It wasn't the fancy coffeehouse. Not the froufrou boutique or the fussy cheese shop. Silver Lake has always had those.
It was something else that tipped the balance--something so incongruous it packed a fright. And like most things unnerving that arrive in the night, it was difficult to square in one's mind.
"Well, get a load of that!" said my dinner companion as he rounded the corner, stunned by what greeted him.
It was a valet service--stand, umbrella and quick attendant in black pants and vest. And it was installed along a stretch of Sunset Boulevard that is home to a leather fetish shop, a cluster of antiques stores, a coffee shop and a motley mini-mall, the mismatched boutiques that for some time now have made Silver Lake Silver Lake.
Gentrification arrives in different guises. It might slip in as an imperious bistro or 15 varieties of mustard on the corner market's shelves. But in this neighborhood one might be hard-pressed to identify any particular sign that firmly suggested a shift in the winds, a selling out, a full-scale renunciation of the area's former rebel self. This is, after all, a place where punk and post-punk grew up alongside ex-hippies turned yuppies, and you could buy Doc Martens right down the street from royal blue Stilton. Gay-friendly, artist-tolerant, multicultural, old money--somehow a whole range of "we are the new world" adjectives settled, more or less, on a way to coexist in the neighborhood.
So when a sexy Indian restaurant and lounge threw open its fairy tale-huge copper doors, its arrival wasn't surprising, and no eyebrows were raised. The post-Spaceland club scene had begat night crawlers of a different sort, those looking for down-tempo places to linger before and after a show, when smoking and drinking on the neighbors' lawns grew tired and predictable. The neighborhood knew how to absorb them and their new haunt. It was adding a valet to the mix that somehow cast this careful chemistry into a different realm.
A 'Destination' Spot
Part of the neighborhood's allure has long been that it's off the radar. Not only does one not blatantly advertise here. (Signage? Lighting? Obvious bouncer? Heavens, no.) A true Silver Lake denizen certainly doesn't need the help of someone ferrying his or her vehicle into the night.
Many residents pride themselves on knowing how to negotiate the neighborhood's tangled hills and perplexing passes. They know the way the streets flit in and out, repeat themselves. They know the difference between a dead-end and a wide-open challenge. A valet, however, suggests that you don't know. Valets cater to an outsider's floating fear or impatience. And what their presence telegraphs to the long-timer is that, yes, the neighborhood has officially moved into the ranks of "destination" spots--and there may very well be no way back off the map.
To be sure, over the last 10 years or so, many a eulogy for Silver Lake has been exchanged over a muddy brew or a bottle of Bud, lamenting the area's shift from hidden anachronism to hip curio. For some, the tipping point came when some unspoken decree deemed that one tattoo parlor wasn't enough--we'd try five. Or when corporate coffee sneaked in under the cover of night. Or when boutiques selling only halter tops and halter dresses not only opened up but thrived. Or when new bars tried to pass as "old bars"--adding a touch of Naugahyde and cigarette musk where there once was none.
This isn't the first valet to set up a post in Silver Lake. A bar and a restaurant or two have offered courtesy parking services within the confines of their own lots. There are other valets that hire out for special evenings. But there is something about this new one's placement. It seems a bit pretentious--like a ball gown at a rave--installed on a ragtag corner across the street from a medical clinic and around the bend from a plain-wrap video mart.
But then, perhaps it will remain and become part of the mix, even as residents will it from consciousness. Over time, hill-dwelling philosophers have turned a blind eye to eccentric silent-movie stars as they moved in. Psychiatrists have ignored the jazz musicians. The burlesque dancers, tattoo artists, garage bands and Hollywood caterers have coexisted by applying equal measures of "casting a blind eye" and "extending the benefit of the doubt." The same prescription, too, could be applied to the new valet, with all the connotations of loss or change those responses might hold.
" 'I think it's just great that we have an un-Silver Lake place in Silver Lake!' enthuses a longtime resident/night crawler, as high on the aroma of curry and coriander as he is entranced by the swank, dim lounge and the trance mix. It makes him think Silver Lake has arrived. "We need this place," he says, using the language of a city where fine shades of distinction are expected: "It's kind of chic ... as opposed to hip."
Not so Good for Tips
The valet himself might disagree. From his vantage, there probably seems to be a chasm to cross. In this land of artistes, bohos and drummers, the $3.50 service charge is taken literally: The first-date chivalrous dig deep, counting the fee--"47 ... 48 ... 50! ... "--to the penny.
Others don't stop at all: Old American beaters covered with primer circle the block again and again, trying their luck up in the hills. Slipping neatly into the last parallel spot in the maze of hills is like deep-sea fishing--Hemingway style, they'll tell you. It's as grand and awe-inspiring as any fish tale.
So until word-of-mouth and impatience with parking roulette seep out across the region, some nights this valet will sit idly for long patches. A five for his trouble buys a surprised and buoyant "Thank you!" Six bills? A flirty, wooing invitation, "Come back soon!" He sees us in our hip thrift-store glory. Under his big umbrella, perhaps he's a ferryman, luring us over to the generous land of the chic.