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“This is the best street in L.A.,” declares Eric Garcetti as we step onto Park Drive in the hills of Echo Park. It’s 7 a.m. and we’ve just climbed, according to him, the longest staircase in the city. This walk in the hood is a twice-weekly tradition for the City Council president, his partner, Amy Wakeland, and some of their friends.
The crew is dressed to sweat — Garcetti in baggy shorts, bright-yellow New Balance sneakers and a baseball hat from the Hollywood hot spot Hyde Lounge. I’m dressed all wrong in boots and jeans. On top of that, Garcetti chides me for driving instead of walking to his house. Our first stop is to pick up his pal Steve Yablok. Garcetti picks up a small rock. “This is part of the ritual,” he says, preparing to throw it at Yablok’s house. Yablok comes out, but Garcetti lobs the stone anyway, aiming for a window. He misses.
Something scurries in the bushes. “Look, a possum!” Garcetti says, pointing at the critter, which turns out to be a skunk.
With his boy-next-door grin, Oxford education, political pedigree and talents like playing jazz piano, Garcetti has the aura of a rising star. He’s considered to have been instrumental in the recent rebirth of Hollywood (“less shabby, more chic!” said The New York Times), and has been closely involved in Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s plans for a greener L.A. He even got his SAG card playing, of all things, a councilman on television. But Garcetti insists he doesn’t have his eye on any bigger prizes than to be elected to a third term. “There’s my place of work, City Hall,” he says proudly as the downtown skyline looms into view. As we enter the woodsy quiet of Elysian Park, shaded by big old eucalyptus trees, Garcetti stops to hug a woman walking several large dogs. “This is a little Brownie troop?” she smiles.
I ask if people often try to stop him to talk politics in these early hours. “Most people are respectful,” he says. “Or they don’t know who I am.” He does, however, recall the time it took him half an hour to take out the trash: 15 minutes to discuss animal policies with one neighbor, and an additional 15 talking about a new scoreboard at Belmont High with another. “But that’s what I love about the job,” he says. “You’re grounded every day in the place you represent.”
And he knows the place well. He points out sites like the old brick schoolhouse where Marilyn Monroe went to elementary school; the green fields of Taylor Yard, a brand-new state park on the eastern border of the L.A. River; and the community of Elysian Valley, just on the other side of Interstate 5: “The last bastion of working-class Northeast L.A.”
Garcetti says he has plans to go fishing in the river, “but I don’t know if I’ll eat the fish yet.”
Suddenly, the walk turns into a jog, and I traipse along in my boots, trying to keep up while holding pen and notebook. This group takes exercise pretty seriously. Garcetti leads his buddies in a round of squat thrusts, which I haven’t even thought about since I took the presidential fitness test in sixth grade. “We didn’t do these before you came back from Pensacola,” says Ally, a friend of Garcetti’s since junior high.
Unbeknownst to many, the councilman, now 35, is also an ensign in the Navy, soon to be a junior lieutenant. He went to officer training school in Pensacola, Florida, last summer, and he still has nine months of training to go. If he’s called to active duty, he hasn’t figured out what he’ll do. “I don’t know if I can ask the people in my district to just hang on and wait.”
Not to mention the other people in his life.
“Sweetie, what do you think of this oak?” asks Wakeland, who started dating Garcetti when they were both Rhodes scholars in the early ’90s and is a dead ringer for Patricia Clarkson. The couple is considering environmentally friendly trees for their property.
“Slow growth, hon,” he responds.
“We’re personally doing 1/100,000th of the mayor’s million-tree agenda in our yard,” she deadpans.
We leave the park, walking through the old lefty enclave of Red Hill, checking out the exorbitantly priced real estate ($600K for, literally, a shack). “It’s a little slice of all of L.A.,” says Garcetti of his neighborhood. “And it’s just barely hanging on to being that cross section.”
Back at the couple’s elegant, midcentury-modern home, Garcetti and Yablok go to lift weights in the garage. “You can’t leave before doing 10 of these,” Garcetti says to me, pointing to an ab roller on the ground. “You’ll thank me tomorrow.”
Trying to be a good sport, I manage about seven. Shortly, everybody goes inside for smoothies, and more than likely to dish about the Gavin Newsom scandal, which had broken that morning. The press isn’t invited.