The other night (24 June), the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) and outgoing (in both senses of the word) city council member Tom LaBonge arranged to have the gates of the Silver Lake Reservoir unlocked for a few hours and thus the South Dam was briefly opened to the public. Despite the complete absence of yarn-bombing, live music, or food trucks, the turnout was large and seemed to suggest that more than a few Silver Lakers have interest in claiming this now decommissioned reservoir as a future public space.
The Silver Lake Reservoirs are comprised two concrete-lined basins separated by a spillway, the small Ivanhoe Reservoir and the much larger Silver Lake Reservoir. The Silver Lake Reservoir has a roughly 3 million liter capacity and was used to store drinking water until it was replaced by the Headworks Reservoir in Griffith Park. Since its construction in the 1900s it has provided the surrounding community with its name and served as its focal point. Despite the hardscape and chainlink fence, it’s nonetheless a surprisingly lovely feature of the neighborhood.
Though artificial, the location of the Silver Lake Reservoir was once a marsh fed by the Los Angeles River, which after descending from the San Fernando Valley was historically prone to major shifts in its course. In 1815, the Los Angeles River flowed through the area. In 1825, the mouth of the river moved all the way from the Ballona Wetlands — situated along the Santa Monica Bay — all the way over to its current terminus in the San Pedro Bay and the marshes of what’s now the reservoir became part of the Ballona Creek watershed, rather than the Los Angeles River. This nomadism wouldn’t do what with people trying to build a city here and considerable effort went into committing it to its present course, including most famously its channelization in 1938.
Development of the Ivanhoe Tract began in 1877, when most of the area that’s now Silver Lake was located just north of Los Angeles’s border which corresponded to Fountain Avenue. The community’s developer was a Scottish-Mexican immigrant, Hugo Reid. The claim is often repeated that the arid Chaparral scrubland reminded Reid of the wet, verdant highlands of Scotland although having seen both landscapes I have my doubts. Whatever his inspiration, Reid named the tract and several of its streets (including Kenilworth, Locksley, Rowena, Scott, and Waverly) after Glaswegian author Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Ivanhoe.
The Ivanhoe Reservoir is the older of the two reservoirs, built in Ivanhoe Canyon and put into service in May 1906. It was originally topped with a wooden cover.
To its south, the construction of the Silver Lake Reservoir began in November 1907 and it was completed in March 1908. It was named after former Water Board Commissioner Herman Silver and soon after the communities of Ivanhoe and part of Edendale to its east were more commonly referred to as Silver Lake, which was annexed by Los Angeles as part of the East Hollywood Addition in February 1910.
By 1911, there were plans create a public parkway following the Ivanhoe Canyon Arroyo from Silver Lake at one end and Westlake at the other. To that aim, the Los Angeles Parks Commission planted more than 2,000 trees around the reservoir, including groves of stately Australian eucalyptus which are still often utilized by nesting Great Blue Herons. Silver died in 1913. The planned park died in 1918, due to lack of funds.
The reservoir was never just a source of drinking water. It was originally stocked with black bass, primarily to control potentially works-gumming minnow population but also for the enjoyment of fishermen.
The reservoir was expanded and retrofitted in 1932. Cypress trees were planted along the south dam but unfortunately, a chainlink fence was erected. Later, barbed wire was added, which really marked the beginning of the reservoir’s uglification and isolation from human contact. Chlorination came in 1947 which gave joggers around the reservoir an unpleasant lungful. The reservoir was drained and re-sloped in the 1950s and the edges were hardscaped to keep back vegetation.
Although aesthetically diminished, the reservoir still had charm enough to feature prominently as a backdrop in the 1969 episode of Adam-12 titled, “Log 172: Boy, the Things You Do for the Job.” In it, officers Pete Malloy and Jim Reed serve a woman with a traffic ticket but then proceed for most of the show’s duration to drive in and endless loop around the edge reservoir. If you watch long enough you might also catch site of Sylvie, the Silver Lake Sea Serpent (likely some sort of immortal, freshwater plesiosaurs like Nessie).
In 1988 the LADWP proposed that all of the city’s small reservoirs be covered. In most cases, people living near them strongly resisted on aesthetic grounds. With most reservoirs, the drinking water is piped to a distant community (in the case of the Silver Lake Reservoir, South Los Angeles), so if it became contaminated that was someone else’s problem, right? In 1989, the Silver Lake Reservoirs were designated Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument No. 422.
For decades, concrete barriers and fences protected the reservoir from people but all that separated people from careening cars was a line of white paint. In 1995, Diane Manahan and her husband Michael were walking around the reservoir when Jorge Rodriguez hit both of them, injuring Michael and killing Diane. When the driver sobered up and realized what he’d done, he commit suicide. The death motivated the city to approve the construction of a protected, 3.5 kilometer jogging path in 1996 and a mere sixteen years later (during which time many veladoras were were lit along Silver Lake Boulevard), the path was finally completed.
In 2007 the LADWP announced that the uncovered reservoirs were contaminated with high levels of cancer-causing bromate, formed by a combination of natural bromides, chlorine, and sunlight. Both reservoirs were drained and 400,000 black, shade balls (also known as “bird balls”) were added to the Ivanhoe Reservoir to prevent sunlight (rather than birds) from interacting with the water. The Silver Lake Reservoir, perhaps too large for such balls, was taken off-line completely.
In 2011, the City of Los Angeles opened a 1.2 hectare park called the Silver Lake Meadow. The area had originally been a shallow cove of the reservoir but had stagnated and was filled in in the 1950s. After that it was a large, fenced off meadow primarily enjoyed by young coyotes. Their domain was diminished by opening of the park but the sight of them frolicking on the other side of the fence is not uncommon, especially near the Silver Lake Meadow Native Garden and the solitary hill. The meadow is off limits to dogs and active sports (and baseball) are prohibited but on its best days the meadow is blessed by the presence of the Silver Lake Croquet League.
Now the reservoir’s future is uncertain. Maybe it will be refilled and left alone so that in the case of fire, helicopters can suck water from it as they did during the 2007 Griffith Park fire. One camp have suggested turning it into a swimming hole called the Silver Lake Plunge, drawing the predictable complaints about gang members, taggers, and other “undesirables” enjoying it as well as the inevitable lack of parking spaces (to which I say sell your car and get a bike, walk, or take Metro‘s 201 or 92 line).
In the interest of preventing a complete bourgie takeover of the neighborhood I propose building a floating, 24 hour KTV/noraebang and jet ski rental. Barring that, how about transforming into a wetland that can be used to recharge the Los Angeles River and Ballona Creek watersheds. Whatever happens it should continue to serve as a sanctuary for migratory birds traveling the Pacific Flyway.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. 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. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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