Editor’s note: you can tell Reina is a writer, as she dazzles with a very personal narrative to illustrate both some of the best spots in – and the magical acceptance of – Los Angeles’ Highland Park neighborhood. For more of Reina’s writing, click here to visit her index page.

At the northeastern most tip of the City of Angels is a street called York Boulevard, often referred to as “the coolest street in Los Angeles.” It is one of two main streets for the neighborhood known as Highland Park, which was one of the city’s first suburbs in 1895. It has had a varied history over the years, both as a hub for Chicano art and politics, and once a home for multiple gangs. However, in recent years its legacy has become that of being one of the few areas of the city that has been able to get gentrification right, not forcing out the Latinx population and Chicano history that made this area great, but rather having thrifting, record shops, and all things hipster pop up alongside them and cohabitating accordingly.

A Highland Park sign along York Boulevard

Several years ago, I discovered the magic of this neighborhood for myself. Throwing gutter balls at the beautifully preserved Highland Park Bowl; visiting my friend Rabbi Jason at his congregation Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park, a Jewish community dating back to the 1920s and ‘30s; making the mistake of asking locals where the best taco place is in the area, causing a 15 minute debate; and, of course, riding the Metro Gold Line, which runs through the heart of the area from east and downtown LA before heading to Pasadena and beyond. But York Boulevard is particularly special; living by The Grove in mid-city Los Angeles is rather touristy, so Highland Park is where I get to really enjoy being an Angelino.

Street art reflects the roots of the neighborhood

Recently, I went to buy dresses for my birthday at my favorite consignment shop on York, The Plus Bus, with its bright pink façade and friendly staff. There was a sign on the wall explicitly stating that any hateful language, including transphobic language, would cause that person to be kicked out of the store. So, naturally, I took a picture and sent it to my friend Joy.

The Plus Bus

Joy is trans femme, so in 2019 we went shopping for more female-presenting clothing, heading to shops and the local mall with me guarding the door of dressing rooms as they were trying on clothes. However, despite the precautions, we were sometimes met with side eyes, which made Joy uncomfortable. Ever since, I’ve always been on the lookout for safe spaces, where their gender expression wouldn’t be harshly judged and they could have the same joy I have while shopping for clothes. A visit to York Boulevard could be the answer.

One day, I asked Joy if they would be interested. They agreed, but told me that their husband Myles would be staying home, so it would be just the two of us.

“So like when we went to go see ‘Cats’ at the theaters?” I asked.

“Pretty much,” they replied.

“I’ll never forget what he said to us. ‘Know that I love you so much… just not enough to see ‘Cats’ with you.”

On a beautiful Sunday morning I arrived on Joy’s doorstep in Northridge, greeting Myles and the cats with warm hellos. However, the first question out of my mouth to Joy was, “What’s your bagel order?”

“Bagel order?” they asked.

“Yep, we’re heading to Belle’s Bagels, they have some of the best bagels in the city,” I said. “But we have to order in advance, because once they sell out for the day they just close up shop.”

Joy ordered a pastrami breakfast sandwich with Shalom Sauce while I stuck to my go-to order: everything bagel toasted, lox cream cheese, cucumbers, pickled onions, and dill. We got in the car, but I could already sense they were nervous; we have been friends for so long that I can usually tell. I am a cishet woman, and present as one; I don’t have the same struggles walking into an unknown place as they do.

By the time we parked in a lot off of York Boulevard, we were able to walk right up and pick up our bagels from Belle’s, alongside a visit to a bloc LA for a cold brew. If there was ever a place to sum up Highland Park, it would be this place – where you can buy delicious coffee, vegan baked goods, and get your bike repaired. I joked with Joy that, if you want to blend in with the locals, you need an iced coffee in hand; if the other hand has a dog, even better. When the cashier found out it was their first time in Highland Park, she gave them one of a bloc’s signature vegan, gluten-free salted chocolate chip cookies – which, given how many buzz words are in that description, should not taste as good as they do.

a bloc

After finishing breakfast we headed into The Plus Bus, under the framed Lizzo bikini she generously gave them and surrounded by numerous racks to peruse through, ranging from high-end designer wear to Old Navy jeans. The cashier immediately asked Sim their pronouns, and then said, “Cool, my pronouns are she/they.” Joy’s shoulders loosened; that brief recognition allowed them to go into the racks with abandon.

With every dress and skirt they waltzed out of the dressing room with, we were able to do the fashion critique without any problems. Joy opened the curtain with piece after piece, walking with their head held high as they modeled clothes. I had been in this store countless times, but watching Joy experience the magic of it for the first time, I realized that Highland Park was one of the places in LA where Joy could be Joy – no questions, no judgments.

We purchased our items, and I decided to do a mini-tour of York Boulevard with them. Although it was so early in the day that not everything was open, I could point out the highlights on the main drag, which is about three blocks long.

Yes, there were the hipster favorites from other gentrified areas of LA – psychic shop House of Intuition, Silverlake Ramen, Donut Friend, and Highland Park Brewery with its brews and underrated chicken sandwich. However, there was also pointing out and mentioning some of the local highlights: Mi Vida, with its clothing showcasing incredible Chicano artwork; Nativo, a restaurant created by a Highland Park local that’s both local and hipster at the same time; Shorthand, the queer-owned stationery shop; Galco’s Old World Grocery, a 1950s style shop known for their massive array of sodas further down York; and, of course, Bob Baker’s famed Marionettes, which found a home in Highland Park after leaving downtown LA – something that Joy’s husband was sure to love.

“I never even knew about this place,” they said.

All I could do was smile. For ten years, I have called Los Angeles my city and home, and a part of that love affair has come from places like York Boulevard. In hidden gems such as this, it’s the residents who set the tone, and here it is all about is keeping the past while remaining true to their culture, and letting that shape the future of the community. There is a sense of freedom that gives warmth and welcome that not many places in this city can give.

And for Joy, even for just the hour we spent there, they found their own freedom in this place, too.

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