Silver Lake is a largely gay and hilly neighborhood (one of its nicknames is “The Swish Alps”) in Los Angeles’s Mideast Side. To vote for more Los Angeles neighborhoods to be featured in a future post, click here. To vote for LA County communities, click here. To vote for Orange County neighborhoods, vote here.
INTRODUCTION TO SL
First things first… Silver Lake is two words! Don’t believe me? Count ’em! There are fifteen Silver Lakes in the US, thirteen of which are two words (one of the offenders is in Texas, and therefore doesn’t really count). It is supposedly the second gayest place in the Southland, after the city of West Hollywood and in front of Long Beach’s Broadway Corridor.
Silver Lake’s neighbors are Los Feliz, Franklin Hills, Sunset Junction, Virgil Village, P-Town, Atwater Village, Frogtown, Elysian Heights, and Echo Park. For this episode, I was joined by my traveling companion, filmmaker Diana Ward.
EARLY HISTORY & THE RESERVOIR
The area that is now Silver Lake was once populated by the ancestors of the Chumash, who arrived around 13,000 years ago. The Tongva arrived from the Sonoran Desert to the east some 3,500 years ago. In 1542, whilst exploring on behalf of Spain, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo claimed all of California for the Empire after having set foot in San Diego Bay, Santa Catalina Island, San Pedro Bay, Santa Monica Bay, and a few other coastal points. Nevertheless, more than two centuries passed before Spain moved to protect their till-then mostly nominal possessions from the possible encroachment from the English and Russians.
Setting the stage for conquest part to secure California, in 1769 Spain sent explorer Gaspar de Portolà de Rovira on an overland exhibition of what’s now California. In 1777 a plan was put into place to establish civic pueblos to support the newly established military presidios. In 1781, El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles de Porciuncula (Los Angeles) was founded near the banks of the Los Angeles River. Los Angeles was granted four square leagues of territory, the northern border of which corresponded closely to what’s now Fountain Avenue and the western ran along what’s now Hoover Street.
In the 19th century, Scotsman Hugo Reid named the area just north of Los Angles’s northern border Ivanhoe and many streets still have Scottish names or names taken from Sir Walter Scott‘s famous novel, including Ben Lomond, Hawick, Herkimer, Kenilworth, Rowena and St. George. In the map above, the future site of the Silver Lake and Ivanhoe Reservoirs is merely designated as the LA City Res Site, which was before its development as a reservoir a seasonal wetland and part of the Ballona Creek Watershed.
In 1906, the neighborhood’s two reservoirs were named the Ivanhoe Reservoir and the Silver Lake Reservoir, the latter after LA DWP commissioner Herman Silver.
The reservoir was first drained in 1951 and there was no sign of the infamous Sylvie, the Silver Lake Serpent.
THE SILENT FILM ERA
In 1909 William Selig and Francis Boggs established a film studio in Boggs’ rented bungalow in Edendale, an historic Los Angeles neighborhood centered in what is now Echo Park and the eastern portion of what’s now Silver Lake. Soon, Edendale was the center of the burgeoning industry. Meanwhile, Monogram,Vitagraph and Walt Disney all established studios in another Silver Lake neighbor, Franklin Hills. Silver Lake, situated between the two, immediately attracted industry figures and creative types. With the silent film industry including many homosexuals, by the 1920s, Silver Lake also supported a thriving gay population which continue to reside in the neighborhood to the the present.
Silver Lake was also, like neighboring Echo Park and Elysian Heights (nicknamed “Red Hill”), a hotbed ofCommunism. Beginning in the 1920s and continuing into the 1930s, many real estate developers began to build up the neighborhood. One home, The August House, built in 1913, is one of the neighborhood’s oldest. Antonio Moreno, was a “Latin Lover” who commissioned the development of the Moreno Highlands as well as his own Canfield-Moreno Estate (co-named after his oil heiress wife, Daisy Canfield, and also known as The Paramour Mansion and The Crestmount). There’s also the Gaudi-inspiredBurrows Residence, designed in 1921. Cinematographer Frank A. Garbutt had the Garbutt-Hathaway mansion built on top of a hill and it was a frequent shooting location since its completion in 1928.
Over the next two decades, David Hyun, Eric Lloyd Wright, Gregory Ain, John Lautner, Raphael Soriano, Richard Neutra, Rudolph Schindler, Rodney Walker and Lloyd Wright all designed homes that helped make Silver Lake a mecca of modernism… and pinkos. Ain’s Avenel Co-Op, built in 1947, was as red as a lobster. Four of the original ten inhabitants were blacklisted. The House Un-American Activities Committee concluded that the project was “a cooperative living experiment for a group of communists.” More recently, architects including Ana Henton, Barbara Bestor, Barry Milofsky, Gustavo Gubel, John Southern, Michael Lehrer, Sean Briski and Ricardo Accorsi have contributed to Silver Lake’s continuing reputation as home of some of Los Angeles’ best residential architecture.
Click here to read my exploration of the abandoned train right-of-way
Development continued in the 1940s. After the demolition of Little Mexico in 1949 which made way forDodger Stadium, large numbers of displaced Mexican-Americans began to settle along Sunset Blvd. In the 1950s, following the demolition of Bunker Hill, many displaced Filipinos also settled in the southern portion of Silver Lake. At the same time, post-war prosperity and the irresistible lure of the suburbs enticed many white Silver Lakers to move elsewhere.
At this point, finding information about Silver Lake becomes difficult and, as far as the media was seemingly concerned, it entered a long hibernation, although Jackson Browne wrote and recorded a song called “From Silver Lake” on his 1972 debut.
SILVER LAKE’S MUSIC SCENE
Then, in the mid-‘80s and early ‘90s, the first alterna-types began to move to Silver Lake, surely attracted in part by the nice residences and low rent. In 1992, Red Hot Chili Peppers commemorated the bridge overSilver Lake Boulevard with their soon-to-be ubiquitous “Under the Bridge” and commissioned a mural (now painted over).
Epitaph Records relocated to their current home, a former Pacific Electric substation built in 1905.
Spaceland opened in 1995 and featured then new-acts like Beck, Foo Fighters, Geraldine Fibbers,Lutefisk and Possum Dixon. As more and more slumming bohemians moved to the area, Silver Lake rapidly accumulated cultural capital. Soon the dreaded gentrification spread to surrounding neighborhoods like Atwater Village and especially Echo Park.The Silver Lake Lounge, as far as I know, has found and maintained its balance between Latino drag nights and indie rock shows. In 1998, The Dust Brothers bought the building pictured below and converted it to a recording studio.
SILVER LAKE NITES
By the 2000s, Silver Lake was dismissed by many as passé as more and more shrieking, Ugg-booted hags and novelty-mustachioed knaves began to flock to the neighborhood at night, hoping to stand for hours to get into the neighborhood’s unremarkable dives so they could guzzle PBR — just like real poor people. At the same time, the influx of B&Ters drove away older spots like Le Bar and The Auto Bar, replacing them with the not-very-convincing East Side simulacrum offered by The Cha Cha Lounge and the odious Stinkers (not just a clever name and thankfully now roadkill).
Eagle LA and MJ’s remain steadfastly gay and the walls of Club Los Globos are harder to breach for non-Latinos than Helm’s Deep. In 1967, where Le Barcito is now, was once the Black Cat – where more than two years before Stonewall, hundreds of gay patrons staged a protest that’s seen by many as one of the main flashpoints of the gay rights struggle. The protest also involved patrons of New Faces (now home toCircus of Books). Another popular gay bar was/is The Other Side, which was the subject of the short doco shown below.
(Update: the Black Cat, or a fancy bar calling itself that, has opened in the former location).
Other watering holes include include Mixville Bar,Thirsty Crow, the Red Lion, Barbarella, Silver Lake Wine and the 4100. After last call, most of the bar rats return to the West Side and Silver Lake returns to normal, a neighborhood of mini-markets, liquor stores, boutiques, and working class families.
SILVER LAKE EATING
The most recent demographic data is that Silver Lake is 41% Latino of any race, 34% White and 18% Asian(although it’s rarely acknowledged, Silver Lake was one of LA’s most Asian-American neighborhoods). The most common ethnicities are still Mexican-American and Filipino-American. Silver Lake supports a decent variety of restaurants including Alegria, Aroma, Astro Family, Barbrix, Blair’s (in the location of the much missed Thai-American Express), Bulan Thai, Cafe Bravo, Cafe Stella, Café del Rosario, Café Tropical,Casbah, Casita Del Campo, Chibcha, Cliff’s Edge, Koda Sushi, Coffee Table, Cowboys & Turbans, Cru Organic Raw Food, Dusty’s, El Caserio, El Cochinito, El Conquistador, Fix Burger, Flore Cafe, Flying Leap Cafe, Forage, Ginger Grass, Gobi Mongolian BBQ House, Good, Hard Times, Home,Intelligentsia, K&C Donuts, La Parrilla, Lamill Coffee, Las Glorias, Leela Thai, Local, Lyric Cafe, Madame Matisse, Mae Ploy, Mariela’s Taco #2, Michelangelo, Millie’s, Mom’s Donuts & Chinese, Nicky D’s, Nuevo Rincon, Pazzo Gelateria, Pho Cafe, Pazzaz Sushi, PK Donuts and Ice Cream, Rambuthan,Rudellis, Say Cheese, Siete Mares, Sila Bistro, Silvertake (if it ever opens), Sompun Thai, Tacos Delta,Tantra, Tarascos, Thai Taste, The Meet Market, Tom’s Burgers, United Bread & Pastry and Vegan House.(Update: The Coffee Tabel, El Conquistador, La Parrilla, and Nicky D’s are all gone and seven years later, Silver Take has STILL yet to open!)
STUFF TO DO AND SEE
There are other entertainment options in Silver Lake, too. There’s a variety of places to shop for various whatevers. There’s also the Lyric-Hyperion Theater,The Ronin Gallery, the just-started Silver Lake Jubilee, Bellvue Park.
Then there’s the Silver Lake Rec Center and surrounding park, where the Silver Lake Croquet Leaguefamously and handily defeated the self-designated Hipster Croquet League – the end result being that the defeated had to change their name to something less unpleasant.
Lots of people come to the reservoir to walk or jog, but none is more famous than the face of Silver Lake, theSilver Lake Walker (aka Silver Lake Walker Guy, aka Silver Lake Walking Man), a leathery doctor who patrols the neighborhood almost constantly and has been the subject of several documentaries and murals, almost always sporting some seriously faded shorts and often a transistor radio and newspaper.
(Update: The Silver Lake Walker, Marc Abrams, commit suicide in 2010)
The WSL Samaritan after having righted a cone that had fallen over
Less famous but still colorful local characters include the West Silver Lake Samaritan, whose beat is said street and every day can be seen rocking a white tee and matching comb-over, concerning himself with the banal construction-related events of his block.
And the Birdman of Silver Lake (aka Squirrel Guy aka Rik Martino) who pushes a cart around pleading for the souls of squirrels and other animals.
SILVER LAKE IN FILM AND ON TV
Not surprisingly, however, there’s a bit of disconnect between reality and Hollywood and the latter often presents Silver Lake in an exceedingly unflattering and inaccurate light. Recently, the following casting call appeared on Craigslist:
A new Reality Show is casting Silver Lake’s rich, wealthy, hipster GUYS and GIRLS 21-30 whose personal style is homeless chic… You must be incredibly involved in the Silver Lake social scene, enjoy a sensational nightlife Silver Lake style and be very outspoken with a vivacious personality. You must also hang with a racially diverse, intriguing group of friends who all live in Silver Lake.
Eric Brightwell is a writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities; however, job offers must pay more than slave wages as he would rather write for pleasure than for peanuts. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store,Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.