This is neither a rant against nor a rationalization for gentrification. We all know there’s good and bad that can be pointed out in transitioning neighborhoods like Echo Park. But with Echo Park Rising bringing attention to the 'hood once again, I think it’s time to celebrate Echo Park past and present, changes and all. The minimalist restaurants, street-clogging valets, corporate coffee hubs and chain restaurants are accepted by some, hated by others and evoke mixed feelings for a few.
Echo Park remains magical regardless, especially for natives, because its history still glimmers — not unlike the way the sun reflects off ripples in the lake — in special ways, big and small. Sometimes it’s via old landmarks that bring about funny flashbacks, sometimes it’s via a great find at an indie-owned business, and sometimes it’s via booze- and music-induced moments that could only happen there. Here, I share a few, which I hope will also function as a sort of loose guide to a few of the area’s must-see locales during the festival and beyond.
Echo Park on Foot
If I was giving someone directions and had to point to a landmark that says, “You’re in Echo Park,” it probably would be a three-way tie: Burrito King on Alvarado, Taix a few blocks down (once and for all: It’s pronounced “Tex,” not “Tay,” OK?), and the revolving blue and brown monstrosity for the Sunset Foot Clinic (2711 Sunset Blvd.; (213) 483-4246), known as the “Happy Foot/Sad Foot” sign. It’s become kind of a hipster obsession since it was erected, with mentions in songs, books and merch (see Etsy, natch). It’s been said that locals see the sign as a mystical fortune teller for their day depending on what they see first as they drive by, but as a native, it symbolized something more literal for me and my friends — the border between two parts of the city, one changing faster than the other, for better or worse. It’s been the unofficial divide between Silver Lake and Echo Park in my mind since I was a kid, and I guess I’ve been right all along. According to the L.A. Times neighborhoods map of L.A., Benton Way, where the bipolar SpongeBob-esque character spins eternal, is in fact the change-over between Silver Lake and Echo Park. Misguided blogs trying to make “HaFo SaFo” happen as a name for the surrounding region need to stop, not only because it’s an actual border requiring no label but because we’ve all been saying it backward, anyway! If the sign (and what it represents) is doing its job, we enter sad and leave happy, right?
Drinking & Diving
The Lost Knight is gone. The Gold Room ain't the same since the remodel. El Prado still doesn’t have hard liquor, nor do Lot 1 or Sunset Beer (obviously). El Compadre and Taix (remember it’s “Tex”!) are restaurants, not proper bars. So if you’re looking to rage and revel in a bar atmosphere, there are really only two spots you should go to: Little Joy (1477 Sunset Blvd.; (213) 250-3417) and the Short Stop (1455 Sunset Blvd.; (213) 482-4942). These two, less than a block apart, are where young Echo Parkians let their hair down, hit on one another (and/or their vape pens) and have fun. Both provide decently priced drinks, great DJs and space for drunk dancing. This weekend, there probably won't be as much space, though. Prepare for long lines, too.
Up Around the Bend
Some of the same locals who maligned Mohawk Bend (2141 Sunset Blvd.; (213) 483-2337) when it opened have succumbed to its charms, this writer included. The great beer selection, tasty bites and spacious front patio make it a people watcher's paradise and a solid date-night option. But the Bend’s inviting exterior also maintains a marquee that harkens to Echo Park’s austere past, when the space was a $2 movie theater with perpetually springy seats and sticky floors. My most vivid memory at Studio One, as the theater was called then, involved a screening of Allison Anders’ raw and real depiction of the ’hood itself, Mi Vida Loca. Me and my friends thought it’d be cool to see the film in its actual setting on opening weekend; apparently, so did every gang member in Echo Parque. Talk about an interactive movie experience: Anytime a member of a rival gang came on, hand signs shadowed the screen and shout-outs nearly drowned out the dialogue. When some in the crowd got annoyed and yelled for silence, a back-and-forth ensued that quickly escalated into a “puto”-packed shouting match, with threats of violence that the young ushers there sure as hell didn’t attempt to stop. A few left the theater assuming an actual gang fight might go down, but my friends and I stayed. We were goth teens, Latino-goth teens to be precise, and I guess we appreciated the dark irony of this Rocky Horror Picture Show, Cholo Edition. The fact that I lived to eat buffalo cauliflower appetizers in the same space decades later makes me feel just a little bit badass.
Some were sad to see Out of the Closet on Sunset Boulevard shut down last month. But even though the window displays were brilliant, truth be told, I never found anything great there, or at thrift spots up Sunset near it, that wasn’t overpriced. Digging through a Goodwill or Salvation Army is worth it to find a $6 dress or top, but if I’m going to pay more, I don’t want to work for it. In this case, curated vintage is the way to go and in Echo Park, the two that bring it and have been for years are Micki Curtis’ Lemon Frog Shop (1202 N. Alvarado Blvd.; (213) 413-2143) and Oscar de la Cruz’s Luxe DeVille (2157 Sunset Blvd.; (213) 353-0135). Curtis has been in the vintage game for most of her life (she started at Wasteland back in the day) and there is always a treasure to be found in her colorful little store, which has been on Alvarado for over 10 years now. From dead-stock jewelry to ’60s and ’70s shoes and boots to beauteous boho dresses, tops, trousers and jackets, some stuff is a steal, some ain’t cheap (the rare stuff that’d go for triple her price on eBay), but all is in great shape and suited to fans of various era retro styles (from hippie, mod and disco to new wave and grunge). Luxe DeVille, which has been in Echo Park for two decades (!!), approaches vintage from an artier point of view, and the baubles, bags, frocks and footwear are always fabulous here and fairly priced. “Shop local” is a big part of Echo Park Rising’s mindset, and these two long-standing small businesses offer many fashionable ways to support this position.
We All Heard It
If you love music and dancing, you probably have a million memories from the Echo (1822 Sunset Blvd.) and the Echoplex (1154 Glendale Blvd.; (213) 413-8200), as I do. I mean, I could write a book about these legendary adjoining clubs at this point … maybe I will! So instead of reminiscing about a particular night, I’ll just list my favorite parties there over the years and say that whatever night you go to either club, your odds are more than good, even after all these years. Props to Funky Sole, Part-Time Punks, Dub Club, Grand Ole Echo, Emo Night, Dragstrip 66, Bootie L.A. and Sex Cells, and bow to the club(s) for unforgettable shows by hundreds of local bands and biggies including L7, Jane’s Addiction, Nine Inch Nails and … The Rolling Stones, which I feel confident declaring will not be topped in Echo Park or anywhere in L.A. when it comes to a mind-blowingly surreal live music experience.
In the Park
The swan boats are not the boats of my childhood, but that’s OK, they are more beautiful on the water. Kids actually play in the park now (when I was little, my parents deemed it unsafe). People from all cultures and backgrounds do picnics and take walks around the lake every day. Street vendors still sell inflatable toys, ice cream, fruit and meat. The lotuses have returned. Echo Park endures, different but still sort of the same, too. This weekend it will rise, but don’t forget, it’s always been there, and there's more to see and hear now than ever (751 Echo Park Ave.; (213) 847-0929).