Thursday, July 19, 2012

Getting Lost in Los Angeles

Comparing Northern California to Southern is as similar as comparing apples to oranges. Yet, when it comes to praise, Los Angeles tends to get the short end of the stick. All people can think about is Hollywood, celebrities, and traffic. But Los Angeles has much history, culture, ethnically diverse people, and hidden beauty to offer. You only need patience and an open mind to find it. Here’s my small guide for you to discover the hidden treasures Los Angeles has to offer in its present day and glorious past.

If you enjoy flavor then go to Echo Park. Mexican food in Los Angeles is the real deal. It cannot be argued otherwise: There is proof in its history. Just take a look at Olvera Street, located in the heart of historic Los Angeles. Originally known as Vine Street, it was renamed in 1877 after Augustin Olvera, who was Los Angeles’ first county judge. After the 1920s the thriving community began to degrade. Christine Sterling, with her wealth and vision, saved Olvera Street from its decrepit path towards doom. She foresaw a lively market, and thus it came into being in 1930, which is still flourishing today. When you find yourself hungry in Los Angeles, here is a tip: Don’t be afraid to try the street food! Trust your instincts. If it smells good, chances are it will be great. (This applies only to the non-tourist districts.)

Women Tortilla Makers in Olvera Street, 1930

 Another argument is that there isn’t enough nature in LA. There may very well not be enough, but there certainly are oases within the city. Why not take a hike through Griffith Park all the way up to the Observatory while contemplating its strange history? Previously a Spanish settlement, Griffith Park was called Rancho Los Feliz. As landholder Don Antonio Feliz was dying he supposedly agreed to give the land not to his family but instead to Don Antonio Coronel. As the story goes, once Feliz’s 17 year old blind niece found this out, she put a curse on the land as well as upon Coronel, the lawyer and the judge. Because of the curse she immediately died. Coincidentally the judge was shot and the lawyer passed early too. Well, the story isn’t all too true. Horace Bell fabricated the niece’s blindness, her early death, and quite possibly the curse for a newspaper. But misfortune has followed landholders ever since and the curse is something to blame.

View from the Planetarium at Griffith Park, 1934

The founder of Griffith Park didn’t end up with the best of luck either. The land was bought by Griffith J. Griffith, of Whales, in 1882. He first opened an ostrich ranch on present-day Griffith Park to attract fashionable people who were looking for feathers. Mainly, though, he wanted to show off his land. On December 16, 1896, he donated 3,015 of his acres to create the public park. Influenced by European parks, Griffith realized that to be a great city, there needs to be a great park. (Today the park contains 4,210 acres.) Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end well for Griffith or his wife. While vacationing he believed his wife was conspiring with the Pope to poison him. He later shot her, though she survived. After that incident Griffith fell from fame. But at least one great thing came out of his purchase: An amazing piece of land can be admired today for its green and quite nestled within bustling LA. While you’re there, check out Trails CafĂ© and get an avocado sandwich packed with sprouts and cheese on whole wheat bread. You can’t get more Southern California picturesque than sitting on a picnic bench beneath enormous shady trees, with lemonade, a veggie sandwich and the 405 freeway within reach.

Picnic Tables in Griffith Park, 1920

Another great outdoor space with copious amounts of history is Echo Park Lake. Most people tend to overlook it as a manmade wonder. In the 1860s Echo Lake was built as a reservoir to provide drinking water. Obtained from the Los Angeles River, water travelled down a path that crossed through Los Feliz. Mayor Henry Hazard foresaw Alvarado Street as a popular boulevard that would connect people from Westlake (today’s MacArthur Park) to Echo Park Lake and Elysian Park. In 1885 Echo Park Lake and boathouse were completed. Unfortunately a year later the Times wrote, “There has perhaps been less talk, newspaper and other, about his park than about any other, and it does not seem, thus far in its existence, that it were worthy of much." Throughout the century the park’s popularity fluctuated.  During the final days of WWII Echo Park Lake became a destination for weekend outings, picnics, and toy boat festivities. From 1944 to 1950 the construction of the 101 freeway put a damper on the park’s momentum. It sliced through the playground and many of the homes that were situated near the lake. Disrupting the community lifestyle that the park provided meant less accessibility for residents to walk to the park. Before the 101 was built, Echo Playground had a fountain, basketball and tennis courts, croquet and sports fields, an outdoor gymnasium and a walking path within its grassland. It flourished in its heyday. The Pacific Electric Red Car was a main source of transportation, running alongside the park, until 1955. Echo Park even once had a beautiful Spanish library from 1928 that was demolished by the city in 1974. As you can see, Los Angeles is screaming with history that would have been a treat to witness back in the day.

Boys Launching Boats on Echo Lake for Boat Tournament, 1930

After its charming mid-century era, Echo Park sadly went into a downward spiral. With population surplus and immigrant families landing in Echo Park, the Lake has been a difficult place for Los Angeles to maintain. In 1971 The Los Angeles Times printed an article titled “Which Way for Echo Park – Inner City Oasis or Slum?” summing up that the park was at a tipping point. Finally, by 1980 activists deemed a Historic Preservation Overlay Zone upon the Victorian and craftsman style homes. For the park’s 100-year anniversary in 1995, Echo Park was given serious consideration for improving its green space. That same year the Echo Park Historical Society was created to protect the lake and create a safer environment. By 2013 Echo Park will be integrated back with its community and visitors will then be able to catch a glimpse of the icon it once was, and still is today.   

Yes, LA has problems. As do all cities. But that doesn’t mean that we should withhold respect when we compare it to other cities.  I once was speaking with a reputable urban planner in San Francisco. I asked him if I should focus my concerns on Los Angeles—the sprawl, the traffic, and the waste—instead of on a city that is already environmentally aware. He laughed and said, “You need to get up here.”  That was it. No debate or profound thoughts about why it would be beneficial to work in a city that needs help the most. You need to be here. I understand that being surrounded by likeminded people is always encouraging to get work done. But I can’t let all the other problems be set off to the side because they are harder to fix.

Living in the state of California, we are lucky to have it all. And we really do have it all. San Diego has its laidback beach vibe. Orange County is comfortable with breath-taking scenery. Los Angeles is a pocket of cities within cities, which makes it fantastic for exploring. Santa Barbara is a luscious mountain landscape painted on sand. Further up the coast includes numerous cozy-coastal and inland farm towns that I cannot begin to list. Driving up the 101, it if feels like the state’s growth can’t be stopped. It goes, and goes, and keeps going past hundreds of curvy miles and straightly paved roads through deserts, beaches, forests, farmland, suburbs, and average-looking cities. Everything we ever could want is in at our front door.  We can just as easily hop on a plane and be transported from SF to LA in one hour. So when people decide to dislike Los Angeles because they had a single bad experience or are not familiar with it, next time they can look in the right places—the lesser known and undiscovered landscapes—to  see the vast wonders  Los Angeles truly offers.  

Words by Andrea Dumovich--Guest concierge for the California Historical Society

(All images are provided by the USC Digital Library which is part of our online research collection.) 
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