In line at the bank last Saturday morning, I overhear a man explain to the teller that he has no identification because his “wallet got jacked.” He points to a manager type on the other side of the glass and, with the quiet urgency of a man besieged, says, “That guy with the hat on knows me.” Before long, the customer is sequestered in a glass-doored office with one of the bank officials.

After depositing my unemployment check, I knock on the door of the office where the two are trying to sort things out. For some reason, they wave me in and I tell the two that I overheard the story and am curious about what happened. In his mid-30s and dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, the man is unremarkable except for a noticeable posttrauma agitation. He says he was walking on Rowena when four guys accosted him and he felt something hard and metal pressed into his back. At that point, he jokes, “I just handed over my wallet like a bitch.” The assailants, he adds, were “completely coked up.”

A spate of brutal robberies has cast a pall to match the gloomy weather and dire economy over the normally chirpy neighborhoods of Silver Lake and Echo Park, shiny beacons of the go-go Eastside renaissance. As recently as yesterday, it seems, new clubs, bars, restaurants, galleries and obscenely priced gourmet-coffee shops kept springing up along the area’s hot blocks. Housing values went from relatively modest to fairly absurd in a blink. It was good times for guys in porkpie hats and girls with librarian glasses.

The indigenous boho bonhomie and ironic posturing could engender resentment if you’re a hater, or live west of Vermont, but lately more storefronts have been shuttering than renovating. Local merchants complain of significant drops in sales and wonder how they’ll make it through this recession. And even being the trendiest neighborhood in Los Angeles hasn’t inoculated local real estate from the collapse that’s affected the rest of the state and country. Yet despite the tough times, residents have soldiered on with their coffee drinking and hikes in Elysian Park, their jogs around the new reservoir path and their band lineup changes with maybe just a touch less self-assuredness. Now they’re being told to watch their backs, and their wallets.

By early last week, news of the attacks in areas bordered by Sunset and Glendale boulevards to the north and east and Hyperion and Rowena avenues to the west and south had spread through the close-knit community via group e-mail chains, and a larger picture emerged of a crime wave that police have been either slow or reluctant to share information about. Five assaults occurred between December 30 and January 8, and then five more between January 21 and 31. One victim was stabbed in the shoulder. Others were beaten. I don’t know if these stats include the guy I ran into at the bank.

Speculation has been raging about the motives — were they hate crimes? All of the victims have been men. Some of them are gay. Were they gang initiations? Is the notorious Toonerville gang, not seen this far south for years, now sending recruits into more gentrified territory, as the pickings get slim north of Riverside Drive? Or are gangs simply resorting to robbery as their main source of income dries up, because, let’s face it, who can afford to buy drugs these days?

On Tuesday night, February 3, a friend and I park on a dark side street and walk a few blocks to Nicky D’s Wood-Fired Pizza on Rowena. It’s not far from where a man named Laurent Andreut had a gun put to his head before being brutally pistol-whipped and robbed while crossing from Blair’s restaurant to the Edendale Grill in the early morning on Saturday, January 31. The attackers were said to have been wearing trench coats. Trench coats??? Have we finally entered the Mad Max era we seem to be on the brink of?

Inside, a flyer alerting customers to the danger outside is taped to the bar near the till. Our waitress, who lives a few blocks away, assures us she’s being extra careful and driving to and from work.

By Wednesday, stories about the attacks have moved from e-mail chains and word of mouth to television news and neighborhood blogs. To calm things down, a community meeting is held on Thursday, February 5, at Ivanhoe School. Police assure residents that they are on the case and patrols are being increased, but locals want to know why they weren’t informed sooner. A friend e-mails around a URL of a map posted on the Eastsider LA blog, which pinpoints the crime spots.

At the Coffee Table on Saturday afternoon, Joel and Laura, both 28, are enjoying some java and baked goods and don’t appear too gripped by the recent events. Laura, who moved here from New York 18 months ago, says she didn’t even know about it until her mom called her. “I guess if I were at Edendale late, I wouldn’t walk home by myself,” Laura says. “Probably not a bad idea anyway.”

An unconfirmed rumor that one of the assailants has been caught is floating around by Saturday night. That evening, I speak with writer/performance artist and longtime Silver Lake den mother Iris Berry, who manages the Edendale Grill. She tells me workers are escorting each other to their cars at the end of the night. I ask her if she remembers anything like this.

“It’s never been like this before … never,” she says. “It’s right on target with the economy being so bad. All of a sudden, there’s all this crime.”

On Monday, police arrest four suspects — two men and two juveniles, all of whom police describe as known gang members — in connection with the robberies. It’s good news, for sure, but you get the sense it’ll be a while before things are back to normal around here. Whatever that is.

LA Weekly