I did a little detective work this weekend, visiting parts of the city I enjoy but don’t often hang around in: the string of neighborhoods, like pearls on silk cord–Silverlake, Los Feliz, Echo Park–that sit on Sunset Boulevard. They are all part of the gentrifying LA.
I wish I could say that this was intentional. But basically, I missed the movie time at my favorite old-timey theater—the Vista—so instead, I wandered through that part of town aimlessly, poking my nose into everybody’s stew pot, and finding myself at my favorite thrift store in one of LA’s up-and-coming neighborhoods—Echo Park.
For those who don’t know, Echo Park is one of those old neighborhoods in LA that fell into disrepair, gang-land violence, and slumminess. Its main attraction is its amazing man-made lake, which anchors a park–a park that has now been revamped, conveniently, the moment a certain demographic of moneyed professionals started refurbishing the large, lumbering housing stock.
The park is a jewel. You can feed ducks and geese, or ride a pedal boat into the spume of the fountained center. You can fish. There are lotuses that bloom and a yearly lotus festival that has a Chinese-y flavor. I still remember going, once upon a time in a distant childhood, to the park and seeing the strange people and their ungodly ways.
Echo Park is far east from the beach communities—so close to downtown that it could make out with its towering skyline and give it a nice hickey. Word of caution: You shouldn’t say it’s the “eastside” because that might get a lot of true eastsiders upset. For true eastsiders, the “east LA” designation refers to the line east of the LA river—a red line spelled out in concrete that developers only allowed brown people (Mexicans, Japanese, Blacks) to live in.
Downtown is still technically west of the river, so anything west of downtown is the westside. This makes for a lot of high feelings among people who feel that gentrification is all around us, pushing us in all directions–taking and scattering and spitting in our faces.
Still, celebrities like James Franco, Madonna, Zoe Deschanel—they all have chosen to live on the eastside for specific reasons that have everything to do with the way the ordinal points of the city are imagined. To live in Echo Park is to live in the Eastside as a state of mind. It is to wear buffalo plaid and a beard and tattoos. It is to deliberately reject the polo shirt and the Mercedes Benz.
Madonna’s House in Los Feliz
The French might say that it is a gesture of “epater la bourgeoisie”…thumbing their noses at the straitjacket of conventionality, often as a way to achieve an elite status–the status of the bohemian. Many decades ago, the writer Paul Fussell described this very French provocative-ness as something akin to walking on a plane in a see-through blouse without wearing a bra. I would update this by saying it’s like doing all that and not shaving your armpits and tattooing that hairy armpits are cool in calligraphy on the side of your neck.
The eastside self-consciously rejects the westside–with its conventionality and its prime real estate and its striving lux-ness. And Echo Park has been the last part of the steady spill-over of gentrifying neighborhoods—each like dominoes adjacent to the other; each producing their own refugees seeking better parking, better rents and gentrifying the neighboring outskirts a bit faster.
First, there was Los Feliz where Leonardo de Caprio grew up; Madonna put it on the map and it was made. Second, there was Silverlake where our current mayor Eric Garcetti bought a home; it was at one time the home of punk and is now the home of postpunk parents with six-figure jobs and toddlers in onesies that bear the image of punk rock icons and “fuck-the-establishment” aphorisms. Third, there was Echo Park, which has experienced the fastest boom; the housing stock is bigger and better as you close in on the city core. Eric Garcetti–our great mayor—bought another home here and chooses to live in this corner of the city, eschewing the mayoral mansion in staid Hancock Park, which is too historic, too stodgy, too old-money.
Whenever I’m in Echo Park, I make a bee-line to my favorite thrift store—Out of the Closet. It’s a really great place for books, because graduate students—those bellwethers of gentrification—live there. Academic books that go for fifty to a hundred dollars often will be available for a buck. Also grad students are very selective book hounds, so their abandoned collections are usually well thought-through: not only excellent titles but standard editions. “I want to stop in here for a minute,” I said to my wife after a coffee at the fancy schmancy Blue Bottle–a shrine to cold drip coffee, subway tiling, and sleek modernist lines.
I wanted an out of print book that was already on special order for me in the mail but which had not yet arrived and I was sure that Out of the Closet would have it. When you have that kind of lust for a book, you will search it out like a serial rapist with an uncontrollable compulsion and a wandering, wondering eye.
“You’re such a saint,” I said, as we walked past the workers offering free AIDS tests. “I know you hate these places.” The sign on their little table–a table covered with freebie condoms and pamphlets–announced in bubble letters that if you take a test, they will give you a ten dollar Metro Pass. Echo Park is on a major transportation line and it is the epicenter of the bike lane movement–its zero-emission sensibility somehow aligned with its trophy-veganism. My wife takes the Metro from downtown once a day, so she could use a few extra swipes. Still, I was on a mission. There was no time to spare.
But no such luck. The book selection was actually terrible. I walked through the neat racks and did come across some amazing finds: a Jil Sander suit that normally retails for 4K, a Brooks Brother’s special edition Women’s suit that would look great with pearls, an Ungaro Camel Hair Coat made in Italy.
I took none of it home but I did try the Jil Sander suit on. I have that exact same suit in glen plaid, so I know how much it costs full retail. And this Jil Sander suit fit me better than my own. Except this one had scuff marks–as if somebody had fallen off a motorcycle during a weekend heroin binge, one that would get them fired from their job as an executive in one of the glittering towers in the distance. “If I was in a punk rock band, I would buy this suit and put patches all over the fucked up parts.”
“This would make a very stylish zombie outfit for Halloween,” said my wife, looking at the price tag. “Even at 50 dollars, it’s a steal.” I could hear the mockery in her tone.
So what is my take-away? The writing is on the wall: the graduate students have moved out. The yuppies have moved in. Home prices here are already past the million dollar mark. This is the common wisdom repeated over and over again. But a million dollars is too abstract for my little mind.
I guess I should have known all along. But for me, this thrift shop is the tell-tale footprint by the back alley entryway. It is the splash of blood on the hem of a skirt—the dog howling late in the late of the night. It is the sound of crunching on gravel that startles you awake after a fitful sleep.