Bringing strollers and dogs, people visit the newly refurbished Echo Park… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)
What do you do when an old friend undergoes an expensive and major surgery, remains in seclusion for two years and now is stripping off most of the bandages?
In the case of Echo Park Lake, hundreds of Angelenos turned out Saturday to celebrate and welcome back the beloved body of water and surrounding parklands after a $45-million, two-year renovation. They ambled down retopped pathways, photographed new beds of lotus plants, climbed playground equipment and marveled at the clarity of the lake water, which used to be a notoriously dark stew of toxic runoff.
"It was the heart of Echo Park, but it was in need of a triple bypass," Los Angeles Mayor-elect Eric Garcetti said at a morning ceremony marking the formal reopening of the lake and park. He recalled some of the past troubles with crime and pollution but predicted a safer and cleaner future. "Today we celebrate the rebirth of a lake, of a park and of a neighborhood," said Garcetti, who has represented the area on the City Council.
Just north of downtown along Glendale Boulevard, the park had been off limits for the two years of draining, dredging and rebuilding, mainly hidden from view behind tarp-covered fences. Eager to return, about 300 people rushed in Saturday after Garcetti snipped a ribbon at a northern entrance. Pedestrians, dogs and baby strollers soon lined the nearly mile-long loop around the lake, which began as a man-made drinking water reservoir in the 1860s. Electronic chimes rang from the Episcopal Cathedral Center of St. Paul across the street, and the lake's geyser fountain pumped water high into the air, adding to the vista of Bunker Hill office towers.
Bedillia Sosa, who lives nearby and frequently visited the park as a child, said the last two years felt "like torture" as she walked outside the fencing but was not able to get in. So she came Saturday with her 7-year-old son Frank, who was sitting on a new stone embankment near where the lake's signature lotus plants bloomed again beneath protective netting. "It's a great part of history to share with our kids, and years from now he can share it with his children," Sosa said. "It's part of our family."
Janice Engel, a documentary filmmaker from Los Feliz, fondly recalled her first paddle boat ride on the lake more than 30 years ago. The park's restoration, she said, proved Los Angeles' civic pride and belied stereotypes of a transient and car-obsessed city that does not care for history or walkable neighborhoods. Engel, who is the board president of the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Art Park, said she especially liked how the Echo Park makeover retained and restored many important architectural elements such as the boathouse and island bridge. "It respects history as opposed to wiping it away and creating something ultramodern, which wouldn't fit. This fits," she said.
Not all the bandages, however, were off Saturday. The chain-link fence, parts still draped in tarps, is to remain around the perimeter for several more months to help protect new vegetation and help authorities to monitor activity in the 29-acre park, said Jon Kirk Mukri, general manager of the city's Department of Recreation and Parks. Entrances will be shut between 10 p.m. and 5:30 a.m. and the park off limits during those hours, when most city parks are officially closed anyway. "A lot of the vegetation is still very fragile," Mukri said. "I'm concerned about people enjoying the park a little too much and carrying things home. So let's protect the investment now."
The work was financed from a $500-million water quality bond issue that city voters approved in 2004; the reconstruction cost about $20 million less than originally anticipated, officials said. The lake upgrade includes creation of four acres of wetlands at its edge and construction of new boardwalk embankments for sitting and viewing. The lake's famous lotus plants, killed off in the past by algae and pollution, were replaced by 376 others, which are to remain under netting for a year to foster growth.
Mitch O'Farrell, recently elected to succeed Garcetti as the area's city councilman, promised that he would work to return rental paddle boats to the lake soon and get a cafe to open in the boathouse. "It's really going to be a world-class destination right here in the heart of Echo Park, in the historic part of the city," he said.