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A Los Angeles Primer: Silver Lake


Just last weekend, I found myself in Silver Lake attending the closing party of Brightwell, my friend (and fellow KCET Departures columnist) Eric's gentlemen's shop. He may have opened the first such business in modern Silver Lake, but I guarantee you he won't have opened the last. The neighborhood has over the past couple of decades grown only more dense with the relatively young, and thus with that great current fascination of America's relatively young, artisanal retail. Then again, Japan's twenty- and thirty-somethings have joined both the shop-small and neo-gentleman movements with even greater zeal; scouts from the Tokyo-based Popeye, "the Magazine for City Boys," dropped in on Brightwell while researching their Los Angeles issue. From foreign style journalists to shoppers in need of a respectable aftershave or tie clip, we act like Renaissance scholars poring over ancient Greek texts, deliberately and almost desperately attempting to reconstruct the old aesthetics and practices of true manhood. Though Eric's shop may have gone, I imagine the streets of Silver Lake will remain an advantageous place to set out on your own quest for this lost wisdom.

Recent years have so strengthened the area's association with creative, style-conscious, do-it-yourselfism that, when I first moved to Los Angeles as a twenty-six-year-old without any particular prospects for a traditional job, friends simply assumed I would land in Silver Lake. They did so for understandable reasons, but they assumed wrong; I chose Koreatown instead, barely giving "the Portland of Los Angeles" consideration at all, mostly because of the bewildering thinness of its connection to the rest of the city. How, I wondered, did Silver Lake become such a center of "cool" when rail doesn't even reach it? When the buses keep you waiting for ten minutes at a stretch? When even walking from one end of the neighborhood to the other can feel, on a sufficiently hot day, like a grueling ordeal? The journey from Brightwell to the local library comes to almost a mile, and heaven help he who then wants to stop for lunch in the fashionable Sunset Junction — named, ironically, for its convergence of two streetcar lines in the early 20th century — which necessitates two miles' further schlep.


Hence, I would think, the ascendance of the bicycle as the Silver Lake conveyance of choice. But most locals appear to prefer cycling, running, or walking in circles — or, rather, in ovals, or whichever rough shape the Silver Lake reservoir takes. Built in 1907, the artificial lake which once provided the community its water now provides its centerpiece. Savoring countless after-work evening strolls around the reservoir with my girlfriend, I began to suspect that, until I grasped it, I could never grasp Silver Lake. Composed of three or four semi-commercial strips surrounding what sometimes looks to me like an incomprehensible heap of detached houses, the place had long given me conceptual trouble. Do my regular trips to Hyperion Avenue, near which a publication I work for has its office, count as trips to Silver Lake? When I went to Rowena Avenue, home of Brightwell, did I go to Silver Lake? That stretch of Glendale Boulevard with the library, the food trucks, the venerable record store, and the wine shop my lady and I patronize before our walks — how central does the neighborhood consider it? Surely the neighborhood's eponymous boulevard, with its upscale food and drink and busy dog park, must have some prominence? And when I make my mostly trainless way to Sunset Junction for an afternoon cappuccino, do I experience the "real" Silver Lake there?

But outsiders have for generations asked geographically anxious questions very much like these about Los Angeles itself: where do I find the center? If this place exists in the center, then why don't people treat it like one? How come the places that do feel more like centers seem at the same time so peripheral? This, I would submit, in large part makes Silver Lake an ideal neighborhood to show visiting friends in search of an understanding of Los Angeles in microcosm — or, strictly speaking, 20th-century Los Angeles in microcosm. The thirties through the nineties presented observers not only with a city going ever more centerless, but a city fast shedding whatever thin stylistic coherence it may have started with. "There is no reward for aesthetic virtue here," wrote James M. Cain in "Paradise", his 1933 essay on Los Angeles, "no punishment for aesthetic crime." And he took a more tolerant tack than did, or do, most ex-East Coasters, though I wonder what he'd have said about the statuary fronting certain local businesses: flying sport utility vehicles, anthropomorphized teeth brushing themselves.


Glance up at Silver Lake's home-covered hills, though, and you comprehend in an instant what fascinates some and repels others about the residential architecture of Los Angeles: thousands of points of private eccentricity, unfettered by tradition or expectation, become, in aggregate, a public attraction. This makes the area, provided you can deal with the shifting inclines and winding roads, the finest non-canonical tour of the city's built environment zero dollars can buy. And amid the intriguing but anonymous domiciles, you'll also run across a fair few houses by the name-brand architects of midcentury Los Angeles Modernism: Rudolph Schindler, Gregory Ain, Raphael Soriano, and especially Richard Neutra. "People walking by on Silver Lake Boulevard come to a halt, somehow mesmerized, and perhaps wistfully wondering why this constructive figment of clarity and composure hadn't grown on Los Angeles generally," wrote Neutra himself of his 1932 VDL Research House, past which I walk with my girlfriend at least once a week. "Still, there it is — a loquacious missionary by the curb, meant to raise the sights of urban man." And yet, despite its counterintuitively timeless retro-futurism and still-considerable overall attractiveness — I've certainly come to a halt before it — the VDL House today exudes, I admit, a whiff of the deep uncoolness of suburban man.

The very demographic who've supposedly come to colonize Silver Lake grew up in homes surrounded mostly by other homes (none, of course, as innovative as Neutra's), and if they have anything in common with me, they found that model for living badly wanting. Far short of urban density but far better equipped than a suburb for eating, drinking, and designer furniture-buying, the neighborhood has, as boosters of twenty, fifty, eighty years ago claimed about Los Angeles as a whole, taken on a form of its own. What has come to fill this form in the 21st century? Gyms. Thai restaurants. An "indie flea market." Day spas. Purveyors of the oft-lamented yet even more oft-enjoyed five-dollar cup of coffee (though most local baristas come prepared to explain the reasons for the cost to you, and in detail). Yoga studios. An eatery announcing itself as an "urban taco fabricator," a photo of which I once saw an article use as primary evidence of Los Angeles' being the worst city in America. Wellness centers. A "grilled cheese shoppe." Businesses involved with the grooming of dogs. Silver Lake does, it seems, run the risk of fostering a monoculture, which certainly doesn't reflect the city from which it grew. But if it fosters a few new gentlemen's shops, I can't say I mind.

Photos by Colin Marshall.

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