California Fool’s Gold — Exploring Silver Lake, Los Angeles’s Gayborhood

California Fool's Gold

Silver Lake is a largely gay and hilly neighborhood (one of its nicknames is “The Swish Alps”) in the city’s Mideast Los Angeles (MELA) region.

INTRODUCTION TO SILVER LAKE

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography‘s map of Silver Lake (second edition), available on art prints and a variety of merchandise

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 Junctions, Dayton Heights, Virgil Village, Filipinotown, Atwater Village, Elysian Valley, Elysian Heights, and Echo Park. For this episode, I was joined by my traveling companion, filmmaker Diana Ward.


Constructing the reservoirs


EARLY HISTORY & THE RESERVOIR

The area that is now Los Angeles was historically populated by the ancestors of the Chumash, who arrived in the region at least 13,000 years ago. Much later, some 3,500 years ago, the Tongva arrived from the Sonoran Desert to the east. In 1542, whilst exploring on behalf of Spain, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo claimed all of California for the Spanish Empire after having set foot on 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 la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula (Los Angeles) was founded near the banks of the Los Angeles River and the Tongva village of Yaangna. 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.


Detail of an 1887 map showing the Southerly portion of Ivanhoe

According to local lore (although I have my doubts), in the 19th century, Scottish-Mexican Hugo Reid named the area just north of Los Angeles’s northern border Ivanhoe because it reminded him so much of the Scottish Highlands. In reality, Reid spent most of his life in Mexico. It’s unlikely that someone who moved from Sonora to Alta California would be reminded by the latter of Scotland. It’s also unlikely that someone who lived in what’s now Arcadia would provide the name for the area that’s now Silver Lake. If, however, he was struck by its similarities to the Highlands, why name it after a novel set in England and the author of which was from Edinburgh (not especially near the highlands).

The first written references to the area as Ivanhoe appear in 1887 when lots of the Ivanhoe Tract were put up for sale. The unlikely Hugo Reid backstory was no doubt a fiction (gasp!) created to imbue the new suburb with some needed romance. Today, many streets still have Scottish names or names taken from Sir Walter Scott‘s famous novel, including Ben Lomond, Hawick, Herkimer, Kenilworth, Locksley, Rowena, and St. George. There are also streets like Angus and — lest the connection to Alba be too subtle — Scotland. 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.

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography‘s map of the Ivanhoe Tract, available on art prints and a variety of merchandise
Detail of a map from 1894, still showing the area as Ivanhoe

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’s 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, Los Feliz (now 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 that continues to reside in the neighborhood to the present.

Silver Lake was also, like neighboring Echo Park and Elysian Heights (nicknamed “Red Hill”), a hotbed of Communism. 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). There’s also the Gaudi-inspired Burrows 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.


THE MODERNIST ERA

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 sharp minds at 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 MilofskyGustavo Gubel, John Southern, Michael Lehrer, Sean Briski, and Ricardo Accorsi have contributed to Silver Lake’s continuing reputation as the home of some of Los Angeles’ best residential architecture.

Decommissioned in 1955 – The Red Line Trestle Footings, aka Silver Lake Stone Henge

Click here to read my exploration of the abandoned train right-of-way


THE BROWN AGES

Development continued in the 1940s. After the demolition of Chavez Ravine in 1949 which made way for Dodger 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 (part of which became Filipinotown). At the same time, post-war prosperity, fear of minority neighbors, and the irresistible lure of the suburbs impelled 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

the Sunset Overpass — the “Under the Bridge” bridge?

Then, in the mid-‘80s and early ‘90s, the 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 over Silver Lake Boulevard with their soon-to-be ubiquitous “Under the Bridge” and commissioned a mural (now painted over) called “Under the Bridge,” painted by Ernesto de la Loza, and dedicated to the musicians of Silver Lake.

Epitaph Records

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.

The Ship – a Streamline Moderne recording studio

The next generation of musicians associated with Silver Lake includes Autolux, Beth Hart, Darker My Love, Earlimart, The Elected, Eulogies, Giant Drag, IrvingMia Doi Todd, The One AM Radio, Moving Units, The Shore, Rilo Kiley, Scarling, Sea Wolf, and The Silversun Pickups. In 2002, Vic Chesnutt recorded an album called Silver Lake. Silver Lake is also home to Dangerbird Records, Rockaway Records. Stones Throw Records, and the Silverlake Conservatory of Music.

SILVER LAKE NITES

“Gateway” by Louie Metz, Guia Avesani, Rob Malone, and Brandt Marshall

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 to Circus 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 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

Cafecito Organico

The most recent demographic data is that Silver Lake is 41% Latino of any race, 34% non-Latino White, and 18% Asian (although it’s rarely acknowledged, Silver Lake was one of Los Angeles’s most Asian-American neighborhoods and was, for example, the birthplace of East-West Players). 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.

“No Soccer” with soccer-playing kids in the background

Then there’s the Silver Lake Recreation Center and surrounding park, where the Silver Lake Croquet League famously 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, the so-called Silver 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.

One of Mr. Green Genes’ gardens — Commando Pendersleigh

There’s also the mysterious Mr. Green Genes, a guerrilla gardener who transforms orphaned, private and city-owned land and into something better.

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.

A picture of the 5 Dollar Guy from my friend Bruce‘s blog, Jia-Chi

And who can forget the Five Dollar Guy? Here’s a link to a news story about him.

SILVER LAKE IN FILM AND ON TELEVISION

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.

Aaron Spelling attempted to get a show called Silver Lake on the air about, if memory serves me, a record store employee who can read pets’ minds. It didn’t make it past the pilot.

Then there was the squirm-inducing Sex, Love and Secrets (aka Sex, Lies and Scandal) — I watched about half the episodes first out of curiosity and ultimately out of masochistic perseverance. As far as films actually shot in Silver Lake, I can only come up with a couple: I Love You, Man; May; The Music Box, Shopgirl, and Superstition. Famous silent screen cowboy Tom Mix had his studio in Silver Lake, Mixville, and supposedly “Tony, the Wonder Horse” is buried there. The neighborhood also hosts the annual Silver Lake Film Festival.



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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.

36 thoughts on “California Fool’s Gold — Exploring Silver Lake, Los Angeles’s Gayborhood

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