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Urban Oases 

Finding Relief from the City’s Sweltering Heat

Wednesday, May 24 2000
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It‘s never too hot to get wet and sloppy and happy. Sure, it’s 112 degrees outside (inside, too, if your apartment is smack-dab in the middle of the city, like mine), the tires on your car are melting, and the idea of a long, sweaty bus ride to Venice is nightmarish. Still, no need to despair. Flopping dead weight on a chaise longue in front of Baywatch reruns is not the closest you can get to wetted bliss. Last summer‘s high point (okay, so there weren’t a lot of ‘em) came on a day like any other 109-degree scorcher -- except that my Seattle guests were becoming one with the vinyl couch before my eyes, and dousing them with cold St. Pauli Girl only inspired their delirium: “Yesss, we love the rain! Yummy yummy rain! Make it rain, girlfriend! Give us back our gloom!” Being a near-downtown dweller, I hustled them to the closest water I could think of: downtown’s Music Center plaza and its Niagara-strength fountain (135 N. Grand Ave., downtown). It‘s one of those big, flush-with-the-ground ones, with dozens of blowholes spouting powerful streams in ever-changing patterns while mist sprays your face.

Other folks had the same idea, specifically a woman and her daughters, all dressed up for church. Mom had on patent-leather pumps, stockings and a lovely flowered dress that nonetheless looked too heavy for this day. Guess she thought so, too: Soon enough, giggling happily, she, like a reverse Venus, walked right into the fountain, arms outstretched. And so did the rest of us. Relief was swell. The temperature dropped at least 1,000 degrees.

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Other refuges from a heat wave -- without having to follow the sea’s breezes -- are dotted both obviously and near-secretly around the city. One of the more popular ones, also downtown, is California Plaza‘s Water Court (350 S. Grand Ave.), a great escape for white-collar sufferers in the nearby office towers. Being just a short stroll from MOCA, and also from the departure platform for Angels Flight, makes it both a cool and colorful place to take out-of-town guests. The little boites and shops surrounding the cascading waterfalls and silvery pools offer coffee, fast goodies and slow meals, and during the summer, frequent performances of all kinds happen in and around the water. And if you should feel like playing mermaid yourself, well, who’s going to care?

When I moved to L.A. some 20 years ago, my impression of Echo Park Lake (1632 Bellevue Avenue at Glendale Boulevard) and its surrounding park wasn‘t good. Its glory days seemed long gone, and what was left was a grim hangout for gangs. Not so today. On a summer’s Sunday, it‘s utterly charming (and at least it looks cool!). Kids chase dogs, dogs chase ducks, dads chase kids, and hot lovers frenching madly in their paddle boats get happily doused as they steer themselves under the three towering sprays in the middle of the lake. (Though you have to pay a couple of bucks extra if you get your boat soaked, it’s worth the wet.) There‘s fishing in the lake, and plenty of early-morning fishermen and -women enjoying the quiet, almost chilly part of the day, but swimming is reserved for the pool just across the street. The lake’s famous water lotuses don‘t bloom till the fall, but their big, flat leaves give off a lush, tropical vibe.

Another inner-L.A. lake whose popularity has faded and bloomed against all odds is MacArthur Park, with its jacarandas and palms -- a sort of bridge between the newer, lively Latino-flavored L.A. and, situated as it is at the once-swanky end of Wilshire Boulevard (at Alvarado Avenue), the old Deco days.

Griffith Park, though not known particularly as a green haven despite its wealth of trees, yet has a not-so-secret spot that feels like a private river hideaway. (And yes, we admit that a good imagination goes a long way!) Fern Dell, easy to find on Fern Dell Drive just off Los Feliz Boulevard, has an appealing little stream that meanders next to an easy, shady walk. Take a picnic and a copy of Tom Sawyer, claim a bench, and pretend you’re on the banks of the old Mississippi just a-whilin‘ away the time as Tom’s raft goes by. Or just groove on the lovely noise the water makes tripping over the rocks. The feng shui is great!

Want a stunning city view with your oasis? And perhaps a forest and some deer? No problem, and it‘s suitably on top of Hollywood: The Lake Hollywood Reservoir (Lake Hollywood Drive from Barham Boulevard) is a just-about-three-mile paved trail (and part-street) that starts, on the city side, high above Franklin Avenue (though only five minutes away). On a clear day you can see forever, or at least pretty damn far; but turn your back on the city, and -- ignoring Madonna’s old, striped house -- it truly feels as if you‘re in exurban ecstasy, what with soaring hawks and towering trees framing the utterly picturesque green lake with its charming bridge to which a frankly Impressionist rowboat has been tied as if for your amazement. Though it may be a tease -- it’s a fenced reservoir, so you can‘t swim in it or actually get anywhere near it -- it’s as fitting for a hot Angeleno as movies about rich people were for Depression-era throngs: The illusion alone can work wonders.

Just across the river, in East L.A., Hollenbeck Park (415 S. St. Louis St.), one of the city‘s little-known gems, contrasts rather amazingly with the close-by, industrial edge of downtown. Here you can find a shaded getaway in the lilting hilly landscape, or roll down a long, grassy expanse, or just sit in front of a peaceful weeping willow and watch a stunning white egret stalk its swimming prey. Sound unbelievably pretty? Yes, and how! The scenery includes a wooden footbridge, a band shell, a baseball diamond and a community center amid the beautifully tended grounds. My picnic recommendation: a Hollenbeck burrito from El Tepayac (812 N. Evergreen Ave., Boyle Heights; 323-268-1960) and a cold mango drink, then loll and sprawl to your heart’s content.

Other moist escapes within the hot city grid include Lincoln Park, Lake Balboa and, of course, the L.A. River. So come on in, the water‘s fine. Even for those of us far, far away from the seashore.#

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