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East of Westside Eden, There's Still Lots to Like

June 23, 2002|Steve Lopez

Summer came to Silver Lake at precisely the same time this year as last. It happened one month ago, when I awakened to new sounds and smells and a different feel in the air. It was as if an entirely separate climate had been imported overnight, and a bird sanctuary had been established outside my bedroom window.

I got up and did what a man does. I went out and inspected the barbecue, and I checked on the gin and tonic supply, because I could see myself on the back deck for the next 150 nights, watching the sky catch fire as the sun sets over Griffith Park.

To be honest, I never saw myself living in Silver Lake. Last time I lived in Los Angeles, I rented a place seven blocks from the beach on the Venice-Santa Monica border, and I couldn't imagine moving inland.

Especially not to Silver Lake, which is so often described as hip and trendy. I have spent my entire adult life avoiding any indulgence that might be considered hip or trendy.

But you know the L.A. story. Head east from the Westside, and for every mile you travel, you get 10% more house for 10% less money. When I moved back here from the East Coast, I thought of buying in San Bernardino and just retiring, but got only as far as Silver Lake.

So now, having lived in Santa Monica and not far from Dodger Stadium, two places with vibes as different as their climates, I sit up there on my deck and play the East-West rivalry game in my head.

What's the better deal all around?

The Westside is full of people who proudly tell you they never go east of Robertson. The Eastside is full of people who proudly tell you they never go west of Western. It's a class war, and the mid-Wilshire district is like Switzerland. You can eat at El Cholo one night and Canter's the next, and not have to apologize to anyone.

Just last weekend my wife and I drove back to our old neighborhood and rode bikes up the beach trail, like we used to do, and the truth is that I miss summer on the Westside. I used to take the Big Blue Bus home from my office on Wilshire near Barrington, ride my bike to the beach, and swim out far enough to see a dolphin up close.

Early in the season, there's a foot-long fish--I don't know what kind--that comes feeding in ankle-deep water and sometimes washes over your feet. And over by the Santa Monica Pier, where immigrants swim in their pants and someone is always shooting a movie, the city has an edge-of-the-continent feel all its own, the scene bathed in light that exists nowhere else.

I miss the mystery and romance of the open sea, just as I miss morning fog, coffee at the Rose Cafe, and the salted, twilight breeze that blows through the open door and across the bar at Chez Jay.

But summer is never sure it's interested in damp Santa Monica. In Silver Lake, it comes fast and settles languorously, scented with a balm of pine and eucalyptus and smoke from the neighbor's grill.

Sometimes it feels as though we've left a tourist destination and found a neighborhood. We made few acquaintances on the Westside, but a neighbor left a bottle of champagne on our door when we moved inland, and we knew almost everyone on our block in a few weeks.

In a Silver Lake summer, a guy known only as the Walking Man sheds his shirt and turns mahogany by mid-June, cutting along side streets and switchbacks while reading a newspaper or magazine every step of the way. At dusk, there's a parade quality to the procession of ramblers who circle the lake.

I traded beer for gin, dolphins for coyotes, Ocean Park for Griffith Park. It was a fair exchange, even if at times I feel a bit like Woody Allen on a camping trip.

Not that I have a problem with the birds of Silver Lake. It's certainly nice that a few minutes from downtown, in the land of asphalt and monoxide, winged creatures are still breathing. But just as summer arrives in the middle of the night, so does the cacophony. Maybe it's just that my neighbor has lots of trees, but they're at it 24 hours a day, and sometimes it's loud enough that the LAPD helicopters are a relief.

After several sleepless nights in the Tiki Room, I put a jar of pennies by my balcony, figuring I'd toss them at the birds if they woke me again, which they did. My wife awoke to find me throwing loose change into the trees.

"They don't care," I said.

"Who doesn't care?" she asked, half asleep.

"The birds. I'm throwing pennies at them and they still won't shut up."

She suggested quarters, which reminded me why I don't go shopping with her.

If it's not chirping birds, it's the howling coyotes who live in the brush around the reservoir and prowl for pets at night. But there's something soothing about all these sounds; something that evokes a time when the frontier was closer, the desert more obvious, our histories unwritten.

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