“Tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.” —Frank Lloyd Wright
With 10 million residents spread across 4000 square miles, its hard to imagine Los Angeles as the untouched land of rivers and fertile valleys that once led 44 pobladores (recruited by the Spanish governor from the Mexican states of Sonora and Sinaloa) to settle the area they would name “El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles.” It was 1781, and though rule of the city would change from Spanish to Mexican to American hands, the area was, for nearly a century, characterized by its farmland and modest seaport. By the late 19th century, industrialization took hold and would affect this new Pacific hub in unique ways—land and water grabs were orchestrated by opportunists such as William Mulholland, and politics and media manipulated by the likes of William Randolph Hearst. Combine these and other early 20th century developments with the evolution of the commercial-film industry and the post-WWII proliferation of suburbs, and therein is the source from which stems the myriad characterizations of the city’s symbolic identity: land of sprawl, land of a million highways, land of superficiality, land of monotonous climate and natural catastrophes.
The generalizations run so thick that a new branch of academia called Los Angeles Studies, popularized by scholar-authors Mike Davis, David Harvey, Henri Lefebvre, and others, has, in the last two decades, attempted to deconstruct these various conceptions, to parse real blights from highly subjective remonstrations. But despite these efforts to release Los Angeles from the rhetoric of hellfire and brimstone, the uncanny metropolis of America’s Wild West continues to be narrowly mythologized, trapped in the melodramatic discourse of dystopia, and eulogized as a mirror for the social ills of the postmodern, late-capitalist city. One dares not think that beyond the glaring reflections a heart might beat where no pulse was ever thought possible.
Echo Park, as one of the first offshoots of Downtown LA (which in the early 20th century was a thriving civic center), began as a small community based around a rail system, with four trolley lines serving the neighborhood. Consisting mainly of Cambodian and Central American immigrants, the area’s topographical appeal, with its natural eight acre lake and soft to steeply sloping hills, would quickly draw the interest of the bohemian set as well as the silent film industry, and its population would expand to include such a clientele. Film studios were established in the area—Bison Studios in 1909, Mack Sennett studios in 1912—frequented by the likes of Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, and Charlie Chaplin. This modest proto-Hollywood was dubbed “Edendale.” Later, in 1923, evangelical superstar Aimee Semple McPherson, founder of the International Church of the Four Square Gospel and one of the first to broadcast sermons over the radio, would establish Angelus Temple, a church and outreach facility that still stands at the northwest corner of the lake.
This period marks the area’s early heyday. While it was, in fact, one of the first suburbs of L.A., the region soon became more closely associated with the city center, as more and more suburbs, offering more and more jobs, were hastily erected at what was then the county outskirts. The film industry would move to the wealthier Westside, while Echo Park and Downtown drifted out of the limelight. Nonetheless, as the decades have passed, waves of immigrants have continued to flock to the neighborhood, helping to produce the present-day atmosphere, characterized not just by the region’s natural attributes and historical importance, but by streets brimming with local vendors and pedestrians of countless cultures and origins—a display of communal vibrancy that stands in stark contrast to other areas in the fractious constellation of the City of Angels.
“Los Angeles is 72 suburbs in search of a city” —Dorothy Parker
“Echo Park is overwhelmingly in the present,” says Eric Garcetti, president of the Los Angeles City Council and council member for City Council District 13 (CD 13), which includes the neighborhoods of Los Feliz, Silver Lake, Atwater, Village, and Echo Park, among many others. Garcetti, a fourth generation Angeleno and a Rhodes Scholar explains, “Its comfortable with the present because I think it has such a strong foundation in the past, from which it draws continuity. In my own family I have this wonderful picture of my grandmother with her sisters, they came from a Mexican-American family of 19 and moved from Arizona to L.A., and they’re sitting in front of Echo Park Lake, and, you know, there’s other family’s taking that same kind of picture today.”
Garcetti’s emotional tether to the area is in no way an anomaly. Such ties are sustained by the fact that Echo Park has yet experienced the kind of extreme structural makeover that has given corporate facelifts to so many urban “hot spots.” The Echo Park Lake recently celebrated the 110th anniversary of opening to the public and has officially been declared a historic national monument. Additionally, there are residences that have been around as far back as the 1880’s. Walking through the neighborhood, one can clearly see the various influences that have swept across the architectural landscape over the last century and a half: Victorian houses, California Craftsmans, and pueblo-style bungalows dot the hillsides. These structures are the living history of the neighborhood, a visual signature inhabited by residents of equally diverse stripes and types.
Alexis Rivera has lived in an apartment near the lake for the last 4 years. He is known as the one-man workhorse behind Echo Park Records, a management outfit that represents acts such as Chow Nasty and Los Super Elegantes, who embody a unique hybrid of cultural queues that fit well with the locale’s own motley milieu. The inspiration for his company’s moniker is another telling story of place and progenitors: “My dad used to live Echo Park, and he would tell me that in Hollywood, you couldn’t really go out if you were Mexican or Black and didn’t really have any money. He was a mechanic, so Fridays after work they’d put speakers in the garage, friends would bring records, and they’d just have these parties.”
Necessity often breeds inspiration, and, regardless of individuals’ respective connections to regional roots, it is this—the very possibility for both spontaneous and deliberate culture creation—that smacks with appeal.
“When I decided to move to LA, I was enamored by Echo Park,” says Paulo Davanzo, the Italian-born founder and director of the Echo Park Film Center, a volunteer-run, non-profit organization that for the last 5 years has offered free training in film making to area youth and seniors, as well as low-cost training for adults. The Center ialso provides a much needed theater for alternative, grassroots cinema, and acts as a vendor for equipment sales, rental, and repair. More then 160 people currently use the facility.
“The colors,” says Davanzo, “the sense of family, the Catholicism, people walking the streets, people celebrating the urban environment and not being scared of it—that’s what really excited me.”
It is exactly this homegrown heterogeneousness, along with its proximity to the more developed Los Feliz-Silver Lake area to the west and the cash-cow of Downtown to the east, that Echo Park has for the last decade become a locale of renewed interest.
“Its one of the best attributes of our ‘hood,” says Mitchell Frank, owner of The Echo, one of the area’s bona fide live-music venues. “And it has been for decades—Russian, Chinese, Hispanic and hipsters, all intertwined.”
But becoming popular is in no way a process without major problems, especially when a low-income area becomes populated by people from higher income brackets. Julio Douglas, a resident in the Silver Lake-Echo Park area for the last decade and co-owner of the Brite Spot, a favorite late-night diner in Echo Park, does well in summarizing the trend.
“People come here to find a sense of community that you don’t traditionally have in wealthier areas. But at some point you’re going to lose all that, because way too many people come into town, and once people see that money is rushing into the neighborhood, prices almost instantly rise. And at some point there’s a line that gets crossed, when enough people with money enter the neighborhood and the services the community offers changes for them.”
These migrations within city limits happen for reasons both varied and complex: as a backlash against the decentralization caused by the phenomenon of suburbia; as a response to the de-industrialization of the city center and the steady increase in service-sector jobs; as the fulfillment of an upwardly mobile middle-class’s renewed interest in urban living; and, of course, because of hype.
“Every couple months they’ll name a neighborhood the new hot place to live,” says Todd Clifford, manager of Sea Level Records, a modest-sized music store that serves the Eastside as a very necessary antipode to Hollywood’s massive, maze-like Amoeba Records. “Echo Park was the spot for like 15 minutes and then everyone was like, Highland Park! Or some other city. It’s already moved off because the landlords jacked the prices so high.”
These landowners, while obviously accountable for divisive price hikes, are, to some degree, simply responding to the economic and social forces already at play in the city at large. Nonetheless, such spikes have had a hand in the demise of several Echo Park establishments, such as 33 and 1/3, an important bookstore for the area’s left-leaning residents, and Pioneer Market, a local grocery store that offered a dazzling variety of produce that reflected the numerous cultures of the surrounding community. The market was a fixture for more than 60 years before relinquishing its lease in August of 2005. A Walgreen’s now stands in its place.
“Its kind of our fault,” says Douglas. “These places build their own community, they build this great beautiful thing for themselves and because of their own popularity, because they raise the value of the area, they eventually get priced out.”
Lisa Marr is Outreach Director for the Echo Park Film Center and, as such, is responsible in part for organizing more than 300 events there a year. The film center is adjacent to the empty space that formerly housed 33 and 1/3, and similarly, she and Paulo have had to deal with financial threats to the center’s well being.
“When you feel part of the community and you want to nurture the community and keep providing services,” says Marr, “and the lease comes up and your faced with a rent increase that is perhaps triple what your paying, its hard. You have to reassess everything your doing… And while these issues are relevant to us, as people who believe in art and culture, there are people who have been here much, much longer than we have and they’re facing situations that are much more serious.”
Beyond the changing commercial landscape, this is the crux of the current circumstances: the local residents, many of them having occupied the region for decades, are being pushed out of the neighborhood they helped nourish in order for their homes to be leveraged for higher profits.
Says Rivera, “Until very recently I taught in the neighborhood and my students were being forced to move to South Gate and Huntington Park and Las Vegas, because some geezer from Connecticut was willing to pay nine hundred bucks for a studio and my students’ families either couldn’t or wouldn’t.”
Davanzo gives another version: “We have a young gentleman whose family lost their home here a few years ago and he had to move deep into the San Gabriel valley, but he still takes the bus here. He’s made a piece about Chavez Ravine and historically what’s taken place in the area and how it’s affected him and his love for the Dodgers.”
Chavez Ravine was a 300-acre area just miles north of Downtown L.A. where generations of Mexican Americans created a close-knit community that grew food on its land and managed its own schools and churches. The city began to see the area as a blighted but potentially valuable resource, and began enacting measures that would eventually remove—through duplicity and/or force— all Chavez Ravine residents. Beginning in1950, the City of Los Angeles required all residents to sell there homes for the construction of several low-income housing complexes, for which the residents would have first move-in options. But many of the residents refused to quit their land, and the city, tired of waiting, cited eminent domain and began leveling buildings. By 1952, Chavez Ravine was almost completely vacated. The project was halted by federal investigations into the un-American activities of the assistant director of the City Housing authority. In 1953, Mayor Norris Poulson bought the land back from the city, and in 1959, began clearing the land and its last residents to begin construction on Dodger Stadium. Most of the original residents of Chavez Ravine received little or no compensation for their homes and property.
Los Angeles is a geometropolitan predicament, rather than a city—you can no more administer it than you can administer the solar system…” —Jonathan Miller
Well-deserved hype, higher property values, dislocated families—these tell-tale signs squarely place Echo Park in the grips of that most vile of processes: gentrification. The mention of it evokes a myriad of concerned responses.
“I definitely don’t want to see Echo Park turn into strip-mall-ville, that Hollywood and Vine type of situation where its so yuppified,” says Greg Dulli, former Afghan Whigs frontman who recently released his third album with current band, The Twilight Singers. He is also co-owner (along with Dave Neupert, Charles Gainnie, and Oliver Wilson) of the Short Stop, a former favorite of police officers from the Rampart Division that is now a proven place for cheap drinks, esoteric deejays and some feel-good foot stomping.
“The urban and cultural flavor of Echo Park is so important, and I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure that never leaves,” he says. “It’s the soul of the town. And that’s like my concern with New Orleans now. A lot of African Americans have been dislocated. When you start fucking with a cultural heart of a community, you can do irreparable damage.”
“Whoever has the money is who is moving in here, and it makes the community more homogenous, and that’s not what’s interesting about Echo Park,” says Marr. “The interesting thing is that there’s room for everybody here and there’s all these cultural influences coexisting.”
Rivera agrees: “I prefer if my surroundings are diverse. I’d hate to live in a place where everyone is an artist or a young person or whatever. It’s boring and unnatural and reeks of cocaine socialism.”
Davanzo finds the issue more complicated. “Gentrification for me is a term that’s just kicked around a lot. There’s positives and there’s negatives: some mothers have thanked us for educating their kids and thank us for helping to change what used to be a rampant drug and prostitution corner. Others are very bitter, and very angry.”
These contradictory attitudes towards “revitalization” are influenced by the often unwanted results of changes enacted with good intentions. As Garcetti says, “Were caught between ‘I want to preserve this neighborhood but why does it have to be so expensive,’ and, ‘Why does the solution change the face of the neighborhood?’”
For instance, Garcetti, as council president, has overseen spending for the nation’s largest affordable-housing trust fund, including money for eco-friendly homes and housing for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender seniors in CD13. But while multiple-unit properties drive the cost of housing down, it also evokes cries against more traffic and less parking. Garcetti has also, with the help of the Department of Transportation and the Central City Action Committee, a youth-services organization, implemented a plan to beautify and restore the Glendale Corridor, one of Echo Park’s major throughways. The plan includes the landscaping and restoration of old edifices. Meant to renovate long-standing local storefronts and help entice new customers to exisiting businesses, it also unwittingly makes the area more attractive for outside investors. In theses kind of situations, solutions, as well as concessions from opposing factions, are not easy to come by.
“These are issues that are here,” says Lisa, “right with us. How do we get along? How do we all express ourselves and live freely in a situation where we have neighbors extremely different from us, or who maybe are really similar and we just haven’t talked to them enough?”
Talk breaks out frequently at the various meetings that mark Echo Park’s calenda—from neighborhood council meetings to community safety meetings—and reveal the neighborhood’s determination to exert influence within its own community. At any one of these meetings attendants include representatives from CD13, various civic groups like the Central City Action Committee and El Centro del Pueblo (an organization that champions Latino empowerment and provides services from healthcare to employment), influential religious groups, such as Dream Center and Angeles Temple, as well as a good many concerned residents. The interests of the area’s business community are now funneled through the newly resurrected Echo Park Chamber of Commerce, of which Julio Douglas is vice president, and Mitchell Frank the president.
“The chamber is something I am currently very proud of,” says Frank. “It was started because so many of my goals as a business person were the shared goals for the community—keeping homeless issues at bay, cleaning up graffiti, steam cleaning sidewalks, making sure simple things like trash gets picked up when it’s supposed to, or parking lots get swept.”
Although composed of factions that may differ in perspective, the councils and committees in their totality are an extension of the community’s desire to proactively influence the ways in which Echo Park develops. While rent ceilings can regulate unfair hikes in residential zones, the councils cannot legally deny a landlord from leasing commercial property to an unwanted business prospect. It can however, make it extremely difficult to acquire all the proper permits. The question is, how well can a small community board realistically defend itself against the tide of an economy much bigger than itself?
“We’re facing larger forces in the city that Echo Park is like a prism for,” says Frank. “But anybody who thinks that Echo Park itself is gentrifying is missing what going on. And to change the bad side of gentrification, the economics of it, means solving a regional-wide housing crises and a regional-wide traffic problem.”
“Los Angeles is a city looking for a ritual to join its fragments, and The Doors are looking for such a ritual also. A kind of electric wedding. We hide ourselves in the music to reveal ourselves.” —Jim Morrison
Though embroiled in such a predicament, is it possible that Echo Park, through city governance and community oversight, can continue to flourish?
“I think it’s been a really good change,” says Clifford, “Where it’s changing, or gentrifying, without everybody and everything getting kicked out. There are still a lot of the parts that make Echo Park what it was and what it is, and I feel really good that, you know, the Rodeo Grill is still here, and there’s still so many places for the new comers as well as the old locals.”
The Rodeo Mexican Grill, open since 1998, as well as newer cafes like Chango Coffee and re-vamped oldies like the Brite Spot (serving since 1949) make Echo Park a place to continually congregate, and the art- and music-driven nightlife further makes it a destination for seekers of noncommercial acts in noncommercial venues. Unlike so many neighboring districts, there’s plenty to do once storefronts close and night falls.
Every Wednesday for the last five years, Jason Mason, singer and guitarist for the bands Wiskey Biscuit and Future Pigeon, has, with a crew of partners and friends, presided over Dub Club, a night of reggae, roots, dancehall, and yes, dub. Beginning at the Short Stop, where Mason still deejays one night a week, Dub Club currently calls The Echo home. At Taix—the neighborhood French bistro that first opened in 1962—the music manager, also named Mason, has helped foster an alternative country scene, as well as opening the venue to other literary and acoustic happenings. While Little Joy, a small dive with loud speakers, hosts a myriad of local band members moonlighting as deejays.
Benjamin White, Michael Stock, and Samuel Cooper are the deejay/promoters behind Part Time Punks, a club that has opened every Sunday for the last year at The Echo. A mix of live acts and the playing of obscure Anglo records from the late 70’s to the present, the club is consistently packed with people, and they do do what so many visiting bands and deejays complain Angelenos never do: dance.
“I think the intent of the club was to make it the opposite of every other dance club,” says White, who is also guitarist for the band GoGoGo Airheart. “We wanted to make it really inclusive, that’s why it’s still free. And anyone can come, there’s no dress code. We want it to be encouraging—lets not be pretentious, lets not hide our records. It should be a place where people can have fun without changing who they are.”
This sentiment extends beyond mere tolerance, towards a genuine desire of many residents and business owners to help support and sustain all that happens within community borders.
“If you walk down the street you’ll see event posters in every storefront,” says Stock, who frequently lectures on “Punk Rock and the Cinema” at UC Irvine. “Even music venues will put up other venues’ posters. It might seem strange, but they’re all a big supporter of the nightlife. Other venues will send people to Part Time Punks because they’re kind of all about going where the music and culture goes.”
It’s when considering all that Echo Park embodies—its deeply rooted past and the wellspring of its current culture—that one realizes exactly how much the community stands to lose.
“A lot of people work together here,” says Dulli. “There’s a history; a lot of the film business was here in the early days and I think there’s still remnants of that inherent creativity in the community. Thankfully, the Latin heritage over here is still huge, too. As an area close to Chavez Ravine, people here know that what happened there was so fucking horrible. That’s why I think we just wont ever let that happen again, even by gentrification.”
And so the fate of all that Echo Park is, was, and might ever be remains in a tenuous balance between a world economy and a regional economy, between the needs of a neighborhood’s immigrant pioneers and the desires of its upstart residents, and between the ambitions of its business community with that of its civic organizations. What lasts might just depend on whether all the various elements of the neighborhood can stand together with proprietary pride.
“Echo Park, at its core, is a place for the “creative class,” if you will, and that’s across income lines,” says Garcetti. “It’s something that unites people. We know our history, I think we have a pretty good idea of our present, and Echo Park, as a community, has an inkling that its future is going to be beautiful chaos. That’s why I call it home, too. I mean, where else can I have a 12-minute commute to city hall and have roosters wake me up in the morning?”