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Lose the car, see a bona fide LA neighborhood

The lake at LA's Echo Park, famous for its plantings of lotuses.
The lake at LA's Echo Park, famous for its plantings of lotuses. (John Blanding/Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ethan Gilsdorf
Globe Correspondent / July 13, 2008

LOS ANGELES - There can be pleasure in walking where you are not supposed to walk, where most people don't like to walk.

Los Angeles is a city built to the scale and speed of cars. Signs, roads, and intersections cater not to the foot soldier but to the motorist. Visiting walkers face enough discouragements to force them to give in and hit up Hertz, to drive like the Angelenos.

So I considered myself fortunate to find Echo Park, which is not only one of the city's oldest neighborhoods, but also among its most pedestrian and bike friendly.

I had come here to see old friends and for a much-needed mental health break. I had no place to be, no sites to see, or itinerary to follow. My friends worked days, which left me to explore my temporary neighborhood on my own, on my budget.

Once home to horse-drawn trolleys, fields of native grasses and wildflowers, and ranches dotting the canyons, this east side neighborhood remains glitz-free. Sandwiched between Silver Lake and Griffith Park to the north, and downtown and Chinatown to the south, Echo Park's slopes are overlaid with residential streets. The area is home to Echo Park Lake and Elysian Park, the city's second-largest green space. Except for the busiest streets, the place feels human-scaled, even peaceful.

Alternating between cafes named Chango and Downbeat, I loitered, nursed coffee, and poached wireless signals. I overheard talk of scripts in development from those who could taste movie deals with each sip of their decaf mochaccinos.

"So like, I'm working on this, like, story," one woman told a friend. She seemed impatient that fame had eluded her thus far. Later in the conversation, she explained the obstacle to her dreams. "He's such a, like, egomaniac and narcissist."

Echo Park has been invaded by a wave of young professionals. But many other groups preceded them: Chinese, Italian, and French immigrants settled here, as well as Cubans and Mexicans. An Italian winery once produced grapes off Sunset Boulevard, and in the 1890s developers came to drill the state's first big oil field. The city's earliest Jewish cemetery dated to 1855 in Chavez Ravine, home now to Dodger Stadium. The remains were all moved by 1910. Around this time, silent film studios sprang up along present-day Glendale Boulevard, and became headquarters for Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, and Mack Sennett and his Keystone Studios.

The neighborhood's hipster identity dates to the McCarthy era. Full of socialists and progressives, the community became known as Red Gulch or Red Hill. The offspring of blacklisted parents were called "Red Diaper babies."

"There's a tradition of activists and [this being] a stomping ground for immigrants," said Lisa Marr, operations director and youth film coordinator for the Echo Park Film Center. "The melting pot and socially activist energy does attract a lot of people." Marr said she and her "sweetheart," Paolo Davanzo, founder of the center, met when she strolled in the day he opened it. "It's a neighborhood where you walk," she said. "That is the way a lot of people find us."

Marr said she and Davanzo shop at the weekly farmer's market, support local businesses like the nearby vegetarian Elf Cafe (founded by members of a rock band called Viva K), and bike almost everywhere.

A link to Echo Park's moviemaking past, the center offers screenings and workshops. It's "not a Hollywood boot camp," Marr said, "but a place for empowerment through film." I attended the DVD release party for "This Is the LA River," a documentary made by 21 neighborhood youths aged 14 to 19.

The Downbeat is next door to the center, as are boutiques, and an art space called Machine Project, what Marr described as a "hip happening spot" for science- and tech-based art and classes in music, poetry, sewing, Indian drumming, robot-building, and "how to mind meld with plants."

Yet all is not idyllic in Echo Park. You might call it a neighborhood in recovery. Some storefronts become homes for street people at night. Gentrification and rising rents forced out street gangs, according to Jenny Burman, an Echo Park Historical Society board member and contributor to LAObserved.com, which hosts her blog Chicken Corner. But edginess remains.

"[Tensions] came as the neighborhood has gone from being an immigrant district," Burman wrote in an e-mail, "as well as being an old-guard established Bohemian district, to its present day incarnation as a groovy place that still looks funky." Priced out of buying houses on the west side, younger artists have moved in. "Now there's outright class struggle between old-guard arts types . . . and old-guard Latinos."

But to the outsider, much is bliss. I walked the shores of Echo Park Lake, where blooming lotuses are celebrated in an annual festival that ends today. I exulted in the California walnut trees and marveled at gardens of aloes, sedums, and cacti. After a storm, nut-brown palm husks littered the sidewalks. Overripe avocados fell and smacked the sidewalk in little green explosions. The sun, blue skies, and citrus trees were a balm. Eden was everywhere.

The Historical Society leads monthly tours, including one called "Echo Park Stairways." I made up my own walk one afternoon, navigating between where I was staying and Silver Lake. Two dozen-plus public stairways ascend the hillsides, according to the society. Some are modest; the 230-count Baxter Steps is "perhaps the tallest in the city."

I walked often. But I was most content at rest, lounging in the garden of my friends Michelle and Sage's place. Their cat stretched in the shade of an olive tree. Michelle's son Weston prowled the steep slope with a spear made from a shaft of bamboo, some modeling clay, and an arrowhead. Flowers and plants I did not know were draped over a stone wall. Palms loomed. Choppers carved up the sky, setting off barking dogs like car alarms.

Echo Park was a home for two weeks, but not my home. Near my last day, I climbed a hill to a cul-de-sac with a view toward the downtown skyline. I looked up: a road sign spelled "End." Time to go home.

Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at ethan@ethangilsdorf.com.

If You Go

What to do

Echo Park Historical Society

historicechopark.org

Information on walking tours.

Echo Park Farmers'Market

Parking lot no. 663 on Logan Street, south of Sunset Boulevard


323-463-3171

farmernet.com

Fridays 3-7 p.m.

Downbeat Cafe

1202 North Alvarado St.

213-483-3955

thedownbeatcafe.com

Chango Coffee House & Art Gallery

1559 Echo Park Ave.

213-977-9161

myspace.com/changocoffeehouse

Elf Cafe

2135 West Sunset Blvd.

213-484-6829

myspace.com/elfcafe

Machine Project

1200 D North Alvarado St.

213-483-8761

machineproject.comEcho Park Film Center

1200 North Alvarado St.

213-484-8846

echoparkfilmcenter.org
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