Tour Spotlights Historic Side of Lincoln Heights
Cityscape: Participants find that the working-class neighborhood has architectural treasures.

By HECTOR BECERRA, Times Staff Writer

Maybe it's fitting that 350 people from diverse parts of Los Angeles meet Sunday outside a symbol of haute culture--a winery--to embark on an odyssey into Lincoln Heights.
The expedition to explore vintage buildings and residences marked the beginning of an unusual educational campaign in the kind of neighborhood that architectural preservation typically has ignored.
"Historic preservation in general has not paid attention to communities of color. It's been marketed as a craft or hobby for the rich, of treating your house like a museum," which most working people can't afford, said Alexis Moreno, the 30-year-old director of Lincoln Heights' Business Improvement District.
Organized by the Los Angeles Conservancy, the tour included an eclectic mix of participants--children, teachers, politicians and interested preservationists from across the county.
As part of the campaign, third-graders and their teachers in Lincoln Heights schools will receive books paid for by the Getty Foundation titled "Explore Lincoln Heights--Your Neighborhood." Teachers will be given a suggested curriculum and instructional materials on Lincoln Heights' history, architecture and preservation. Later, every third-grader will go on a field trip to learn more about the area.
The point was to nurse pride that one day might pay dividends in a neighborhood that has at least one area under consideration as an official historical preservation zone. Such a designation would prohibit certain alterations on homes considered historic or of unique architectural worth. Such zones are rare in the central city.
Omar Franco, a 17-year-old senior at Lincoln High School who was one of the tour leaders, said he was pleased with how people reacted. "They were impressed," he said. "You see them nodding their heads and talking among themselves."
"This is the sort of place you just fly by on the freeway," said paralegal William Clark, 55, of Pacific Palisades. "There has never been an interest in getting people to talk about old houses here."
The campaign is the brainchild of the conservancy, which initiated architectural and historical tours of central city communities after the riots. Lincoln Heights, which has scores of turn-of-the-century structures, fit the conservancy's goals perfectly.
In a city that often disdains the old for the new, Lincoln Heights is a tough old neighborhood where 26% of the residents live below the poverty line and timeworn beauty hangs in the balance.

A Working-Class Neighborhood

Less than five miles from downtown, the community borders the northeast end of Chinatown and is bisected by the Golden State Freeway. One of Los Angeles' original pueblos, Lincoln Heights was an industrial hub, and still has turn-of-the-century workers' cottages near Main Street just blocks away from the Southern Pacific rail yards.
For the past 40 years, Lincoln Heights has been home to a Latino working class, and more recently, to a sizable Asian population. According to the 1990 census, the area was about 72% Latino, 22% Asian and 4% white.
"Any preservation movement in the inner city is still in its infancy, but I think that it's growing as a trend," said Laura Cogburn, an associate for the Getty Grant Program, which funded the project.
Lincoln Heights has some of the county's most diverse examples of 19th and early 20th century buildings and homes--including the kinds of houses that exist nowhere else in Los Angeles, said Linda Dishman, conservancy executive director
But when the Community Redevelopment Agency began offering residents home repair loans two decades ago, some changes disappointed the conservancy, which thought the residences had historic and architectural value, Dishman said.
The CRA has provided $20 million in low-income loans for house repairs to more than 1,200 housing units and parts of Boyle Heights since the advent of an Eastside revitalization program in the late 1970s, said Al Santillanes, project manager for the CRA. The question has been whether any of the homes substantially altered with CRA money were historic: The CRA, which long ago hired a firm to do an architectural survey of Lincoln Heights, says no. Preservationists say yes.
Still, whether because of private decisions or through governmental assistance, unique architectural designs were obliterated, wood frames were sprayed with stucco and period windows were torn out and replaced with aluminum ones.
In response to the CRA's campaign, a Lincoln Heights preservation association was founded in 1981. But although pressure from the Lincoln Heights Neighborhood and Preservation Assn. has led to some high-profile architectural preservation victories involving public buildings including Lincoln High School, built in the Depression era, the grass-roots organization has struggled for support when it comes to private homes.

An Architectural Gem Is Just a Home

Most residents live in a Queen Anne or Dutch Colonial or Craftsman-style home because it's a roof over their families' heads, and a relatively cheap one, CRA's Santillanes and preservationists agree.
According to Councilman Mike Hernandez's office, about 30% of the homes in Lincoln Heights are owned by residents and most sell for between $130,000 to $180,000--no matter how stunning.
There may be aesthetic reasons to preserve authenticity, but there's little profit in it for renters or landlords, Moreno said.
Lincoln Heights is rife with architecture that invites fairy-tale names such as the turn-of-the-century "Storybook Cottages" and "The Castle," a home built in 1923 on Minnesota Street and designed by Johannes Bartolowsky, a set designer for Columbia Pictures in the '20s.
Most business owners, however, live outside the neighborhood, even out of state.
It's a neighborhood where an old white glazed-brick and terra cotta federal bank is granted a second life as a successful El Pollo Loco, but blocks away on Daly Street, a lime green Art Deco Department of Water and Power building has stood vacant and vandalized for 10 years.
To understand the challenges of kick-starting preservation in a working-class neighborhood, look no further than the Church of the Epiphany on Altura Street, which is on the tour, and the Lincoln Heights Neighborhood and Preservation Assn.
On a simplified level, they suffer from a similar malady: The church is Episcopal in a neighborhood that is decidedly Roman Catholic-- and the members of the preservation group are mostly middle-class professionals in a neighborhood that is decidedly working class.
Despite its beauty and importance as the first Episcopal church in the city--founded in 1886--the Church of the Epiphany, like the poor who stop at its door for food, is dependent on the kindness of wealthier Episcopal churches and the diocese to make basic repairs.
The church organ hasn't worked in 11 years; the paint is cracking and discolored, and when it rains, water seeps around the stained-glass window behind the altar.
The Rev. Carlos Garcia's flock of about 25 to 40 parishioners can't donate enough money to make many repairs.
So the Colombian-born Garcia has accepted the mantle of preservationist.
"It wasn't an interest of mine, but I've been doing as much preservation as I can one way or another," Garcia said.

Preservation Group Has Some Victories

Not far from the church, four members of the Lincoln Heights Neighborhood and Preservation Assn.--a property manager, a Los Angeles school district supplies coordinator, a financial analyst and a postal worker--met on a recent Thursday in the Sacred Heart Church auditorium. The church itself a Gothic Revival cathedral, was built in 1887 and was on the tour.
Michael Diaz, a property owner and association co-founder, has stressed the need for preservation in Lincoln Heights for at least 18 years. With little money, his group has given annual awards for home maintenance, sponsored tree planting projects and bargained with developers to make sure the structures they build don't wreak aesthetic crimes on Lincoln Heights.
The preservation group and the L.A. Conservancy recently led a successful campaign to get the school district to remove a $2-million air conditioning installation at Lincoln High School because the bulky window units disfigured one of the city's best examples of Depression-era public works architecture.
It was a proud moment for Diaz and other preservationists, but a relatively rare one. It's a moment that has been tempered by such losses as the stuccoing of the Lincoln Heights Branch Library, a 1916 building modeled after an Italian papal palace.
"Any kind of historic preservation in this neighborhood is a battle. Education is very important," said Diaz.