The Year Silver Lake Became Santa Monica

Is this sign going to be the only thing left of old Silver Lake?EXPAND
Is this sign going to be the only thing left of old Silver Lake?

In June, they started slowly draining out the water in the Silver Lake reservoir. It's almost all gone

The obituary for Silver Lake as a great neighborhood could've been written many, many times in over the last decade: in 2011, when the Sunset Junction street fair was abruptly cancelled; years before that, when the festival started charging money; in 2012, when Forbes declared it the hippest neighborhood in America.

I myself lived in Silver Lake for a while, in 2002, on Sanborn, atop the hill that's above Sunset Junction, in a studio apartment that cost $480 a month. On the corner of Sunset and Sanborn, a Vice store had just opened up. Yes, before they were an HBO show and a brand and God knows what else, Vice was a really hilarious free magazine and I guess they had a couple of clothing stores too.

I'm sure when that Vice store opened, people were calling it the death of Silver Lake. And when it closed in 2005, I'm sure people were calling it the death of Silver Lake. And when Intelligentsia opened next door, selling $6 coffee and cappuccinos adorned with leaves drawn of foam, I'm sure someone, somewhere was calling that the death of Silver Lake.

Yet 2015 feels like a watershed year for Silver Lake, which not only lost the water for which it is named (albeit temporarily), but two important, long-time fixtures: Alegria and the Casbah Cafe.

Alegria, my favorite Mexican restaurant, closed in July, after 22 years in business. Less than three months later, Trois Familia took its place in the ugly strip mall that also hosts a Baskin-Robbins, a Domino's, a Subway and the surprisingly fantastic  K & C Donuts. Trois Familia is a Mexican brunch spot by semi-famous restaurateurs Ludo Lefebvre, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, who also own Petit Trois and Trois Mec (Shook and Dotolo also own Animal, Son of a Gun and Jon & Vinny’s). I haven’t tried Trois Familia yet. Every time I drive by, there’s a line out the door. 

Then Casbah closed last week, without warning, after the landlord raised its rent 140 percent. It had been in business for 20 years, on a block that would later become dominated by Intelligentsia. It had very nice atmosphere, OK coffee, not very good cookies. I had no particular fondness for the Casbah, but its sudden demise struck me as a telling moment for Silver Lake, in part because of the coffee shop owner's sour goodbye letter:

A bitter ending is always better than an endless bitterness. Casbah is a good example of a turning point in a neighborhood where reality switches from everyday common sense to the corporate world reason...

We stayed longer than reason permitted. We tried our best for the friends of Casbah, but what is impossible is impossible... so we were forced to go with no notice for ourselves either. We had to pack up 20 years of a business over night. Silver lake as it was when we started the neighborhood is gone for good and we could not be the sole supporter for keeping silver lake as it started any longer.

The Casbah wasn't necessarily slain by Intelligentsia – plenty of coffee shops survive and even thrive in the shadow of another. But the two represented competing ideologies. Intelligentsia was a chain, and was indeed part of a corporation. In October, a majority stake of Intelligentsia Coffee was purchased by Peet's Coffee & Tea, itself a subsidiary of JAB Holding Company.

Among neighborhoods east of La Brea, only Silver Lake and Downtown make the Top 20 list of costliest places to rent a one-bedroom in all of L.A.
Among neighborhoods east of La Brea, only Silver Lake and Downtown make the Top 20 list of costliest places to rent a one-bedroom in all of L.A.

Neighborhoods change. People tend to think that neighborhoods ought to always be what they were when they themselves moved in. I dislike the argument that any time a white person moves into a low-ish income neighborhood, it's gentrification. Neighborhoods are great when they are diverse, when they offer a mix of people and experiences, from $1.25 tacos to $6 cappuccinos. When a neighborhood starts to become unable to support businesses like the Casbah and Alegria, it becomes just another upscale neighborhood.

Silver Lake has become Santa Monica.

On the list of neighborhoods with the highest average price to rent a one-bedroom apartment, only two are east of La Brea Avenue: wildly overpriced Downtown L.A., and Silver Lake. And whereas Downtown's prices are created by its continuing flood of costly luxury units, Silver Lake's average rental price would actually be even higher than it is — if not for a ton of affordable old rentals occupied by longtime residents. The newer units are all incredibly expensive. 

Other signs of Silver Lake's Westside-ification emerged this year. A plan by the developers Frost/Chaddock to build three very large apartment buildings, one of which would sit on the fabled Sunset Junction street corner at Sanborn, continues to move forward. Neighborhood activists opposing the plan had hoped that the Silverlake Music Conservancy, which currently sits next to Intelligentsia, would save the day and buy the land from Frost/Chaddock. But the deal mysteriously fell through in January. Now the conservancy plans to move — to Los Feliz.

It was also announced this year that Silver Lake will be getting a Whole Foods 365, the first attempt by the health food giant to pivot its brand to a younger and less affluent generation. That led to a non-controversy when someone started a petition to make the new grocery store a pure, old-school and extra pricey Whole Foods.

The petition never got very many signatures. Nevertheless, a Whole Foods 365 will be more upscale than the Ralph's that once occupied the spot. 

Oh, I almost forgot: Tang's Donut closed. That was in 2014, but I'm still processing*.

To be sure, plenty of old-school Silver Lake establishments remain. There is still the Tropical (which brews freeze-dried coffee), the Vista ($6 matinees!), Rough Trade Gear, the Army Navy store Surplus Value Center (the one featured in Falling Down), Tacos Delta, Millie's Cafe and El Siete Mares.

But take a look, for example, at the east side of the 3500 Sunset Boulevard block, across the street from Millie's. There's a sunglasses store called Retrosuperfuture, an A.P.C. (a very expensive French jeans—made in Asia—company whose other L.A. store is on Melrose Place), Shinola (a Detroit-based company that created these ridiculously bad maps of L.A.), Aesop (cosmetics), and Mollusk Surf Shop, and Pop Physique, which as far as I can tell is what would happen if American Apparel opened up a gym.

The scales have certainly tipped for Silver Lake. It was already too expensive to live there; now, apparently, it's too expensive for businesses like the Casbah and Alegria to stick around. 

In 2014, the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council voted (yes, they actually voted on this) to decree that Silver Lake is not on the Eastside of Los Angeles.

We didn't know they meant it literally. 

*A previous version of this post stated Tang's closed this year. In fact, it closed in 2014, but the pain feels so much closer.

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