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March 28, 2008

The underground seen in Echo Park

The things they buried, pt. 3: My next door neighbor, Matt, has been doing a lot of digging in his yard. He and his wife, Iva, are new neighbors, renovating the bungalow that used to belong to my friend Dale -- a musician and recording engineer, who recently moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Today, Matt and I got into a cross-the-fence conversation about the underground scene here in Echo Park. Matt said they have dug up not just a bicycle but a washing machine. Dig that.

Well, put it out in the front yard! Where it belongs!

Except I presume it went into the dumpster, to be buried somewhere else.

Meanwhile, across the street, Angela and Rik are adding a room to their home. The addition calls for digging, and of course Chicken Corner has been over there, pecking around. Dragging back pieces of sandstone to our yard, as have the other neighbors. We're as busy as Argentine ants moving the earth around. I even borrowed a wheelbarrow, but the tire went flat. The dig is a cool sight, like seeing your yard with its pants down. The house sits at the lower elevation of a double lot, so, viewed from the house, the cut into the hillside is like a wide-screen projection of the geo-past. There's more top soil than I would have guessed, given how quickly I hit yellow sand/stone in my own backyard. Then there's the striations. Big history. I didn't see the outline of any washing machines, though.

March 25, 2008

Bad luck for ducks


Photo: Ducklings in 2007
By Martin Cox (c)

Well, Chicken Corner's esteemed waterfowl correspondent, Martin Cox, has been away in the U.K. recently. Martin returned to find that there seem to be no mallard ducklings at Echo Park Lake this year. Which is unnatural, if you consider the large number of year-round mallard residents, who typically raise their broods here at the lake. Last year, my daughter, who was then two, and I came to the lake every week, and we knew where to look for ducklings. We knew we would see them.

Martin writes:

One thing I did want to mention is the staggering lack of mallard chicks, there are no new families this year.
Over the last two springs, right from Jan onwards we have seen fleets of ducklings appearing, sometimes for only a day or so before all the various threats press in and removed them. (Snatched by children, snapped by turtles, whisked aloft by greedy gulls, swallowed by large mouthed fish etc). A few hardy members always made it through to replenish the wild duck supply.
This year I only saw one mallard family (eaten by gulls in 5 minutes) and one Muscovy duck family, consumed by children and then gulls.
One possible theory is that with the island now open, the eggs are raided more easily. I have seen egg snatchers moving stealthily from one clump of pampas grass to another.

Yes, the island on Echo Park Lake. The opening of the gates. As I've said before, ordinarily I'd support public use of such a space. But in this case, the unlocking of the gates that used to keep the public off the island looks like a sloppy mistake, because the island was a bird sanctuary. It's a small space that can't be used for sports. It's good only for things that easily can be done in other parts of the park -- dreaming, reading, napping, picnicking -- unless you count as legitimate recreation upending the nests of mallards. I have still never heard why it was opened. I did hear it was just to be open occasionally, but every time I've been to the park these days the gates are swinging wide. For herons and ducks it's huge -- the difference between thriving here and not; for the public, it's a bone.

The things they buried, pt. 2

RockHorseshoe, bullet, shot glass(es), thick glass thin glass colored glass, a rusty whistle, squirrel skull. Add to the list of items that churn up in the backyard: a nice little piece of petrified wood, orange and yellow, with white quartz, about the size but not shape of a small chicken egg. Recently, my close neighbors Angela and Rik found a paperback novel-sized piece of petrified wood in Elysian Park. And a previous owner reported that there was fossilized wood in Angela and Rik's backyard, though they have not found any there. It makes me think of a conversation I had at my house in April 2000. We were hosting a going-away party for a friend. One of the guests, whom I met that night, told me he had lived a few doors away from our house as a small child. He said the whole area had looked quite different at the time. It's much greener now, he said. Almost unrecognizable from the place where he grew up. All of the eucalyptus and pepper trees, the acacia, a long list of exotics, weren't so broadly established. Others have described it to me, too. A den mother of the Echo Park gang once told me that there used to be oil derricks where there are now evergreen trees near my house. And the hills were much barer. The urban forest hereabout is new. At least in its present incarnation.

March 22, 2008

Blackberry Echo Park

Sunset and Laveta

A reader named Alex Robinson sent me this photo of the former used appliances store at Laveta -- below the famed Laveta Steps -- and Sunset. Alex said the picture was taken on his/her (?) Blackberry.At first, I had guessed it was from an old Diana camera. One of the reasons I like the picture is because of the misty illusion it gives of looking back through time to the present moment. We think the past looks like the picture frames we see it in. But this is very much the present. This shop is under renovation. It has been painted a stylish French-roast brown. I think it was gray last year. I had thought the appliance store was going to become a cafe, but plans for that may have changed. There's a cafe/coffehouse boom in Echo Park right now -- they're popping up like cottonweeds after a good rain (which means there should be dozens of tiny coffeehouses in my backyard right now, even after the weed-whacking). Cafe Mariposa on Sunset, a new one in construction on Echo Park Avenue at Baxter, a new one planned for the new bookstore on Sunset between Lemoyne and Logan. And more, I have no doubt. Perhaps because so many people who used to work in offices -- like myself -- now can take their laptops up a tree if they like, if they have work.

March 20, 2008

Dance-abilly and boogaloo

There's so much music-making in Echo Park that Chicken Corner couldn't begin to draw an outline, except to peck around the edges. Up and down my street alone it's been musicians, a grammy-award designer, a rock critic, a recording engineer, mixers... A friend visiting from New York one time said, so Echo Park is the new Laurel Canyon. Well, not really. Somehow Dublab doesn't fit the mold. It's a different time, and a different place. A splatter of names from EP over the years: Woody Guthrie, Art Pepper, the Eagles, Afghan Wigs, Silversun Pickups....

Recently I got a copy of a new CD, Hallowed Ground, by I See Hawks in L.A. They're psychedelic country rockers who recorded this latest project at an apartment in Echo Park. Their press release describes "their natural habitat" as the Echo nightclub on Sunset. It's members have played with big names, and the CD is almost too good: theatrical in the style of the Four Tops or Dave Alvin.

Country and green don't always go together happy-like. But on Hallowed Ground they dance. Read: their song "Ever Since the Grid Went Down."

Meanwhile, The Shortstop bar has caged a different kind of bird -- of the boogaloo DJ variety -- with a grand opening tonight and to be continued every Thursday. My friend Oliver Wang (O-Dub) and his partner Wilson (not to be confused with Oliver Wilson, who is one of the bar's owners) will be spinning from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Soul Sides & Captain's Crate present Boogaloo[la]. One thing I find interesting, Soul Sides and Captain's Crate are blogs, which means the party is created by blogs. How cyber-forward is that? (Answer: I don't know, maybe very.)

If you have lived in the Bay Area in the not-too-distant past you may have heard Oliver Wang on KALX-FM, where he was a DJ for ten years.

Back to hawks, the bird kind. I saw one today in Elysian Park. First he/she soared over the amazing flowering mustard and an oak tree. Then he/she was chased away by three crows.

March 17, 2008

Graffiti watch

I don't know how long it's been there. On the Corner of Sunset and Portia, around the side of the Little Joy Bar, which used to be a Latino gay bar, and now is a hang for post-college somethings or other. Portia Street is wide-ish, residential with craftsman houses that have been maintained but not "restored"; some have bars on the windows. Then, at the corner, there's the bar, a tiny Cambodian/Vietnamese restaurant and a gas station named Meghna. A friend of mine mentioned the graffiti tonight, so I stopped on my way home to read it: There is no joy in this hipster hell. (The italics are not mine.) It's written in white spray cursive on the sidewalk, and, strangely, it's written in front of Phnom Pen restaurant, just around the Portia side of the Little Joy. I read the message and then glanced into the restuarant. A solo, square-looking young guy sitting at a table by himself (the time: 8:35). Maybe a couple of other patrons under the bright lights. People say good things about this eatery. It didn't look like hipster hell to me. It didn't look joyful either. I crept closer to the Little Joy. A screened, iron-frame side door allowed a view of the pool table, at which a young woman took her shot. The place looked mellow, and I felt weird peeking in through the screen. I wondered why the bitter message -- in pretty spray pensmanship -- had been left in front of the restaurant, when it so clearly referred to the bar. I wondered who had written it -- surely not simply someone who felt disappointed, square, or left out (as the best of us have). Someone who owned a can of white spray paint! Certainly. But there were no other clues on the sidewalk, no body language, beyond the words themselves.

March 11, 2008

Bigfoot was here again

1814 Berkeley Ave. It has been asleep for about four years. That's the nice way of looking at it. Another way of reading the rectangular Echo Park space at Berkeley/Grafton/Lakeshore/Lemoyne: Bigfoot was here. Crunch. A giant footprint in the shape of the former Berkeley Early Education Center. It used to be a preschool, but the LAUSD-owned (and not operated) property has sat as eerily abandoned as a ghost ocean liner drifting in the open sea -- except (back to dry land here) it's not drifting. It's locked in the middle of a residential neighborhood. There are still tables and chairs inside. And a plastic slide out front. And trees.

The subject of the property came up at the Echo Park Improvement Association meeting last week. Kabira Stokes, one of Eric Garcetti's deputies, told the meeting that the council president has been pushing the LAUSD to let the neighborhood use the former early education center. She said a community garden would be ideal. What a beautiful idea! Adaptive re-use. I am sure that any ten people could come up with six times as many good ideas for the locked up public real estate. But I'd vote for the garden.

The threat here is that the LAUSD will sell the place to an unscrupulous developer, that it means nothing more to the agency than a nickel in the land bank. Meanwhile, Chicken Corner is clucking at the irony. When it comes to interacting with the city at large, the giant bureaucracy charged with educating the children so often behaves like a primitive beast with the morals, and the vocabulary, of the abominable snowman. Except it's not a joke.

At the meeting, Stokes also mentioned the construction that had been going on at Sunset/Alvarado. She said that, if we were wondering, it was the LAUSD having pipes put in for the school the city is opposed to its building at Mohawk/Marathon/Alvarado. For now, state appeals court has ordered the school district not to raze any of the houses it seized for the project. Read, 9A.

March 7, 2008

Could you please stay home until the game is over?

Last night, I went to the Echo Park Improvement Association's monthly meeting, and the Dodgers were NOT on my mind. I was thinking about private matters, my car, my glasses, how much fun I've been having with my daughter recently. I was there to have a good time, or at least an informative one -- I hadn't been to an EPIA meeting in five years. I was curious about what some of the scheduled speakers -- real estate agents -- might have to say about density-zoning changes in the neighborhood in coming years. I never got to hear the real estate people (because the community announcements took over an hour). But I did get to hear about Big Foot. Or make that Big Feet (more on the plural later).

I'll admit I've gone frothing at the mouth (with good reason!) over the Dodgers Organization's high-handed treatment of Echo Park in regard to the Dodgers' inability to handle auto traffic without stomping on the neighborhood. The previous owners managed it, but the current company is a different story. Read, Billy Preston gate.

Last night at the Echo Park Improvement Association's monthly meeting, we all got a reminder of the problem. Not that any Dodgers reps were there. But a personable, young deputy for Ed Reyes, Suzanne Jimenez, did attend. Before the headline act -- which was real estate professionals -- Jimenez was one of the various folks to address the twenty-five or so people at Barlow Hospital's community room. She had a long list of announcements -- i.e., Reyes is opposed to a cheap-ass aluminum "temporary" cover for the reservoir that would cut off from public use 14 acres in Elysian Park (!); the councilmember is working to get the Boys and Girls club reopened on Patton St. (!). And more genuinely good stuff his office is up to. But then, one of her last announcements, delivered with a smile, made my jaw drop.

Jimenez reminded everyone in the room to "remember that March 31 is Opening Day for the Dodgers, and traffic will be hell, so if you don't need to drive," could you please stay home? I thought she had been about to say that if you were attending the game could you please walk to the stadium. But no, she meant what she actually said. Which was could the community just get out of the way, please? She went on to say that a lot of cars needed to get in and out of the stadium. I asked where it was that we were being asked not to drive. She shook her head and shrugged. "Sunset?" she said. "Around Dodger Stadium?" Excuse me? This is a solution? Who does her boss represent, the Dodgers? And this is exactly the problem. If the Dodgers & Co. can't handle the traffic at least as well as their predecessors, shouldn't our councilmembers be working to help make it work for the city? I'll re-state a few possibilities: expanded bus service; shuttles from Union Station; better incentives for car-poolers; public information campaigns regarding bus routes. Might be better than asking the people who aren't going to the game to stay inside until they say it's okay to come out. As the police say, this is a quality of life issue. ...

Now, speaking of cheap-ass aluminum short-sighted bad plans: The LADWP is draining the reservoir in Elysian Park. The department wants to cover it with a "temporary" (translation: 25 years) aluminum cover because it's the cheapest solution. Many, many people prefer the option of buried water tanks, with a grass covering, so the public could use the 14 acres. According to Suzanne Jimenez, Ed Reyes, for one, says the money-savings argument is "not a good enough excuse" for withholding land that could be used for recreation. Not to mention that it would be an eyesore from other parts of the park. A loss, not a gain.

The LADWP has agreed to listen to the community again on the matter. Tomorrow from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Logan Elementary School, 1711 W. Montana Street. Surveys will be available for the public. The dept. will also offer presentations on its plan to protect the water we drink from the reservoir and, of course, the issue of how to cover the basin.

Your choice again: aluminum or grassland.

If you want to see the site itself, you might consider taking the Echo Park Historical Society's excellent 2-hour walking tour of the east side of Elysian Park tomorrow morning (also at 10 a.m.). Then hightail it over to the DWP meeting. And, by all means, don't go quietly. ...

March 6, 2008

Brand Blvd. diary

Well, just a few months ago, I was an average person with a cell phone, a driver's license, and long-distance vision. How quickly it all slips away. Three pairs of prescription glasses disappeared in my house or who knows where. And so did the cell phone, and I have procrastinated in replacing all of them. My license expired. Then I couldn't get the new license because I would fail the vision test.* A brake light breaks (which of course makes it a thousand times more likely that I'd be pulled over and my lack of glasses noticed -- that's a big ticket). And then, the car battery fades. I think.

So this morning, I'm on Brand Blvd. Glendale, which as the crow flies is close to my house in Echo Park. But as the crow dreams, it's far. For one thing, it's in a valley (whereas Echo Park is hills), and even the quality of light is different. It's so much brighter, with old-fashioned palm trees, or no trees on the street, and the light, like the ground, is somewhat flat in comparison to the dappled, foggy light of the hills. Ethnically, it's majority Armenian, of course, whereas EP is Latino, Chinese-American, Filipino and white, mostly. Brand Blvd., if you've never seen it, is aptly named. It's the longest string of car dealerships I've ever seen: the Embassy Row of automakers in Los Angeles. It's sleepy looking.

I can't rent a car with an expired license. So I decide to wait out the repairs right there in Glendale -- estimate is six hours. So, after we discuss repairs, the VW service rep and I plan my day. First, breakfast across the street at EatWell. He says they have wireless. And then I'll come back to VW, where they have an upstairs lounge that has wireless and desks. It's quiet and sunny. Although, of course, I could wait in the downstairs lounge and watch TV.

It's time to break this particular chain of procrastination, so I sign the estimate sheet and then walk the two-plus blocks to EatWell. I am familiar with the eatery's franchise cousins, so I assume it will be a mod counterpart of the Silver Lake diner. But what I find when I walk in through the front door is an old-fashioned greasy spoon, with the most perfunctory overlay of mod -- a few round, plastic hanging lights and an egg-shell lime color on the walls. Everything else has been there for at least thirty years, is my guess. And good for them for not ripping it all out -- that's sustainable design. I feel like I'm in the desert, coachella or Victorville. There are only two front windows, and these are covered by blinds, blocking the bright sunlight. The hostess says they do not have wireless. She tells me to sit anywhere. So I do, facing the front windows. Then I notice that all eight of the other patrons, solos, are facing me -- with their backs to the front door. Seems unnatural to me, until I guess that they must have parked in the lot behind EatWell, so the backdoor is the frontdoor, as far as they're concerned. (Car culture has them all turned around.) They look like an audience, and I wonder if I should read them some poetry, or tell a story. In fact, I have with me a pair of remarkable documents, one for re-reading and one that I can barely put down. The first is D-Town Visions/Building a City the River Can Be Proud of by my friend Lewis MacAdams with Joel Reynolds and Tim Grabiel. The second is advance proofs for Girl Factory, a novel by my friend Jim Krusoe. Both are pure poetry. But this looks like a tough room. Grouchy and private, hungry for food on a plate. The only performance they're interested in is the chef's. Maybe that's why they're all facing the kitchen. So I do like the regulars: order eggs and eat.

Then it's back to VW, where I have a 180-degree view on the 2nd-floor lounge -- San Gabriels to my right, Griffith Park to the left. A mottled silverish sheet of clouds in the sky. A nice view onto the sales floor, too. Over the loudspeaks "You're never gonna get it, no you're never gone get it" filling the air around the new cars, then it's another song, and one of the sales guys breaks out with a loud "Ah, ooh-wah" to a song I dont recognize. Then he's done.

It was like that.

*PS: New glasses are on their way -- right this minute!

March 4, 2008

Night of the lotus stems and geese


Photo: By Joanthan Williams

Jonathan Williams sent me these pictures of Echo Park Lake at nighttime, geese on patrol (when do they sleep?) and lotus twigs. There was filming at the lake that night -- what looks like fireworks deep in the background is a spot light spilling onto a royal palm (or is it some other kind of palm?). Those mop-headed trees are charismatic in so many ways, and not just because rats and birds live in them.

As for the dead lotus stems, which are rendered so elegantly in this picture, below, I've been thinking about them recently. For many years, it's been the practice of Rec and Parks to grapple the lotus stems out of Echo Park Lake after the petals have dropped. This year, it wasn't done. The stems have been there, been there, been there. Not that they're bothering anyone, but I wonder about the departure from policy -- were there just too few to bother with this year? Maybe the practice is being reconsidered -- which makes me wonder about the lotus bed's own departure from policy: 2007 was a dismal year for the plants. Usually the lotus fill the northwestern thumb of the lake, starting in the spring. Last summer maybe only a sixth of the usual number came up. No one seems to know why, though theories abound: too much oxygen in the water, some kind of poison draining into the lake, water is too clean (ha!), not enough rain (huh?). And these twigs are a constant reminder.


Photo: By Joanthan Williams

March 2, 2008

Spit out of the belly of the beast

Reeves In Arthur Magazine's March issue, Dave Reeves writes about his journey into the belly of the beast. He employs the list form -- 14 items -- to give a picture of his several days in the county jail. The conclusion he draws from his incarceration is that any of us, who think prison is for other people, could be writing our own list of do's and don'ts behind bars. Not to lit crit the Arthur columnist, but I would have been glad to read a conventional literary-journalism account of his ordeal. Maybe space was a consideration. (After all, Saturday, one of Ian McEwan's most recent novels, involving a failed mugging, takes place in a single day. So, several days in prison? Reeves probably could have compressed six or seven hundred pages out it. Maybe he will.) Though I'm guessing he just wanted to get straight to the point (i.e., it could be you). So, the list serves. And a sense of rage come through, along with humor. If you're just tuning in, Reeves was sentenced for failing to report a traffic accident in which he was not at fault.

List item #6:

Donít get any tattooes. I didnít have a one and everybody in the joint knew me for the new breed of supermax genius criminal with the foresight not to have identifying marks scrawled all over my body.

Well, there's one "don't" I can embrace. I never thought my lack of tattooes might one day have this kind of utility.

To read the full text of Reeve's story, click here.

March 1, 2008

Bookstore diary

This week, I have been one of the scores of L.A. folks wailing -- at various degrees of volume -- about Dutton's Brentwood's imminent closing. Dutton's is far away -- Brentwood -- but I have made the drive from Echo Park on a zillion occasions. And I always walked out with (paid-for) books I'd never heard of until I pulled them off the shelves, more or less at random. I spent a lot of money and time there, and I was hoping to spend more. So, it's been sad. (And who knows? I may never visit Brentwood again.) But then, crazily, today I learn that a new, independent book shop will be opening in Echo Park. Curbed LA reported yesterday that a used and new shop would open in about six months next to the new 826 literary service center on Sunset. Some lesser good news on the heels of bad.

Curbed says:

One of the owners fills us in: "We'll have an emphasis on literature / fiction, local interest, pop culture, design, eco / green living related, some architecture. ... Also, best coffee in the area and good assortment of teas, simple lunch fare (salads, sandwiches, baked goods), and a big selection of greeting cards and paper goods. That's our plan as of now...could change between today and August."

Maybe they'll decide their coffee won't be the best in the area, and they'll have a bad assortment of teas -- or an assortment of bad teas. I'll go anyway. ... Either way, I'll continue to frequent the Edendale Library's used book sales (they have one every Wednesday) -- the hodgepodge is half the pleasure. And August is a long ways off.

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