Young Voices: Boulevard Voices is a series of interviews conducted by Occidental College students, assisted by the Keck Grant, for Professor Jan Lin's Los Angeles Field Research course. Each interview highlights an individual who has made an impact in their communities in Northeast L.A.
Subject: Cathi Milligan
Organization: The Glass Studio, Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council, NELA Art
Boulevard: York Boulevard
As I walked down York Boulevard one beautiful, sunny morning to meet with Cathi Milligan, the owner of The Glass Studio and the Economic Development Chair on the Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council, I could feel York's local charm embodied in the small businesses that lined the street. Most were locally owned, and each store had its own unique character and specialized product.
Cathi Milligan is also the Executive Director of North East Los Angeles Art (NELA Art) and is running for President of the Neighborhood Council with an action group committed to revitalizing York Boulevard. She is currently working on a number of community projects, including installing one of Los Angeles' first street porches on York Boulevard and creating glass artwork for a gate at Occidental College.
The Glass Studio is located on York Boulevard near Avenue 51, indicated by a modern sign with large glass windows that showcased incredible works of glass art. Cathi kindly greeted me and sat down with me to chat about her store and her involvement in the Highland Park community.
Kate Rowe: Can you tell me a little bit about your business, what makes it unique, how you got started, and how long you've been living and working in Highland Park?
Cathi Milligan: I have been a glass worker for approximately nineteen years now, starting with making glass beads with a torch. Ten years ago we moved over here to Highland Park from the Atwater area. I really fell in love with Highland Park, and the longer I live here, the more I love it.
About three years ago, I decided I wanted to open up a store and I started looking around. I had a business partner, but we actually didn't see eye to eye on the location. I said, "York," and she said, "no." We broke off our partnership and I moved forward. I've been open for over two years now. I provide classes on various disciplines of glasswork, bead making, glass fusing, and kiln forming. I also teach mosaic and some jewelry making classes. I sell finished product, mostly of my own, but I do have friends' work here. I also have tools and adhesives and I do sell some glass. I cater to people who want finished product, people that want jewelry supplies, and people that want glass supplies. I also offer torch time and studio time.
Do you feel like the classes you offer create a sense of community by bringing people in to be engaged?
Yeah, I mean I'm trying to make glass addicts. My students tend to be beginners, and a lot of them are people that have never even thought about it or are curious. Also, the art walk for NELA Art brings in people and they're like, "Wow, this is so cool!" Then they see that they can sign up for a class and they're like, "What can I do?" Every once and a while I'll have a little party here and it's all friends and they're each making something. It's a good time!
When you were first starting out your business, what was compelling about York Boulevard?
People see the potential in it. You look at it and go, "This is so cute." The fact that I got this space between Avenue 50 and Avenue 51, I feel like I'm on the block with the "cool kids." You have Café de Leche, you have Johnny's, you have Urchin, and The York. A few months after I opened, a store next door opened called La Vida Loca, and little by little, you just saw more stores open up. You just see potential. I don't know if you saw it back then, but you see it now, it has fulfilled its potential quite a bit. What's also very cool is watching existing businesses re-paint their storefronts and rise up to the level of the stores that are coming in.
I hate to say it, but I've seen businesses come and go. You get people that are reaching, and I think sometimes you get people that are looking for instant gratification, but there's none of that in retail. You have to set down your roots. When they say that the first two years are the hardest, it's true. Honestly most of my rent comes from what I do in the back -- fabricating for people and the teaching. It isn't yet walking through the door enough, but it's getting better everyday. The Times wrote about us in March. It was crazy how much foot traffic we got off of that; people were coming in for the art walk and wanting to see what's so cool about York.
How important is it to be invested in the community?
It's important. This is a community that is in transition and there are a lot of people that are excited about it. There are also a lot of people that are a little terrified by it because their status quo is being affected. [But] don't look down at the people that are coming in. There's the fear that gentrification is going to cause the increase of rents and home prices, and it's going to price people out. I have the fear that I'm going to get priced out. I don't want to see my rent rise, but if it does happen, there's not a whole lot I can do about it. You have two choices: you stay and pay it or you leave and go find something else, the next "jewel in the rough." I'd like to stay here as long as I can.
What are some of the other local businesses or organizations you collaborate with on various projects?
One of the neat things that's coming up right now is part of the York Vision Plan sponsored by Jose Huizar's office, Council District 14. He started two years ago with this plan. It starts at Avenue 50 and goes to Avenue 56. They brought in a design group, "Living Streets," and took $100,000 to do improvements on the boulevard. I was lucky enough to host a big meeting [at The Glass Studio] and then subsequent committee meetings.
Coming from these meetings will be one of the first street porches in L.A. that will be installed right down the street. All of the things are concentrated between 50 and 51 because this is the most vibrant part of that six block stretch. Due to that, you want to have the most visual impact. One nice thing about the street porch is that it's literally like a deck. In other cities they take parking spaces, and we stipulated, but the businesses were like, "You're not taking any of our parking. We're limited as it is." [Instead,] we're using a "red zone" down the street, where there would be a deck, seating, mosaic, and planters. I'm working with artists in the community to help design the mosaic.
That's great! It'll have a lasting impact for this community.
Yeah, exactly! Actually in the beginning of it, I was like "putting something in the street? Have you seen the police go by?" I voted against it, but one of the things I quickly learned is when you get voted down you either leave or you join in and you try to make it the best that it can be. That's what we did. I want artistic, [public] seating on the street. Once this one's up, this is part of a pilot program, it'll be easier to get more of them. There's another one going in El Sereno and two going in Downtown.
What are your future plans and goals with your business?
My business is about public art and architectural elements. That's the direction I'm going, but different things like the street porch, the Occidental gate, are the kinds of things that are going to lead to a lot more work. With NELA Art, we have film night, we have micro-grant events where we give money to artists, we're planning a Christmas tree competition, and we're planning a "Chicken boy" costume contest. We also sponsor comedy night down the street at Café de Leche once a month and we want to start a business education program. We are in the midst of becoming a [501C3 to make NELA Art more than second Saturday.] We have a long list of things we want to do. Now that I'm more into volunteerism, I want to improve other people's lives too.
In general, what kind of neighborhood do you want to see in the Highland Park area? What's your ideal vision of York Boulevard?
What I see happening now, I'd love to see continue. How we're going to grow is by enticing outsiders from the area to come in and do some shopping here. Most of them go, "Wow, this place is so cool and I'll come back and shop here." [You] can go to the York and you can go to Scoops and you can go to The Glass Studio or you can go to Platform or Saw Horse or K Studio, all these wonderful new businesses. We're almost full from [Avenue] 50 to 52. You know we've all made it when it's filled in from one end to the other. We'll see what my future's like here.
The truth of the matter is, having been here two years now, we can't control who rents the space. You're not going to get more bars, the neighbors are not going to let that happen. There was going to be a Seven Eleven down the street right near the border of Eagle Rock and Highland Park. Nope! We don't need another place to buy liquor on York. That's where there is some control, but as far as who's going to move in, you can't control what type of business, if it's a clothing store or another bookstore or a record store. It's whomever's going to pay the rent. You just hope for the best, that the business owner is seasoned enough to weather the lean times and has the capacity to help bring in new customers to the area. I'm hoping I'll be here in a year. I don't know if I will though, because you don't know what's going to happen with the times. I'm running out of space [and electricity]. There's a part of me that's like, "I'm going to be in a warehouse space sometime soon."
Through a variety of leadership positions as a small business owner, a Neighborhood Council member, and executive director of NELA Art, Cathi Milligan brings people together to create community and encourages people in Highland park to use their talents and skills to become active members of the neighborhood. She connects her various leadership roles in Highland Park, establishing herself as a dynamic public character invested in both the entrepreneurial interests of her small business and the spirit of volunteerism in her community leadership roles.
Photograph of Cathi Milligan pictured inside her store, The Glass Studio.