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Happy Foot Sad Foot: Walking South Central to Silver Lake

Eric Brightwell is a mapmaker, business owner, and explorer of neighborhoods. With his column Block by Block he chronicles his travels through the city on foot, bus, or train.

The other day I found myself visiting northernmost South Central on business. When I was done I decided not to hop on the next bus home, but rather to walk for at least a little bit. The rest of my day was wide open and it was pleasantly warm and sunny. I began by heading north along Broadway; when I got to Washington, I crossed the tracks of the Blue Line.

In the early 20th century the South Central neighborhood was sometimes characterized as "The Harlem of the West." In 1964 the stretch of the 10 Freeway that separates South L.A. from Central L.A. was completed, and "South Central" became coded shorthand for "any black neighborhood south of the 10." Nowadays, as with most of L.A., the population is mostly Latino, although the Central Avenue Jazz Festival still takes place there annually, celebrating the rich musical history of the famed avenue.

Continuing along Broadway under the 10 freeway, I entered the South Park neighborhood of Downtown - home of the Staples Center and LA Live - which the city seems to hope will develop into some kind of SoCal Vegas. Oddly, there's an older neighborhood in neighboring South L.A. called South Park. Although some have attempted to extend what has been traditionally thought of as downtown south into University Park and Exposition Park, the 10 is apparently a barrier enough that no one involved in the naming of (new) South Park had heard of nearby (old) South Park. It's ironic that the very freeways that connect far flung communities for those also have the effect of separating and sometimes even destroying them.

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Around Eighth Street the sidewalks begin to fill up considerably and the ethnic complex diversifies -- there are many Asians and Caucasians, whereas to the south it was almost exclusively black and Latino. Traveling north, I passed Pershing Square on the left. The park was dedicated in the mid-1800s and has gone through significant changes. In the 1990s the city spent millions of dollars for some large, very early-'90s looking public art, including a monolithic purple tower that remains today as its looming centerpiece.

A little further north, I weighed whether or not to take the Angels Flight up the steep side of Bunker Hill. But decided to keep walking instead and take one of many tunnels that cut underneath the hill.

Third Street tunnel | Photo by 3rdst used under a Creative Commons licenseWhile the Second Street tunnel gleams with white tiles and is undoubtedly one of L.A.'s most-filmed locations -- on average appearing in-two new car commercials per month -- the Third Street tunnel, on the other hand, is older and will never likely be used to shill any product. It's dim -- it feels like it's lit with gas lights or Edison bulbs. It's dank -- water continually runs down its walls. Mineral deposits are on their way to forming stalactites. Although a mid-day sneak attack from Jack the Ripper is unlikely to happen there, I reached into my pocket and caressed my knife for comfort. I also kept an eye on the manholes lest a C.H.U.D. attempt to drag me into the underworld. In the end, the only real threat came from three separate bicyclists who rode on the sidewalk and all barked at me to get out of their way.

After I emerged from the tunnel I turned left on Second Street and passed under another freeway, the 110, leaving downtown and entering the Temple-Beaudry neighborhood. As with developers' efforts to extend the definition of downtown into South L.A., some have advanced the concept of "Central City West." Tellingly, the area west of downtown is colloquially referred to as "The New Jersey of Downtown L.A." as well as "Little Central America," depending on who's doing the talking.
Edward Roybal Learning Center - ugliest building in L.A.? | Photo by The City Project used under a Creative Commons license
Along a bleak stretch of Beaudry, cross-street rivals Canvas L.A. and the Edward Roybal Learning Center seem to compete for in the "L.A.'s Ugliest Buildings" sweepstakes, but both are trumped by the bandage-colored apartments situated atop a paved and graffiti-scarred hillside that I refer to as the Angeleno Heights Favela. They sit just outside the Angeleno Heights Preservation Overlay Zone which includes rows of beautiful Victorian and Craftsman homes.

Along Sunset apparent signs of gentrification abound. New vegan restaurants have recently opened on both sides of a street formerly lined with unremarkable Mexican restaurants. Costa Alegre advertises a new Vegetarian menu on a banner. At a curve in the road known as Mohawk Bend (and now a restaurantof the same name), was Gentlemen's Breakfast, a boutique men's shop where an optician named Konstantin was talking to someone on the phone, who apparently was trying to recruit him for a drum circle.

Heading toward Silver Lake along Sunset Boulevard, one passes through "The Cut," a sandstone hill carved out in the 1880s by the Ostrich Farm Railway to bring visitors from downtown to the ostrich farm in Griffith Park. Ostrich Farms were apparently quite popular back then. Lincoln Heights and South Pasadena also had them. Now the hill is more recognized for the murals painted by a Guatemalteco artist who goes by "Cache," whose favorite birds are apparently ostriches' distant flightless relatives: chickens.

Upon arriving at the loose border of Silver Lake, one is greeted by the iconic "Happy Foot/Sad Foot" sign -- a rotating sign advertising a foot clinic that alternately shows a cheerful, anthropomorphized foot and, on the other side, a bandaged foot that walks with the aid of crutches. It's such an icon that it's been alluded to in a David Foster Wallace novel and an Eels song, and sometimes the area is even referred to as "HaFo SaFo."

When I arrived home and plugged in my phone, which had died long ago, there was a text from my neighbor/Thai-teacher/pingpong competitor asking if I wanted to go for a walk. My feet had stopped being happy. I declined.

[UPDATED 5/17 2:45pm: Photo of "Angeleno Heights Favela" was added]


About the Author

Eric Brightwell is a writer, map maker, and an explorer of neighborhoods. He writes at Amoeblog, and his maps can be viewed at Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography.
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Nice article and pictures, but Washington Boulevard isn't South Central. I've heard it described this way before by a colleague, which I found irritating - he based this on the fact there were black people around. But however you came to this notion, Washington is actually considered the border of downtown. (Also, the name South Central was 'upgraded' in 2003; the currently accepted name is South L.A.) I suppose since you started a little ways below Washington you could say you walked from South L.A., but it makes it sound like a longer trek than it was. To me, a walk from the real South Central would've started in Watts or Compton. This is more of a "Walking Downtown to Silver Lake" article.

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Hello advercite,

I believe that your colleague is correct. Historically the term "South Central" applied to the black majority area centered along South Central Avenue (hence the name) and centered around 12th street. That definition was extended further south along South Central as the black population expanded in that direction.

The term "South Los Angeles" is neither new nor historically synonymous with the term "South Central." As a frequent viewer of old movies and listener of old radio shows I can assure you that people were referring to Watts and other areas of South Los Angeles as such at least into the 1950s.

"South Central" began to be used as a coded term (by non-black Angelenos) meaning "any black neighborhood in South Los Angeles" in the 1950s and '60s. True, it was eventually adopted by inhabitants of South LA (black and non-black, based on the opinion of friends from there) but folks that I know that live south of downtown in what has been known as South Central since the 1910s have -- in my opinion -- more right to claim that name (which they do) than non-LA Gateway Cities like Compton.

Finally, I didn't intend to suggest that this walk was longer than it was. Rather, my point was to suggest that areas that people tend to think are too far away are actually easily walkable. I want people to get out and walk more... and thanks for sharing your view.