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City Smart | Time Out / L.A. AT Play

Echo Park Spot Offers Respite From the Heat --and a View of Oncoming Traffic

July 26, 1996

Liberace had a piano-shaped pool. Jayne Mansfield's was in the shape of a heart. At Pickfair, screen stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks installed a sandy beach next to their customized 55-by-100-foot swimmin' hole to eliminate the need for that grueling drive between Beverly Hills and Santa Monica.

Over on the other side of town in gritty Echo Park, the city-run outdoor swimming pool is 50 feet by 90 feet and is shaped like a teardrop. Rather than being surrounded by lush foliage, it runs smack dab against the guardrail of the bustling Hollywood Freeway.

"We consider the view like a big-screen television, with Sensurround sound," laughs veteran pool cashier Roberta Jones, as she gazes out her window past the splashing swimmers and directly at a steady stream of oncoming Mazdas and Mitsubishis, not to mention the looming downtown skyline.

Since its dedication four decades ago, the Echo Shallow Pool, as it is officially known, has picked up some offbeat monikers.

Because of its diminutive size--five feet at its deepest with a capacity of 100 swimmers--some refer to it as the Echo Park Jacuzzi. Others, citing the proximity of the freeway, joke that it is the city's ultimate "car pool."

Manager Rene Alvarado compares his domain to a fish tank because of its visibility to tens of thousands of speeding motorists.

"We're on exhibition like a small little aquarium," said Alvarado, 24. "They're looking at us and we're looking at them."

Yet despite its quirks and limitations, the municipal pool, for many fervid youngsters, is an ideal way to temporarily forget the overwhelming summer heat.

"You don't even really see the traffic when you're in the pool," said Marlon Jones, 10.

Well, that's not entirely true, said John Vannaseng, 13.

"There was an accident once and a truck flipped over right in front of me" on the freeway, the middle-schooler said after climbing out of the pool, sopping wet. "I thought it was coming in here."

Nevertheless, Vannaseng swears by the pool.

"I come here every day. I even learned to swim here," he said. "It's a good way to relax."

Indeed, many regulars stay up to five hours each afternoon, taking lessons, splashing around and occasionally sunning themselves face-down like seals on the hot concrete--just a stone's throw from the ubiquitous panhandler at the adjacent entrance ramp.

Dedicated two years after completion of the freeway, the Shallow Pool is open every afternoon from late June to early September. Daily fees are 75 cents for children and $1.25 for adults. The registration cost for two weeks of swimming lessons is a mere 50 cents.

In some ways, the pool's size and shallow depth are a plus in a city where some public pools have picked up a reputation for trouble.

"It doesn't attract tough gang members," Alvarado said.

Occasional problems have broken out over the years. Yet one of the worst reported incidents involved fruit rather than firearms. In 1973, according to files at the city's Department of Recreation and Parks, the pool was shut down one afternoon because of "kids throwing bananas . . . at [the] lifeguard."

These days, the most persistent problem is graffiti--yet with no short supply of water, the markings are quickly washed away.

Oh, and there's also the odor of engine exhaust.

"Sometimes you can smell the fumes," Alvarado said.

At least, the manager added, his staffers are better off than those in the pre-catalytic converter era.

"We appreciate the new cars," Alvarado said. "As well as the truck drivers who don't drop in for a visit."

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