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A Los Angeles Primer: Echo Park

First came the movies, then came the road-builders, then came the criminals, and now come the hipsters: people tell this same basic story about several Los Angeles neighborhoods, but half the time I hear it, I hear it with Echo Park as the subject. Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Kops anointed the place with the glamor of classic film comedy; then the freeways walled it off, if for the most part psychologically, from the wider city; then the neighborhood came to host the troubled young Latino culture in which Allison Anders set "Mi Vida Loca," still the accepted cinematic text of modern Echo Park. But that movie came out in 1993, and the intervening twenty years have rendered much of its setting almost as unfamiliar as the one Chaplin's Tramp stumbled gracefully through nearly eight decades before. Maybe Anders shot scenes of Mousie and Sad Girl ordering craft beer and kale salads and left them on the cutting room floor, but I doubt it.

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You can eat such salads at Echo Park Lake, where a well-known Hollywood brunch joint just opened a café to feed those made hungry by pedal-boating. In the time I've spent in Echo Park, I've sensed nothing more threatening in the offing than the prospect of falling out of one of those boats, a spill that, while gross, wouldn't threaten your life. Besides, if you'd taken it years ago, when the lake counted as just one more of Los Angeles' characteristically forlorn bodies of water, you'd have found it even grosser. As far as the neighborhood surrounding it has come in the past couple of decades, the newly re-engineered, re-landscaped, rehabilitated lake strikes even me, who never really experienced the bad old Echo Park, as incongruously pleasant. The same goes for media-savvy evangelist and noted Los Angeles historical character Aimee Semple McPherson's Angelus Temple, which for ninety years has exuded its impression of vast white sweep right there on the other side of Park Avenue. If a day of water-pedaling, worship, or both, puts you in the mood for one of those aforementioned specialty ales, you won't have to go far down Sunset to find them.

In some cases, you'll find their pourers right next to grimly standard, fluorescent-lit liquor stores, establishments of a class I imagine get held up with some frequency. Residents of more than a few years' standing all have stories suggesting that, indeed, Echo Park has neither completely nor permanently shaken its social problems. Though they usually have a qualifier or two to add, they do tend to admit that it has unambiguously joined the ranks of Los Angeles' formerly dangerous neighborhoods. Still, take an evening walk past certain unlit streets, and you do wonder. I look down them on my way to a film screening, a performance, or a plate of fish tacos, and I notice clusters of tents have sprouted up like mushrooms on the sidewalk. Conspicuous homelessness of this kind must, in part, have convinced observers that Echo Park, in contrast to neighboring Silver Lake, has retained its gritty "edge" even amid the inexorable eastward migration of literate, demanding, and moderately well-heeled twenty- and thirty-somethings.

Some express discomfort with the direction Echo Park has taken over the past decade, but few of them, I suspect, would return it to a less orderly time. Many disagree about whether the present feels authentic, but few disagree about the troubles of the recent past. Acceptance of change for the better as well as change for the worse — not that we can always separate or even distinguish one from the other — happens slowly here, especially for those who have witnessed it. "The nineties were not a great time in Los Angeles," Hidden Los Angeles proprietor and fifth-generation Angeleno Lynn Garrett said to me when we talked on my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. "A lot of folks who lived here in the nineties, they have these memories. They have a hard time letting go of the idea that Echo Park is not gang central anymore. There's such a fear of hipsters and gentrification. Improving a neighborhood doesn't always equal 'the hipster storm troopers are coming to get rid of everything that is good in the world.' It's not that simple."

Besides, take one look at the streetscape and you'll see a place clearly not amenable to sweeping change. You'll find a shop offering classic and indie designer wear, yes, but two or three doors down you'll find a discount clothing retailer. None of the organic vegan eateries around stand very far away from the likes of Chinatown Express. Head up the steepest street you see and you'll pass by an abundance of the kind of small but elegant houses we think of as commissioned by "Industry" folk of long ago, or rustic bungalows that may have been home studios for the bohemian artists who succeeded them. (Other celebrity actors such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Shia LeBeouf can claim the area as their hometown, as can the thoroughly weathered, scarred, and inked Danny Trejo, a living representative of the former rough-and-tumble image.) Go a bit further, and out comes a strikingly un-urban variety wildlife. None of the stages of Echo Park's evolution, it seems, wholly overwrites any of its predecessors.

Whatever peace and prosperity Echo Park has cultivated, with it comes half a century in which it has, on the whole, suffered. But it does still exist, and you can't say the same for the old neighborhoods of Chavez Ravine just to the northeast, now the site of Dodger Stadium, or Bunker Hill just to the southeast, where downtown's skyscrapers stand tallest. Enraged treatises have appeared about the relocation, dispossession, and demolition involved in these prestige projects, quite possibly with good cause, and anxieties periodically flare up about the sword of eminent domain descending somewhere in Echo Park. But it and many other neighborhoods in the vicinity have grown younger, and while their new residents under a certain age, often coming from far away, don't necessarily turn blind eyes to injustice, how much active concern can we expect them to have for events passing out of living memory? They could no more take a side in the Battle of Chavez Ravine than they could in a battle of the Middle Ages. They arrive in a different Echo Park than anyone grew up in, and bring with them not just the skills to run a vintage boutique or toss a kale salad but the infinitely more valuable capacity to accept.

Photos by Colin Marshall.

About the Author

Colin Marshall hosts and produces the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. These columns present essays adapted from his book-in-progress, "A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City."
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