LACBC Everywhere: Melanie Freeland has Midwest Roots and Big City Values


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Melanie Freeland has taken a long and circuitous path to making LA home. Raised in the midwest, Melanie opted for the big city life of New York City coming out of school.

After meeting her husband David there, they moved to Los Angeles so he could attend graduate school at UCLA. With both of them pursuing careers in architecture, they unexpectedly fell in love with the diversity and opportunity that this city provides.

As they adjusted to the Southern Californian lifestyle, cycling became a large part of them maneuvering through the city.

Melanie shares how her architectural background and travels helped shape her values on seeing the world on two wheels.

Growing up in rural Missouri, what motivated you to seek the city life in New York City?

I had lived abroad during college in Italy and Norway and essentially fell in love with the urban environment and was interested in Chicago or NYC as possible starting out points after school. I remember I was really excited by Hariri & Hariri at the time as female mentors along with Liz Diller and both were located in NYC. I interviewed at a handful of places towards the end of my schooling and it was an easy decision when I got a job offer with a small office Resolution 4: Architecture. My first apartment I shared with a friend of a friend on 91st. My bedroom door only opened 45 degrees before banging the bed and the window opened onto an air shaft, but I was SO excited to be there.

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David and Emerson rolling through the humble roads of Tarkio, Missouri

Did living there change your views about how a city should function?

Community outside of an urban environment is something you often have to work at to be a part of and enjoy. In NYC, community was ever present and it never failed to amaze me. In the morning, I would maybe grab a coffee or a bagel, climb down into the subway along with the rest of the city, jostle through the network of tunnels and trains and then pop up in the bustling street. I began to understand the value of well-designed public space. Coming from a place where such space along with arts and culture events were minimal at best, NYC's wealth of activities served as a conduit for me to meet other people with similar interests and find affordable but unique entertainment. Granted I had the priorities of a twenty-something then but I still believe that if cities provide areas for interacting and communal living, residents will be more attuned to their surroundings and each other.   

After you and your husband moved to L.A., how long it it take to overcome the common misconceptions of this city?

Before moving to L.A., I understood it to be about 3 things: traffic, the movie industry, and the beach. We did our best to avoid the first two by locating near the 3rd. What we didn't realize was that the beach became a tourist mecca on the weekends which brought ridiculous traffic. With Dave going to school at UCLA and me working in Santa Monica, we didn't have a good excuse to brave the congestion and explore outside of that zone. As soon as I started working on the east side, we began to realize that the city was so much more than those original 3 things. Uncovering the cultural bits around LA certainly takes more work than it did in NYC.

When you arrived here in 2002, cycling didn’t have the influence it did today. How did you both embrace it so instantly?

David was commuting to work on his rollerblades in NYC when I first met him and after we started dating we often explored the city on the weekend that way. It only made sense when we moved out to LA with just one car that we'd buy bicycles. Living in Venice felt very much like a small town to me. In my hometown Tarkio, Missouri the size of the streets are narrow and for the most part traffic isn't moving at breakneck pace. The majority of Venice streets felt similar and extremely safe to bike on, and it also didn't hurt to have the strand and bike path just a few blocks from our apartment. Commuting was easy as I was working in Santa Monica near Bergamot Station and the trip was mostly on the beach. I didn't do it everyday or even every week—I also utilized the bus—but it was nice to know it was an option if I wanted it.

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Emerson, Melanie and David ready to roll

Now, do you cycle more frequently?

Ironically, I'm cycling more now, but in areas I consider to be less safe. After David graduated, we bought another car out of necessity and 3 years ago we sold it because we were both working downtown. It was then that I started commuting to work from Highland Park around 3 days a week. At first it was stressful, and I often would join the bike train one day a week to have company. The route to downtown from NELA has limited bike lanes and I was not used to riding in high speed traffic areas. But for me it was akin to riding the train in NYC, as I am once gain more aware of my surroundings and everyone I pass or more likely is passing me. Now it's not uncommon for me to see someone I know, driving or cycling, while I'm on my way riding in or coming home. That is something I can say rarely happens when I'm in my car.

What type of opportunities does Los Angeles offer for architecture?

Since moving here, I discovered that LA offers great opportunities to architects interested to start a design practice . No other city has the potential for experimentation at varying scales. The nature of technology and innovation in Los Angeles encourages a variety of forms and materials and the single family home is a perfect incubator for young architects to test new applications to building.. Spec office buildings went through a brief hiatus during the recession but are back and an easy way for a small practice to cut their teeth on larger ground up work. Small lot developments, larger housing or mixed use projects all pose unique challenges in L.A. and how to work within the existing fabric of the city Not to mention the wealth of infrastructure needed or currently underway.

You moved to Highland Park nine years ago before the boom started taking shape. What drew you to the area?

The free jukebox and Delerium Tremens on tap at the Wild Hare. Joking, but only partly. We wanted to buy a home and were looking for a location that was convenient to our east side jobs, walkable, and affordable. We had a couple of friends who lived in Highland Park and we appreciated the scale of the neighborhood and that most of the residents were longterm families that were approachable. It was unnerving to see the Wild Hare close a few months after we bought our house, but it turned out we knew the new owners of the place opening, The York, so we quickly became regulars there too.  

Now you have a four year old. Do you include him on your bike trips?

Emerson, our four year old, was in a Yepp bike seat since he was one and recently graduated to a real bike with a tow bar. We hauled him all over Los Angeles for 3 years in that seat and he napped through at least half of it. At first we were taking him on short trips to the park or a restaurant in the area because it was easier than getting into the car.  Then we did a few CicLAvias with him and realized how much he enjoyed experiencing the city by bike as much as we did, and so we got a little braver. Cross city trips soon became whole day events that afforded opportunities to check out sites along the way with him. When he was almost three, we rode with a group of friends to Manhattan Beach from HLP for Father's Day and even lugged his scooter so he could get some exercise on the strand.  

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Bike long enough and Emerson might take a nap

Besides using cycling to get to and from work, do you and your husband make time for bike dates?

Long before we were commuting to work or we had Emerson, we had started the bike dates. It was based on the premise of getting back to our original time in NYC rollerblading, but practically it was great to not have to worry about drinking and driving. During the week we'd plot out particular routes with different restaurants or bars to check out. It is a very novel idea to go to more than one place in a night mainly because we didn't have to worry about parking. It's also so pleasant to be cycling at night when the streets are a little less congested and the city lights are all on.

What are some of your favorite spots to frequent in Highland Park?

One of my favorite spots in HLP is the lookout point, I believe its called Mt. Fuji, just east of the Occidental campus. It is an easy hike but supremely rewarding because on a rare clear day you can see all the way to the ocean. Also on the way down, you can check out the amphitheater behind Keck auditorium which is almost always empty and completely sublime. We spend countless hours at Cafe de Leche which is just a few blocks from our place. Small plug, my husband designed the space and the mural there is the view from our house. Now with Emerson, you can often find us roaming from CdL to the park across the street and then to The York for lunch or dinner. We also frequent El Arco Iris, Maximiliano, Good Girl Dinette and all the other usual suspects.

Now that you’ve been settled in your home for nine years, could you imagine ever leaving?

I could definitely imagine leaving the house, maybe not Highland Park. When we bought our house, we never intended on staying in it long term. It is a 1920s craftsman that needed some work and is still showing its age. I like to think there are two types of people in LA, those that want to live in the hills secluded and those that want to live in the flats near the commercial area. We are definitely in the latter camp preferring to live adjacent to walkable urban centers. We always thought we'd build our next home, but affordable land in L.A. that isn't on a steep incline miles from other conveniences is few and far between. The longer we stay in this house, we realize just how important the location and more significantly the community is to us.

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