After shuffling between areas in Los Angeles for five years, Ramon Lopez finally settled in Highland Park. He moved to the West Coast from New York 15 years ago. Lopez, an artist as well as a vintage and history enthusiast, befriended the owner of the bar Johnny’s on York Boulevard, who is from Brooklyn, New York. Excited to find out York Boulevard was shortened from New York Boulevard in the 1920s, Lopez began working at Johnny’s and calling the area around York Boulevard home.
York Boulevard is one of the main thoroughfares of Eagle Rock and Highland Park. Running east-west and cutting across Eagle Rock and Highland Park, York has undergone significant infrastructural and population changes. In 2006, it underwent a road diet — a reduction and re-arrangement of its lanes — from its intersection with Eagle Rock Boulevard to Avenue 55. In 2010, the city integrated bike lanes into the same section of the street. Businesses and residents have come and gone, the new replacing the old while some retain their locations and homes. Located at the feet of Occidental College, York is also the downtown strip for Occidental student life.
As light crept in from its east end, York Boulevard woke up to its usual tranquility. In front of Belle’s Bagels, a breakfast stop that operates out of a walk-up window in the storefront of live music venue The Hi Hat, stood a group of loosely-queued people waiting to order. It was 7:30 a.m., and the window opened at 7 a.m. The customers were not a particularly large group of people, but in the still and quiet morning, they constituted the most lively scene on the street.
At the same time, ten blocks to the west on the intersection of York and Avenue 45, Delia’s Restaurant started buzzing with movement. A Mexican restaurant with an outdoor garden-like dining area flanked by potted plants, a colorful mural and a bright yellow wall, Delia’s restaurant attracts Eagle Rock neighbors and Occidental students with its special homemade sauce and burritos. Many sit at outdoor tables under wide umbrellas, enjoying a business breakfast, a sleepy brunch or an early dinner.
To the west side of the street from Avenue 49, small businesses intersperse residential houses, motels and auto shops. Most of these buildings are fenced, their doors opening to the sides instead of toward the street. The two-lane street is quiet for most of the day, until it overflows with bumper-to-bumper traffic during rush hours. In contrast, the residential sidewalks, with trees and foxtail grasses planted at uneven distances, are often deserted of pedestrians. There is litter at the corner lot of an uninhabited building advertised for lease. Bushes and flowers grown in private houses occasionally shroud the fences, adding an additional layer of secrecy.
In comparison, York’s eastern end has a faster rhythm. Packed with businesses on both sides and no residential houses in sight, York’s bustling commercial life monopolizes the blocks between Avenues 50 and 52.
Café de Leche has been on York since 2008. With its proximity to Occidental’s campus, early hours and bright, cozy setting, it is one of Occidental students’ most frequented places on York.
Charlie’s Tacos is among the older businesses on York. Having stood at the crossroad in front of York Park every day since 2009, Charlie’s Tacos serves traditional Mexican dishes cooked with family recipes. It is open every day from 11 a.m. to 3 a.m., and the bright red taco truck is a staple of life on York. The York Park area it guards was an obsolete gas station until February 2015, when it was renovated into a children’s playground. As kids in York Park climb around stairs and slides, parents watch on the sides, talking and enjoying tacos.
Behind Café de Leche on Avenue 50 is Pattye’s Closet II, a vintage store that opened on York seven years ago and moved to its current location two years ago due to increased rent. Walking into Pattye’s Closet reveals another world. Crowding the small room are old-fashioned clothes, grandiose accessories with bold gold and stones, and assorted home decorations, Pattye’s Closet II resembles a delicate antique art house. Most items in the store are from decades — or even a century — ago.
Sarah Coultas is Pattye’s Closet II’s store manager and Lopez’s friend. Having shopped at Pattye’s Closet since age 12 and worked there for around 20 years, Coultas said she enjoys watching people appreciate vintage style. She said though the location change has negatively affected business, she enjoys people in this neighborhood and their appreciation of vintage style.
“You have to be creative and imaginative to appreciate vintage,” Coultas said. “Sometimes in here I see men and women forgetting about themselves. Men trying on women’s clothes and women trying on men’s clothes. It’s great.”
Elegant or quirky fashion taste is not hard to find among people on York, particularly on a weekend afternoon: Girls in colorful makeup wear platforms and plaid miniskirts in Berry Bowl; a woman in all black with red lips and a bowler hat; a young mom in a pink jump dress, holding her baby in a black baby wrap; a middle-aged couple well-dressed in flamboyant colors, the wife letting her waist-length ginger hair down. Of course, there were also hoodies, sweatpants, mom jeans, button-up shirts, color-coordinated family outfits. There is no one type of style on York.
The sun descended to the west side of the street as the day lapsed, casting a warm, peachy shade on the buildings. Street vendors began pulling out their supplies as early as 5 p.m., setting up their tables by the curbs or on the sidewalks as cars whooshed by. The same people in stores and cafes earlier in the day were now back on the street.
York Boulevard has a vibrant nightlife. Teeming with bars, taco trucks, street vendors and boutiques open late into the night, it draws both neighborhood residents and outsiders’ attention.
Leo Lamprides is a chef and owner of the food truck Chinese Laundry, the first food truck on York to serve hand-pulled noodles. After leaving to China with his wife six years ago to receive training in cooking Chinese cuisine, Lamprides and his wife decided to bring Chinese food to Highland Park — where they first dated — in 2015. Their first date was on Figueroa Street, but they chose York because of its established taco and street food culture, Lamprides said.
Robert Lee, a Highland Park native and owner of food stand Bang Bang Noodles, was drawn to York’s welcoming vibe for vendors. Moving back to LA four months ago to start vending traditional Northwestern Chinese noodles, Lee had tried vending on Colorado Boulevard and Figueroa Street before settling on York Boulevard.
“The energy is gravitating to York,” Lee said. “I know some [people] are hesitant in eating street food … here, not so much.”
The most hip and artsy spot on York has to be between Avenues 51 and 52. All kinds of stores are juxtaposed. Besides popular Chinese/Taiwanese restaurant Joy, Donut Friend and former nightclub and current bar The Hermosillo, this block consists of multiple vintage clothing shops, music stores, a yoga studio and art galleries. Sustainability is as big a theme as beauty on this block of the street: Future Music recycles used musical instruments in good condition, Permanent Records sells a variety of used records and CDs, and boutique and gallery Mi Vida hand-makes its earrings for sale. Even a tattoo shop is called Vintage Tattoo Art Parlor.
Lopez is now the owner of his own vintage store, Ramon’s Rags to Riches. Informed by his friend and former boss at Johnny’s about the storefront’s vacancy 3 months ago and encouraged by his friends, Lopez took the opportunity.
“People here are just perfect,” Lopez said. “They are fashionable, self-conscious of what they wear.”
From further down the east side of York, a man walked westward on the street. He was carrying a plastic bag, stretched into the boxy shape of take-out. As he approached the busy area when street vendors clustered, he slowed down and stopped in front of Lee’s Bang Bang Noodles.
“It looks really good,” the man said. He hesitated, looking back to the plastic bag he had in hand. “I’ll try you later.”
The night darkened, but the street grew brighter and louder as traffic kicked in. Gently sorting through the newly-arrived vintage dresses hanging on a rack, Lopez said it was destiny that brought him here. He said he has tried a range of jobs before, but running this vintage store consisting of clothes and accessories from the 50s and 60s — his favorite style — is what he really wants to do now.
“I did my research,” Lopez said. “York has a lot of potential.”