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November 29, 2006

Side streets of Masa

Masa Bakery & Cafe is already something of an institution in Echo Park. It opened about three years ago (more or less), replacing a different neighborhood landmark, the Cuban cafe Carmelos, which looked as though it had occupied its corner at Lemoyne and Sunset for decades. The departure of Carmelos looked to me like part of a gradual fading of a strong Cuban presence -- in the shops, at least -- in Echo Park. In any case, Masa opened and at first it seemed vaguely French: little puff pastries, a guy who spoke in a French accent, crepes on the menu. It also had historic -- i.e., late 19th century -- photos of Echo Park on the walls, big band music and Chicago pizza. On any given weekend morning half the patrons seem to know one another. There are lots of panini on the menu. In case there is any confusion about where to locate Masa, read the pizza: the cafe's newest menu offers a full page of "side street" bistro pizzas. Twelve of them: The Elysian Park; The Santa Ynez; the Quintero; The Bonnie Brae; the Cerro Gordo; The Alvarado; the McDuff...etc. The pizza map here is heavily weighted to the south end of Echo Park, overrepresented, perhaps, by Angeleno Heights. An issue for the neighborhood council?

To Pizza Buona (another EP mainstay): the pepperoni is in your court!

November 26, 2006

Theroux's goose


Photo: November 2006
By Martin Cox

A certain amount of "space" in Chicken Corner -- or should I say "time" -- has been devoted to geese: mugger geese, Chinese geese, a semi-rare Ross's goose. Then I fly away to Washington, D.C., all set to think about...other things, and what do I catch out of the corner of my eye? Geese. Two of them on the cover of the December 2006 issue of Smithsonian Magazine, decorated with the name of Paul Theroux, who raises geese in Hawaii. Who knew? (December issue yet available online.) The cover geese look just like the pair who have nipped at my ankles near the Echo Park Lake lotus bed -- you may know them if you are a devotee of the lake: smaller than many of the others, white, with orange bulbs the size of ping-pong balls on their heads and elegant carriage in the water that makes them seem almost like swans, but if you have food then watch out: they'll be coming at you. They are harmless, but it's disconcerting. Nowadays when my two-year-old sees a picture of a goose or duck she announces "That one's not gonna get me." And I tell her, for the twentieth of fiftieth time, that no goose will ever hurt her. I am tempted to tell her "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," but it's not true.

In any case, Theroux raises geese. He seems to find them more amiable than his one-time mentor V.S. Naipaul. In Smithsonian, Theroux makes an argument against anthropomorphising animals. (Because it's a barrier to understanding their world.) My question is whether we are correct to anthropormphize the creatures who have created the "natural" conditions at Echo Park Lake: the oil scum and trash in the water, the pet store turtles that over-breed, the abandoned pet ducks, the turtles who have been hooked in the neck by fishing-people. Etc.

Theroux complains that E.B. White, the children's author and essayist, makes his geese and other animals too cute. More on point, he notes White's "deficiency of observation" in regard to geese, which White also raised. I'm all for taking deficient observation to task because it could open the door to a surfeit of observation. Alas. My personal disappointment: Theroux glides quickly past any real details of goose behavior that might have proved useful to a goose lover in Echo Park. Perhaps my mistake is my approach. Like a mugger goose, I am not happy with the morsel I have been tossed. I wanted behavioral analysis and got a lot of talk about E.B. White, and it wasn't enough. I had thought a story about geese would be about geese. When it was a different kind of animal all along.

Enough whining. The two birds in the picture above live at Echo Park Lake. Martin Cox first showed them to me. The one on the right is a goose with a very thick neck. The other is her chick, now nearing maturity. The chick appears to be half duck. Not in the picture is the white duck (which may be part goose) that is the father of the chick, whom Martin calls Frankenduck, in a blatant act of anthropomorphism...or maybe not.

Enough whining. The two birds in the picture above live at Echo Park Lake. Martin Cox first showed them to me. The one on the right is a goose with a very thick neck. The other is her chick, now nearing maturity. The chick appears to be half duck. Not in the picture is the white duck (which may be part goose) that is the father of the chick, whom Martin calls Frankenduck, in a blatant act of anthropomorphism...or maybe not.

Bubbles: You may have seen the white puffy balloon-like sculptures at M & A, the experimental, architecture-lanscape-concept space, whose installations are free and open to the public. It's in Silver Lake, which is off the map as far as Chicken Corner's usual wingspan and mind spread is concerned, but they have an interesting-sounding presentation planned for Tuesday night -- tomorrow.

Garcetti/New Frontier/the great forest of LA

Out of town: Council President Eric Garcetti blogged a few days ago that he was in Cambridge, Mass., at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where he accepted the New Frontier Award. The award is for under-forties.

Garcetti told the Kennedy School's Institute for Politics:

In L.A., I live in the neighborhood of Echo Park, a beautiful corner of America, close to downtown Los Angeles. Spanish, mandarin, tagalog, and khmer all mix with english on our streets. My neighbors face the same challenges felt by too many Americans these days. Can they find an affordable and safe place to live, can their children receive a good public education, and can they find a job that rewards their hard work with decent pay, health care and time off with their families?

Catching up on my CD-13 reading, I came across Eric's entry on the city's million trees program, which makes me shiver with joy. More trees! Imagine Los Angeles united for shade and oxygen! Not to mention the visual pleasure of green.

In August, the mayor hugged Bill Clinton and promised Los Angeles would grow more trees and help save the planet.


I realize that our city has historically been more synonymous with sprawl and smog, but we're committed to making LA the greenest big city in America and a model for sustainable practices.

Are you ready, DWP?!

Tell it on the mountain

Well, Chicken Corner fluttered off the map this week, what with Thanksgiving and an airplane ride to Washington, D.C., and a car ride to the mountains, where we got stuck in an ice storm. Not a scrap of chicken art in sight anywhere, though Nelson County, Virginia, is no stranger to chickens, which I assume because it has many small family farms. I say Chicken Corner fluttered off the map, but that supposes that the boundaries of Echo Park lie in the park somewhere to the east, Riverside to the north, and so on, and one of the things I have discovered about the map of Echo Park is how open to revision -- or at least interpretation -- it is. (At the moment I might even argue it exists in the region of the senses, which is not bound by the Thomas Brothers' Guide.) Michael Connelly, for example: In his new book titled Echo Park the writer locates the significant site (for which the book is named) in a place I personally think of as the west edge of Chinatown. I have already groused about Connelly's overrated sense of place in Los Angeles. I have also groused about readers who get upset when you write about anything they think they know and own: you can never get it right enough wrote it (and not them). But I can say that Connelly's latest Harry Bosch story displays the usual strengths that make his books stand out. Its a sexy police procedural that brings to life the landscape that Connelly genuinely cares about: the land of forensics and human motivation. Echo Park itself, I don't believe he spent much time there. Or, if he did, his mind was elsewhere -- in the Valley, perhaps. He offers little description of the neighborhood: To say that a walk down Sunset Boulevard exposes you to shop signs in a bunch of different languages is hardly an effort to bring Echo Park to life. It wouldn't even be worth complaining about had he not titled the book Echo Park, which made me think he was going to offer some sharp observation about the place.

To me, Echo Park is sounds mingling. In the space of an hour, you can hear: the sound of a rooster crowing, Norteno music, blending with indie rock and the sound of the "pan dulce" man driving in his truck, shouting-singing "pan dulce!" while gunfire from the police academy rings out like rain. Well, that's one of its songs. The neighborhood has many. and it doesn't take long to hear them.

Speaking of songs, while in the Virginia mountains I watched a DVD of Brokeback Mountain -- nothing like crossing the country to visit one mountain range only to settle in and look at pictures of a bigger one. The lovely soundtrack is of course written by Gustavo Santaolalla, a resident of Echo Park, California.

November 20, 2006

Blue bottles and water

Blue Bottles
The north leg of Lemoyne is one of those Echo Park streets that trace a ridge line. But down toward Grafton, north of Sunset Boulevard, the street starts to cut into the hillside, descending. On this section of Lemoyne the houses are closer together; the downhill houses have their front doors close to the street, or down a stairway, and the uphill ones are reached after climbing staircases of varying lengths. This is where the singer-songwriter Elliott Smith killed himself. It’s where novelist Janet Fitch houses her heroine in her most recent book, Paint it Black. Fitch uses Lemoyne as a dingy contrast to the high life of the Los Feliz hills in the 1980s. This stretch of Lemoyne is also where the Blue Bottle House – as I call it – has been taking shape for several years. From street level, looking up to the east, you see a property surrounded by a fence and many hundreds of blue bottles filled with water. It’s a piece of folk art that grows year by year. Though it doesn’t appear to be driven by the religious fervor of James Hampton's “Throne of the Third Millennium," which is installed in the Smithsonian Museum of American Art (Hampton was a janitor who spent fourteen years creating a silver altar that was found in his garage after he died), the Blue Bottle House is undoubtedly a magnificent obsession. Its creator is Randett King Lawrence, who recently told artist Cindy Bennett that he began the work about seven years ago after noticing that he could see the horizon, upside down, inside of a bottle filled with water. Thus, a dream of light began to turn in circles, arches and repeating patterns, almost entirely in blue.

Photo: Blue Bottles #1, November 2006
By Cindy Bennett

November 16, 2006


Between radio transmissions and helicopters and planes, the airspace over Echo Park has been a busy place for a long time, even though police activity has been quieter in the last couple of years: the spotlight searches that used to be commonplace, until a year or two ago, have become infrequent. But there still are the scores of choppers following the greenbelt from Griffith Park and Elysian Park into downtown. There still is routine police traffic, as there is a chopper parking lot not too far away, to the east of Chinatown, but pilots have agreed to fly higher in response to neighborhood pressure. The roof of Echo Park’s tallest and only skyscraper – the ten or so storied former CalFed building – has an active helipad. And then, of course, there are the airshows over Dodger Stadium. When I lived on Sargent Place, next to the Elysian Park, show planes would fly over: I remember the sky darkening suddenly as a giant bat – no, that’s the Stealth Bomber – swooped over our house from the west on its way to the stadium. Perhaps it inspired the Cacophony Society – a merry band of hipster-pranksters – in its launching a few months later of a “UFO” over Elysian Park, a giant, disk-ish shaped balloon with flashing lights that flew to helicopter airspace and drew a crowd on Sargent Place.

All this to say that, apparently, the busy skies of Echo Park are nothing new. Joe D’Augustine emailed me Sunday with a news that the LA Times had republished a 1937 news item, which described the acid rain that ruined the paint on cars. The poison rain came from an air show over Echo Park, and it reminded me of a vintage LAPD archives photograph that showed a downed twin engine plane in which an actor and his date had crashed on the west side of Echo Park, with no fatalities.

Take me to the river/Frogtown Artwalk

Frogtown is named for frogs. It’s the neighborhood – also known as Elysian Valley – that tucks between Riverside Drive in Echo Park/Silver Lake area and the Los Angeles River. It’s residential and industrial, one of those margins in the city that non-participants often blink away as they drive past (in this case the 2 and 5 freeways). Though you’d have to have your eyes close these days not to notice the resurgence of green space along the river, thanks largely to the efforts of Friends of the LA River. I am writing about it at this moment because tomorrow evening there is going to be a free, self-guided tour of fourteen designers’ and artists' studios and other alternative/green ventures such as Lovecraft Biofuels that have found space in the valley of the frogs. Friday, from 7 to 10 pm, doors will be open.

Right, frogs: In the 60s, according to local lore (and fact, no doubt) there was a deluge of frogs along the banks of the river in Elysian Valley. (I once saw a similar scene in Oklahoma, during a heavy rain when hoards of toads fled a nearby river and hopped to the Holiday Inn where I had also taken refuge during a road trip.) The name Frogtown stuck.

According to Frogtown Artwalk’s website:

At some point during the 1960’s, residents of the small community of Elysian Valley stepped outside to a veritable flood of frogs blanketing the streets and yards of the neighborhood. Legend has it that the polluted water of the neighboring Los Angeles River caused a decline in the natural predators of the native red-legged frog: the herons and the crayfish. The resulting reptile explosion caused the frogs to overrun the banks of the river and to stray into the neighborhood.

This morning, walking my dog in Elysian Park, I stopped and looked way down the hill at Frogtown, which also gave its name to a street gang in the vicinity. (I once had a landlord who told me that she had belonged to the Frogtown gang when she was a kid. When she wanted to get out of the gang, they “jumped her out” by beating her up and throwing her in the river, where she nearly drowned. My former landlord is now a film editor.) Below me, in the lower foreground, was the rushing river of the freeways. I could tell the "real" river in some places by the thick growth of trees along the banks and in the middle of the river – sycamores and other common riparian species. There was the grid of small homes in Frogtown, a couple of churches, and the warehouses: Dolly Madison bakery, for one. And, though I couldn’t tell which one, the garage of my one-time mechanic, Pete, a sovereign citizen of the planet who does a good job and receives payment in PWFC: potentially worthless federal currency, which is duly noted on all receipts. There was the area where the Haywood Wakefield furniture storage and sales warehouse stood: it may be there still but the last time I visited was about ten years ago. Looking down at Elysian Valley I was able to see the back of a hawk, circling below me. It circled, or floated, upward slowly, rising to my level and then rising above me until I was looking at its belly and the underside of its wings.

November 13, 2006

Echo Park houses

Baxter Street
The Fourth Annual Echo Park Home Tour provided not just a chance to punish our lungs walking up streets so steeply graded I often go out of my way to avoid driving them, it offered a chance to gossip (about houses, dogs, people), snoop and set aside ambivalent or guilty feelings about how “fancy” the Echo has become since the latest turn of the century. True to Echo Park, several of the nine houses were very small. I would guess that one of them – a “stair street” cottage (even though there were no stairs, just a paved somewhat vertical walkway) seemed about 800 square feet total; it has been occupied for the last forty years by a pair of ballet dancers, a married couple who painted murals in the living room. Walking through was like visiting a music box – albeit one with pictures of John Lennon and yellowed cloth-bound books. Another small, exquisite house was originally built from a Sears kit for garages: tiny house, huge view, enormous personality. Not on the tour: The smallest Echo park home I know of is on a stair street and is about two hundred-some square feet; not surprisingly, it recently rented to a young woman relocating from New York City.

Photo: November 2006, by Martin Cox

The Steinbeck House, named for a cousin of the author, the house’s former owner, is not small by Echo Park standards. It, too, featured wall painting – stencils in almost every room – by the owner-occupants and the most elaborate tiki room I could even imagine. Just recently completed, the Steinbeck tiki room outdates the notion of tiki revival being outdated.

At every house, I ran into people I knew from different parts of the neighborhood, and at every house I got into at least one conversation about dogs, usually along the lines of, “Oh, right, I remember you, you used to have that black and white dog who.…” Or, “I don’t know how they keep this house looking so pristine with five large dogs… I only have three, and my house is a mess.” The sun was shining; about two dozen high school kids from the neighborhood were volunteers; no one seemed to be talking about gentrification.

Without saying so, this tour highlights the idea that style does not require a load of money, just a unified sense of taste and the will to go yard-sale-ing on an obsessive basis. Some might say there's even a moral dimension in the joyful, adpative reuse of discarded picture frames and the like. A bohemian value system that for some nears religion. Depending.

While docenting I learned about a property I had always admired based on the slightly eccentric fence that blocked the house from view. The Lemoyne Street fence is painted green and is decorated with all manner of inlays, quite fanciful: a good example of old-style hippie Echo Park. The new owner said he and his wife had just bought it from a couple who had owned it since 1967. The couple were from Germany and Sweden and they had raised a child in the house, which originally had been a hunting shack. They had spent decades terracing, gardening, building things by hand. And now it was time to move on. The house itself will be replaced, as it has no real foundation. But the new owner said he bought the place in appreciation of what had been created, and changes would be minimal. He said the fence probably would stay.

Speaking of classic Echo Park: this year's tour did not include the pack rat homes in which found materials are stored in tall piles in the front yard. Nor did it include the blue bottle house on the other side of Lemoyne Street and other one-of-a-kinds that defy categories and sometimes city codes.

Disclaimer: I am on the board of the Echo Park Historical Society, for which the Home Tour was a fundraiser.

November 10, 2006

More Brite/Sun and moon

Alexander's Brite Spot on Sunset makes another round-up, that's two in one week, this time in the LA TImes Calendar. While The New York Times Style Magazine drew a list of L.A. breakfast joints, yesterday's L.A. Times considers late-night dining with "A Menu for the Nocturnal." Cover photo shows a pair of late-nighters at the Brite Spot.

In the meantime, I heard from a reader, Taylor Price, yesterday. Taylor says he (she?) likes Chicken Corner's waterfowl coverage. As for whether clockwise around the lake is best,Taylor weighs in:

Counterclockwise around the lake is clearly preferred, and at night cant be beat. Clockwise during the day you miss the curmudgeonly night herons, and the nice city views.

I have never been at Echo Park Lake after nightfall, but I am sure the cityscape from the lotus bed is spectacular.

November 9, 2006

Echo Park Home Tour/Brite Spot

Like the rest of Los Angeles, much of Echo Park is slowly disappearing behind hedges and high walls, which makes the open doors of the Echo Park home tour all the more inviting. This Sunday, the Echo Park Historical Society is holding its fourth-annual home tour, from 11 to 4. Yes, that’s eleven a.m., though you could get a pretty good Echo Park tour on the sun-down side of the clock, too. The focus this year is the “Bohemian Havens of Elysian Heights.” (Disclaimer: I am a board member of the Echo Park Historical Society, and as a docent I may be the person telling you to get your paws off the pottery and please enjoy the lovely cantilevered ceiling.) It’s a self-guided tour, and for myself it’s a pleasure to see hundreds of people walking the sidewalks of the steep hills, maps in hand. It breaks the stillness of the “secluded canyons” featured on the tour, it makes them festive.

According to EPHS:

The remote and rustic atmosphere made these hills made them popular with those seeking seclusion, including free thinking members of the Semi Tropic Spiritualists Assoc., whose midnight dances, seances and readings by “spirit mediums” attracted large crowds as well as ire of neighbors and city officials. Elysian Heights was also home to a great many artists and creative individuals who contributed to the neighborhood's bohemian reputation.

Among the sponsors of the home tour is the Brite Spot diner, which was featured in a New York Times Style magazine roundup of Los Angeles breakfast spots (no pun intended) this Sunday. You may have seen Kevin Roderick's take on the article on LA Observed this week. Tatiana von Furstenberg, daughter of Diane and Egon, and lead singer of the band Playdate as well as many other things, including her crediting as writer, “Tanner Hall,” says: “There’s only one place to go out for a real breakfast in L.A. in my opinion, and it’s the Brite Spot in Echo Park.”

Ms. von Furstenberg mentions the eggs benedict. What T mag did not give her space to describe was the people: on a typical morning there you might see a couple of clerics in collar, collaring one of the breakfast specials; Eric Garcetti; staffers for Xavier Becerra, who has an office in the building next door; a hipster or ten, including filmmaker Morgan Neville, whose office is across the street; any number of workers in jeans; a pilot from the heli-pad at the building next door; and all the rest of us. I have not seen a place in Los Angeles where a greater variety of people come together so comfortably. The owner is an actor/comedian, and he works the register. Last Thursday they were playing Cuban music (Ibrahim Ferrer, I think) and Indie rock. The food IS good, and in true diner fashion you carry away the smell of grease in your garments.

November 8, 2006

Cleopatra/Magic Gas/Steve McQueen

Photo: November 2006, by Martin Cox

Hot off the duck press: Friday morning at Echo Park Lake, I saw what may be the season's first American Wigeon, but by today it was gone. Must have been a stopover. Then, this morning, Cleopatra duck, pictured above, shows up, alone. Probably a mixed breed, she/he did not appear to have a mate or any friends. (If it's a he, we can call him Cleopatrick, I guess.)

Martin took the picture of Cleo and we moved on, past the blue heron on the island, past the man in filthy clothes who plays an expensive-looking violin rather badly. Martin says there are days when he plays the radio loudly in his apartment, which overlooks the lake, in order the drown out the the repetitive whining sounds of the violin. Joggers and other types of exercisers passed us in both directions, a couple of them flapping their arms weirdly. There was a new white male human with some belongings in a baby stoller who told us that God doesn't want your money, but He wants everything else. Martin and I discussed whether it made sense to go clockwise or counter clock around the lake. Martin said if he had to name a preference it would be clockwise (I think) because the sun is shining on the western flanks of the lake in the morning. I did not have a scientific/artistic underpinning to my preference. Not that I was aware of, at least.

As for Cleo's solo status: Last week, I had the good luck to be introduced to Dave Foster, the parks and rec guy who tends the lake. He's had the Echo Park Lake beat for three or four years, according to Martin Cox, and is passionate about his job. In a brief conversation, it became clear that he knew the minute details not just of animals at the lake but characteristics of the water, i.e., the way the rains of almost two years ago have had lasting effects on the color/clarity of the water today (it's been worse since then). Friday Dave mentioned how difficult it is for newcomer ducks to find their niche at Echo Park Lake -- the already established ones shun them, chase them away and so on. For the ducks, it's not cute. It's all about territory, and many get forced out, carried off by humans, or die. It's worst for the drop-offs, ducks that were pets and have been abandoned at the lake. But wild ducks sometimes show up here and stay, with mixed success. It took many seasons for the Ross's goose to find friends, but now it travels with some of the white domestic geese. And a duck called Brownie who used to be alone was hanging out with Hairdo today.

Upcoming: Tales of Franken Duck.

More on Magic Gas cafe and co. today at -- and a photo of the independent gas station's sign before Jean Cocteau's ghost showed up to redesign it. (Vertigo alert: points to Chicken Corner).

One person who really knows Echo Park is the FedEx guy, who takes the time to be snoopy (I mean it in a good way). For about three years I have seen him everywhere. At the shops on Alvarado, at Chango, at the top of Echo Park Avenue, on my street. Yesterday, he told me that Steve McQueen used to live on Vestal in the late 1950s. He said it may have been Steve's first home in Los Angeles, back in the days when the neighborhood was known to some as Red Hill, for all of the lefties who made their homes here. Also the days of Art Pepper and a Beat undercurrent. FedEx said an elderly man who lives on the block told him about Steve McQueen. When he asked the present occupant of Steve's house how it felt to live in Steve McQueen's old house, the man knew nothing about it. The next time FedEx made a delivery, the occupant was all thanks, because now he knew he lived in a special place.

November 6, 2006

Prop H

I am anxious to know what happens with Prop H as the returns roll in. The proposition would enable funds for more affordable housing to be built. Developers are salivating, but the city needs the units. Passage of the measure would leave many Echo Park residents with the same dilemma that was outlined citywide in the Los Angeles Times last week. In Echo Park's case: between the legitimate wish to preserve the small scale and overall character of the neighborhood, including protecting bungalow courts, which are the affordable housing of previous decades, and, on the other hand, recognition that new housing must be built somewhere. Like Brentwood or Beverly Hills.

The Times story did not make me hopeful that the city would be going out of its way to create many projects like the affordable HUD units on Allesandro in Echo Park, which were designed with quality of life in mind and not quotas.

Magic Gas Cafe

Magic GasLike Houdini, Magic Gas recently has been shaking off the shackles of our expectations, like so many old feathers and mixed metaphors. A gas station that just sells gas, oil, Twinkies and the newspaper? Try Halloween costume parties for the kids, two patio gardens behind bars – the cages where mechanic’s customer’s cars used to be kept for their own protection. And now try a full-blown café, with a smoking section and a nonsmoking section (can you smoke at a gas station?). Rumor has it that one of the Downbeat’s behind the counter folks is moving to Magic Gas and that the café is opening soon.

Recently, the new owner of Magic, undertook such improvements to the place as a fancy sign, purple and gray and yellow-green paint and the aforementioned garden amenities. About a year ago, she bought out Aramis, who had owned the gas station for 19 years. Aramis always looked stressed out, as though something unspeakable had just happened or was about to. And who knows, maybe it was, or did. I hope he gets a chance to relax now. Perhaps on the downside, it appears that the mechanics’ services no longer are needed, if patio tables in the garage area is any indication.

A couple of weeks ago, one of the women who work at Chango told me that Magic Gas welcomed moms and strollers in its patio area, that the owner had in fact asked that the folks at Chango tell their customers that they should feel free to buy at Chango and consume at Magic.

“You won’t have the exhaust [from cars on Echo Park Ave.], the traffic, the bird droppings [from pigeons who perch above the sidewalk where Chango’s café tables are situated], the cigarette butts,” she told me.

Yeah, but I like watching people, and cars sometimes, too. But, when they open, I’ll be curious to see if Magic Gas is a good place to while away the hours, as well as a pit stop., a cool Echo Park site, has an archived story about a shoe-box bomb that wasn't, at Magic Gas.

Photo: Magic Gas, July 2006 (Days of $3.5+/-)
By Cindy Bennett

November 4, 2006

Den mothers

Thursday morning, I was almost out of time. Instead of walking through Elysian Park, I chose the short walk to the Baxter Stairs with Rosie, “my” dog. Rosie and I walked up the hill on Ewing Street, trotted along Park Drive. Then we started down the stairs. About a third of the way down the steps we saw a man and an elderly pit bull climbing up. Behind them seemed to be a silvery dog, which turned out to be the bold coyote. At first, I assumed they all were together, until I noticed the second dog was holding back. And that it wasn’t on the stairs, it was on the dirt footpath that led crossways over one of the undeveloped lots next to the steps. The pit and his owner passed, and Rosie and I moved closer to the coyote, who skittered back about fifteen feet.

When we were level, I stopped, with Rosie, to look at the feral animal. She was looking back. I say "she" because I suspect that she was a mother: she was so set on getting to a particular location. She clearly wanted to cross the steps, probably has a den on the other side, which also is undeveloped. Maybe I should say un-ruined, not undeveloped. In any case, we all looked at each other. She inched closer. She waited for Rosie and me to leave, but her impatience was palpable. As we did leave, I turned to watch her carefully resuming her way. Then we reached a landing and, as we continued downhill, the coyote was clipped out of view by the turn of the steps.

The coyote made me think of a different species of den mother, a human one.

Susan, who used to live across the street from us, was a sort of den mother to the Echo Park gang. She had been raised in the house across the street, after her family bought it, moving from next door. She was in her late thirties, mother of three teen-agers. Susan is assimilated-Latino -- I wouldn't be surpised to learn her family has been in the States far longer than my own -- and her children’s father is part Danish. At least one of her daughters has been to Denmark. After Susan and her children were kicked out of their home on Echo Park Avenue -- their expulsion following a July 3 shootout on Echo Park Avenue at which no one is known to have been shot, but the neighbors drew together to have Susan’s landlord toss her out of her place, under a law that makes landlords prosecutable for the gang activities of their tenants – they moved into the home of Susan’s recently widowed grandfather who was one hundred years old. It became Susan’s job to care for her grandfather, Salvatore, and it seems she did a poor job.

Shortly after Susan moved into Salvatore’s place, the gang started hanging out on the porch of the pretty, well-maintained home. Night and day. Susan appeared to be directing the merchandising of drugs. Occasionally we’d hear her shouting things such as “ Ghetto is as ghetto does!” And shushing her wards. She kept order, and she ran the business. When her son practiced rapping, she hissed at him to be considerate of the neighbors, though it wasn’t his rapping that bothered us, it was the idea of teenagers armed with loaded guns, sitting around. (He was a decent rapper, and a lot of his raps featured his mother.) We never had a personal problem with any of the people on the porch. But the atmosphere was unpleasant, and the presence of firearms and open air drug sales pushed it out of the realm of tolerance/acceptance and into…something else. We considered moving. We heard a lot of ugly talk, and we saw a lot of ugly behavior.

When things were peaceful, they played a lot of K-earth 101, cranking it when Sweet Home Alabama came on.

Susan had polish; she had leadership skills; she knew how to talk to anyone, it seemed. But she was emotionally unstable, and, at least later, she was an addict. She had three children, and no straight job. She belonged to the biker-culture as much as she did the gang culture, and at one point she disappeared for a few weeks because she was suspected of having snitched on her proteges.

Susan also tracked the wildlife on the block – all of those days and nights on the porch, I suppose. not to mention the fact that she had been raised here. She had raccoon stories. And when a cat was run over on the street, she sought to find its owner. “That’s someone’s pet,” she said, asking me if I knew to whom the cat belonged. When we didn’t find its owner, she and I put it in a box. I called the city. Susan knew the habits of the hawks and owls. She had a lot of pets herself, including a box turtle that escaped and was found crossing the street.

When Salvatore died at the age of 103, Susan’s brother, who is a firefighter, bought the place, paying off Susan and other heirs. I don't know where Susan's money went. Her brother set to work renovating the house, getting it ready to rent. It took many months, since he worked mainly on weekends, with his wife, their toddler with them. He gutted the house.

Susan became homeless (in her own home) and snuck into the dirt basement to sleep, along with her son. Her brother tried to throw her out many times. He admitted to neighbors that he had found mail in the basement, though he didn’t return the mail. He wasn’t prepared to go that far in incriminating his sister, mail theft being a federal offense, as the mailman pointed out (he knew exactly who was stealing the mail). Some of my husband's and my own correspondence went missing, as did a few pieces of jewelry and the knives that I once bought at a yard sale Susan held.

Susan's brother rented the place to a glossy, young, up-and-coming actor, the actor's girlfriend and his girlfriend’s daughter (now his wife and step-daughter). Susan and her son disappeared. Susan’s cat was abandoned. (Later, the cat was adopted and renamed.) I have heard Susan’s son is doing okay, getting his life together in a job corps program. About Susan, I have heard nothing except that she has been seen in the neighborhood.

November 1, 2006

Day of the lotus stalks

Echo Park LakePhoto: Martin Cox

This morning my friend Martin Cox called me to tell me about what was going on at the lake. They (the City) were pulling out the lotus. Martin agreed to email me some details as there was no human way I could get down there except to close my eyes and imagine: grappling hooks, dumpsters, the city calling it a day for the lotus. Never mind that maybe four of them still were blooming. I am sure everyone is happier without a giant compost heap in the western petal of the lake.

City workers told Martin that this year the dump load was lighter than usual. Probably related to the late bloom and who knows what other atmospheric forces.

Martin writes:

OK so here's what's happening in the lake: Yesterday, on October 31, starting early, I could see across the lake as i was leaving my home that the "Final Days of the Lotus" had come. The annual removal of the dying lotus had begun. Park workers had commandeered some peddle boats and began cutting the storks and leaves that are now beginning to collapse into the water. Today, Nov 1, I investigated their progress. Half a dozen green dumpsters had been placed at the waters edge. Six men with grappling hooks were reeling in the fallen lotus, by the end of the day the lotus will be but a memory. The close knit domestic geese families were watching avidly, until someone came along with heaps of stogy food for them to eat.

Martin has many interests, one of which is ships, Brit that he is. His site Maritime Matters has received almost 975,000 hits.

Photo: Echo Park Lake, October 2006; Dave foster tosses a grappling hook
By Martin Cox

Not a cornfield/Cache photos

MuralChicken Corner just picked up news of the following events, at the Cornfield, as Not a Cornfield is known in the neighborhood. The link to Echo Park? Beside the fact that the press release was sent to me by an Echo Park resident, the Cornfield can be seen from Elysian Park, near the eastern entrance. Not much time to tie that bathrobe belt and run out the door, but if you're reading this Wednesday night you may be able to make the 5:45 a.m. commencement of four days of events.

The general public is invited to join in honoring the Tongva ancestors at Cornhenge, the Metabolic sculpture, in the area previously know as Not A Cornfield. The indigenous community of Los Angeles honors its ancestors through this sunrise ceremony 5:45 a.m. Please join us. Bring your songs, your drums, your dances and your heart. We will go in procession from Cornhenge to the Under Spring area, where a public Ofrenda will be accessible for the community to place their flowers, candles, photos, or any other remembrance in the name of their loved ones.
This sunrise ceremony will commence the on-going activities at Under Spring for the next four days.

According to Jeremy, there also will be:

friday night c. 10pm -- deejay from mooon tribe collective

saturday night c. 9:00pm -- live music from very be
careful - unannounced gig...

Today's Chicken Corner correspondence also included a link to Mondo Rick-o (which linked to Chicken Corner -- agh! A house of mirrors) which posts many photos by the guerrilla muralist Cache. They include before and later pics of the mural near Echo Park Lake and some captions.

The photo above was taken on Academy, where it bisects Morton Terrace. It looks somewhat like the photo on the above-mentioned Tongva event, and I like the image very much, so here it is.

Photo: Morton Ave, October 2006
By Angela Wood

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