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COVER STORY | A real L.A. character

The quirky shape of things to come

Bursting with new clubs, shops, galleries and more -- Echo Park is still its eccentric self. Meet the neighborhood of the moment. Page 34

September 02, 2004|Valli Herman | Times Staff Writer

It's a warm Thursday night at the Echo, and as usual the place is packed -- young regulars in '80s thrift chic and curious newcomers, a shinier bunch. The turntable spins everything from electronica to Motown to a local kiddie rocker, Gwendolyn and the Goodtime Gang. Almost everyone clutches a good Central Coast Cabernet, poured in the club's monthly Extreme Wine Tasting. After the last drop is downed, George Sarah takes the stage and begins to play ... electronic chamber music.

Only in Echo Park.

Here, the alternative universe is comfortably at home. The century-old neighborhood bounded roughly by the Glendale, Hollywood and Pasadena freeways and Rampart Boulevard has been steadily outgrowing its reputation as a low-rent artists' community. Over the past few months especially, it has boomed with creative new ventures in almost everything -- food, art, fashion, music.

Yet it still retains its old character, the quirky bohemian nature that gets scrubbed away when communities get "cleaned up" and -- worse -- gentrified. The locals hate that word. The tension between old and new is a big reason this is such an interesting moment in Echo Park.

Unlike most of Los Angeles, Echo Park maintains its pedestrian scale and its historical flavor. Multiple nationalities coexist along the hilly streets and broad boulevards. In the new century, homeowners priced out of Silver Lake or Los Feliz took on the Craftsman fixers and started looking locally for leisure. They've been followed by businesspeople loaded with cash and hope for a vital community.

In just the past few weeks, a trio of Patina Group expats opened Masa of Echo Park, a European bakery that sells crepes and eclairs alongside Spanish food and pizza. Chango, a new upscale coffeehouse and art gallery, is about to quench the thirst for latte and espresso. Roadside America opened quietly last month on Sunset Boulevard, offering fine art and antiques such as Tiffany lamps and Arts and Crafts furnishings. This week, the old hangout Nikola-Saratoga began its transformation into the second branch of El Compadre, the Mexican restaurant that is home to the flaming margarita.

OK, so maybe not all change is good.

Plug a quarter in the meter (25 cents still buys you an hour) and a daytime visitor can stroll new Sunset boutiques that offer Che Guevara T-shirts, graffiti art, alt-rock CDs and progressive literature. Walk past Flounce on Echo Park Avenue, where a vintage dress is sashed with a John F. Kerry bumper sticker. Or go next door and pick up bath salts, pink gift paper and penny candy at Le Pink. Take in happy hour at stalwarts such as Taix for French food and wine or Barragan's for margaritas and tacos. (Just don't show up on a Monday or Tuesday, when most of the hipster boutiques and antique stores are closed.)

At night, the big change is that there is a nightlife beyond hard-core punk or rock 'n' roll. Jazz plays almost nightly at the Downbeat Cafe. Sea Level Records hosts regular in-store performances and CD release parties. The Anti-Market boutique serves drinks and spins music when a new collection of art or fashion arrives.

In case you need a refresher course on "Reefer Madness," the Echo Park Film Center hosts Thursday night screenings of vintage propaganda films and screens short films by neighborhood auteurs.

It's not all late nights and nicotine. Echo Park seems to bring out the neighborliness in the neighbors. With crime down 22% from five years ago, according to the Los Angeles Police Department, elderly residents are again taking morning walks around Echo Park Lake and families are returning to ride the paddleboats out to the lotus flower patch.

At the 33 1/3 Bookstore and Gallery, a 6-month-old collective on Alvarado Street, Avaceli Silva sells her jewelry and clothing designs and is planning for more community involvement. She and one of the co-organizers, Frank Sosa, a music publicist, have staged book signings and poetry readings and are dreaming about offering crochet circles and silk-screening sessions -- with child care provided.

When Todd Clifford ventured from Los Feliz to open his bare-bones Sea Level Records 2 1/2 years ago, Echo Park seemed "kind of foreign" to him. Now he's holding Sunday barbecues for customers, becoming an indie-band clearinghouse and leading an occasional bar crawl as he and friends walk the 15 minutes to Dodger Stadium.

Sunset Boulevard dive bars such as Little Joy and the Short Stop, where beers are $1 before Dodger games, are now certified hipster hangouts, with the Gold Room and El Prado gradually joining the pack.

"I was in the Little Joy two nights ago," said John Dance, a fashion and graphics designer who goes by JohnQ and runs Anti-Market, a Sunset shop for neo-punk fashion and art. "It used to be a strictly gay bar. Now there are people there from other parts of L.A. hiding out as Echo Park hipsters." Has success ruined the Little Joy?

"No," Dance said. "It still has that run-down, grungy bar atmosphere that we love."

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