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A Los Angeles Primer: Atwater Village

On the northwest side of Glendale Boulevard, Kaldi Coffee, which boasts a signature brew from beans "roasted locally in Atwater Village," hosts a long-sitting procession of the unconventionally employed, customers in sometimes dire need of both caffeine to power their brains and electricity to power their laptops. (Indeed, it once provided all the material for a Los Angeles Times human-interest story on the lives of aspiring to mid-level screenwriters.) On the southeast side, Proof Bakery, though it also serves a fine cappuccino and an even better scone, offers neither outlets nor bathrooms, encouraging their clientele, and their precocious young children often in tow, to move briskly through. Such specialization of the already specialized now happens in this neighborhood way up in the northeast, which some rank as the "hippest" in Los Angeles, some either dismiss or applaud as a "brunch zone," and some describe as the closest experience the city offers to the professionally lighthearted, indie-everything sensibility of Portland, Oregon.

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Some may explain their move to Atwater Village by admitting that it lets them live a mildly suburbanized life without having to actually move into a suburb. Throughout much of the twentieth century, the whole of Los Angeles held out this same promise: maybe, just maybe, you could here have the cake of a comfortable lifestyle, while also eating the cake of culturally robust and environmentally stimulating surroundings. To this day, nobody has quite figured out whether to declare that an oasis or a mirage. But those seeking that elusive midpoint between crowded but exhilarating city center, and comfortable if sense-dulling bedroom community, have lately found their moving target hovering around the northeastern corner of Los Angeles, where Atwater Village perhaps stands as the frontier.

Glendale Boulevard, for about a mile after crossing the river, functions as Atwater Village's main drag, horizontally filled with not just the aforementioned coffee houses, but also dealers of rehabilitated furniture, vintage clothing emporiums, a taco shack or two, the local branch library, and new-wave book and record (and cassette) stores. I once got a ride down the street from an Angeleno of decades' standing who, navigating his classic Bonneville on the short trip back to his Silver Lake home, enthused about how the duration and extent of its change captivated him. The ever-growing variety of businesses now happening along this length of Glendale Boulevard has trend-watchers perceiving Atwater Village as something of an extension of Silver Lake (as do a few of the actual businesses there, who don't hesitate to work it into their brands), as one of the recent recipients of laurels earned by hipness, similarities to Portland, and the meal of brunch.

Unlike even Portland's most major streets, however, Glendale Boulevard still feels geared to accommodate the bulk and speed — or in any case, the aesthetic sense of speed — of fifty-year-old American sedans with fins. I unhesitatingly ride a bicycle everywhere in Portland, and unsurprisingly so, considering the pains that city has taken make itself one of North America's friendliest to cyclists. I unhesitatingly ride a bicycle almost everywhere in Los Angeles as well, but the idea of going to Atwater Village that way always gives me pause. Its place on the periphery ensures that I'll work up a sweat getting there, no matter the season, and when I do get there, the approach usually entails crossing the historic but murderous Glendale-Hyperion bridge. The neighborhood may have cultivated a range of pleasing enterprises, but it has done so in a still utilitarian, slightly harsh built environment.

One potential solution may come from the concept, now gaining some traction, of the "road diet," which involves reclaiming a portion of the space now dedicated to cars for more sidewalk, a bike lane, or even a streetside park. Such an operation would make special sense in Atwater Village, given Glendale Boulevard's discomfiting width, and the locals' enthusiasm for outdoor eating and drinking. The neighborhood seems, to any number of visions of modern urbanism, a ready canvas, or, when they contradict, a battleground. Stroll just off Glendale Boulevard, Los Feliz Boulevard, or Fletcher Drive, and you'll pass block after block of nothing but bungalows, but when those stop, development opportunities for glassy live-work spaces or industrially inflected studios present themselves. The "Art + Innovation Complex" Atwater Crossing so far represents the highest-profile seizing of such an opportunity, albeit a mile away from the neighborhood's core of activity.

Few in Atwater Village can agree on its desired allowable density. City enthusiasts such as myself will always get excited about the prospect of adding a few stories of mixed-used space all across a place of an already appealing fabric — and why not a few more on top of that, and then maybe a rail link or two? We thereby expose ourselves to the criticism, not entirely without merit, that we fail to take into account the desires of those who base themselves in such a relatively quiet, distant area in order to, say, raise children at least slightly apart from the madding crowd, without having to wrestle a stroller down from an upper floor every day. Still, my own hope springs eternal that we can resolve our differences, preferably over a cappuccino, and even more preferably over a cappuccino imbibed out of doors. Come on up and talk. You'll find bike parking — not as much as they have in Portland, sure, but at least you won't get rained on along the way. Just watch out crossing that bridge.

Photos by Colin Marshall.

About the Author

Colin Marshall hosts and produces the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. These columns present essays adapted from his book-in-progress, "A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City."
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