Urban Rambles — The Passeggiata in Los Angeles and the Silver Lake Reservoir Stroll

Urban Rambles

I’m not sure when I first heard about the passeggiata — a sort of ritualized stroll which takes place along the coasts and in the town squares of many Italian villages. I’m a fan of walking customs around the world, such as competitive pedestrianism, forest bathing, rambles, and walkabouts — so, of course, the passeggiata is right up my alley (I also like alleys in large part because they’re great places to walk).

 

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A couple walk past the Ivanhoe Reservoir

 

Sadly, although I hope to one day, I haven’t yet made it to Italy and have thus never experienced a proper passeggiata. Instead, I must rely on a few articles to understand their character. Although firsthand experience would be preferable, there doesn’t seem to be much disagreement about what the passeggiata so my description will hopefully prove uncontroversial. It is a stroll but, like the best strolls, the point has little to do with fitness than recreation. It generally takes place between 17:00 and 20:00, after participants return from work and before they sit down for supper.

 

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Some of the eucalypti planted in 1911

 

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I stayed in a Sicilian household and a few of my acquaintances here are italoamericani but in 18 years of living here, I’ve yet to hear any Angeleno speak of the passeggiata. According to the 2010 census, there were 1,496,669 Italians living in California. According to the 2000 website, there were then 568,000 self-identified Italians living in Metro Los Angeles, making it the fourth largest population of Italians after New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago — cities which all have at least one “Little Italy” (although Philadelphia’s is known as Italian Market). Los Angeles, inevitably, used to have a Little Italy, which existed in what’s now Chinatown and Lincoln Heights but by the 1930s began to dilute as Italians moved into the San Gabriel Valley, the San Fernando Valley, and elsewhere. Today there are still substantial Italian populations in San Pedro, West Hills, and Rancho Dominguez, and communities of the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys host smatterings of Italian restaurants and markets but one has to turn one’s gaze to San Diego to find a still-vibrant Little Italy in Southern California.

 

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A solitary walker, right after she reached up and touched the leaves of the tree overhead

 

Did Italian-Angelenos in Little Italy ever passeggiano? Does it happen in North Beach, San Diego’s Little Italy, or San Pedro? I turned to the California Digital Newspaper Collection, a digital repository of newspapers from 1846 – the present and found only a single use of the word, in a travel piece about visiting Italy written for the Santa Cruz Sentinel in 1982. Searching for websites written in Italian about Los Angeles turns up a couple of pieces about the Hollywood Walk of Fame (aka the “passeggiata hollywoodiana della celebrità”) and the Venice Beach Boardwalk.

 

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The “knoll” from across the water and behind an ugly fence

 

Despite its reputation as a coastal city, Los Angeles proper doesn’t actually have much actual shoreline. The Pueblo was founded about 23 kilometers inland and the city only spread to the the Pacific after 128 years of existence, with the consolidation of the coincidentally heavily-Italian town of San Pedro. The only other City of Los Angeles neighborhoods which have ocean coastline are Pacific Palisades (annexed in 1915), Playa del Rey, and Venice (the latter two consolidated in 1925). Venice, of course, is named after the famed city of Venezia.

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A lone jogger and the sanseong-like Hyun residence

By my estimation, Los Angeles, the city, only has about 30 kilometers of shoreline — and roughly half of that is on Terminal Island, a place where walking is so uncommon that I was questioned by a police officer for doing it there. Both San Pedro and Venice seem ideal for a passeggiata, though, and one could argue that Venice already has something like it — although the fact that there are always people on the boardwalk might somewhat negate the idea of the passeggiata being an occurrence and occasion and not just something that happens all the time.

 

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signs that the south dam will open to pedestrians, albeit behind an uneccessary barrier

 

The rest of the county’s coast is taken by Los Angeles’s neighbors Malibu, Topanga, Santa Monica, El Segundo, Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach, Torrance, Palos Verdes Estates, Rancho Palos Verdes. Some, like the Beach Cities, seem ideally positioned to host their own passeggiate. Others, like the communities of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, seem too sparse, suburban, and thus hopelessly automobile-dependent, to produce much interest in walking anywhere. Long Beach is probably large enough to host several, including its beachfront neighborhood Naples, which like Venice takes at least some of its inspiration from Italy.

 

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The park next to the recreation center, with parked cars where there ought to be food and beverage trucks

 

Los Angeles, which is about ten times larger in area than Long Beach, seems too like it could host several passeggiate. It’s, of course, infamously characterized as a “city without a center” or more properly, perhaps, a city with multiple “centers.” Westlake, Koreatown, Echo Park, Little Tokyo, Lincoln Heights, Chinatown, Boyle Heights, and North Hollywood, to name a few neighborhoods, seem pretty much ideally suited for their own passeggiate. So, too, does my neighborhood of Silver Lake, which already has something like one.

 

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a couple pass underneath shoes hanging from a power line

 

At first glance, the Silver Lake Reservoir might not seem like a likely candidate for a passeggiata. The neighborhood’s titular “lake” had its banks paved in 1951. Although history records no fatal accidents, a decade earlier, an ugly protective fence was erected around its edge. Despite these improvements, though, there’s something pleasant about walking around water, even if it’s more like a giant off-limits swimming pool than an actual lake (just ask those who stroll around Los Feliz‘s off-limits Rowena Reservoir. In 1911 (an apparently more hopeful age), 2,000 eucalypti, many of which still stand, were planted along the banks. Two decades later, cypress were planted along the south dam — none of which remain.

 

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“Promise it will never go dark for the people in the park”

 

It used to strike me as somewhat ridiculous that I would sometimes encounter friends along the reservoir who don’t live in the neighborhood. I ran into Kerri Anne at the dog park, who’d driven there from Jefferson Park. I ran into Tammy Jean at a nearby market, who then lived near Downtown, after she’d gone for a run there. My friend, Matt, who lives in Alhambra, still drives over for a walk around the reservoir nearly every time he gets his oil changed. All, I assume, drove to the park which makes me wonder, do Italians ever drive to the town square or shore for the passeggiata? I could be wrong but I doubt it. Maybe they ride their Lambrettas or Vespas to it, but anything bulkier and less stylish contradicts my conception of the event.

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The dog park — why don’t they plant some native, fragrant creepers along the fence to improve the smell and air quality?

Still, there is an appeal. On the water, ducks, geese, gulls, and coots paddle in and flap around the water. The majestic eucalypti are home to majestic Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias), which can often be seen alighting to their nests in the trees’ upper branches. Their trunks often bloom with alluring chicken of the woods (Laetiporus). I’ve seen and heard owls too and watched groups of coyotes playing with one another or stalking small dogs pulling clueless, headphone-wearing owners behind them on temptingly long and flimsy leashes. I usually make a point of walking through the native garden, in the meadow, which produces an evocative and alluring perfume which I enjoy even when the flowers are obscured by darkness. Near the north end, I swear I can smell vetiver (Chrysopogon zizanioides), second greatest of scents. Of course, the pedestrian path along the reservoir is also a bit like both a coast and a town square.

 

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Dog walkers pass a drinking fountain

 

Silver Lake has no commercial “downtown” or “high street.” Asked to suggest one, residents might offer Glendale, Hoover, Hyperion, Rowena, Sunset, or the area around the intersection of Silver Lake, West Silver Lake, and Effie — and in doing so perhaps reveal more about themselves than they do any objective character of the neighborhood. The Silver Lake Reservoir is located both in the geographic center and perhaps the center of the community’s collective consciousness.

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I s’pose the sunset’s alright…

The passeggiata as it occurs in Italy is said to be something of both a fashion show and a sort of courtship ritual. Hard though it may be to believe, that’s apparently true of the daily stroll around the Silver Lake Reservoir too. Though it’s hard to generalize about a populace as numerous and diverse as that of Los Angeles, few are likely to take offense at the observation that Angelenos, on the whole, dress inartfully. In Los Angeles, if a man tucks in his shirt into blue jeans he’s almost guaranteed that someone will ask why he’s “so dressed up.”As far as I know, none of my friends out here have ever starched their clothes and some have gone so far as to admit that they’ve never used an iron. I sometimes marvel that Angelenos even bother zipping their flies. Nevertheless, you can deduce from their sculpted muscles and eyebrows that they possess a sort of vanity. As someone from Dublin recently remarked to me, “LA is a city full of horribly dressed gorgeous people.”

 

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The entrance to, and path around, the Silver Lake Meadow

 

Despite their predilection for baseball caps and “athleisure,” there are signs that some of those rounding the reservoir are seeking potential mates. Many women, despite putting no apparent effort in their clothing, have obviously put a great deal of work into their heavy, contoured makeup. Many men and women absolutely reek of the nauseatingly-sweet department store scents which I have to assume some find attractive. Earlier this year I remember watching a woman complete her run and hop into her car. Even after it was out of site, I was still choking on clouds of her perfume. Perhaps the joggers are just trying to cover up their natural odors but in many cases, they seem to have bathed in the scent — so that not only would the scent last a couple of laps not just jogged around the reservoir but swam across it as well.

 

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The mostly-empty Silver Lake Meadow

 

I’m not sure how much interaction there typically is between strangers. The old “no cruising” signs, posted in the pre-Grinder days, are long gone and I’ve yet to stumble upon anyone cottaging or dogging. There are probably some meet-cutes happening in the dog park, although personally, I can’t imagine finding anyone attractive when the air smells so strongly of dog poop and piss. I’m not sure what, if any, signs I give off but it’s rare that I make it entirely around the reservoir without strangers flashing smiles or saying “hello” and on one Thursday (I only jog on Thursdays) a woman gave me a “good job” for making it up the short but steep hill at the north end without dying.

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A woman walks past a man, who sits on a bench contemplating beauty and life

It’s not all singles in pursuit of love and/or squad goals, though. Most evenings there are groups of families walking around and usually, it seems, one or more of the members is riding in a stroller or on the shoulders of a parent and not, therefore, not remotely interested in fitness or romance. There are also people who give every indication that they’re not interested in social interaction like those who read whilst walking or walk with earbuds in ears. I’m certainly sympathetic to introverts and those who appreciate privacy and I often listen to podcasts or music as I walk. However, it does strike me as somewhat strange and sad when someone is so entranced by the glow of their device that they’re apparently unaware of the even more magnificent golden and blue hues of the magic hour. Then again, a 45-minute walk, no matter what one chooses to pay attention to, never did anyone any harm and in my case never fails to lift my spirits.

 

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Night falls on the Native Plant Garden

 

It’s been famously (if inaccurately) said (and more famously sung) that “nobody walks in LA.” This has, of course, never been remotely true and seems to be growing even less so. There have always been Angelenos who’ve taken trips on foot and in the past few years groups have organized to take walking tours to explore architecture and neighborhoods or to hike public stairways and stair streets. Open streets events like CicLAvia, once misunderstood by some as bicycle events, attract increasing numbers of pedestrians. Angelenos have always enjoyed hikes and, since at least 1976, jogging. As much as I like all of these, though, they’re mostly either organized events or systematic ones with predetermined beginnings, routes, and ends. I’ve met relatively few Angelenos whom I know to share my love for an aimless ramble or ambling stroll.

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The Reservoir in its more natural, marsh-like state — when most referred to it as “empty.”

Often when I undertake my Silver Lake passeggiata, I wonder what it might be like if the chainlink fence was removed and the paved banks landscaped in native plants. I imagine the Ivanhoe Reservoir being enjoyed as a public park and pool and the larger reservoir, restored somewhat to its natural, marshy state and preserved for migratory birds and other wild creatures. I imagine, by the Silver Lake Recreation Center, food trucks and vendors selling coffee, tea, or wine. I imagine mimes and musicians in the park and over in the Silver Lake Meadow, lawn sports being played and plein air painters painting them.

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People enjoying the south dam, opened for one evening last year

Of course, none of this is likely to happen anytime soon (although the south dam is being opened up to pedestrians) because any improvements are met with loud and lunkheaded opposition by those who worry that making the experience more attractive will attract “certain elements,” that “everything will just get tagged.” And what about traffic and parking? Will anyone think of the cars? Personally, my simple solution would be to extend service of the 201 line, install protected bicycle lanes around the reservoir, and remove automobile parking from Silver Lake and West Silver Lake boulevards — maybe build a light rail line along the former. No more automobile traffic, no more automobile parking — everyone wins!

 

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The headlights of a car illuminate the path past the DWP caretaker’s cottage

 

Reactionaries are never persuaded by the logic of progress, though, or they wouldn’t be reactionaries. For years there was no pedestrian path at all and people just walked in the street, hoping that drivers wouldn’t hit them. It took a motorist hitting two, killing one, and then — unable to face what he’d done – killing himself for the forces of obstruction to be ever so eased. Construction of a pedestrian path was approved and — a mere sixteen years later — the fence was moved back a few meters, some trees planted, and some decomposed granite was laid down. Maybe in another sixteen years, we’ll have a proper passeggiata.

 

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The Neighborhood Nursery School bathed in darkness

 

In the meantime — please let me know in the comments if you’ve seen, heard, or participated in anything like a passeggiata anywhere in Los Angeles or Southern California. Facciamo una passeggiata!


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 generating advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other varieties of spam. 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 & Folk Art MuseumForm 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 KCRWWhich Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of Brightwell’s maps are available from 1650 GalleryHe is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiTwitter, and Weibo.
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