slabs and under the bridges along the river, she allows that the neighborhood is much safer now. "It was all helicopters and gunshots into the night in the 2000s," she says. "And people aren't allowed to use the river as a dump anymore. For so long it was the gutter of the city — now it's elevated. "

The elevation continues apace. When Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the city had acquired a 41-acre parcel off the water last March, he called it "the crown jewel in our vision to revitalize the L.A. River." Last year, the Army Corps of Engineers approved a $1.3 billion river habitat restoration plan. The river is a surprisingly peaceful place. Spoke Cafe — where you can grab breakfast or lunch and rent a bike if you don't have one — acts an unofficial gateway. Biking along the tranquil path can feel like you're suddenly on vacation in a different city, or a different time. Better river access is good news for anyone living in or visiting Los Angeles; it also means the homes and warehouses in once-forgotten Frogtown are now waterfront property.

As a result, new businesses have been flocking to the area. Modern lighting and furniture designer Brendan Ravenhill has his studio there, as does artist Shepard Fairey. Money Mark, the Beastie Boys collaborator, is a longtime local. Farm LA, which hosts "fruit shares," in which neighbors swap fruits grown in Elysian Valley, and created micro-urban gardens along city sidewalks, is located in a bungalow in Frogtown.

Now Clare Vivier, the upscale handbag maker, plans to open a boutique in Frogtown soon. El Colombe is opening their new coffee house and roastery in December, in a mixed-use development redesigned by architectural firm RAC Design Build. (The developer says it will add a salon and bar.) Nearby, newly developed loft-style condos are now for rent along the river.

There are some who decry the more recent changes as gentrification run amok — so much so that new businesses remark on the onslaught of reporters asking questions about whether or not they're "ruining" Frogtown for longtime residents. One person who runs an art space in the area declined to do an interview. Another business owner would only speak about the changes off the record, admitting, "Sometimes I'm worried people think I'm the world's worst gentrifier."

But not all of Frogtown's relative newcomers are eager to erase the neighborhood's roots. When Zebulon came to California looking for a new home after having closed in Brooklyn in 2012, Doi Todd and her husband, musician Jesse Peterson, noticed a space was available in Frogtown, and they jumped at it. The building is owned by Mario Espinoza, owner of Altamarino Records. A 30-plus year resident of Frogtown, Espinoza got his start selling tapes of Mexican music at swap meets. Then he began reissuing music, recording his own bands, and printing his music label. When he decided to downsize and rent out part of the building, Zebulon seemed like a perfect fit. "Mario could have rented the space and made more money I think," says Doi Todd. "But he's a real music lover and we all have music and the community in mind." Recent bands reflect the venue's eclectic taste: Salsa band SitaraSon, DJ Questlove, Tuareg band Mdou Moctar, Grizzly Bear, and Andrew Bird have all played at the space. It kind of reminds Doi Todd of what indie-rock mecca Spaceland once was to nearby Silver Lake — a special place where musicians and the community come together.

"To live here, you have to be an explorer and a seeker." - Therese Solone

Besides the river itself, one of the more defining features of Frogtown is the creative residents. José Deimler, a music producer who bought a house in Frogtown last year, has a recording studio in his garage. Another current resident, Therese Solone, moved into a live/work loft in a formerly industrial warehouse a year and a half ago. She and her husband, cinematographer Jose Rios, are both artists and wanted a room for special projects. The loft was large enough for them to divide it into a "sun parlor" room, a colonial-style living room, and a workshop/art space — and to rent it out on Peerspace for events. Solone says she loves how she can work all day and go for a bike ride along the river. She gets her haircut in the front yard of a neighbor who owns a salon. "To live here, you have to be an explorer and a seeker," she says. "That's me."

"I've been here 15 years and I'm still the new kid on the block." - Dean Lamont

But Dean Lamont surely won the Frogtown lottery in terms of uniqueness: In 2002, he was looking for something with character, and what he found is a true gem: a 110-year-old bungalow on multiple lots with 20,000 square feet of open space.

When Lamont first went to see the property, five Australian Shepherds herded him in. "This big guy — who was the owner — was like, 'The dogs come with the house!'" Lamont later realized the owner was serious and adopted two dogs along with some bunnies. "It was the greatest decision I ever made," he says.

Since then, the bike path has been added and the restaurants have opened. His wife, Jennifer Lynn, says she likes the walkability now — they go to comedy shows on Saturday nights at nearby Cafecito Organico and like to walk their dogs and chat with the neighbors.

Everyone you speak to says it's the community that makes the neighborhood special. "I woke up last Fourth of July and my neighbor was like, 'We're having a fireworks show in the middle of the street,'" says Deimler. "At eight o'clock they set up cones and shot off fireworks for five hours. The whole street came out. One guy started doing donuts in his Camero around a sparkler. It was quintessential L.A."

Lamont and Lynn have had a similar experience. Recently they also started renting their home on Peerspace, and a young couple who lives up the street are now planning their wedding in their home. "My immediate neighbors have been here a long time and still are," Lamont says. "I've been here 15 years and I'm still the new kid on the block."

Which means, of course, that the recent changes can seem abrupt. But as Los Angeles continues to emerge as an area of true neighborhoods, as opposed to what many once decried as impersonal sprawl, places like Frogtown feel like pure magic. Yes, there are tourists staking out the perfect Insta-worthy spot outside old factory facades. And parking is a concern, along with how the city can help keep the neighborhood from becoming overdeveloped. But visiting Elysian Valley on a Thursday evening — grabbing a Frogtown Gourmet taco on a homemade tortilla, then strolling up the bike path to Zebulon to see a show — can feel like you've stumbled on a enchanted part of the city.

Credits

Photos: Rickett and Sones
Words: Deanna Kizis
Art Direction: Paul Anderson

Thank you Lucia, for speaking with us and sharing your record collection and your musical influences.